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New Orleans neighbors create spaces that can operate off the grid after hurricanes

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Cities across the country are looking at how to help residents through extreme weather brought on by human-caused climate change. In New Orleans, neighbors are coming together to open up places that can operate off the grid after hurricanes. Halle Parker with member station WWNO takes us to one of the first so-called community lighthouses.

GREGORY MANNING: Somebody shout amen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Amen.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: This is a typical Sunday morning at Broadmoor Community Church in New Orleans.

MANNING: So welcome to Broadmoor, where no perfect people...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Are allowed.

MANNING: ...Are allowed. Amen.

PARKER: That's the church's pastor, Gregory Manning. This multiethnic church has served the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a century, whether you worship there or not. Now it's been transformed into a community lighthouse, a place residents can come after a hurricane. Manning says a coalition of nonprofits wants to build more of these community lighthouses.

MANNING: Hopefully, in the very near future, there's 86 community lighthouses with power all over the city. So we are uniquely setting up to respond as quickly as possible.

PARKER: These 86 lighthouses will be equipped with solar panels and batteries to store the energy produced. The idea came from necessity. Manning had to evacuate to Houston after Hurricane Ida in 2021. He says people still in New Orleans kept calling him, asking for help during the deadly blackout and heat that followed.

MANNING: The city was putting people on buses to remain cool. And I had so many people calling me saying, Pastor, help us find a bus that we can get on to be kept cool.

PARKER: Now Manning can tell them to go to the church. After a storm, it can house 150 people. There are four large batteries outside to store power. And...

MANNING: Above us, the entire roof is covered with solar panels.

PARKER: The building can run off the grid for at least a day on just battery power. Inside, there's more than a dozen enormous refrigerators and freezers, enough to house 10,000 pounds of food per week.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Shine, shine, shine. I'm going to let it shine.

PARKER: When the lighthouse opened earlier this year, the community gathered to celebrate with a party and a march around the block. The whole time, the church ran off solar energy.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

PARKER: Manning's church and each new community lighthouse will also provide a cool place for people to get out of the heat, store medicine and loan out portable batteries to charge devices.

SONIA ST CYR: It's the smallest things that are important. There is so much that you just don't think about.

PARKER: Sonia St. Cyr is a longtime volunteer with the church's food pantry. And she lives three blocks from the Broadmoor Church. She has multiple sclerosis, and her electric wheelchair is her lifeline. So long power outages can leave her stranded but not anymore.

ST CYR: Even if there is no power in the city, I can still function to come here for however long in the day to recharge my chair.

PARKER: This church, along with the other community lighthouses, fit into New Orleans larger plan to help the city withstand extreme weather. It's a plan that Austin Feldbaum helps implement. He's in charge of preparing the city for all kinds of hazards. After Hurricane Ida, Feldbaum says New Orleans opened pop-up sites at recreation centers and fire stations to help people.

AUSTIN FELDBAUM: It was instrumental in saving lives and preventing heat-related illnesses and things like that.

PARKER: Feldbaum says his office is also working with Manning's Church and other nonprofits to build a network of volunteers, people from the neighborhood who can fan out and help those who can't leave on their own, like St. Cyr.

FELDBAUM: We really depend on folks in the community for that work. You have an understanding of what's going on, and we need that information to make its way up.

PARKER: For Manning, the volunteer network has the potential to close some of those gaps in response.

MANNING: You got people with million-dollar homes who most likely are going to evacuate. We are responding to those that we know cannot get out.

PARKER: Manning and the coalition of nonprofits have the money to build out 24 community lighthouses across the state over the next two years. They need another $11 million to get all 86 running. So far, three have opened, just in time for this year's hurricane season. For NPR News, I'm Halle Parker in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Halle Parker