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Sea Change

If I Get Called "Resilient" One More Time...

Construction being done on a house through the Strengthen Alabama Homes program.
Carly Berlin
Construction being done on a house through the Strengthen Alabama Homes program.

When we talk about climate change, we hear one word all the time: resilient. We use it to talk about everything from our houses, to our power grid, to ourselves. Earlier this spring, we asked our listeners to tell us how you feel about this word. And you blew up our voicemail box.

In this episode of Sea Change, we hear your responses. And we ask: how can we address the physical forces of climate change and the broken social systems that make it an even greater threat? We hear stories about efforts from across the Gulf Coast – from storm-proofing homes to creating neighborhood disaster response groups – to help keep people from needing to be resilient in the first place.

A special thanks to Rob Verchick, author of The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience (out now!). And, to everyone who spent time with us for this story, from a construction site in rural Alabama to the streets of New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. Also, a big, big thank you to everyone who called in to give us their two cents on the word “resilient.”

For more on Strengthen Alabama Homes, check out our separate story on the program.

Find out more on the New Orleans Resilience Corps here.

Hosted by Carly Berlin and Halle Parker.

Editing help was provided by Carlyle Calhoun, Rosemary Westwood, Halle Parker, Kezia Setyawan, and Eve Abrams. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti.

Sea Change is a production of WWNO and WRKF. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.


Note: Transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors (including name spellings). Please be aware that the official record for our episodes is the audio version.

<<music bed>>

BROUSSARD: Hi, I'm Carolyn Broussard. I'm from New Iberia originally, live in New Orleans now. And I have grown up my whole life being called resilient from all the stuff that we've gone through…and I swear if I get called resilient one more time… I'm gonna scream. 

<<music bed>>

PARKER: You’re listening to Sea Change. I’m Halle Parker. And today, we’re talking about the word resilient. It’s one we hear all the time living on the coast. And – New Orleans Public Radio’s Carly Berlin has been thinking a lot about how we use it. Hey Carly.

BERLIN: Hey Halle.

PARKER: So – when it comes to climate change – the word resilient gets thrown around a lot, right?

BERLIN: Yeah. We use it to talk about everything from our houses to the power grid to ourselves. I don’t think I could even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard this word while reporting in south Louisiana over the last few years. And – I started wondering how people felt about it.

And when we asked – you blew up our voicemail box.

BUNCH: As far as resilient for the people, that’s political code for: ‘Hey suckers, we didn’t prepare ya well, but ya made it, so, congrats!’ Uh, this is Daniel Bunch in Metairie. Buh-bye.

PARKER: Yeah…this seemed to really hit a nerve. So…when did you start getting curious about this?

BERLIN: I started really thinking about this word during the two record-breaking hurricane seasons we had in 2020, and 2021. As you know Halle…we lived through this ourselves…the state was hammered by seven named storms over the course of those two years - and they caused massive destruction.

CLIP 1: *Roar of rain and wind* The terrifying sounds of Ida…

CLIP 2: Pieces of the roof flying everywhere.

CLIP 3: One of the strongest storms to ever hit the area.

BERLIN: So… started noticing this thing. How so often, in the moments after people had just lost everything, you’d hear this phrase.

TRUMP: Every American heart is with the people of Texas and Louisiana. They’re strong and resilient.

BIDEN: People in Louisiana and Mississippi are resilient.

JOHNSON: What I always say about our folks here in Louisiana, we’re a tough and resilient people.

PARKER: Oh yes, the go-to for government officials. Almost a post-hurricane catch phrase at this point.

BERLIN: Yeah. And a lot of people don’t love getting called resilient. Like Carolyn – our caller you heard at the top of the episode.

BROUSSARD: If I get called resilient one more time…I'm gonna scream.

BERLIN: For some of you – the word resilient is used as a way to pass the buck. That’s what Rosina down in Plaquemines Parish told us.

PHILIPPE: Hi, my name is Rosina Philippe, I am Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha, from the Grand Bayou Village. You know, people are saying, ‘Oh well, they’re resilient.’ And it kind of relieves them of you know…the responsibility to do the critical and the aggressive things that are needed.

BERLIN: This idea came up a lot in your voicemails. That calling individual people resilient actually relieves responsibility from those in power to protect them from harm.

And I think it’s fair to say – Hurricane Katrina was the worst case scenario of this dynamic. Because it wasn’t really a natural disaster. The flooding of New Orleans, and all the deaths that followed, were the result of human failures – human lapses of responsibility.

And that’s what our caller, Claudia, said.

BARKER: Hi, I’m Claudia Barker, calling from New Orleans. Those of us who survived and rebuilt after Katrina got very tired of being called resilient. Some disasters, like the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina was in part due to poor choices on the part of humans. With Katrina, it was the federal government's choice not to maintain its flood protection system and the national leaders’ failure to help people, especially Black people, when they were in dire straits. 

