Watching my beautiful, dysfunctional home state of Louisiana slowly wake up to the fact that it is right in the center of a covid-19 crisis is like being allowed to message the actors in a horror movie, sometimes pleading with them to be careful, other times just asking them if they’re okay.
According to a study out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, statewide, cases of covid-19 have grown faster in 14 days than anywhere else in the world. On March 23, officials reported 1,338 cases throughout the state, with 108 new cases in Orleans Parish alone, along with six deaths. Additionally, Governor Jon Bel Edwards warns that New Orleans is set to exceed its health care capacity by April 1. But despite the rising tide of new cases, Governor Edwards did not issue a stay at home order until Sunday, March 22. Now for the first time since Katrina, the French Quarter, a place that’s generally packed shoulder to shoulder and covered in a thin layer of bodily fluids and sugary hand grenade mix, is mostly empty except for roving hoards of hungry rats, used to a nightly buffet of discarded beignets and cast off Lucky dogs. Those rats, they are hungry in this new reality.
But as the tourists leave, in a state where people generally wait out disaster with parties, the locals left behind have become impossible to ignore, and leaders now have to admit there are no real systems in place for their protection, not even from hungry rats. In a March 22 press conference, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell expressed fears about how the increasingly emboldened rodent population will affect over a thousand people experiencing homelessness in the city, who are obviously already much more vulnerable than those with the option of sheltering in place.
“What we have seen is these practices are driving our rodents crazy,” Cantrell said. “And what rodents do, they will find food and they will find water. That puts our street homeless in dire, dire straits. And that’s why I’m so laser-focused on it right now.”
Turning that laser-focused attention to the rats, the city has begun putting poisoned food into sewers and urging residents not to leave bags of garbage outside. Claudia Riegel, director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, says that she hasn’t had reports of anyone being bitten, nor has she had that many resident complaints. Instead, the city is attempting to get ahead of the problem before it becomes a catastrophe: “This is pretty new,” Riegel said. “It’s only been a week and a half.”
I asked a friend who lives in a converted shed in the city’s relatively posh Uptown neighborhood if she’d seen any rats yet; she said she’s seen more drunk people without bars to congregate in out wandering the streets, but thus far no angry rat king. She’s heard rumors of the rats, as well as reports that looting has begun in other parts of the city. “If there were rats in my neighborhood the wealthy would be helicoptering out,” she texted.
This isn’t the first time Louisiana has been caught by disaster unaware. Watching my state seemingly give more forethought to battling rats than to how a covid-19 outbreak would impact a population with one of the highest poverty rates in the country and an outsize component of workers depending on tourism, bars, and casinos to stay afloat feels both frightening and familiar. A side effect of growing up in place where economics, politics, healthcare, and even the weather feel so precarious is a heightened sense of cynicism—of course they weren’t ready, they never are—along with a bizarre impulse to hope: that the poison works, the levy holds, that all the friends and family and even enemies I watch from afar will somehow, miraculously, come through untouched.