Friday, September 30th, 2005
Just received this news from folks trying to aid African Americans and Asian Americans displaced by the Hurricanes in Mississippi. Apparently Homeland Security officials are beginning to harass community relief workers on the Gulf Coast who are taking care of people abandoned by the Red Cross and FEMA.
Homeland Security Harasses Relief Workers in Waveland, MS
By Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Jen Soriano
Community relief workers Kevin Cupit and Au Huynh reported this
incident from the gulf coast:
An independent party of relief workers faced unexpected resistance from Homeland Security yesterday. Seven relief workers from Philadelphia, Houston, Colorado and Quebec were redistributing resources from Hancock County Mississippi — two hours East of New Orleans — to remote areas on the Gulf Coast. Three people in the party were stopped by Homeland Security agents and were asked to show passports, ids and proof of citizenship.
Homeland Security Agents temporarily seized the passports of two Canadian relief workers and ordered everyone in their party to leave the premises. In the exchange the Homeland security office told relief volunteers that they were, “Part of the problem.”
Red Cross and FEMA have failed to distribute supplies from drop-off centers to communities in the surrounding region. With no plans to caravan these materials to smaller communities, stocks of food, water and bedding are piling up in centers far away from those in need.
That’s where independently organized caravans of volunteers come in. Ad-hoc groups like Kevin and Au’s are crucial for distributing resources to small towns and communities from Port Arthur, LA to Mobile, AL. They successfully brought supplies to groups throughout the coast, including a Buddhist Temple in Broussard and Vietnamese communities in and around Waveland that had not received supplies or language support from mainstream agencies.
If Homeland Security gets away with preventing these relief efforts, many lives will be lost. We must hold Homeland Security and Mississippi Emergency Management officials accountable for both their failure to distribute supplies and their aggressive interventions against people trying to do the right thing.
Take action now!
Call or fax officials at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and tell them Homeland Security should have no role in the relief efforts — demand that they ensure the safety of all volunteer relief workers and that they create a transparent effective plan to distribute supplies to all coast communities in need.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency
Phone: 601-352-9100 (24 Hr) Fax: 601-352-8314
Call Todd Gee, chief of staff of Bennie Thompson Mississippi Representative and member of the Committee on Homeland Security, and ask Rep. Thompson to hold Homeland Security agents accountable for harassing relief workers and for allowing the safe and unhampered activity of all relief workers.
Sunday, September 25th, 2005
+ For an updated list of grassroots news and organizing resources, including places to send your money other than the Red Cross, visit here: www.cantstopwontstop.com/blog/2005/09/gulf-coast-emergency-linklist-blogroll.cfm
+ Here is a podcast of Jeff’s 9/21 interview with Curtis Muhammad:
Getting Home Before It’s Gone
By Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Anita Johnson, and Jeff Chang
Additional reporting done by Macho Cabrera Estévez
—>From Houston to Selma, community organizations have stepped in where FEMA and Red Cross have failed, especially for people of color. But as corporations get rich, real estate developers circle, and residents resettle far from home, they are shifting from relief to demanding the right of return.<---
A dozen miles north of Baton Rouge, in a rural Louisiana town called Baker, a new city is being erected for Katrina evacuees.
The structures they will live in aren’t the stylish, modernist prefab homes one might see in the architecture magazine, Dwell. They are airless metal trailers, poorly suited for 90-degree heat. In less than two weeks, 600 of these containers will be standing in a big field just off Groom Road. Rows of port-a-potties and showering facilities will complete the FEMA-funded trailer-home subdivision, swelling Baker’s pre-Katrina population of 13,500 by 2,000 more.
Baker’s trailer camp—and many others like it—are being developed by the Shaw Group, a politically well-connected Baton Rouge company that has received at least $200 million in FEMA funds for post-Katrina cleanup and reconstruction. The Shaw Group is a client of former FEMA director, now lobbyist and Salon.com-dubbed “disaster pimp” Joseph Allbaugh who resigned in 2003 and arranged for the disgraced Michael Brown to become his replacement.
Last week, Shaw’s CEO, Jim Bernhard, a close friend of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, stepped down from his post as the state’s Democratic Party chairman, allegedly to avoid the appearance of cronyism. The week before that, after the Shaw Group announced it had secured two FEMA no-bid contracts, its stock had surged to a three-year high.
Louisiana’s Shawvilles provide the outlines of what New Orleans organizer and journalist Jordan Flaherty has taken to calling “the Disaster Industrial Complex.”