<<music bed>>

BERLIN: The thing I started thinking about, listening to all these messages, is – when people get called resilient, what they actually hear is, ‘Hey, sorry, you’re on your own. If your house just got destroyed, you can rebuild it yourself. If you’ve been displaced, you can get back home yourself.’

PARKER: Right, it’s almost like people are saying, ‘Hey, don’t call me resilient without actually doing anything to help me be resilient.’

BERLIN: Yes! Exactly.

PARKER: Okay, so it seems like the question is: what can our governments, our social systems, the private companies we buy things from – actually do – to keep people from having to be resilient in the first place?

BERLIN: Totally. I wanted to get into the meat of that question. And – to do that – I got to a sort of…unlikely place.

<<music bed>>

VERCHICK: Well, I'll tell you what, there really was an octopus in the parking garage.

BERLIN: That’s Rob Verchick - he’s a professor of environmental law at Loyola University New Orleans - he also used to work in the Obama Administration. And he just came out with this book called the Octopus in the Parking Garage.

It starts off with this story about a guy in Miami back in 2016. He was heading into his condo building’s parking garage…

VERCHICK: … and lapping around his car and all the other cars there with this large, broad pool of greenish, uh, seawater and flopping around right in the middle of it, underneath the fluorescent lights was a very large live octopus.

BERLIN: This guy – he took a picture on his phone and posted it online. It went viral.

But to Rob - this was more than just a funny story. It was a climate change issue. The octopus had probably been hanging out at the bottom of Biscayne Bay – near a drainage pipe. But because of sea level rise – and an extreme tide that day…

VERCHICK: …. the waters reversed and pushed him all the way up into the parking garage and splattered out.

BERLIN: And…this raised a kind of existential question for Rob. How do we live with climate change? When the wall we’ve built between ourselves and nature starts to collapse?

VERCHICK: If we can’t keep sea life out of parking garages, what else can’t we do?

BERLIN: Or really - what else CAN we do? That’s actually the central question of Rob’s book – which is all about this idea of resilience in the face of our rapidly changing world.

He has this line that’s really stuck with me: “Climate action now seeks to avoid the harm we can’t manage and to manage the harm we can’t avoid.”

Managing the harm we can’t avoid – that’s the resilience part.

VERCHICK: The first use of the word resilience is back, I think it was Francis Bacon, who used the word to mean ‘bounce back.’

BERLIN: The word resilience comes up in a lot of different disciplines. In ecology – resilience is used to describe the ability of an ecosystem to bounce back to normal after some kind of disturbance. It’s used in psychology too – to talk about emotional resilience to trauma.

VERCHICK: And that doesn't mean, oh, you go through a traumatic event, and you plow through it and just come out the other end alive. That’s not what resilience is. Resilience is being able to go through the process of understanding what is happening, changing maybe your reactions to it or your vulnerability to it, and then coming out of whatever the, whatever the event is, coming out in a stronger way, better equipped to deal with the world.

BERLIN: And that’s how Rob thinks about climate resilience - it’s identifying the problems in front of us - adapting to them, managing them in some way - and coming out the other side better positioned to face the next chapter of this bigger crisis as it unfolds.

VERCHICK: When I say climate resilience, we're talking about bouncing back, you know, absorbing a charge, if you will, but we have to bounce back better. We have to find the problems that we had to begin with and fix them.


BERLIN: And, Halle, fixing those problems is a big task. On the one hand, it means addressing the physical threats – like, keeping the octopus out of the parking garage – or adjusting where and how we live because of the risks of rising seas and bigger storms.

And on the other hand – if that's not enough – there’s addressing the social side. There are so many levers that lead to poverty and inequality in this country. And we’ve seen over and over again – it’s harder for poor folks to get back on their feet after a disaster strikes.

PARKER: So our episode today comes in two acts. Act 1: How can we address the physical forces of climate change? And Act 2: how do we begin to mend the broken social systems that make it an even greater threat?

First up, Carly takes us on a journey to coastal Alabama, where we’re gonna talk about the roof over your head.

BERLIN: Every couple months in Alabama, hundreds of people get up in the middle of the night. To get on this website. Not to score Beyonce or Taylor Swift tickets. But to try to win a new roof.

Bernadette Windle’s one of these people. She lives in the suburbs of Mobile, down near the coast. And she took her chance back in April.

WINDLE: Well, it’s 12:06 in the morning, and I am trying to log onto Strengthen Alabama Homes to apply for the grant. 

BERLIN: This grant is from a state program called Strengthen Alabama Homes. It gives people money – up to ten thousand dollars each – to help them make their houses better able to withstand severe weather.

Some of the money’s for things like stronger windows and garage doors. But mostly, it’s for stronger roofs. Because the worst damage from a storm usually comes after the roof’s blown off – exposing the inside of a house to the outside.

The state gives this money out on a first-come, first-served basis, a few hundred homes at a time. And when the website opens up – just four times a year, at midnight– the slots have been filled in as little as eight minutes.

