Thursday, September 15th, 2005

HKR/TWM/CSWS Report: In The Houston Astrodome, Frustration and Survival

The first Gulf Coast report from the Hard Knock Radio/Third World Majority/Can’t Stop Won’t Stop team is up today at AlterNet.

For more updates in the coming days, come back here or visit any of our collaborating sites in the coming days:

+ Alternet
+ Third World Majority
+ Hard Knock Radio
+ Pop and Politics
+ Rosa Clemente

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.

Please also support the New Orleans Network, Community Labor United, and the Neighborhood Story Project.

In The Houston Astrodome, Frustration and Survival
Reported By Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Anita Johnson
Written By Jeff Chang
For Alternet/Hard Knock Radio/Third World Majority

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.

posted by @ 8:04 pm | 3 Comments

3 Responses to “HKR/TWM/CSWS Report: In The Houston Astrodome, Frustration and Survival”

  1. Danny Lee says:

    Thanks for the article. I think it is the first one I’ve read that finally addressed the issue of Asian-Americans and the effects of Katrina.

  2. Anonymous says:

    In more than 2 weeks I’m watching any news which related to hurricane Katrina, but I haven’t heard anything about Asian-American in these cities. Thanks for this article. At least our people (Vietnamese) still remember “The Boat People”. Thanks all Vietnamese around US for open their hearts! Specially Houston city.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In more than 2 weeks I’m watching any news which related to hurricane Katrina, but I haven’t heard anything about Asian-American in these cities. Thanks for this article. At least our people (Vietnamese) still remember “The Boat People”. Thanks all Vietnamese around US for open their hearts! Specially Houston city.

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