The Evolution of Mutual Aid in New Orleans
Community networks to support residents in disaster and sickness have been around since the 19th century. After Hurricane Ida, social media amplified the calls for aid.
With the season of charitable giving in full swing, it’s worth looking back to August when Hurricane Ida — one of the costliest weather disasters out of the Atlantic — triggered a New Orleans mutual aid network that lives on four months later.
The fact that Ida made landfall in Louisiana on the same day that Hurricane Katrina landed 16 years ago perhaps was a too-painful reminder of the woeful government response to that destructive storm. And so, armed with new technology that didn’t exist in 2005, Ida’s survivors ignited a system where people around the world could donate resources directly and immediately to the storm’s victims, well before FEMA could write its first check.
It began a few days before Ida hit, when Abdul Aziz took flight to a family member’s house near Mobile, Alabama. Still traumatized from getting stranded in New Orleans during Katrina, he didn’t want to take chances. En route to Mobile, he listened on his scanner as multiple people called out for help, stuck on back roads and highways, or trapped in their homes. He also scanned Facebook and Instagram for people streaming live videos about their whereabouts and predicaments.
After Ida passed, Aziz’s Instagram mailbox filled up with requests — not just from storm survivors but also from people who wanted to donate to those in peril, including celebrities and social media influencers who wanted to amplify these efforts. Aziz used Instagram to post information about phone charging and cooling stations, gas stations with available fuel, hotels taking in evacuees, and sources for food, ice and water. His direct message inbox became so overwhelmed — and the operations so expansive — that he created a new account called the Ida Support Network.
At first, the network was just Aziz playing phone tagger and connector. Within a week, it had grown to roughly 80 volunteers, people not only coordinating direct aid, but also researchers, mental health professionals, translators, social media managers, and operators for the hotline they eventually had to set up. They even accepted fact checkers who volunteered to vet information coming into the network before sending it out to the public.
They effectively set in motion the creation of a mutual aid society, an anarch-ish ecosystem of helpers and providers. ISN has no leaders or hierarchical structure, just trust and generosity. The mutual aid system has deep roots in the city of New Orleans, where it’s still actively woven throughout the city’s culture. But what Aziz helped pull together represents an evolution in mutual aid society development. He and his colleagues organically built a network of hundreds of volunteers — many of whom were themselves displaced by Ida — and thousands of donors worldwide via social media.
“I never thought about using Instagram like this,” says Aziz. The advent of technology, particularly social media, “has allowed people to communicate and send aid without the heavy dependence on government.”
No red tape
While the harms of social media became well-noted in 2020 and 2021, its role in helping create this network and many others like it was instrumental in saving the homes and lives of many people — not only in the Gulf Coast, but across the entire route Ida took to New York. Today, the Ida Support Network Instagram account has more than 3,000 followers, along with a sister page created for the New York-to-D.C. region. Shortly after the original ISN page went live, it was getting blasted out by celebrities such as singer-actress (and Britney Spears’ sister) Jamie Lynn Spears, who has more than 2 million followers on Instagram, and R&B singer Kehlani, who has more than 13 million followers.
“We’ve had such an opportunity to connect to people who have even larger platforms,” says Aziz. “What I’m excited about is just the ability to have these instant needs amplified without there being any bureaucracy, without there being any red tape, without there being any lines of questioning about whether or not people are deserving of assistance.”
In addition to raising funds, the group has encouraged donors to give to other mutual aid organizations throughout the Gulf Coast, such as the DTB Mutual Aid Fund, the NOLA Black Youth Fund, the House of Tulip and Newtral Groundz Community Relief Fund. Those efforts have brought in an estimated $1 million, according to Aziz. Despite FEMA’s more effective response this year compared to after Katrina, those affected by Ida still registered complaints that they couldn’t access federal aid and resources soon enough after the storm, particularly after the power went out across the city. When some evacuees’ aid claims were denied, ISN volunteers took photos and videos of damage to homes to appeal FEMA’s decision.
Meanwhile, the mutual aid groups set up systems where a person as far away as Tokyo could send money to an Ida evacuee via Venmo or Cash App, or order Uber or Lyft services for people stranded. Leveraging the volunteers’ social media followers, the network could send massive group text messages out both domestically and internationally via Whatsapp and similar services. When Katrina hit, people were just learning how to use then-nascent texting services — most phones didn’t have keyboards and users had to scroll through letters on a number pad to string words and sentences together.
Prioritizing communal welfare
But well before any kind of modern-day technology, New Orleans had mutual aid. Groups first began popping up in the early 19th century, as the city’s population exploded due to immigrants pouring in from other countries. Then called benevolent associations, these networks formed around race, ethnicity, religion, neighborhood and profession. Other U.S. cities saw a similar emergence of aid groups as their populations grew. The function was universal: to pool money and resources together to provide members with financial assistance during times of need, especially during medical duress and disasters.
Mutual aid societies operate off “an ethic of solidarity that prioritizes communal welfare and encourages collective actions,” wrote Fordham University African and African American Studies professor Tyesha Maddox for CityLab earlier this year. “One of its significant philosophies is the idea that communities organize best around those whose assistance is likely to deliver the most immediate impact.”