And when Bernadette logged on, the site totally froze. She’d been through this before.

WINDLE: Just like the first time I tried to do it, it seems like the site is locked up. It is not letting me log on at all. I’m gonna try for just a few minutes, but as of right now, it’s not opening the site, whatsoever.

BERLIN: If you’re someone who knows about this stuff…Alabama has come to be a national leader in the world of resilient construction. A way of building homes so they can stay intact through hurricanes or tornadoes. And the Strengthen Alabama Homes program plays a key role.

And I wanted to see it in action. So from my home in New Orleans, I get on Interstate 10 and head east. The highway cuts right through neighborhoods – and as I drive, I see roof after roof covered in blue tarps.

BERLIN. There’s another one….That’s five in two minutes. And it’s hard to know which storm these are from because we’ve had so many come through over the last few years.

BERLIN: When news crews fly over places devastated by hurricanes – you always see rows and rows of destroyed roofs. Wood and shingles and people’s possessions scattered everywhere.

That’s because the types of storms we’ve seen on the Gulf Coast over the last couple years – their punch has come in their ferocious winds. Winds that reach up to 150 miles per hour. And rip roofs off of houses, opening them up to the sky.

Once the storms pass – the first thing people do is put a tarp on the roof. And these tarps – they don’t exactly hold up well if more bad weather comes.

BERLIN: Some of these tarps are frayed and blowing around probably from probably getting battered by other storms that have come through since they got put on.

BERLIN: And I’ve always wondered – can’t we construct our homes in a way that makes them less likely to blow apart in the wind? THAT’S Alabama’s wager. What if – instead of fixing roofs after a storm comes – we built them better in the first place?

<<music bed>>

So I drive into Loxley, Alabama – a small town, about ten miles east of Mobile Bay – to see one of these special roofs get put on. I wind down a rural road lined with farms and churches. And then I pull up at this little brick ranch house that’s got a cross on the door that says “Welcome” with a sunflower on it. The roof work is well underway.

<<Fade up sound of construction site – sound of trunk closing>>


CRUMP: Hey Carly. Harry Crump. 

BERLIN: Harry Crump is the contractor here today – he specializes in construction that’s better able to take the hit of a hurricane.

<<sound of old felt and shingles falling off>>

BERLIN: The crew here is ripping off shingles and an old layer of felt, tossing them into a pile in the yard.

CRUMP: This is called the tear off.

<<sound of nail gun>>

BERLIN: Pretty straightforward. But once the old roof is torn off, then comes the first step in putting the new roof on. Harry and his crew need to secure the roof decking layer – plywood, basically – to the house’s rafters. And to do that, they’re going to use these special nails that look kinda like screws. And a lot of them – seven to eight hundred.

CRUMP: You have to renail every rafter with eight- D ring shank nails four inches apart. That secures the plywood to the rafters. 

BERLIN: And how are those nails different than like… 

CRUMP: A standard? A standard eight D common is smooth shank. You can pull those out pretty easily. Well, a ring shank nail, it locks itself in the wood, ‘cause it’s got rings around it.

BERLIN: So – again – works kinda like a screw. Once those are all in – the crew puts on a special protective layer called an ice and water shield – which will help keep the rain out.

CRUMP: If you blow a few shingles off, you still have the ice and water shield to protect you from the rain.

BERLIN: So – pretty simple. You’ve got your special nails keeping your roof attached to the house. You’ve got your ice and water shield keeping the roof sealed from rain. Then you make sure the edges are super secure – those are the spots where the pressure from the wind tends to lift the roof off. You slap on some heavy duty shingles, and you’re good to go.

Part of the point of Strengthen Alabama? It encourages people to replace their old roofs with new, hardier ones – with these materials that will actually withstand a storm.

And for some people – it helps them fix roof damage they wouldn’t have been able to pay for otherwise. Like, for Karen Ellis. Whose family owns this little ranch house. She’s one of the lucky Strengthen Alabama winners. She shows me her big backyard with tall, shady trees.

BERLIN: It’s a really beautiful spot back here with all the trees.

ELLIS: Yeah, it is. The only thing I be worrying about is snakes. *laughs* But other than that, it’s good. It is good.

BERLIN: Karen grew up in this house – with the tall trees and the rose bushes and the snakes in the grass. Her family built this place out of a catalog in the 60s. She moved back in a few years ago to take care of her mom, who has Alzheimer’s.

And when Hurricane Sally blew through here in 2020 – it ripped a hole in the roof. Water started leaking into the kitchen and Karen’s bedroom. She knew then that they were going to need to get the roof replaced.

BERLIN: So she put one of those ubiquitous blue tarps over the roof. But…it didn’t last.

ELLIS: It was a blue up there, but the blue wasn’t strong enough. It blew away. And so my brother went and got another one, a bigger one. The tarp took care of it until….you know. Until now.

BERLIN: That second tarp sat on their roof – for two and a half years. Until the roofing crew showed up this morning and peeled it off.

