Trying to Keep the Roof on in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley

It’s hurricane season. Here in Louisiana, we’re bracing ourselves for another devastating storm. Predictions are that this year will be as brutal as 2005, when Katrina walloped our coast. Down here, tensions rise in late summer: Warm ocean waters driven by a changing climate can turn a Category 2 storm into a 3 or 4 remarkably fast and with little warning. Last August, Hurricane Ida showed no mercy, tearing off roofs and displacing thousands. Six months later, I was still gutting homes.

I’m a climate organizer, and in the weeks that followed Ida I threw myself into hurricane relief. Like Katrina, Ida brought to light decades of systemic injustice and displaced whole communities. Even before the hurricane, the folks I work with in South Louisiana were under threat of displacement from fossil fuel expansion. After the storm passed, I worked as hard as possible to help them come home. Our Louisiana Just Recovery Network deployed hundreds of volunteers; we spent months clearing water-damaged homes and tacking tarps on broken roofs to keep out the rain.

I learned to tarp roofs in Romeville, a historically Black town 60 miles upriver from New Orleans in St. James Parish. Residents had never seen a storm like Ida, but environmental issues have long been on their mind. Romeville is located in Cancer Alley—the stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans with over 150 chemical plants, refineries, and industrial facilities. The region is home to seven of the 10 Census tracts with the highest risk of cancer in the nation, and Black communities are disproportionately exposed to pollutants.

That day in Romeville we’d knocked out a couple roofs and were scrambling to finish before sunset. The power grid remained down for weeks, so every night went pitch black by 8. As I gathered my tools, I saw a whole city light up across the sugarcane field at Romeville’s edge. It was Nucor, one of a dozen industrial facilities in St. James. As big as a town square, Nucor was running off massive backup generators. Before Ida, we learned that Nucor had spent half a decade violating its air permits by releasing toxic sulfur gas.

“They’ve been poisoning us for six years,” Barbara Washington told me that night. She is a cofounder of Inclusive Louisiana, and can see Nucor from her yard. “Think how we feel watching these plants light up while we sit here in the dark.”

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