As part of our ongoing coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the United States, we go to St. James Parish, Louisiana, to speak with Sharon Lavigne, the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, who lives in the heart of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” home to more than 150 petrochemical facilities. She is now documenting oil spills in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida even as her home was badly damaged.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to our ongoing coverage of the damage caused by Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the United States. On Tuesday, President Biden visited the storm-ravaged areas of New York and New Jersey.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And, folks, the evidence is clear: Climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy. And the threat is here. It’s not going to get any better. The question: Can it get worse? We can stop it from getting worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Ida caused widespread damage in the Gulf Coast, as well, leaving much of Louisiana underwater. More than half a million electricity customers in Louisiana still have no power. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard is currently investigating reports of 350 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the storm.
This is how reporter Antonia Juhasz, who will be joining us in a minute, describes what happened to our next guest, in her new piece for Rolling Stone: quote, “In the eight days since Category 4 Hurricane Ida roared through her home and community in St. James Parish, Louisiana, 69-year-old Sharon Lavigne has watched crude oil spill out of a holding tank, seen flares shoot fire out of a petrochemical plant, and smelled a foul chemical stench from a fertilizer manufacturer. St. James Parish is located in the heart of Louisiana’s 'Cancer Alley,' an 85-mile stretch of communities along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where some 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities operate,” Antonia writes.
This is a clip from a video Sharon Lavigne posted on social media as she documented the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in her community of St. James Parish last weekend.
SHARON LAVIGNE: Good afternoon. My name is Sharon Lavigne. I’m the director and founder of RISE St. James in St. James, Louisiana. And I just would like to report an oil leak at Marathon off Highway 18, west bank, in St. James, Louisiana. As you can see behind me, there is an oil field over here at Marathon. You can see the oil coming off the side of the tanks. And on the other side of the fence, you can see some burnt land also.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, Sharon Lavigne joins us now from St. James Parish, Louisiana, where she and her family have lived for generations, her home heavily damaged by Hurricane Ida, founder and director of RISE St. James, which works to stop the fossil fuel industry’s pollution and expansion and implement a just transition to renewable energy. She’s a retired special ed teacher who taught in New Orleans for over 38 years, mother of six kids, grandmother of 12. Earlier this year, Sharon was awarded the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “Green Nobel Peace Prize.”
I’m sure, Sharon, that’s not something you’re thinking about at this moment, as you rode out this storm in your community. Describe how it’s affected your community, both the people who live there and looking out at Cancer Alley at the scores of petrochemical plants and how they’ve affected you.
SHARON LAVIGNE: Well, good morning, Amy. Thanks for having me.
Our community is badly damaged. They have homes with the roofs off. Some of the mobile homes are totally demolished. Some of them have spilled oil in the yard, free spilling on driveways, have no power at all. We’re trying to survive. Our public officials are not bringing necessities that we need, like ice. Give us water. We don’t have ice on a daily basis. We have to go out and find ice, after standing in long lines to get gas. And we have to find people to bring us food, who have generators. I didn’t have a generator, but I have one now, and it only cools one room in my house. It’s bad. It’s really bad over here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sharon, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the — what are officials saying as to when they will be able to restore electricity and water to the residents there? And also, could you talk — you mentioned generators. It’s hard to believe that a lot of these petrochemical plants did not have alternative energy, emergency energy, to be able to at least keep the power on for some of their basic needs, even if they were shut down. Could you talk about what the government has required of these companies, the local Louisiana authorities, in terms of resilience for these kinds of storms?
SHARON LAVIGNE: Industry has power, always has backup whenever we have a storm. The residents, some of them have generators, and a lot of us don’t have generators. My water was off because in the hurricane it hit a pipeline, or whatever — the trees and stuff fell on my pipeline. I didn’t have water. Parish came to fix the pipe. They said it wasn’t on their side. I have to pay someone to fix it myself.
My brother had a tree that fell on his driveway. He cannot get out, and he’s handicapped. I called the parish. He called the parish also. They said they don’t go on private property. I said, “Well, this is a disaster. Suppose he is sick, and he can’t get out.” They said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. We don’t go on private property.” He was stuck until the citizens from New Orleans came, cut the tree, so he can get out of his driveway.