Parish officials, however, told CNN that they did not receive calls that match Cayette’s situation, adding that the government is “by law, not allowed to enter or conduct work on private property unless it is an emergency life saving measure.” It wasn’t until two days later when a group of volunteers from New Orleans came to saw and remove the trees that he was able to go outside.
“I’ve seen it all,” Cayette, a retired industry worker, told CNN. “After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the chemical plants started building and operating. A lot of them. It all changed.”
About 50 miles away in St. John the Baptist Parish, Robert Taylor Jr., executive director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said many residents were trapped in their attics after the storm while others witnessed their roofs being ripped off by Ida.
“The government is obviously failing us and not protecting us,” said Taylor, who evacuated from St. John after Ida tore through his house. “And this just pushed it over the top.”
Until recently, Cayette, who has lived in the region for 70 years and previously worked at a nearby petrochemical plant, never connected the growth of the chemical industry to the region’s suddenly high cancer rates. But then his wife died of breast cancer a few years ago — and he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer on top of his diabetes. Now, he lives alone with the sight of industrial facilities looming outside his window.
“I was mad and disappointed at the government,” Cayette said about the lack of response after Ida. “What concerned me even more is that I’m disabled, but they couldn’t come to help.”
“It’s absolutely an insult that the companies that are responsible for this are also the ones that are driving climate change,” Naomi Yoder, staff scientist at the Healthy Gulf, a group working to restore natural resources in the region, told CNN. “They’re also one of the biggest drivers of land loss in Louisiana, which makes the effects of hurricanes worse.”
Compounding crises during a pandemic
More than a year later, with the pandemic persisting, Category 4 Hurricane Ida threw the area’s high cancer and Covid-19 rates and underlying environmental health hazards, which come from the area’s rampant pollution from fossil fuel industries, into harsh relief.
“It’s just risk on top of risk on top of risk,” Kimberly Terrell, director of community engagement at the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, told CNN. “There’s always air pollution coming out of industrial facilities, and these communities have been burdened with that for decades.”
The Rev. Lionel Murphy, pastor of Tchoupitoulas Chapel in St. John, said the storm left devastating damage to his church along with homes and other buildings in the parish, exacerbating the emotional and physical toll that air pollution and health disparities have placed on communities.
“If only we can get some attention,” Murphy said, referring to public officials and emergency responders. “The people are going to leave and come back, but this storm aggravates so much else because Covid is pretty strong in St. John.”
Ida added another layer of affliction by destroying houses and forcing residents to emergency shelters or relatives’ homes, where they may be clustered together with potential for increased Covid-19 transmission.
“It seems like these communities are just continually burdened with risks that they didn’t ask for, and don’t deserve to be burdened with,” Terrell said.
Taylor said he worries that residents who have been sickened by cancer as well as Covid-19 won’t get the medical care they need after having to evacuate because of Ida’s impacts. Some are being transported to shelters where they could potentially spread Covid-19 or even contract it, he said, echoing Terrell’s concern.
“This is a mess,” Taylor told CNN. “I don’t see how poor people are expected to survive this.”
Living next to an industrial facility
The proliferation of petrochemical facilities and oil refineries throughout Cancer Alley has become a familiar sight to residents along the industrial corridor. Cayette said he remembers industrial facilities emerging after Category 4 Hurricane Betsy pummeled the region in 1965. But it was only recently that residents began to realize the invisible danger the industry caused on public health and the ironic effects it has on the climate.
“This is not something new to these communities, and it’s not necessarily even unique to a disaster situation,” Terrell said of refineries emitting toxic compounds. “It seems like consistently the people who are breathing these toxins are the last to find out about it.”
“While the site is safe and secure, we are experiencing elevated flaring due to a lack of steam generation,” Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesperson, told CNN. “Crews are working around the clock to complete repairs and we are making good progress on minimizing flaring until power is restored.”
In St. James Parish, residents like Sharon Lavigne have been fighting new petrochemical plants attempting to set up shop in their community. Five years ago, Lavigne was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis. Blood tests revealed that she had aluminum inside her body, which she later blamed on the slew of industrial facilities after attending a few environmental justice workshops.
Angered by what she learned about the industry growing in her backyard, Lavigne founded RISE St. James, a faith-based environmental justice group trying to stop any new industrial development in Cancer Alley, which Cayette is also a member of.
“My grandparents lived on this land. They bought this land and lived on it,” Lavigne told CNN. “And then when I got married, I built a house on this land.”
While the battle to block the multibillion-dollar facility isn’t over, Hurricane Ida added to the community’s problems. The storm tore Lavigne’s roof and caused her ceiling to collapse, just like it did to many other houses in the parish.
“So many of us suffered damages from Ida,” Lavigne said, “so after RISE members rebuild, we’re going to help the rest of the community.”
Cancer Alley has faced many disasters, but none as challenging as a hurricane, air pollution and pandemic happening at once. To Cayette and Lavigne, living next to industrial facilities is a death sentence. It may take years for the community to recover, but Lavigne said they’ve been victorious before. As long as the fossil fuel industry continues to warm the planet and pollute their backyards, she said grassroots organizations will keep fighting.
“People tell me they’re glad we’re fighting the industry,” she said.
“Many tell me they can’t be out there to help me, but they’re praying for me. That was nice.”