New Orleans survivors: a people without a home

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On this August 29, 2007, the United States will commemorate the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

For the last two years, I have witnessed my aunt, a former resident of New Orleans and a Katrina survivor, struggle to rebuild her life. She has spent these years living in her sister’s converted garage in South Central Los Angeles. Her inconsistent employment has left her without stable income and frustrated by government agencies whose only concern is for the corporate “devastation pimps” who have descended on New Orleans. As is true for other displaced survivors, her loss of connection to relatives, longtime friends, and her hometown of over 25 years has been traumatic.

Meanwhile, New Orleans is being reshaped in ways that make it a stranger even to those who have returned — and who continue to fight for their home.

Who’s hurting? The population of New Orleans today is 284,000; about 280,000 of its former residents are living elsewhere. The storm and government ineptitude and corruption combined to drain the Big Easy of about 41 percent of its white population and an astounding 73 percent of its African Americans, lost to death or displacement. And now a war on Black, female, and workingclass people characterizes the post-Katrina city.

Black female workers were the backbone of the economy. Given the effects of racism and sexism in concentrating women of color into low-wage jobs, Black women worked largely in healthcare, education, and hospitality. Before Katrina, approximately 51,000 were employed. Today that number is 17,000.

This decimation stems from a combination of factors. The state has refused to reopen its Charity Hospital, a major New Orleans medical center. Only 19 of 117 public schools in the city and county have reopened. Buses do not run at night and in poor areas where only 45 percent of people have access to cars.

Most devastating is the refusal to allow displaced residents to resettle. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has spent around $500,000 to board up and demolish public housing units, preventing workingclass residents — largely Black women and children — from reclaiming their homes. Many of these units suffered little or no damage.

The storm destroyed approximately 204,000 homes. About 41 percent were rental properties, the great majority of them occupied by low-income tenants. But, of $10.5 billion in federal funds for housing recovery, Louisiana plans to spend only 15 percent to create rental units — and of these, only 15,000 are designed to be affordable for low-income people.

Natives of New Orleans who are shut out of reconstruction employment are rightfully angry. At the same time, the many undocumented immigrants hired for rebuilding projects in the region are enduring gross exploitation, backed up by threats of deportation. They receive only 60 cents for every dollar that a documented worker receives, just one in 10 has health insurance, and most are forced to live in tent cites.

Who’s benefiting? To date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Air Force have collectively awarded over $2.4 billion in recovery contracts.

These guarantee private companies a set profit over and above the costs of the work. Most have been signed with cronies of the Bush administration, including the Flour Corporation, whose post-Katrina profits rose 88 percent, and Bechtel National Inc.

When President Bush signed the Louisiana Gulf Opportunity Zone Tax Incentives and Relief Act (GO Zone) in 2005, he underwrote the gentrification of New Orleans. The legislation allows the private sector tax-exempt bond financing for new investment and offers tax breaks both for new construction and for Katrina-related redevelopment. This is “wealth-fare” for real-estate tycoons like Donald Trump, whose planned new condominiums will go for between $387,000 and $3.3 million.

But this is not enough for some corporate lawyers in New Orleans who are furious with GO Zone. They resent that local officials are demanding that developers provide any affordable rental units, arguing that investing in low-income housing will be a losing business proposition in the long run — not to mention that it violates the vision of a “new” New Orleans populated entirely by people who can afford pricy homes of their own.

And who’s still fighting back. In January 2007, a group of 500 public housing residents, most of them Black and female, broke through a wire fence that was authorized by HUD and city officials to prevent residents from reclaiming their homes in the St. Bernard housing projects. Survivors Village and other tenants’ rights activists erected a “Resurrection City” encampment along the fence line and 1,500 of the 7,000 public housing units were liberated. This act of militant resistance was seen by some organizers as carrying on the legacy of the Black liberation and Poor People’s movements of the past.

Also linking the struggle in New Orleans to earlier freedom struggles are organizers of a second international tribunal to investigate survivors’ charges of government crimes against humanity and demand restitution (www.internationaltribunal.org). The tribunal, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, is spearheaded by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, in conjunction with local relief organizations and with backing from unionists and radicals in the U.S., Latin America, and France.

Around the world and across the country, the fight of New Orleanians for justice continues to win new advocates. In May 2007, I worked with a group of young activists at Seattle University to organize a weeklong series of events and teach-ins for SU’s first “Remembering the Gulf Coast Week.” Our intent was both to raise awareness about the issues and begin mobilizing a long-term commitment by SU to assist with the rebuilding of the largely Black and workingclass communities of New Orleans.

For over 500,000 Gulf Coast residents displaced in the aftermath of Katrina, the second anniversary will mean another day of struggle for the right to return home, for permanent housing, for full employment, and for the basic human rights that should be afforded any person. People who care about these rights must continue to support and build coalitions with New Orleanians organizing politically to be made whole.

Hopefully, the steps we take together now will lead to a mass mobilization of survivors and their allies against the profit-driven whirlwind — whose destructive power threatens all of us.

Gary Perry, an assistant professor of sociology who grew up near New Orleans, is attending this summer’s tribunal, at which his aunt is speaking. He can be reached at perryg@seattleu.edu.

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