Karen found out about Strengthen Alabama through a friend. She said the process went pretty smoothly. And without the grant, her family wouldn’t have been able to pay for this new roof. The ten thousand dollars from the program will cover almost the entire cost.

As she watches the crew nail the decking down, and roll out the ice and water shield, she says she feels protected. Going into hurricane season, this time around.

ELLIS: Because I don’t have to worry about the rain anymore, the rain in the house. Just excited…the newness of it…it’ll make the house look better. Even though we need more work done to it. The roof is the start.

BERLIN: Her peace of mind? It’s not the only benefit here. The real reason Strengthen Alabama Homes exists? It’s a hail mary to save the coastal insurance industry.

<<music bed >>

BERLIN: Let’s turn the clock back a minute – to the mid two thousands. Alabama had just been hit by a series of big storms. Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The eastern edge of Katrina in 2005.

That meant a lot of damage to homes near the coast in a really short period of time. And that meant a lot of payouts from insurance companies to homeowners, to help people rebuild.

And the insurance industry, on the coast? It started to falter, after seeing all those claims pile up. Companies were seeing their profit margins evaporate.

Climate change poses a huge existential threat for the insurance industry, everywhere. That’s because insurance companies – their job is to put a price tag on RISK. And when they look into their crystal balls into the future – they see the mounting risks from climate change. More destruction from storms. More profit lost.

In coastal Alabama – in the mid 2000s – this meant insurance companies started raising their prices – reflecting that higher, future risk. Some companies stopped renewing policies, limiting people’s options. And insurance premiums started getting way more expensive. Faced with that bigger price tag, some people dropped their wind insurance altogether – leaving them even more vulnerable if a storm hit.

All of this was a big problem. Especially for one man.

POWELL: Yeah I’m Brian Powell with the Alabama Department of Insura nce.

BERLIN: Brian’s job at the time had been to try and rehabilitate insurance companies that had gone insolvent. But then he got tapped to do something else: find a way to reduce the risk of loss in the first place – before companies got stressed and homeowners got screwed. I call him up one day to hear the story, and he said he had one place to start: with the homes themselves.

POWELL: The way to do that is to put in place some mechanism so that the homes are kept intact as these storms come through. So, how do you do that? Well, we had to figure it out.

BERLIN: Brian is pragmatic. Former military, used to work at a law firm, dealing with insurance fraud. By the time he was tasked with figuring out how to reduce this risk of loss – the stakes were even higher. The state had been hit by a massive tornado outbreak in 2011 – another big blow to the insurance industry.

So Brian focused. Shut himself in his office up in Montgomery for two years. He knew he needed to figure out some kind of way to modify buildings – some kind of construction standard – that could stand up better to high winds. So he started searching everywhere.

POWELL: I scoured the country looking for a standard. Because, you know to me, without establishing a standard for a program, we had nothing to measure our work by.

BERLIN: And he found this organization called the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety. It’s a research group – funded by insurance companies. And its mandate is to find ways to drive down the risk of property loss – or, the risk of buildings getting damaged or destroyed by severe weather.

To do that – the group built this huge research facility in South Carolina where they basically recreate climate disasters. Picture an airplane hangar with a hundred and five gigantic fans. They can simulate hurricanes and other kinds of storms in there – and test a house’s ability to hold up to them.

I had never heard of anything like this. So I went and found this video from inside the research center – this is what all those fans sound like.

<<very briefly — fans revving up>>  

Malik: So yeah, it’s pretty cool.

BERLIN: That’s Fred Malik.

MALIK: It’s large enough for us to build full size, single family homes in there, and create Category 3 hurricanes, 8 inches of rain an hour. 

BERLIN: Fred is the managing director of a program at the research group called FORTIFIED – all caps, like you’re yelling it. They’ve created all kinds of construction guidelines for building houses that are better able to withstand storms – called the FORTIFIED standards.

And the video from the test facility – it starts with two identical houses, side by side. One is quote-unquote “fortified” – the other isn’t.

And once the fans turn on…

<<sound of fans, house blowing apart>>

…you can watch as the normal house blows to pieces, with chunks of wood flying everywhere. But the Fortified house? It’s totally fine.

The highest Fortified level – the Gold standard – protects houses from Category 3 hurricanes. That level’s usually for just new houses – it involves things like making sure your roof is anchored to your walls – and your walls to your foundation – in an extra hardy way.

But the lowest level starts with reinforcing just ONE part of the house. Fred said that’s because – through the group’s research – they found that the worst destruction – and most insurance claims – usually start at just one spot. You already know what it is.

MALIK: The damage almost always starts with the roof….Most claims have roof damage. And once the roof damage starts, then the claim just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

BERLIN: So they came up with those building practices you heard about from our contractor Harry Crump – the ring shank nails that look like screws, that special seal for extra protection from the rain. Along with other things you can do, beyond the roof – like putting in stronger windows and doors and garages, all the other openings where wind and water can get in.