When slavery ended, many Black families left rural plantations to come to New Orleans, where creating or joining mutual aid networks became their only dependable safety nets. According toSouthern Cultures, Black New Orleanians organized more than 200 benevolent associations in the mid-to-late 19th century, and 80% of the Black New Orleans population belonged to one. There are still dozens of mutual aid societies across the city, mostly known as social aid and pleasure clubs. The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club has been around since 1909, one of New Orleans’ oldest and most storied mutual aid franchises.
The associations were needed because the city government lacked organized disaster response and relief programs. The distance between New Orleans and Washington, D.C. — physically, culturally and politically — meant New Orleans also would not be able to rely much on the federal government for help either. This is a sentiment that has carried forward in the city over decades: Throughout multiple hurricane and flooding disasters there are scores of stories of failed government protection and relief attempts, with Hurricane Katrina as the most devastating example of such failures.
It helps explain why so many New Orleanians would rather ride the storm out and then hunker down with neighbors for recovery once it subsides — there’s more faith in community here than government.
Case in point, when Glenn Garrison’s neighbors in New Orleans began evacuating in the days before Ida landed, they knew to bring him the perishable food in their refrigerators, as they had in past hurricane evacuations. Garrison, a local artist, was staying behind and would store their food in case their homes lost power — and that’s exactly what happened across New Orleans. After Ida passed, Garrison used the food to cook meals for people who didn’t or weren’t able to leave the city, utilizing storage and cooking equipment from his mother’s catering business.
For the Ida aftermath, Garrison was gifted “eight ice chests full” of beans, bell peppers, onions, celery, eggs, shrimp, bread and other meats that would have spoiled in the blackout. He held a hurricane cookout the following morning, and also took plates to unhoused people who were staying under the city’s freeway bridges. He stayed in the city until the food ran out and it became clear that it would be a while before the power came back on. While on the road heading to a family member’s, a friend who worked at a hotel called asking him if he could come get food from the fridges to use for his community cookouts, but Garrison was already too far up the road.
“Man, I just wish I could have used it to feed some other people,” said Garrison. “But he told me he did give it to someone else who did that. So it made me smile that at least everybody’s on the same mode right now of ‘feed everybody,’ you know, because there was no other way to get food.”
Aziz says he’s impressed with what he and fellow volunteers were able to pull off in just a matter of days, but frustrated about the reason why they had to come together: “Another example of a failed government response,” says Aziz.
Among the main complaints the ISN fielded was that people either didn’t know which hotels were taking in evacuees or that there were many people turned away from hotels that supposedly were accepting evacuees. That’s information that FEMA should have had widely available well ahead of the storm, says Aziz.
While FEMA supports what’s called the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program, the states involved actually manage it, said Marcus T. Coleman, director of FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division/DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Coleman said his office had heard complaints of evacuees being turned away by hotels, and that his office had also been scanning social media for false information circulating among storm survivors.
“We know that there’s some lived experiences for folks where they are getting rejected from hotels, but we also are aware that there are a number of rumors and unfortunately disinformation and misinformation continue to permeate for this disaster,” said Coleman.
The ISN itself has suffered some setbacks due to misinformation. In October, members of the network learned that people were exploiting the donor system to scam people out of their money. Mutual aid networks are as vulnerable as any institution, if not more, when it comes to people using social media for nefarious purposes. How ISN handled the problem is perhaps one of the clearest differences between how it operates compared to government and traditional charity organizations: Rather than seeking punishment for the scammers, the ISN chose empathy.
“Many of the people using disaster relief as an opportunity to get money on false narratives are victims of the same capitalist, white supremacist, and oppressive systems that create the need for mutual aid work in the first place,” reads an Instagram post from the ISN in addressing the scams.
A new concept in emergency management
The city of New Orleans has an Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which handles disaster planning for the city. However, up until very recently, there was no apparatus for coordinating city disaster response with efforts from mutual aid networks across New Orleans. After a tornado tore through the eastern part of the city in 2017, the government established NOLA Ready, an office focused on building and managing disaster assistance networks between the city and local organizations.
“It’s a new concept in emergency management,” says Laura A. Mellem, communications director for NOLA Ready and the city’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. “We work closely with any organization or individual that might pop up during or after a disaster and want to help, really to be ready to plug those groups into unmet needs that we know will really serve residents, and to help get them resources.”
Along with being a new concept, it’s also thinly staffed — Mellem has just three people, and there is one staff member that coordinates the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster network. That’s probably why so many Ida survivors felt abandoned, and mutual aid groups like the Ida Support Network were created and grew so quickly. According to Aziz, the problem is that the structure of government and traditional charity organizations aren’t set up to immediately help people in urgent need.
“We understand that’s because of the system that’s been created — there is a bureaucracy, there is a process, and that process sometimes fails people because it’s too slow,” says Aziz. “Which is why mutual aid is wonderful. It’s great that we can pick ourselves up and provide for ourselves and do the things that are necessary to make sure that our community is safe. However, if we’re saying that we live in the greatest country in the world that has the greatest resources, those resources should be available to people in their most desperate times.”