According to FEMA, some 300,000 displaced families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are in need of “temporary housing.” Those involved in the Baker project interpret “temporary” to mean anywhere from five months to five years. But a temporary house is not a home. And as FEMA attempts to meet President Bush’s request to close most shelters by mid-October, small white rural towns in Louisiana are reporting outbursts of NIMBY-ism.
The bigger picture, many community activists argue, is a resettlement policy that looks like selective depopulation. In New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast, predominantly poor communities and communities of color are being dispersed, as families are scattered across the country with one-way tickets and no way to get back home.
At Houston’s Reliant Center, Shawn, 34, waited in long FEMA lines for temporary housing. Like an overwhelming majority of evacuees we interviewed, he wanted to return home to New Orleans. Failing that, he wanted to go to Atlanta where he had a cousin. But he was resigned to accept wherever they would send him and his wife and children. “It’s like if they show it to you, if you want it (that’s good). If you don’t, you be waiting again. You’ll be on the bottom of the list,” he said. “So people are just going with whatever they could get. They just want get out of the Center.”
Curtis Muhammad, a longtime New Orleans resident and a leader of Community Labor United, an eight-year old coalition that has swelled to include 49 Crescent City community-based organizations, captures the sentiment of many of the displaced. “150,000 (New Orleans residents) are walking around somewhere in these United States,” he says. “They’re walking around wondering why their government wanted them there.”
At the same time, many fear that if the Bush Administration, FEMA, and the Red Cross don’t accomplish the depopulation of their neighborhoods, human greed will.
Alice Britton, a 47-year-old nurse from Atlanta, returned to her birth home in Biloxi, Mississippi, near the Gulf to clear the wreckage from the family property and pick up her elderly mother, who had ridden out the storm. She feared for the future of that Black community.
“This is a depressed population, a population that has been taken advantage of for generations, a population that has not been used to or accustomed to much,” she said. “Somebody comes in and talks their slick talk and the next thing you know there’s going to be $200,000 condos or townhomes that they can’t afford. Then they’ll bus all of them over to a new ghetto.”
The LA Times reported last week that Latter & Blum, one of New Orleans’ largest real estate brokerages, was receiving 20 buy calls for every sell call. “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,” James Reiss, a wealthy Uptown scion and New Orleans Regional Authority chairman, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.”
Organizers worry that pro-developer efforts such as the city’s pre-Katrina “Hollywood South” campaign, which sought to lure filmmakers and tourism and real estate development through tax breaks, and its “urban renewal”-driven clearance of several large housing projects, may accelerate into a full-scale depopulation of poor, Black neighborhoods. Muhammad described seeing families in shelters hounded by real estate agents to sell their properties. Jordan Flaherty says, “I feel like the elites of New Orleans are moving very quickly on this, probably faster than we even know.”
In Uptown and the French Quarter, National Guardsmen have joined private security forces to secure and assist cleanup and reconstruction efforts. Things are going so well that even a Larry Flynt-owned strip club has reopened for business.
“We are watching them open up the white hotels already. We’re watching them rebuild the casinos. We’re watching them rebuild the oil rigs in the ocean. We see construction going on downtown. You wouldn’t believe it,” says Muhammad. “It’s almost back to normal.”
But last week, in largely poor and Black neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, there was almost no government presence. Instead, relief and rebuilding was being administered by groups like Community Labor United, the Common Ground Collective, and Food Not Bombs. With the second break of the Industrial Canal levee on Friday due to rains from Hurricane Rita, and the reflooding of the Ninth Ward, it was unclear how these grassroots operations would be affected.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, community organizations that had been working on issues such as police brutality, education, migrant workers rights, prisoners’ rights, and hip-hop activism quickly retooled themselves into urgent relief agencies. At the same time, long-standing institutions, such as Black churches and mosques, the New Black Panther Party, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the NAACP, and Buddhist and Hindu temples and migrant workers group Project Prep, sprang into action.
These efforts are likely to continue because FEMA and Red Cross shelters are under pressure to close. The Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson was recently cleared of displaced people so that a Disney on Ice “Finding Nemo” show could go on as planned.
At the same time, many evacuees of color increasingly feel patronized by shelter workers. “The volunteers are middle class and white, and folks coming out of these areas are poor Blacks and poor whites. There is already a problem there, because the volunteers have all these assumptions,” says Tarana Burke, who helped coordinate the celebrated Selma, Alabama, hip-hop activist organization 21st Century Youth Leadership Project’s relief efforts.