Brian – who’d been holed up in his office looking for a standard– he went out to the airplane hangar test facility in Richburg, South Carolina. And there, he found the answer to his problem.

POWELL: After I saw the science, I saw what they were doing in Richburg, I was sold. So I came back to Alabama and talked with the commissioner of insurance and just explained what they were doing.

BERLIN: The fortified standards became the centerpiece of this new program Brian designed – Strengthen Alabama Homes. We already know it gives homeowners up to ten thousand dollars to fortify their homes – and lessen their risk.

But it’s also a win for the insurance companies. Because houses that are built to withstand severe weather mean fewer post-storm payouts.

And here’s how you know the insurance industry really thinks this is worth it: They’re footing the bill. The companies are the ones funding Strengthen Alabama Homes in the first place – through things like licensing fees that they have to pay to the state of Alabama in order to do business there.

POWELL: The industry is really paying for this. But they’re also reaping some of the benefits, in that, they are paying for a reduction of loss.

BERLIN: And, by Brian’s account, it’s worked. It took a while to start doling out grants – government bureaucracy for you – but since it officially launched in 2016, the program’s funded over 6000 homes.

But that’s actually a small fraction of the total number of Fortified homes in Alabama. There are now over 40,000 – out of 50,000 across the whole country. Which means Alabama’s really leading the way.

That’s partly because some places in coastal Alabama have baked the Fortified standards into their municipal building codes – so when new houses go up, they’re all are Fortified. There’s also an added bonus for people already in their home, the icing on the cake, really – once the fortified work is done, they get a discount on their insurance premium.

So while other states have some tax breaks or more modest incentives – or their own hurricane building codes, like Florida – no other state has really embraced Fortified building like Alabama has.

Brian sees the Strengthen Alabama program as a kind of catalyst. Even beyond the homes it funds directly – it’s a way of spreading the word that these standards work.

Because the goal of Strengthen Alabama – overall – it’s to lower insurance rates by strengthening as many homes as possible across the state. Lowering the risk for everyone at once. And Brian says, the insurance market on the coast has rebounded.

POWELL: The market’s becoming very healthy down there. So it’s been an overwhelming success.

BERLIN: Such a success that other states are looking to follow Alabama’s lead – including Louisiana.

Which…will be a tall task. Louisiana’s insurance market is in free fall after all the storms we’ve faced in the last few years. We’ve got a much larger coast than Alabama – and most of our big population centers are close to it. It feels like every week another insurance company goes broke or stops writing policies here.

And – Alabama’s program isn’t perfect. It’s limited to just single family homes where the owner lives onsite, which means people who rent don’t see the same benefits. And Brian told me the demand is so high that there’s never enough money to go around for everyone.

And – because it’s first-come, first-served – sometimes the people most in need can end up last in line. There’s no way to prioritize people who are waiting with tarps over their roofs for years.

That’s been the main thing that bothers William Marker. He was a roofer working on Karen Ellis’ house. He pointed across the street – and told me he’s suspicious that the people who could use the money most might have trouble getting it.

MARKER: The people that actually need the program, they still have blue tarps on their roof because they may not be able to wake up at 12 o'clock and get on the computer and apply for it. They may not have internet access. We're standing across the street from a house right now that would probably qualify for it, that has a tarp on their roof. But, um, unfortunately, they may not be able to actually apply for the grant.

BERLIN: Karen Ellis’ family got lucky. They needed the money – they wouldn’t have gotten a new roof without it.

For Bernadette Windle, it was more of a choice. She’s the one logging onto the Strengthen Alabama Homes website at midnight. She gave up for a while, then tried again around 1am.

WINDLE: I finally was able to link in, but it took…Um, it took till 3:30 in the morning to get it to go through.

BERLIN: But she got it! And the new roof is in the works. Bernadette had already been planning to get the roof of her suburban house replaced. She works for a real estate agency. And it was from them that she learned about Strengthen Alabama Homes. She saw the program as a way to help cut the cost of replacing her old roof.

WINDLE: That’s when I told my husband – we probably ought to consider this now, ya know.

BERLIN: They hadn’t faced damage like Karen Ellis had during Sally. And, getting a fortified roof wasn’t really on her radar. But now? She feels a little bit calmer going into hurricane season. Knowing her family will have a stronger roof over their heads.

WINDLE: We're not one to up and leave with a hurricane. We don't live in a flood zone, so we're not one. We do live near a lake *nervous laugh* but, but…it makes, I mean, you know, to give you a more secure feeling in a house when a storm's coming through… is nice.

BERLIN: That sense of security – it only stretches so far. The streets could flood with extreme rain.The power could still go out.

But if a storm comes, and your roof stays over your head, you’ll have a lot less work to do – picking up the pieces afterward. If you evacuated, maybe you’ll get to return home faster. Help out your neighbors sooner. And maybe that’s one way to think about resilience – getting to return to some sense of normalcy with a little more ease.

