Eventually, when a disaster causes the power grid to go out in New Orleans, most people will be only 15 minutes away from a Community Lighthouse, where they can find light, heat, power, and food, power their phones, safely store medications and recharge batteries.
A network of community groups known as Together New Orleans is aiming to build a lighthouse within 15 minutes walking distance of all 375,000 city residents – and hundreds more across the state.
There are currently seven Community Lighthouses across the city, in churches and community centres, each with solar-powered microgrids and backup battery packs, ready to serve as resiliency hubs during power outages and natural disasters. The solar panels are each designed to withstand 160 mph winds, as strong as a Category 4 storm.
In 2021, following Hurricane Ida, nearly 1 million people in Louisiana lost power. Many of the city’s most vulnerable residents – who rely on oxygen machines, medication nebulizers, home dialysis, infusion pumps, or other medical devices depend on a reliable power supply – suffered disproportionately. Thirty people died.
Broderick Bagert, lead organizer for Together New Orleans, said that as the city struggled to address basics like collecting garbage in Ida’s aftermath, they decided it was time to take on the responsibility themselves.
“For [Hurricane] Ida we were ready with showers, mattresses, shelter and food, but once again the electricity was out so we couldn’t serve our community,” said Antoine Barriere, a 61-year-old pastor. “The power was the missing piece. We realised that we had to stop waiting for a fix and do it ourselves. We need to get off the grid and be self-sufficient, as with climate change we’re going to get more disasters.”
Together New Orleans had been launched a few months before Ida. It included churches, mosques, synagogues, unions and environmental nonprofits, who decided that solar-powered disaster response hubs could transform the city’s approach to resilience for climate and other natural disasters. Each community lighthouse will be a trusted institution – a place of worship, health clinic or community centre – where people can come together during a power outage to get cool, recharge phones, have a meal, connect to a medical device or store medication that requires refrigeration such as insulin.
Community lighthouses also will be able to keep services like food pantries running, while also adding capacity to the city’s wider emergency-response efforts as a distribution hub, shelter and possibly even house a makeshift clinic.
It will save money for the hubs, too. Household of Faith’s electricity bill is expected to drop by 20-30%, technical expert Pierre Moses told the Guardian.
Vulnerable residents living within a mile-and-a-half radius of the lighthouse will be recorded, and volunteers will contact them before an incoming storm or tornado, and then again within 24 hours of an outage.
“After Ida hit, there was an overwhelming frustration and feeling powerless,” said Abel Thompson. “That’s when people switched from asking when will they [solve this] to why not us? And we can solve this.”
‘We needed to get off the grid’: New Orleans’ community-driven response to blackouts Guardian, Nov. 16, 2023