In many instances, FEMA and the Red Cross simply left African American populations unserved. In Biloxi, many African Americans remain camped outside of their demolished houses and apartments, and under highway overpasses, awaiting aid from FEMA and the Red Cross. In the poor, rural, still racially segregated Jefferson Davis County, the Red Cross set up at the single registered church, a white one, and African Americans watched as relief trucks drove past their towns and churches. “I can’t tell you what I think the Red Cross needs to be doing more because I can’t say that I have seen them,” says Pastor Luther Martin of Mississippi’s Crossroads Ministry.
Where FEMA and the Red Cross failed, the community organizations stepped in to provide food and shelter, medical aid, and family reunion information.
Across rural Mississippi, Black churches such as the Crossroads Ministry were the first responders to isolated residents. In Algiers, Louisiana, Malik Rahim’s Common Ground Collective has fed, housed and provided medical care to tens of thousands of people. The 21st Century Youth Leadership Project opened its camp outside of Selma, Alabama, to a surge of 200 families. The evacuees found the process empowering. In a reversal of the provider-victim model of traditional emergency services, the evacuees at the 21st Century camp organized themselves into cooking and cleaning shifts.
But as Shawvilles rise and Gulf Coast residents continue to be dispersed far from home, many of those same organizations now believe they must transition from relief issues to return issues.
“At first we were overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem. We were still in a state of shock,” says Shana Sassoon of the New Orleans Network, a federation of organizations now trying to map the community assets of the evacuated neighborhoods. “But now ideas like the right of return, the right to reconstruct the city ourselves—those terms are starting to become clearer to us.”
Derrick Johnson, the State Conference President of the Mississippi NAACP, says the main question now is: “How is the government going to support these people it betrayed? What is going to do to make these cities and these peoples whole? We believe part of it is making sure our communities they betrayed are at the table for reconstruction, awarding of contracts, and the development of affordable housing.”
On Sept. 8, with news reports that up to $50 billion in government aid might be released, Community Labor United convened dozens of activists in Baton Rouge to form the People’s Hurricane Relief & Reconstruction Project. “The most fundamental demand,” reads the Project’s manifesto, “must be the right of people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to return to their homes and their communities and participate in reconstruction.”
Demands also included government funds for family reunions, including making the databases of FEMA and the Red Cross; a Victims Compensation Fund like the one created in New York after 9/11; representation on all boards that are making decisions on spending public dollars for relief and reconstruction; public work jobs at union wages for the displaced workers and residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; and transparency in the entire reconstruction process.
The lesson of Katrina, Curtis Muhammad says, is self-determination. “Those dollars that are being sent to the government, that are being sent to the Red Cross by the international community, all these stars raising money, giving it to this and giving it to that, they really still believe the government is going to help us,” he said. “Maybe that’s the blessing in all of this—that maybe we needed to know that we were alone and that we needed to look out for our own. Our self-determination comes from the realization that we’re all we got.”
To support the People’s Hurricane Relief & Reconstruction Project, go here.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Anita Johnson are reporting from the Gulf Coast for Hard Knock Radio and Third World Majority. Jeff Chang reported from Berkeley, California and wrote this article. Additional reporting done by Macho Cabrera Estévez.
Friday, September 23rd, 2005
This just in from AP: Water sloshes over levee in New Orleans, causing new flooding. Meanwhile, Bush is flying to Texas ahead of the storm. I’m so angry I can’t even write anymore.
Links to real-time reports are here or simply scroll down a few entries.
Wednesday, September 21st, 2005
Here’s Jordan Flaherty’s latest dispatch. This one is from Baton Rouge. You can subscribe to his email list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His past articles are here.
For an updated list of news and where to direct your money to grassroots community relief and rebuilding efforts, click here or simply scroll down a few entries.
Shelter And Safety
by Jordan Flaherty
September 20, 2005
Last New Year’s Eve, a Black Georgia Southern University student named Levon Jones was killed by bouncers in the Bourbon Street club Razzoo’s. The outrage led to near-daily protests outside the club, threats of a Black tourist boycott of New Orleans, and a city commission to explore the issue of racism in the French Quarter. Despite widely-publicized advance warning, a “secret shopper” audit of the Quarter found rampant discrimination in French Quarter businesses, including different dress codes, admission prices, and drink prices, all based on whether the patron was black or white.