<<music bed>>

PARKER: Okay, so Carly, we’ve been talking all about the physical side of resilience – building things in a way that saves us from the cycle of destruction, rebuild, repeat. But that’s not the only factor at play.

BERLIN: Totally, Halle. I want to take us back to my conversation with Rob Verchick, the octopus guy. To him, the risks associated with climate change have two distinct drivers.

VERCHICK: One driver is the physical exposure to physical harm. Okay? Maybe that's being in the hurricane belt. 

BERLIN: So – you can tackle that first driver of risk – the physical exposure – with physical solutions. Things like Alabama’s roofing program. But then you get to the other driver.

VERCHICK: The other is the social vulnerability attached to it.

BERLIN: Think of social vulnerability as how susceptible a certain group of people is to the worst impacts of a disaster. Like injuries, deaths, disruption to everyday life.

Take a hurricane for example. The same storm can hit a community that’s wealthy, and one that’s poor. The wealthy community’s ability to recover relatively quickly is going to be a lot greater than the poor one’s.

To Rob, this social vulnerability is actually what sets us apart here in south Louisiana from the rest of the country – even more than our susceptibility to hurricanes or floods.

VERCHICK: We in Southern Louisiana, are more different from the rest of the country in the degree of social vulnerability than we are in the degree of physical exposure. 

BERLIN: So he’s saying – yes, we’re in the path of storms. But the real problem is how unequal our society is. Which I hadn’t really thought about in those terms before.

PARKER: Yeah. I’ve read studies that back him up. You need more than better roofs and better engineering. You need to undo centuries of inequality.

BERLIN: Right. Because in Louisiana, we’re at the bottom of every list. We have some of the lowest life expectancies. Some of the largest shares of people living in poverty. And – deeply entrenched systemic racism.

And to Rob – who literally wrote the book on climate resilience – achieving resilience – it needs to look like addressing all of THAT.

VERCHICK: If you could have a handle on fixing parts of social vulnerability, you would actually be doing more to reduce risk than building a sea wall.

PARKER: This makes me think about all the voicemails we got. The pushback against the word resilience is people being like – Hey, I’ve had to be resilient – because the systems are broken. Because the safety net is so frayed here.

BERLIN: Exactly. And you need a whole different set of tools to try and build a stronger safety net. So for Act 2 – I want to show you a group that’s trying to do just that.

<<sound of ice in cooler>>

BERLIN: I’m in a parking lot in Gentilly – a majority Black neighborhood in New Orleans – on a summer day last year. There are about a dozen of us here, debating what kind of cold drink we’ll need for a hot morning of door knocking.

“Water, water….Stay on the pedialiate, man….How often you drink that?”

BERLIN: These folks aren’t coming around trying to sell you something or getting you to vote for somebody. Their job? It’s to help people get ready for hurricane season.

They’re part of a nonprofit called the Resilience Corps. It’s a dedicated group that helps with disaster prep and response.

Tonya Freeman Brown is one of the supervisors out here today. She says they’re talking with people about how to make an evacuation plan – or what to stockpile if you’re gonna wait a storm out.

FREEMAN-BROWN: If we could really become accustomed to planning, versus reacting, it’ll reduce a lot of the stress in an already stressful situation.

BERLIN: And the way to reduce stress is to have the information ahead of the crisis. Knowing how to get help from the city in advance. Because the biggest threat usually comes after a hurricane hits, especially if the power’s knocked out.

Like what happened here after Hurricane Ida in 2021 – when New Orleans faced a full on power outage for days. Nineteen people died from issues related to the extreme heat. Most were over 60. Some had disabilities – and lacked access to life-saving oxygen when the city went totally dark.

FREEMAN-BROWN: Now, with the severity of storms, and the power outages, you have to really think ahead. 

BERLIN: Now, okay. True resilience here would look like the companies responsible for the city’s infrastructure actually investing in a way that would make it less prone to failure.

But Entergy – the electric utility in New Orleans – has faced longtime criticism for neglecting the grid. And for caring less about reliability for customers, and more about returns for its shareholders.

So – if you can’t rely on the electric company to keep you safe…people have to take care of themselves.

Enter - the Resilience Corps. The folks knocking on doors in the heat. It’s focused on making sure people are prepared for the kinds of infrastructure collapse we know will happen again – and knitting together a better social safety net to catch the most vulnerable among us.

This program started back in 2020 – when two friends who’d spent years in the labor movement together got on the phone. Just as COVID began to spread.

<<music bed>>

BERLIN: We’re gonna leave Tonya and meet LaTanja Silvester. I know, their names are similar. LaTanja Silvester had been looking forward to taking a nice, relaxing stretch of time off in 2020. She’d just spent seven years as the president of a local union chapter for service industry workers, and she was ready for a break, and a vacation.

But then, the pandemic took hold. And she got a call from her old friend Saket Soni.

