[News] Katrina: Eight Months Later

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Wed Apr 26 17:54:10 EDT 2006


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April 26, 2006

The Fight for Justice Intensifies


Katrina: Eight Months Later

By BILL QUIGLEY

On Monday, April 17, 2006, two bodies were found 
buried beneath what used to be a home in the 
Lower 9th Ward. Their discovery raised to 17 the 
number of Hurricane Katrina fatalities that have 
been discovered in New Orleans in the past month 
and a half. Katrina is now directly blamed for 
the deaths of 1,282 Louisiana residents. Eight 
months after Katrina, the state reports 987 people are still missing.
Chief Steve Glynn, who oversees the New Orleans 
Fire Department search effort that found the 
latest two bodies told CNN: “You want to put it 
to rest at some point. You want to feel like it's over and it's just not yet.”

Eight months after Katrina, there are still 
nearly 300,000 people who have not returned to 
New Orleans. While we can hope that our community 
is nearing the end of finding bodies, the 
struggle for justice for the hundreds of 
thousands of displaced people continues.

Election Blues

The right to vote remains displaced from New Orleans.

In what was billed as “the most important 
election in the history of New Orleans,” only 36 
percent of those registered voted in the recent 
city elections. Turnout was heavy and high in the 
mostly prosperous and white areas of Uptown where 
little damage occurred and exceptionally low in 
the heavily damaged and mostly black areas of the 
New Orleans East, Gentilly and the Ninth Ward – 
where some precincts reported as few as 15% voter participation.

The state refusal to set up satellite voting for 
those displaced outside the state resulted in 
exactly the disenfranchisement predicted.

While Iraqis who had not lived in Iraq in years 
were helped to vote in the US by our government, 
people forced out of state by Katrina for seven 
months were not allowed to vote where they are 
temporarily living. This has national 
implications. The New Orleans Times-Picayune 
reported that in the 2002 U.S. Senate seat runoff 
between incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu and 
Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell, the Orleans 
factor made the difference for Landrieu. The 
senator won Orleans by 78,900 votes, compared 
with her statewide lead of 42,012. In the 2003 
gubernatorial runoff between Democrat Kathleen 
Blanco and Republican Bobby Jindal, Blanco won 
statewide by 54,874 votes. She won by a margin of 49,741 votes in New Orleans.

Worse, the systematic exclusion of the displaced 
gives fuel to those who do not want the poor to 
return and helps create a self-fulfilling 
prophecy. Low turnout in poor neighborhoods where 
the displaced could not drive back in to vote can 
now be taken as an indication of lack of interest 
and an excuse to further silence their voices. As 
the Washington Post noted: “How many people 
turned out to vote in each precinct was being 
viewed as an indicator of which neighborhoods are 
likely to be rebuilt; in many abandoned 
neighborhoods, people fear that residents who 
have left for good would not vote, revealing 
their lack of interest in the neighborhood and 
the city. Turnout could offer clues to the future racial makeup of the city.”

Healthcare Crisis

New Orleans has lost 77% of its primary care 
doctors, 70% of its dentists and 89% of its psychiatrists since Katrina.

National Public Radio reported that the few 
hospitals in New Orleans are dangerously 
overburdened, especially emergency rooms. 
Nationally, it takes an average of 20 minutes to 
take a patient from an ambulance waiting in front 
of hospital to emergency room. In the New Orleans 
area, according to one surgeon at the East 
Jefferson Hospital, load times are usually 2 
hours, but sometimes more. The longest time he’s 
seen is 6 hours, 40 minutes, of a patient waiting 
in ER driveway to receive care.

Non-emergency care in New Orleans is also in 
crisis. With the closure of Charity Hospital and 
most public health clinics, it is very difficult 
to get a child tested for lead poisoning or other 
toxins – even though recent reports indicate 
there are 46 environmental “hot spots” in the 
city. One corner, Magnolia and First in Central 
City, showed lead levels of 3,960 parts per 
million – nearly 10 times the acceptable level. 
Dr. Howard Mielke of Xavier University says 40 
percent of the city soil has elevated lead levels.