“The French Quarter is not a place for Black people,” one community organizer told me pre-hurricane. “You don’t see Black folks working in the front of house in French Quarter restaurants or hotels, and you don’t see them as customers.”
Just north of the French Quarter, a few blocks from Razzoo’s, is the historic Treme neighborhood. Settled in the early 1800s, it’s known as the oldest free African-American community in the US. Residents fear for the post-reconstruction stability of communities like Treme. “There’s nothing some developers would like more than a ring of white neighborhoods around the French Quarter,” said one Treme resident recently. The widespread fear among organizers is that the exclusionary, “tourists only” atmosphere of the French Quarter will be multiplied and expanded across the city, and that many residents simply wont be able to return home.
Chui Clark is a longtime community organizer from New Orleans, and was one of the leaders of the protests against Razzoo’s. He now stays in Baton Rouge’s River Street shelter. “This is a lily-white operation,” he reports. “You have white FEMA and Red Cross workers watching us like we’re some kind of amusement.” Despite repeated assurances of housing placements from Red Cross and government officials, the population of the Baton Rouge shelters does not appear to be decreasing, according to Clark. “You have new arrivals all the time. Folks who were staying with families for a week or two are getting kicked out and they got no where else to go.”
I went to the River Road shelter as part of a project initiated by Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) to help displaced New Orleans residents reconnect with loved ones who are lost in the labyrinth of Louisiana’s corrections system.
Everyone I met was desperately trying to find a sister or brother or child or other family member lost in the system. Many people who were picked up for minor infractions in the days before the hurricane ended up being shipped to the infamous Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where it’s estimated over 90% of the inmates currently incarcerated will die within its walls. Most of the family members I spoke with just wanted to get a message to their loved ones, “Tell him that we’ve been looking for him, that we made it out of New Orleans, and that we love him,” said a former East New Orleans resident named Angela.
While Barbara Bush speaks of how fortunate the shelter residents are, in the real world New Orleans evacuees have been feeling anything but sheltered. One woman I spoke with in the River Street shelter said that she’s barely slept since she arrived in the shelter system. “I sleep with one eye open,” she told me. “Its not safe in there.”
According to Christina Kucera, a feminist organizer from New Orleans, “issues of safety and shelter are intricately tied to gender. This has hit women particularly hard. It’s the collapse of community. We’ve lost neighbors and systems within our communities that helped keep us safe.”
Where once everyone in a neighborhood knew each other, now residents from each block are spread across several states. Communities and relationships that came together over decades were dispersed in hours.
Kucera lists the problems she’s heard, “There have been reports of rapes and assaults before evacuation and in the shelters. And that’s just the beginning. There are continuing safety and healthcare needs. There are women who were planning on having children who now no longer have the stability to raise a child and want an abortion, but they have no money, and nowhere to go to get one. Six of the thirteen rape crisis centers in Louisiana were closed by the hurricane.”
One longtime community organizer from the New Orleans chapter of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence has written, “We have to have some form of community accountability for the sexual and physical violence women and children endured. I’m not interested in developing an action plan to rebuild or organize a people’s agenda in New Orleans without a gender analysis and a demand for community accountability.”
We are already unsettled, and now Hurricane Rita threatens a new wave of evacuations. Astrodome residents are being out on buses and planes. While communities continue to be dispersed, some New Orleanians are staying and building. Diane “Momma D” Frenchcoat never evacuated out of her Treme home on North Dorgenois Street, and has been helping feed and support 50 families, coordinating a relief and rebuilding effort consisting of, at its peak, 30 volunteers known as the Soul Patrol.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” one Soul Patrol member told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in a september 18 article about Momma D. “I’m the son of a bricklayer. I’m ready to cut some sheetrock, lay some block, anything to rebuild the city.”
Asked about her plan, Momma D had these words, “Rescue. Return. Restore. Can you hear what I’m saying, baby? Listen to those words again. Rescue, return, restore. We want the young, able-bodied men who are still here to stay to help those in need. And the ones that have been evacuated, we want them to come home and help clean up and rebuild this city. How can the city demand that we evacuate our homes but then have thousands of people from across this country volunteering to do the things that we can do ourselves?”
Community organizers like Momma D in Treme and Malik Rahim, who has a similar network in the Algiers neighborhood, are the forces for relief and rebuilding that need our help. The biggest disaster was not a hurricane, but the dispersal of communities, and that’s the disaster that needs to be addressed first.
