Trying to keep the roof on while the petrochemical industry keeps blowing it off
As hurricane season begins, Michael Esealuka describes life - and activism - in Black communities of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, on the frontlines of both the climate crisis and fossil fuel expansion.
It’s hurricane season. In Louisiana we’re bracing ourselves for another devastating storm. Predictions show this year could 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 Two storm into a Three or Four quick. 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 and 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 historic Black town sixty 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 ten 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 8PM. 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 co-founder 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.”
Her words laid bare a fact of life in Louisiana. As the United States’ third largest energy producer, we are on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and petrochemical manufacturing while also facing the first and worst consequences from these same industries. Hit by four major hurricanes in the past two years, we are losing land faster than anywhere in North America, even as companies plan a massive buildout of gas plants and pipelines across our fragile coast. Unchecked fossil fuel expansion poses an urgent threat to Louisianans like Washington, while industrial development threatens to run communities off their land. But resistance from the frontlines has sparked a grassroots climate movement of remarkable persistence.
In 2018, Sharon Lavigne formed RISE St James to challenge industrial pollution in her community. The organization now works to block Formosa Plastics from constructing one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes mere miles from an elementary school and Lavigne’s backyard.
“We have enough pollution,” Lavigne told me when we met two years ago. “We are dying.” She said that state officials allowed industry to turn rural Black areas into a sacrifice zone. That day she drove us out along the Mississippi River, noting plant after plant. “St James is full.”
I’ve worked with RISE to knock on doors, make calls, and pass out flyers. We’ve rallied and marched. RISE has hosted Juneteenth celebrations and passed out hams for Christmas. Under Lavigne’s leadership, an international movement has coalesced to repeatedly delay Formosa Plastics. Recently the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. This could take three years, enough time to stop Formosa for good.
Forty minutes south of New Orleans, Ironton had its own victory last year. The historic Black settlement in Plaquemines Parish managed to successfully counter a plan by Tallgrass Energy to build an oil terminal at the old St Rosalie plantation near their town. Ironton’s elders had long spoken of gravesites at St Rosalie. Some had ancestors laid to rest there. Tallgrass’ plans showed they would build the oil terminal on top of the graves, so we got organized. Months later, Tallgrass canceled the project.
By that time Ida had brought ten feet of floodwater to Ironton, destroying nearly every home. Ironton has never had the flood protection enjoyed by wealthier, whiter communities, and after the hurricane local government offered little support. Residents had to rent heavy equipment and clear their streets, paying out of pocket to demolish their own homes. I organized volunteers to gut the church.
In St James, officials were slow to help Black communities recover, too. I wondered if the lack of assistance had anything to do with the proposals for new industrial facilities nearby. In 2014 the St James government rezoned whole swaths of majority Black districts as “future industrial.” From Romeville to Ironton, folks see an attempt to displace residents and make room for industry. As Cassandra Wilson of Ironton put it to me: “They basically want to run you out with these plants.”
Many may not understand why Black Louisianans are intent on rebuilding in a region so vulnerable to fossil fuel development and escalating storms. For some, ever-rising housing costs create steep barriers to relocation. But land ownership also represents generational wealth, holding a strong historical and emotional significance in the US South, where the theft of Black land has been extensive.
Barbara Washington told me that her ancestor purchased 34 acres near Romeville after slavery’s abolition. “That land is still in my family,” she said. “Our ancestors worked the land, then came to own it. We were here before industry. It’s our right to hold on to what we have.” In St James Parish, the revelation that Formosa Plastics would build over a slave burial ground was a major mobilizing tool: all over the South, Black descendants see the protection of these cemeteries as an investment in the future of their communities. They are assisted by Louisiana law, which guarantees them access to these sites.
In February of this year, six months after Ida, I was still climbing ladders. I’d brought a tiny crew to tarp the home of Alexis Jones, an elderly St James resident. A sudden downpour left the roof slick with rain, so we went inside to see what we could salvage. Jones lived alone on a fixed income. Months passed before anyone gutted her house. We set to clearing debris until water drenched us through holes in her roof.
I removed my hardhat and wet gloves, sitting down on a pile of rotted drywall with my head in my hands. With little funding, our volunteers had worked for free on over 120 homes, but I knew there were thousands like Jones who had not been helped. We had just a few months before the next hurricane season, and I knew that no matter how stubbornly we worked, only the government had resources to fully address the aftermath of climate disaster. I knew that in the world’s wealthiest country, despite sixteen years of hard lessons since Katrina, our leaders still did not have a plan for these storms. And I knew that the fossil fuel buildout on Louisiana’s coast would make hurricanes like Ida come again and again.
I’ve organized in Louisiana for years, but in the months that followed Ida I learned how truly dire this climate crisis is. That day at Jones’ house I was furious, afraid. On the drive back home I cried bitter tears. But the next morning I woke up thinking of Washington and Lavigne, dedicated grandmothers motivated by love for community, our rivers and bayous, and our children yet to be born. I’m no longer waiting for politicians to find the will to end this crisis. I see organizers everywhere building a people’s climate movement to fight for a better world.
This June, I helped organize "Climate Justice and Joy," the Gulf South's first climate festival. A thousand people attended from across the region. “Climate change can feel so abstract, but we’ve become experts through our own experience,” I said in my speech. “This is now part of daily life, and we are all leaders in the fight. If we can unite across our differences and begin to deal with this crisis, we have the power to break down every system of injustice that has brought us to this point.” We closed out the event with an hour of Bomba dancing and Cajun two-step. I wasn’t thinking about the storms. Anger may drive us, but love of home sustains us.
To find joy amidst struggle is an act of resistance.
Michael Esealuka is based in New Orleans and works as an organizer for Healthy Gulf.
This dispatch originally appeared in The Nation.