SILVESTER: Saket called me and he’s like…well first he said, ‘Are you okay?’ Right? But, ‘I see what’s happening in New Orleans…’ At that time, New Orleans was the epicenter of COVID, post-Mardi Gras.

BERLIN: LaTanja and Saket knew each other from the labor organizing world in New Orleans. He had recently moved away, to Washington D.C. But watching those early days of the pandemic play out – it reminded him of a different kind of catastrophe. One he’d lived through with LaTanja. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

SONI: People like LaTanja and I got to see firsthand how America rebuilds and recovers after disaster. 

BERLIN: And the way America recovers? It’s uneven and unequal. There are huge divides between WHO gets to bounce back – and who doesn’t. And those divides, they almost always fall along lines of race and class.

Katrina is the poster child for that kind of inequitable recovery. Just look at who died. And who was stranded in the city during the flood. And who couldn’t rebuild or come home after. Black people. Poor people.

LaTanja and Saket were already starting to see that the burden of COVID was falling hardest on Black and brown New Orleanians. And they wanted to do something to reverse it.

SILVESTER: One of the key things that was important to the two of us, is that to ensure that the recovery didn't look like the recovery post Hurricane Katrina.

So LaTanja and Saket started talking about this idea. What if they could create a kind of boots-on-the-ground community response team? Maybe, if there’d been something like that during Katrina – it could’ve helped people before things got so dire.

And now, with the pandemic – this new group could employ people who know their neighborhoods well already, to do things like give out information about testing sites or deliver groceries.

And it could partner with cities – to fill in the gaps that local governments miss. It would focus on the people with the greatest needs – helping them bounce back just as quickly as people with more resources.

Saket imagined this group acting like a city’s white blood cells.

SONI: I think of the Resilience Corps as the white blood cells of the city. And they gather wherever people have needs. And they help people heal from whatever crisis they're going through.

BERLIN: And it wouldn’t stop with COVID. This same group of workers – they could use the same skills – like door-knocking, or putting on resource drives – to help cities soften the blow of other kinds of emergencies – like hurricanes, or wildfires. The kind of disasters we’re going to see more and more of with climate change.

SONI: So in an age of disasters, you need Resilience Corps to be as permanent a part of a city's infrastructure as firefighters are.

BERLIN: They thought New Orleans would be a natural place to pilot this idea – given just how chronic disasters of so many kinds are here – and how deeply entrenched poverty and inequality are too.

LaTanja approached the mayor’s office – which was excited to work with her and Saket to develop this thing. The city government pitched in some money, and so did some big foundations. And all together, they launched the first ever Resilience Corps in the country here in the fall of 2020.

And a key part of the model, for LaTanja and Saket, these two labor organizers? Good jobs.

SONI: You can’t have resilience without a resilience workforce. You can’t have recovery without the workforce.

BERLIN: Saket had already been testing this idea, on a national scale. He’s the founder of a national nonprofit called Resilience Force. Like workforce. It’s the umbrella organization for the Corps.

The FORCE got its start back in 2017 helping the migrant workers who travel the country rebuilding after hurricanes and wildfires – who are often severely exploited and underpaid.

But LaTanja and Saket’s new idea– the Resilience Corps – it’s sort of the flip side of that. Instead of a traveling construction workforce – they recruit workers embedded in their communities – to make decent pay doing things like giving out emergency prep information and checking on their neighbors.

Fast forward to knocking on doors in Gentilly, to get people preparing for hurricanes. I’m back with supervisor – Tonya Freeman Brown. She tells me about her old job, pre-COVID. She’d had her own business as a massage therapist.

FREEMAN-BROWN: And after the pandemic, I lost all my clients.

BERLIN: The Resilience Corps offered a new job at the right time. A lot of the other Corps workers I talked to had also lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic – there were bartenders, actors, dollar store workers. For Tonya – finding the Resilience Corps was a way to bounce back from that moment of precarity.

FREEMAN-BROWN: This became an opportunity for me to pivot. And to get back into the workforce, and not really miss a beat. That says a lot about my ability to be resilient. 

BERLIN: The Resilience Corps workers start out making upwards of $16 an hour, with pathways to make more. And they get training that helps them apply to better-paying jobs in public health and emergency management. Some stick around longer – like Tonya, who’s risen through the ranks here.

The fact that these workers are making decent wages is good for the city, too. City employees told me that if work like this got done in the past, it was by volunteers – who generally get less training, and aren’t as reliable.

And this model? It paid off when Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, just about a year after the Corps got started. It was their first big test.

<<music bed>>

BERLIN: Ida barrelled down on New Orleans sixteen years to the day after Hurricane Katrina. In the intervening years, the city government had developed plans to help people evacuate ahead of a big storm – to avoid what happened after Katrina, when thousands of people were stranded in town with no way to leave.

But Ida – it was a monster of a storm. It gained force so quickly that city officials said they simply did not have time to run their new evacuation plans. The system failed – again.