Yesterday a friend told me through tears, “I just want to go back as if this never happened. I want to go back to my friends and my neighbors and my community.” It’s our community that has brought us security. People I know in New Orleans don’t feel safer when they see Blackwater mercenaries on their block, but they do feel security from knowing their neighbors are watching out for them. And that’s why the police and national guard and security companies on our streets haven’t brought us the security we’ve been looking for, and why discussions of razing neighborhoods makes us feel cold.
When we say we want our city back, we don’t mean the structures and the institutions, and we don’t mean “law and order,” we mean our community, the people we love. And that’s the city we want to fight for.
Jordan Flaherty is an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. This is his sixth article from New Orleans.
Wednesday, September 21st, 2005
Tuesday, September 20th, 2005
From today’s New York Times comes this expose of the Red Cross’s ineffectiveness. They have received 75% of all Katrina donations, yet people on the ground in Mississippi and Louisiana have been frustrated with the results:
“Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Red Cross had only one shelter in the county, and it was far from some of the most populated coastal towns. It had no shelter in New Orleans. ‘It’s purely a safety issue,’ said Armond T. Mascelli, vice president for response operations at the Red Cross. ‘People expect a Red Cross shelter to be safe, not to be at risk of flooding.’
Frustration over the early absence of the Red Cross is now compounded by the realization that the organization has collected the bulk of public contributions, money that will be spent on emergency rescue and relief, not long-term assistance, and may never get to the coastal areas. The organization has garnered almost three-quarters of the $1 billion that Americans have donated to help the hurricane victims, with endorsements from President Bush, corporate America and many nonprofit organizations. Its duty, mandated by Congress, is to provide immediate assistance, a need that is rapidly diminishing as victims leave shelters.”
The article goes on to describe how the Red Cross’s coffers swell during emergencies, yet the money often goes unspent. Fully $40 million of the $1 billion collected after 9/11 remains in the bank.
However, the main long-term issue will be the right of return, that is, the right of New Orleans residents to return to their homes and neighborhoods.
One of the main jobs of the Red Cross in the emergency shelters has been to process families seeking temporary housing. They are given a limited number of choices for housing, usually in a city far away. But they have almost no say in what city they would be sent to, and if they decline, they are put at the end of the housing list once again.
The Red Cross has no plan for long-term care of the displaced, much less a plan for the resettlement of New Orleans for everyone besides the elite.
If you want your money to be of use, look at the community organizations who are beginning to add long-term planning to their ongoing provision of short-term emergency care.
Click here for a growing list or simply scroll down a few entries.
Monday, September 19th, 2005
Here’s NOLA resident Jordan Flaherty on “surviving the rescue”, a phrase coined by Suheir Hammad.
He’s written some of the most important accounts on what’s happening on the ground. An index of his articles is here. What Mike Davis was for the LA riots, Jordan has become for what folks are beginning to call Hurricane FEMA.
In this piece, he describes the shocking militarization of the relief efforts:
The list of those who are gaining from our loss is large, and it includes everyone from the heavily armed thugs of Wackenhut Security and Blackwater USA to the often well-meaning but ineffective bureaucrats of Red Cross and FEMA, to the Scientology missionaries crowding the shelters, to journalists and disaster-gazers taking up a chunk of available housing, to the major multinationals such as Halliburton, working in concert with rich elites from uptown New Orleans seeking partners with which to exploit this tragedy. These are the institutions and individuals poised to profit from this disaster, while the people of New Orleans face nothing but further dislocation and disempowerment.
Another good piece at Morphizm.com by Naomi Klein on the beginnings of reconstruction, a process that may actually be temporarily halted by Tropical Storm Rita over the next few days. You’ll hear more from our HKR/TWM/CSWS team on community efforts around this as the week progresses.
Monday, September 19th, 2005
Thursday, September 15th, 2005
For more updates in the coming days, come back here or visit any of our collaborating sites in the coming days:
Davey D’s current audio updates are as follows:
+Cousin Jeff From Houston Astrodome
We sat down with Cousin Jeff of BET to get a run down of what’s going in with the evacuees in the Houston Astrodome. He and Kanye West were there the other day. Cousin Jeff explained that all is not good. The primary problem is that poor displaced folks from New Orleans are being pitted against poor people from Houston
+ Cousin Jeff and Zin From Houston Astrodome
We continue our discussion with BET ’s Cousin Jeff about life inside the Astrodome for displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina. We are joined by Houston Hip Hop artist Zin who confirms all that Cousin Jeff has mentioned. Both men lay out a number of solutions and plans of action to bring relief and resolve many of these issues in both the long and short term.
