Elia Cruz Villanueva and Rene Guillermo Salas in front of the bedroom of their home outside Houma.

Rene Guillermo Salas was living in Montegut, Louisiana in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the state. As the storm approached, his roommate at the time left for Houston. He decided to stay, while his roommate went to Houston, continuing to hunker down even after it passed. 

“Army people came by, and they were knocking on the doors, but I was hidden,” he remembered. “I didn’t want them to know I was there.” 

Salas now lives with Elia Cruz Villanueva in a mobile home a bit north of Houma. Last month, they found themselves directly in the path of another major hurricane. 

They planned to stay for Hurricane Ida as well, until they got a call from a local labor organizer. So on Saturday, Aug. 28, the day before the storm made landfall, they drove to Salas’ family in Georgia. Salas doesn’t see well, he said, and they inched along the highway in traffic, spending 18 hours on the road. Shortly after they got there, Ida had passed. They turned around and drove back, hoping to start the process of rebuilding.

After waiting for the floodwaters to go down, they returned to find the wall torn off of their bedroom, and holes in the ceiling that let the rain in. With help from a friend in Houston, Villanueva applied for money from FEMA. 

But because of their immigration status, it’s not clear if they’ll get it. Villanueva is on a guest worker visa, and Salas didn’t say his immigration status.

Fully undocumented families aren’t eligible for most kinds of federal aid, and even families with mixed documentation statuses, which are eligible in theory, face substantial barriers to getting money. Those barriers are likely to further entrench disparities between communities that are able to access federal aid, and those that aren’t.

If that aid doesn’t come through, Salas said that he’ll do the repairs himself, buying materials little by little as he returns to work in fish packing. Asked how much he expects it to cost, he said, “I think a lot. The materials — the laminate and the wood — they’ve increased a lot. The ones who are getting rich are Home Depot and Lowes.”

But after talking to the Lens, Salas and Villanueva were on their way to the Terrebonne Parish NAACP headquarters, where they planned to help with a mutual aid relief center. That mutual aid work being done in South Louisiana’s Spanish-speaking communities is meeting critical needs in the absence of federal relief.

That work has reached people who weren’t receiving help from the government or major charitable groups, said Leticia Casildo, the cofounder of Familias Unidas En Accion, a mutual aid network in the New Orleans area. Casido said it’s a system that’s allowed the community to provide for the vulnerable during both the pandemic and the storm.

“We always say, solidarity, not charity. Because charity is with what you have left over,” Casildo said. “Me, for example, if I have this flour here, and it’s all I have, I’m going to share it. I’m not going to eat first and then share it.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Casildo said, Familias Unidas has given out close to $1 million in cash and food. 

“We can’t depend on the government, we depend on the community. We know firsthand that the government isn’t interested in us,” she said.

Groups shifting with changing needs

When they arrived back in Houma after Hurricane Ida, Salas and Villanueva got gas through the Seafood Workers Alliance, an organizing group that laid some of the groundwork for mutual aid work in the region. That aid has turned into a lifeline for families like Salas and Villanueva in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Mutual aid through the Seafood Workers Alliance helped connect them with hot meals and cleaning supplies, and even a generator and two carbon monoxide detectors.

The NAACP headquarters, where many of the mutual aid groups operate, lost some of its ceiling in the storm, but is packed with supplies. On the day the Lens visited, there were stacks of hot food from World Central Kitchen, flour and rice, fresh jalapenos, piles of batteries, diapers, electric skillets, tampons, baby formula, and cleaning products.

Many of those items were donated, but the structure of the aid is different from a centralized charity.

Donated money moves through individual CashApp or Venmo accounts. Sabina Trejo, a labor organizer with the Seafood Workers Alliance said that the generators the Alliance was giving out were purchased out of state, either directly by donors, or using donated money, and driven in one-by-one.

And that means that mutual aid networks have been able to shift rapidly with changing needs, organizers said.

And the needs change daily, said Maria Luisa Rosal, a translator who accompanied the Lens, and also helps with mutual aid. At first, the most urgent needs were generators, batteries, and electric fans to keep people cool in the sweltering humidity.

“Instead of telling people what they need, they pick it out for themselves,” Rosal said.

Then, the emphasis moved to cleaning supplies and construction materials to help people ward off mold and more rain damage. On the day The Lens visited, a work party was planning to go out in the evening to begin repairing homes.

“We know that other people have lost so much more,” said Salas. “And it’s a joy. It’s my joy to continue supporting after this because even though I come home really tired from work, I do have the strength to continue supporting.”

‘I don’t know how long it will take us’

Casildo, of Familias Unidas, said that she was out of New Orleans when Hurricane Ida hit. 

“People were calling me saying, ‘I’m here with my kids, I can’t leave.’ The wind was taking their roofs.”

Two days after the storm passed, she returned to the city, leaving her kids in Houston. She said that with cell networks down, people who work with Familias Unidas didn’t necessarily have a way to call for help. 

“We have addresses for a lot of families — we went and checked.”

She met many people who either didn’t know about city-run cooling shelters, or weren’t able to reach them.

“Look, when you don’t have transportation, how do you get there?” she asked.

Familias Unidas runs a shelter in the city for recent immigrants. In the days after the storm, they began stocking food, baby supplies, and cleaning there. They got a generator up and running, and turned one room in the shelter into a DIY cooling center.

To get people to the shelter, Familias Unidas relied on 12 “neighborhood committees” that were organized before the storm. Each had designated drivers who could shuttle elderly people, children, and other vulnerable people to the cooling station, and bring supplies back to individual neighborhoods.

That’s a strategy that Mary Moran, the founder of Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a community advocacy group, pointed to as well. The group found 10 neighborhood captains who could help coordinate door-to-door check ins and gather lists of local needs. “It allowed us to have a larger reach. It allowed us to feed folks hot meals, and allowing us to stand in line for 2 hours until I got there at the grocery store.”

“All of the aid we’re doing also informs our partners, who may not have any experience with our specific community, but also to inform city government,” Moran said. “And it informs government on what they can do to remove some of those barriers.”

Last week, Casildo said, they’d delivered supplies to a woman in LaPlace whose trailer had been destroyed in the storm. She hadn’t been able to leave during the storm, and as she was sheltering inside, the roof was torn off. She spent the rest of the storm in her car.

“It’s one house, but there are a lot of houses that are destroyed,” said Casildo.

According to reporting from the Louisiana Illuminator, the state needs about $2.5 billion to pay for “unmet housing needs” from Ida. 

“I have faith that the community will respond to these needs,” Casildo said, when asked if mutual aid could provide aid on that scale. “I don’t know how long it will take us.”