How mutual aid groups mobilized aid during a pandemic and destructive hurricane season

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Karen Smith sipped an iced coffee and charged her phone in the shade next to the Mayhew Bakery in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood on Thursday.

Since Hurricane Ida knocked power off across the city, the store has become a gathering spot for neighbors needing to recharge their devices from a generator, grab a hot meal or a cup of coffee.

Kelly Mayhew, who owns the store, isn’t charging for food. Any donation goes toward gas to help people who need to evacuate post-Ida

During the last week, generator powered-charging stations have popped up on porches across the city. Restaurants and bars have distributed food to residents. And concerned locals have raised donations and organized water, food and fuel drop-offs to neighboring parishes devastated by the storm.

“We take care of New Orleans in our own voice, style and soul,” Smith said. “We own the way that we serve each other and how we come together…I just love how we all become one.”

Mutual aid efforts have a long history in the city especially among immigrants, indigenous communities and people of color. Mutual aid societies, groups dedicated to the reciprocal exchange of labor, goods and services have long flourished for years in New Orleans’ Black and Creole communities. 

But the pandemic and two destructive hurricane seasons in Louisiana have given this type of community-based relief work greater prominence.

 ‘Come rain, shine, hurricane’: Community comes together after Ida leaves Ascension Parish without power

“It’s a type of aid that activates especially in times when formal types of aid are hard to come by after a big emergency,” said Miriam Belblidia, the co-founder of local nonprofit Imagine Water Works, which runs a 6,000 plus member Imagine Mutual Aid (New Orleans) Facebook group. 

Mutual aid is a form of direct community-based assistance that functions without the burdensome red tape that can make it difficult to seek and secure help through a traditional government agency or large relief organization. Throughout the pandemic and especially during major natural disasters, digital platforms like Imagine Mutual Aid (New Orleans) have been used by residents to request or offer specific types of help. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Imagine Water Works is among several local organizations that mobilized to provide relief for residents in New Orleans and some of the surrounding parishes including Terrebonne and St. Charles Parish that were deeply impacted by the storm. 

MORE: After Hurricane Ida, power outage highlights heat disparities in New Orleans

“Mutual aid is not charity, it is being in solidarity with others during shifting conditions on the ground and building a strong network of support,” Belblidia said. 

House of Tulip, a non-profit created early in the pandemic to provide housing solutions for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, has distributed $45,000 in cash payments to people in communities devastated by the storm, according to co-founder Mariah Moore. 

The funds, raised through donations and a portion of the organization’s operating budget, help cover basic needs like meals and shelter. It’s part of an ongoing effort the organization has adopted through the pandemic. 

“The work we started continues to pivot to meet the needs of the moment we are in,” Moore said. “A lot of organizations can’t do that. We have 100% say in how we spend this money.”

Caroline Guidry with the DTB Mutual Aid Fund (Down the Bayou) is raising funds to provide direct financial support for gas, shelter, food and baby supplies in southern Lafourche Parish, one of the communities hardest hit by the storm.

Immediate help, Guidry said, can be slow to come for people facing large-scale emergencies.

Many of their recipients are evacuees who are stranded and unable to return home due to ongoing evacuation orders, transportation issues or damage to their homes.

“Today, so many people live paycheck to paycheck, and cash reserves are thin. Extended evacuation compounds that problem, as does widespread housing destruction,” she said. “Mutual aid builds on existing human connections and networks. People who need help directly connecting with those who can provide it. 

A year complicated by a pandemic and several natural disasters has forced some mutual aid groups like the Krewe of Red Beans to adapt how they offer help.

On Wednesday, Devin De Wulf and his Krewe of Red Beans were pulling a blue tarp across the roof of Benny Jones Sr., leader of the Treme Brass Band.

“Fixing Mr. Benny’s roof is really important to me,” De Wulf said. 

He also made sure Jones, in his late 70s and without electricity like many in the city, had water and ice. The Krewe of Red Beans is looking after the city’s cultural bearers, such as musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and leaders of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.

The Krewe of Red Beans was founded in 2008 to put on a bean-themed Mardi Gras parade. Since the pandemic began, however, this group of 450 New Orleanians has raised roughly $2 million to provide 90,000 meals to hospital workers, employing out-of-work musicians to deliver the food.

The move from parades to mutual aid began with a red bean cookoff the krewe has organized for years.

“It was incredibly complicated and had a lot of moving parts. That was basically training wheels for COVID,” De Wulf said.

Feed the Second Line, which launched later in the pandemic, delivered groceries to older culture bearers.

“After the hurricane passed, we already knew all these folks, where they lived and the condition of their houses pre-hurricane,” he said.

De Wulf believes grassroots mutual aid organizations like the Krewe of Red Beans see needs that larger groups and government organizations overlook.

“We can get into the nitty gritty, and into the cracks and shadows,” he said.

As soon as Hurricane Ida passed, Antonio Travis started calling the young men he works with through the group Black Man Rising. Travis founded the peer mentoring organization in 2016.

“They pretty much all had the same needs. Everybody was without resources,” he said.

Most of the young men and their families did not evacuate.

“The decision is literally am I going to pay bills this month or am I going to evacuate,” he said.

Travis has been raising money to help the young men he works with. He even plans to open his own apartment to them, if he has electricity once he returns.

In a crisis, he said, smaller groups like Black Men Rising can move more quickly than larger organizations or government agencies.

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“It’s the urgency,” Travis said. “When you’re grassroots, you’re tapped into the community.”

Taking care of each other is a way of life in New Orleans, he said. 

“Literally our culture makes New Orleans. And our culture is a culture of giving,” he said. “It’s literally poor people taking care of poor people in New Orleans right now.”

How to help:

House of Tulip: https://houseoftulip.org/make-a-donation

Imagine Waterworks: https://donorbox.org/imagine-water-works

Krewe of Red Beans: https://www.feedthesecondline.org

Black Man Rising: https://www.fflic.org (Note: earmark donations to Black Man Rising)

Down The Bayou Mutual Aid Fund: https://instagram.com/dtb_mutualaidfund/

Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at mclark@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.