At a modest 134 feet, the Bayou Towers has stood as the tallest building in Houma, Louisiana, since it was built in 1971. Its 300 units of apartments have exclusively served as the homes of members of the city’s elderly and disabled population. Before Hurricane Ida, HUD officials described the building as aging and in need of replacement or repair, and so, it might have come as no surprise that the Category 4 storm inflicted serious damage upon the structure. In fact, just as power was being restored to parts of Houma, and as many were returning to the area’s coastal hamlets, the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority, which owns and operates the building, publicly advised the building’s tenants via a Facebook post that they could not return.
Some of the tenants of the Bayou Towers were relocated to a temporary encampment constructed at the rear of the building, along with residents of other public housing and those whose private homes were also made unlivable. Meanwhile, another group of those tenants also took up temporary residence in local hotels, at least through January 8, 2022, or a later date, if granted by FEMA. While individuals from this second group were not sharing communal spaces with other people, their quality of living was no better. In fact, according to a woman we will call Meredith (because she is afraid of retaliation), her stay in a local hotel has been troublesome.
The parish government has been paying the hotel for meals for these displaced individuals — about $45 per day — since the storm. But that recently ended, on December 3rd. Now the Council on Aging and a separate charity are providing them with one meal per day. Besides the provision of housing vouchers to these folks for relocation, very little else has been done by the local government to accommodate these elderly and disabled people, and local leaders appear to be aware of these circumstances. In fact, Meredith, who had lived in the Bayou Towers for a number of years, says the District #2 councilperson had been to the hotel, but he had not returned and was not responding to any of their calls.
So dire is the situation that Meredith shared the following story with me. Claiming to be hungry, an elderly man, formerly a tenant of the Bayou Towers, broke into a storeroom inside of the hotel, and took food and a soda. The man was subsequently charged with two counts of petty theft… Yeah, an older man arrested for stealing food, because those who should be caring for his well-being think only one meal per day is sufficient for him, and clearly it isn’t.
On this tragedy, my next words should be simple to understand…
The elderly in our communities not only deserve our respect; they deserve our effort to the point of our own exhaustion. After all, they are our family members. They passed down the traditions that we enjoy. They built the places we know and love. And for their contributions, they are owed an enormous debt that could not easily be repaid. This is an incontrovertible truth.
Alongside that understanding, there is this: no one of us could have prevented the damage caused by Hurricane Ida or the pain levied on so many. But no one should act with indifference in the face of those still facing challenges, especially if those facing challenges are the members of the most vulnerable groups in our communities.
These two notions need to be carved deeply into the collective psyche of public officials in Terrebonne Parish, some of whom seem to forget that they serve all the people — not just a few. That local leaders would stand in silence, while older and disabled men and women wrestle with the uncertainty of relocation — men and women on oxygen devices or in wheelchairs, men and women needing caregivers to help them move about or comprehend documents — all of it points to embarrassing indifference and wrong-headedness. That those leaders would even accelerate the timetable for these vulnerable people to be out of the Bayou Towers, a place they called home, while knowingly offering no additional support or resources to these people in the retrieval of their possessions, is appallingly out of touch, uncoordinated, thoughtless, and without honor.
Perhaps it is uncommon expectation to actually believe that, in the wake of a disaster, a community would stand by its own. Perhaps it is unusual to hope that no man — and especially no leader — would think himself above his fellow man. But my faith, in no way dissimilar to the faiths we all share, tells me that we can and must do more.
We are, indeed, living in a season of testing and discernment. The tests seem to come in rapid succession, these days — and they are great. Take Ida. But what follows those tests, our actions, may speak volumes about who we really are, rather than who we claim to be, as caring people. Well, as caring people, we cannot disregard the most vulnerable among us, those still struggling. We must help them, comfort them, and stand with them. Do not ignore them, hide from them, or mislead them in their time of need. They cannot return to their residences in the building, understandably, but in this time, they should not be left to feel alone. The pain of such desertion could be emotionally devastating. And so, a proud community, such as Houma is, should do — and can do — more to smooth the transition for these people, from the expert packing, retrieval, and storage of possessions to the necessary hand-holding for their orderly relocation, while also providing for their basic needs in the interim.
This — just to demonstrate that someone cares. This — because these people deserve no less.
The call with Meredith, this morning, was a depressing one. The fear and disappointment in her voice was unmistakable. “I’m scared to death. I don’t know what is coming up next,” Meredith said, while she was unsuccessful in her attempt to hold back tears. Here was a good woman, painfully confused about why she was being treated this way, and yet, she was also afraid to talk about it openly. But, as heartbreaking as that is, hers is a common story, right now, for so many others.
Yes, we must do better.