Robert Owens was feeling defeated and helpless Sunday as he waited in Louisiana’s capital city for landfall by one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the U.S.
The 27-year-old had spent anxious days watching long lines of cars evacuating from Baton Rouge, bound for safer locations out of state as Hurricane Ida approached. He had hoped he and his wife, his mother-in-law, roommate and four pets would be among them. But leaving would have required money for gas and a hotel room — something they didn't have.
Out of desperation, Owens went to ACE Cash Express on Saturday and submitted documents for a payday loan. He was denied, told he didn’t have enough credit history.
By Sunday, it was clear they would be riding out the storm at home in his family's duplex apartment.
“Our bank account is empty – we can’t afford to leave,” he said.
Owens said the majority of people in his low-income neighborhood are in the same predicament. They want to leave to protect families, but have no choice but to stay.
“A lot of us here in my neighborhood have to just hunker down and wait, not knowing how bad it’s going to get. It’s a terrifying feeling,” he said.
“There people who have funds to lean on are able to get out of here, but there’s a big chunk of people that are lower-income that don’t have a savings account to fall on," he continued. "We’re left behind.”
By Sunday night at 9 p.m., Owens said his family and all others in his neighborhood had lost power. The sky was lighting up green from transformers blowing up all around them, he said. Several trees had collapsed on neighbor's properties, but it was too dark to see the full extent of the damage. Owens said they were trying to use a flashlight to survey the street, but were wary of jeopardizing their safety.
“Never in my life have I encountered something this major,” he said as giant gusts rattled his home's windows.
He said there were a few times when it sounded like the roof of his duplex might come off. He said his wife was packing a bag of clothes and essentials, just in case.
“We'll shelter in the car if we lose the house,” he said. The family all share his wife's Toyota Avalon, a vehicle “not nearly big enough” to shelter four people, three dogs and a cat.
Earlier in the day, Owens said he was hurriedly placing towels under leaking windows in his duplex and charging electronics. He tried to go to Dollar General and Dollar Tree to pick up food, but they were closed. His family has lights glued around the walls of the house. They planned to hide in the laundry room or the kitchen when the storm hits -- places without windows.
“There’s a general feeling of fear in not knowing what’s going to be the aftermath of this,” he said. “That’s the most concerning thing. Like, what are we going to do if it gets really bad? Will we still be alive? Is a tree going fall on top of us?”
Owens said his mother-in-law is on disability. His roommates both work for Apple iOS tech support. His wife works scheduling blood donations. All of them rely on the internet to work from home, and if it goes out, they won’t be able to bring in any money.
“We might be without work, and rent, power, water, all of those bills will still be needing to get paid," he said. "We are a little bit concerned about losing our utilities or even our house — if it's still standing — because we’re not going to have the money for any other bills.”
He said it's hard to feel so vulnerable, like his family is getting left behind.
“The fact that we are not middle class or above, it just kind of keeps coming back to bite us over and over again, in so many different directions and ways — a simple pay-day advance being one of them," he said. "It’s like we’re having to pay for being poor, even though we’re trying to not be poor.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.