Which meant people who didn’t have another option – who couldn’t afford to evacuate – were stuck. With the power out. And the temperature rising outside.

But the Resilience Corps was ready. From all their work canvassing neighborhoods for COVID aid – they knew where to focus their attention.

SILVESTER: After Hurricane Ida we were on the ground, doing wellness checks, delivering food, delivering ice to, um, the most vulnerable communities in, in this city.

BERLIN: LaTanja said the Corps gave out thousands of meals, sometimes to people who’d barely eaten in days. They helped the city staff makeshift cooling centers, where people could come get a respite from the unbearable heat.

It was at one of those cooling centers that some Corps members met this woman in her 80s. She’d trekked over from her house on her walker. She lived just a few blocks away, but it took her three hours to get there.

SILVESTER: The horrifying part for her was that police officers drove by, she tried to flag them down. No one would help her. 

BERLIN: She was one of so many people left to fend for themselves. And the Resilience Corps – they did what they could in the moment to help her and others like her. But they also realized they had to get in front of this problem before it could play out again, the next time a storm comes.

SILVESTER: Stories like that, we wanna make certain that doesn't happen again, this next, you know, this hurricane season. Which is why we're doing the disaster preparedness, but we are also going into those homes, checking in on our elderly to make certain that they're safe and they have, they have a, a evacuation plan and if need be putting them on the, the list, if there's an evacuation that someone knows to go pick this person up.

BERLIN: That’s why the Corps was mobilizing at the start of hurricane season last June – on our hot summer canvassing day. The sun was bearing down on one of those treeless streets, and it felt like the asphalt was melting under us. It was about time to wrap up.

BERLIN: Oh, I'm sweating now. *laughs*

RUDOLPH: *laughs* Yeah, that’s why we’re starting to walk back.

BERLIN: Taj Rudolph is one of the youngest Resilience Corps workers. He’s 21. And his life has been punctuated by disasters.

He grew up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – he was just four years old when the city flooded in 2005. He doesn’t remember a lot about that time. But he always heard that the city was left without outside help – that the federal government left people hanging.

He sees the work of the Resilience Corps as a way of assisting people from the inside. He joined straight out of community college, during the middle of the pandemic. Just a couple weeks later, Hurricane Ida pummeled the city.

Despite all that – or maybe, because of it – he likes this word – resilience.

RUDOLPH: It just means the ability to fight and stand against adversity in hard times like….that never-ending fighting spirit…that’s like a resilience…how can we manage ourself in hard times?

BERLIN: Even though it’s right there in the name, I was sort of surprised to hear how much the workers from the Resilience Corps stand behind this word.

Before I met them, I was a lot more like the people who left us voicemails at the start of the episode. I felt like the word was a cop-out – and because of that, almost like an insult.

But the Resilience Corps – it’s walking the walk. In these small, everyday ways, it’s helping people bounce back from the shocks of climate change.

But Taj still worries about the future of New Orleans. That no matter how hard people try to help each other, many will still leave.

RUDOLPH:  I feel like a lot of people was hanging on New Orleans, like, by a thread. I feel like …one more bad hurricane…will really mess up the culture. Cause a lot of people say they want to leave. I feel like a hurricane would do it.

BERLIN: And a lot of people have already left. Whether they chose to…or were forced to. The city has never regained its pre-Katrina population – most of the people who left were Black. Many never got the aid they needed to come back home.

And Taj worries that more storms could mean more people leaving. Sometimes, I worry about that too. Like, if people don’t get the insurance payout or the FEMA check they need to rebuild. Or if they decide to follow family – or a better job – somewhere else. Or if the constant fear and uncertainty over this place’s future – in the face of climate change – pushes them away, for good.

And – if that happens – Taj doesn’t know what will become of the city he loves.

RUDOLPH: If we leaving…what's New Orleans gonna be? Like, I, I can't even see how it'll be….if everybody mostly move. How, how would New Orleans be? Like, the unique ways? Cause everybody…older generations only getting older. Like they had used to have more second lines, more events going on. Like everybody was more together.

BERLIN: And people being together – that’s what makes this city’s one of a kind culture happen. The second lines. The Mardi Gras parades. The way we celebrate life here – even when it can feel like things are collapsing around us. Or maybe because things are collapsing around us.

Which reminded me of one other way that Rob Verchick – our Octopus in the Parking Garage author – defines this word, resilience.

It’s the capacity of a community to manage and recover from the impacts of climate change in a way that preserves its central character – the parts of its history – and its culture – that nourish the soul.


PARKER: Thanks for listening to Sea Change. This episode was reported and fact checked by WWNO New Orleans Public Radio’s Carly Berlin. Editing help was provided by Carlyle Calhoun, Rosemary Westwood, Kezia Setyawan, Eve Abrams and me, Halle Parker, your co-host. Kezia Setyawan also handled promotion.

Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti. Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

To learn more about Reserve, check out our website: WWNO.org/podcast/sea-change

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

See you all in two weeks.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.