+ Rosa Clemente Updates Us From New Orleans
We caught up with Rosa Clemente who is now leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge after her arrest this past wednesday night. She is doing ok but has a lot to say about what’s really going on…
+ Fred Hampton Jr Updates Us from Mississippi
We got a chance to speak with Fred Hampton Jr of the POCC the other day and he gave us a breakdown of what’s been happening in Mississippi, the plight of prisoners, displaced people in Chicago and the launching of the Black Cross.
To Barbara Bush, the Astrodome was a poor people’s heaven. From the floor of the Dome, however, life seemed a lot closer to hell.
HOUSTON, September 13—Outside the Houston Astrodome earlier this week, dozens of tents for State Farm Insurance, the Bank of America, Chase, Veteran’s Aid, and many more seemed to promise a quick return to something like shopping-mall normalcy. It was easy to sign up for a credit card. An ATM city had sprung up, so you could slide your new card in and get cash right away, and pay the bill later.
At press briefings organized by local officials, the story was upbeat, a shining example of government, business, and charity coming together to do good. Thousands of evacuees were being processed, more than 500 children were been reunited with their families, and life went on.
But behind the doors of the Astrodome, survival and frustration were the order of the day. Jamel Bell, who fled his flooded Ninth Ward in New Orleans, found no salvation here. “Inside it feels like prison,” he said. At curfew, he says, the evacuees were locked in.
News teams from independent sources, such as our own, were continuously harassed by local officials and police. Reporters from KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, tossed their press badges for Red Cross volunteer badges in order to do their work. In Baton Rouge, hip-hop journalist and WBAI reporter <Rosa Clemente was arrested and briefly detained after National Guardsmen attempted to confiscate her recording equipment.
Despite news reports that evacuees were being moved through the system and out of the center efficiently and quickly, there were up to 35,000 evacuees daily in the building. Cots of weary people stretched across the floor. Celebrities, followed by television cameras, filed in and out. The food was terrible, the meat in the sandwiches sometimes served still frozen. Surveillance was heavy, and the tensions on the floor remained thick.
Many evacuees tried to forget the brutal images of their evacuation: skin sores on a man wading through toxic waters, a chaotic stampede of evacuees on a bridge towards a line of buses, the traumatic separation of families at evacuation checkpoints. An unnamed woman survivor told KPFT radio host Robert Muhammad that National Guardsmen had raped her friend and left her in the swamp. Amidst apocalyptic scenes that seemed biblical, Dionne Wright, a custodian in her mid-30s, tried to calm her daugher. “This is not the end,” she said. “This is not the end.”
Raver Price, a 19-year old woman from the largely black and poor Ninth Ward, felt she heard rumblings before the levee break, and wondered if they were the sounds of man-made dynamite. When she and her hungry friends took food from a flooded store, she encountered a Guardsman who sneered at her, “I can’t wait to kill you bitches.”
Among the displaced New Orleans youths in the Astrodome, some neighborhood rivalries did not go out with the tide, and fights sometimes broke out between different crews. Many evacuees said that when they went to sleep, they kept one eye on their belongings.
Before dawn, often as early as 5:30am, lines for basic services—including those to find housing or obtain the much-desired $2000 relief check from FEMA and the $235 relief check from the Red Cross—began forming, and processing continued until 8pm.
Many were mystified by FEMA rules. Households are only allowed to report one address for the one-time check to be sent to. But for families still in the midst of being reunited, or on the verge of being sent to another evacuation center or even another city, the logic seemed bizarre.
Yet some families left without anything. Immigrants, including many of the estimated 30,000 displaced Vietnamese Americans here in Houston, were being turned away. Even legal residents learned that their green cards are not enough to qualify them for disaster aid. These realizations invariably came after hours of waiting. FEMA and the Red Cross had no translators on hand.
Au Huynh came down from Philadelphia to help in the relief efforts. “I was a refugee, I came here in 1989,” she said. “I don’t think there is a political mark on being a refugee. (Being a refugee means) being displaced because of political reasons or environmental reason. It’s important to recognize the rights of refugees, it shouldn’t be based on being a citizen in terms of getting relief.”