Among the displaced, the healthcare situation is 
much worse. The Columbia University Mailman 
School of Public Health surveyed hundreds of the 
thousands of families living in FEMA trailers and 
found: Nearly half of the parents surveyed 
reported that at least one of their children had 
emotional or behavioral difficulties that the 
child didn't have before the hurricane; More than 
half the women caregivers showed evidence of 
clinically-diagnosed psychiatric problems, such 
as depression or anxiety disorders; On average, 
households have moved 3.5 times since the 
hurricane, some as many as nine times, often 
across state lines; More than one-fifth of the 
school-age children who were displaced were 
either not in school, or had missed 10 or more 
days of school in the past month.

Public Education Phase Out

New Orleans has become the national experiment 
for charter schools. Pre-Katrina 60,000 students 
attended over 115 New Orleans public schools. Now 
about 12,000 students attend public school in New 
Orleans. However, only four public schools are 
operated by the elected school board – the rest 
are now privately operated public charter schools 
or operated directly by the state. State 
authorities recently approved opening 22 more 
charter schools in the fall. Still many children 
in New Orleans are not in school at all because 
no schools have opened in their neighborhoods.

Where Has All the Money Gone: Robin Hood in Reverse

People who visit New Orleans are amazed at how 
devastated it still is. Where has all the money 
gone, they ask? Follow the money. “How many 
contractors does it take to haul a pile of tree 
branches?” asked the Washington Post. If it's 
government work, at least four: a contractor, his 
subcontractor, the subcontractor's subcontractor, 
and finally, the local man with a truck and 
chainsaw. The big contractors typically receive 
between $28 to $30 a cubic yard for the debris. 
By the time they subcontract the work out to 
smaller and smaller companies, the guy in the 
truck receives about $6 to $8 per cubic yard. The 
Miami Herald reported that the single biggest 
receiver of federal contracts was Ashbritt, Inc. 
of Pompano Beach, FL, which received over $579 
million in contracts for debris removal in 
Mississippi from Army Corps of Engineers. The 
paper reported that the company does not own a 
single dumptruck! All they do is subcontract. 
Ashbritt, however, had recently dumped $40,000 
into the lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffith & 
Rogers, which had been run by Mississippi 
Governor and former National GOP Chair Haley 
Barbour. The owners of Ashbritt also trucked 
$50,000 over to the Republican National Committee 
in 2004. Draw your own conclusions about where the money has gone.

Federal Housing Funds for Rehab of Private Housing

Unfortunately, not a dime of the billions of 
federal housing reconstruction money from the 
Community Development Block Grant has yet made it 
to New Orleans. Seventy percent of CDBG money is 
usually targeted to low and moderate income 
families. HUD has already lowered that to 50% and 
for poorest among us, there will be little help at all.

Despite the fact that New Orleans was over half 
renters and that 84,000 rental units were 
destroyed or damaged, only 6,000 low-income 
rental units are part of state plan.

People are already living in damaged houses all 
over the city, many without electricity. A night 
trip through New Orleans neighborhoods shows 
people on porches surrounded by candles.

Louisiana calls its CDBG plan the “The Road Home.”

Obviously, few of the working poor are going to 
be able to go on this road trip.

Public Housing Closed

In 1996, New Orleans had 13,694 units of public 
housing. In August 2005, they reported 7,381. 
Now? Maybe 700. Residents returning to New 
Orleans who want to move back in their apartments 
are being told they forfeited their public 
housing apartments because they abandoned them!

Abandoned apartments which have been forcibly 
closed for months? Many apartments are closed by 
locked metal shutters and surrounded by chain 
link fence. The housing authority also has a 
secret list of 1407 units of housing scheduled to 
be demolished. The housing authority let go 290 
employees, mostly maintenance. Does it sound like they are planning to reopen?

In New Orleans, public housing was occupied by 
women, mostly working, children and the elderly. 
How are they supposed to return when private rents have skyrocketed?

