One Month After Ida Ravaged Northeast and South, Residents Are Still Struggling: 'The Worst'

Wild weather destroyed the homes of environmental crusader Sharon Lavigne in Louisiana and mom of four Chelsea Chapman in New York. Now they're left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.

sharon lavigne
Sharon Lavigne. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Louisiana native Sharon Lavigne has been through more hurricanes than she can remember.

But in late August, when Hurricane Ida tore through her Louisiana parish, Lavigne, 69, could not believe the death and destruction this monster storm left in its wake.

"I'm used to going through hurricanes, but this was the worst," the retired special-education teacher-turned-environmental crusader tells PEOPLE of Ida, which killed at least 95 people from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast and caused an estimated $95 billion in damage.

As founder of the faith-based environmental justice group RISE St. James, Lavigne has spent the last few years trying to stem the tide of toxins and pollution that have overrun her Louisiana community. St. James Parish, where she lives, lies in an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi, where more than 200 petrochemical plants and oil refineries have taken over and cancer rates are among the highest in the nation.

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Hurricane Ida. Steve Helber/AP/Shutterstock

With the climate crisis worsening, bringing stronger and more frequent hurricanes, which, in turn, have led to oil spills and toxic leaks, her area is more dangerous than ever.

Lavigne can certainly attest to that. On the night of Aug. 29, when Ida slammed into St. James Parish, where Lavigne has lived for decades, Lavigne huddled in her bedroom, the only safe haven inside the battered house.

During the terrifying Category 4 storm, winds estimated at 172 mph ripped off most of her roof.

From her bedroom window, she could see the destruction happening before her eyes: "I was looking at the metal flying off the roof," she says. "I was afraid that the metal might fly through the window and break it."

The already scary situation grew even more frightening when the ceiling in one of the rooms caved in from the monsoon-like winds and torrential rains whipping through the house.

"Then another ceiling fell and then another," she says.

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Sharon Lavigne's house. Sharon Lavigne

The destruction, she says, "went on for hours."

The next morning, after Ida had moved out of the area, Lavigne realized that she had lost almost everything in her house, except for whatever was in the bedroom.

Then, in mid-September, Tropical Storm Nicholas hit. Lavigne's house, where she was able to stay because of that one bedroom, became unlivable.

hurricane damage
Sharon Lavi. Sharon Lavigne

"The wind and rain knocked the ceiling out of my living room," she says. "The sheetrock fell. The insulation fell. The floors are all wet and the carpet is all messed up."

"The whole house, inside and outside, is destroyed," she adds.

She tried to stay in the house after the wind and rain had subsided, but the mold and mildew that quickly began spreading across the interior in the humid Louisiana heat made her feel sick.

"I was feeling bad," she says.

The power at her house was out for two weeks, she says. Since the storms, she's spent the last few weeks emptying the house. Now she's in search of a reputable contractor because she plans to rebuild the home she first built in 1987.

"Yes, indeed," she says.

RISE St. James is looking to borrow a trailer so Lavigne can live on her property while it's being rebuilt.

"Having a trailer for even a month would be a Godsend," RISE St. James said in a recent post on Facebook.

Lavigne has started a GoFundMe campaign to help her rebuild her home, since insurance is only covering a portion of the repairs, as well as a fundraiser to help Rise St. James help the community.

Still Focusing on Others

Even though the storm left her house in shambles, Lavigne turned her attention to lending a helping hand to residents who'd been hit even harder.

"We have to help others," says Lavigne. "That's what RISE is all about."

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Sharon Lavigne and members of RISE St. James. Gerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

She and members of RISE handed out tarps, generators and money the organization raised for medications or other things residents need, she says.

"Even though Sharon's house has been unlivable, she opened up her garage and used it as a distribution hub in the days after the storm, so people could come and pick up food, cold water and tarps for their roofs and things like that," Michael Esealuka of Healthy Gulf tells PEOPLE.

"She had a hot plate giveaway," Esealuka adds. "She just bagged up a bunch of bags of goods, and we have people delivering them right now."

Lavigne worried about how the community is going to rebuild and hopes more help comes soon.

She says the hurricanes haven't slowed her desire to fight huge companies, such as Formosa, which wants to build a petrochemical company in the area.

"If Formosa comes here, we're going to have more devastation, besides the hurricanes," she says. "We're going to have more pollution, more deaths from industries coming here to pollute us even more. We just had someone that died yesterday from cancer. His wife died of cancer around Mother's Day."

For now, she says she is praying that things will get better.

"Before the hurricane, I prayed," she says. "I prayed for my safety and I prayed for the people in St. James. Trust me. I always pray."

To donate to RISE St. James, click here.

Devastation Up North

Single mom Chelsea Chapman lost everything when Ida rumbled through the Westchester, New York, town where she lives with her four daughters and flooded her home.

"One of my daughters and I were upstairs trying on clothes, having like a fun mother-daughter moment," says Chapman.

Minutes later, she and her daughters were downstairs in their basement in ankle-deep water.

"We were frantic. I said, 'Oh my gosh, you guys, we have to get some stuff out,' " Chapman recalls.

They worked as quickly as they could as the water kept rising: "It was up to our thighs," she says.

hurricane damage

Before they knew it, the basement windows gave way and a torrent of water rushed into the basement.

"Everything was underwater," says Chapman.

The most sobering moment came when one of her teenage daughters was trapped in the basement for a short time because she couldn't get the door open due to the pressure of the water against it.

"It was terrifying," says Chapman. "The water was getting so high, up to the second floor, that we had to call the police and they sent a boat out."

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She is grateful for all the help she got after the flood.

"Police officers were helping out. The whole football team came out to help me," she says. "Two or three hundred people came out to help me clear the house. And somebody said, 'Oh, these are your friends.' And I'm like, 'I don't know any of these people.' "

Now Chapman must figure out where she and her girls will live.

"I finally found a hotel that would take us, because we were sleeping on AeroBeds on basement floors," she explains. "I don't know many people in town and I don't have any family here. So we were just completely without a home for a bit. The home insurance does not cover [floods]."

She's also trying to replace so much of what they lost in the flood.

"We lost all our shoes. We lost glasses. My daughter lost her hearing aid," says Chapman. "I didn't have a phone for days."

hurricane damage

Chapman, who grew up in Texas doing hurricane drills, says she has noticed that storms have gotten stronger in the Northeast in recent years.

"Three people died in their cars where I live," she says. "The whole town had about 12 floating cars. Who would have thought?"

She still can't believe how many people opened their hearts to her and her girls.

"The community helped us so much," she says. "A community that I didn't know. And honestly, I've met people that will be friends for the rest of my life."

A friend of Chapman's started a GoFundMe to help her and the girls rebuild.

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