Huynh had called the Red Cross to volunteer as a translator, but they said they had no need for her. So, through the internet, she found a small Houston group called Save The Boat People SOS that was setting up relief efforts. The organization is one of the Asian American community organizations working with a network of Buddhist temples in Houston on an extraordinary parallel relief effort.
With most Asian American evacuees being routed away from the Astrodome, volunteers took them in at the Hong Kong City Mall. In the parking lot, there are piles of donated clothing. At a card table, volunteers work on their own personal laptops and cellphones to find shelter, make urgent medical referrals, and reunite families.
Some 50,000 Vietnamese worked the Louisiana coast as fisherman and in New Orleans in the service and manufacturing sectors, alongside a large community of Filipino American shrimpers, the oldest Filipino community in North America. So the volunteers at the Hong Kong City Mall expect many more evacuees.
But these efforts are short-term. Houston officials have been pushing to move all the evacuees out of the Astrodome and the Reliant Center by Saturday into the Reliant Arena. They say that they might not be able to complete the efforts until next week.
Meanwhile, the evacuees wonder and worry about their future. Many want to return, and most believe they will be able to do so in a week or two. But while New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has allowed the homeowners and business owners of the Garden District and the French Quarter to return this week, there are still no dates set for poor, largely African American neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to reopen.
Evacuees are being shipped off all over the country—San Francisco, Michigan, and New York—with no return ticket. As pundits and planners across the country have begun to call for neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to be bulldozed and permanently abandoned, many evacuees have begun to ask if there is an agenda afoot to eliminate the city’s poor and people of color. Organizers from the New Orleans organization Community Labor United have begun calling for “evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans.”
In the Astrodome, Dolores Johnson has another cold sandwich and shakes her head. She asks, “We are able-bodied. Why can’t we be involved in the process to rebuild our homes?”
NEXT: How New Orleans’ evacuees and community organizers are reacting to redevelopment and resettlement plans.
Thursday, September 15th, 2005
Here’s an astonishing piece from the Los Angeles Times about the rush to buy property in New Orleans, even as the city’s residents are being shipped across the U.S.:
“I thought this storm was the end of the city,” said Arthur Sterbcow, president of New Orleans-based Latter & Blum, one of the biggest real estate brokerages on the Gulf Coast.
“If anyone had told me two weeks ago that I’d be getting the calls and e-mails I’m getting, I would have thought he was ready for the psychiatric ward.”
Messages from those wanting to buy houses — whether intact or flooded — and commercial properties are outrunning those who want to sell by a factor of 20, said Sterbcow, who has set up temporary quarters in his firm’s Baton Rouge office.
“We’re pressing everyone into service just to answer the phones,” he said.
These eager would-be buyers may be drawing their inspiration from Lower Manhattan, which proved a bonanza for those smart enough to buy condos there immediately after the Sept. 11 attack.
Of course, in southern Louisiana, everything is hypothetical for the moment. The storm destroyed many property records and displaced buyers, sellers, agents and title firms, so no deals are actually being done. Insurance companies haven’t started to settle claims yet, much less determine how, or whether, they will insure New Orleans in the future. The city hasn’t even been drained.
But people are thinking ahead, influenced by a single factor: the belief that hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid is going to create a boomtown. The people administering that aid will need somewhere to live, as will those doing the rebuilding. So will employees of companies lured back to the area, and the service people that attend to them.
All this will lead to what Sterbcow delicately calls a “reorientation” of the city.
“Everyone I talked to has said, ‘Let’s start with a clean sheet of paper, fix it and get it right,’ ” he said. “Some of the homes here were only held together by the termites.”
What the owners of the city’s estimated 150,000 flooded houses will get out of “reorientation” is unclear, especially if the houses were in bad shape and uninsured.
Some black New Orleans residents say dourly that they know what’s coming. Melvin Gilbert, a maintenance crew chief in his 60s, stood outside an elegant hotel in the French Quarter this week and recalled how the neighborhood had been gentrified.
He remembered half a century ago when the French Quarter had a substantial number of black residents.
“Then the Caucasians started offering them $10,000 for their homes,” he said. “Well, they only bought the places for $2,000, so they took it and ran.”
The white residents restored the homes, which rose quickly in value. Gilbert said he expected the same dynamic when the floodwaters receded in the heavily black neighborhoods east of downtown.
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