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, whose agency is 
now running the local housing authority, stated 
clearly that public housing residents should not 
be allowed to return. In an interview with the 
Times-Picayune, Jackson said: "Some of the people 
shouldn't return. The developments were 
gang-ridden by some of the most notorious gangs 
in this country. People hid and took care of 
those persons because they took care of them. 
Only the best residents should return. Those who 
paid rent on time, those who held a job and those 
who worked." The blunt-spoken Jackson, who is 
black, acknowledged his comments might be seen as 
racially offensive. He told a white reporter, "If 
you said this, they would say you were racist."

Signs of Hope

Despite our very serious problems, there are also 
serious signs of hope. For every campaign of 
injustice and ugliness, there are people 
struggling despite the odds to create 
opportunities for justice and beauty. The people 
of New Orleans, joined with allies from across 
the nation and indeed the world, continue to 
resist the forces of injustice and to create 
opportunities for decency, community and equity.

Here are a few examples.

St. Augustine’s Church, one of the oldest black 
catholic churches in the nation, was abruptly 
closed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 
months after Katrina. St. Augustine was dedicated 
in 1842 by the free black citizens of New Orleans 
and welcomed both free and slave as worshippers. 
It served both as a multiracial church and a 
center of community activities. After continual 
petitions, vigils and protests by community, 
neighborhood and church members, including direct 
action where some young people locked themselves 
inside the rectory, the Catholic hierarchy 
reversed itself. The joyous reopening of St. 
Augustine is a great cultural, spiritual, community and neighborhood victory.

Lower Ninth Ward residents have had no public 
schools open since Katrina. They wanted their 
neighborhood school, Martin Luther King, Jr., 
repaired and fixed up after it took in ten feet 
of water. Authorities refused to fix it up. So 
the residents, joined by members of Common Ground 
and the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, decided to do it themselves.

They started gutting the moldy parts and 
repairing and re-painting the school. They 
continued until the State Superintendent of 
Education called the police and stopped the work 
saying the neighbors were doing more harm than 
good. After days of public outcry of support of 
the volunteers, the State backed off. Volunteers 
went back to work, creating a place for education 
in the neighborhood as well as a symbol of resistance.

Mildred Battle is 70 and gets around in a 
wheelchair. She is one of more than 1000 families 
who been displaced from their apartment in the 
St. Bernard Housing Development in New Orleans 
since Katrina. Despite coming back three times, 
she was never allowed to go back to retrieve her 
belongings. Her apartment has heavy metal sheets 
locked into place over the windows and a new 
heavy metal door for which she is not allowed a 
key. The ramp to her building that allowed her to 
roll up to her apartment is blocked by a 
block-long chain link fence to keep all residents out.

This month, Ms. Battle’s wheelchair was the first 
one through the gate in the chain link fence as 
dozens of residents past the lone security guard 
and broke back into their own homes. Friends of 
Ms. Battle helped her retrieve a picture of her 
dead son and a broken glass Martin Luther King 
award she received in the 1990s. She clutched 
them to her breast and cried saying, “This has 
been my home for decades. I want to come home.” 
She and the other residents, along with veteran 
public housing organizers and activists from C3, 
a local anti-war organization, vow there will be 
more direct actions to enforce the rights of 
public housing residents to return home.

Before this action, veteran organizer Endesha 
Jukali yelled through a bullhorn to the crowd 
outside the St. Bernard Housing Development. 
“Those who attack public housing refuse to 
understand that we are talking about poor women 
and children, the poorest of the poor. Why attack 
them? Some people say do not come back to New 
Orleans if you don’t intend to work. We say 
something else. Don’t come back to New Orleans if 
you don’t intend to fight! The only way that we 
are going to be able to come back, is to fight 
for justice every step of the way!” He then 
dropped the bullhorn and started pushing Ms. 
Battle in her wheelchair across the street and 
through the gate so she could break into her own home.

Bill Quigley is a civil and human rights lawyer 
who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans 
School of Law. He can be reached at: 
<mailto:Quigley at loyno.edu>Quigley at loyno.edu


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