[News] The Right to Return to New Orleans

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Feb 26 13:55:53 EST 2007


http://www.counterpunch.org/

February 26, 2007


Feeding 18,000 Families a Month in One Neighborhood


The Right to Return to New Orleans

By BILL QUIGLEY

Each morning, Debra South Jones drives 120 miles into New Orleans to 
cook and serve over 300 hot free meals each day to people in New 
Orleans East, where she lived until Katrina took her home. Ms. Jones 
and several volunteers also distribute groceries to 18,000 families a 
month through their group, Just the Right Attitude. Who comes for 
food? "Most of the people are working on their own houses because 
they can't afford contractors," Ms. Jones said. "They are living in 
their gutted-out houses with no electricity."

Why do thousands of people need food and why are people living in 
gutted-out houses with no electricity? Look at New Orleans eighteen 
months after Katrina and you will realize why it is so difficult for 
people to exercise the human right to return to their homes.

Half the homes in New Orleans still do not have electricity. Eighteen 
months after Katrina, a third of a million people in the New Orleans 
metro area have not returned.

FEMA told Congress that 60,000 families in Louisiana still live in 
240 square foot trailers usually at least 3 to a trailer. The 
Louisiana Hurricane Task Force estimated in December 2006 that there 
was an "urgent need" for 30,000 affordable rental apartments in New 
Orleans alone and another 15,000 around the rest of the state.

Eighteen months after Katrina, over 80 percent of the 5100 New 
Orleans occupied public housing apartments remained closed by order 
of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which 
controlled the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) since 2002. 
HUD pressed ahead even though internal HANO documents revealed the 
cost for repair and renovation was significantly less than for 
demolition and redevelopment. A professor from MIT inspected the 
buildings and declared them structurally sound. Architecture critics 
applaud the current garden-style buildings. Yet HUD plows ahead 
planning to spend tens of millions of Katrina dollars to tear down 
millions of dollars of habitable housing and end up with far fewer 
affordable apartments a clear loss for the community.

Over $100 billion was approved by Congress to rebuild the Gulf Coast. 
Over $50 billion of that money was allocated to temporary and 
long-term housing. Just under $30 billion was for emergency response 
and Department of Defense spending. Over $18 billion was for State 
and local response and the rebuilding of infrastructure. $3.6 billion 
was for health, social services and job training and $3.2 for 
non-housing cash assistance. $1.9 billion was allocated for education 
and $1.2 billion for agriculture.

Louisiana received $10 billion to fix up housing. Over 109,000 
homeowners applied for federal funds to fix up their homes. Eighteen 
months later, less than 700 families have received this federal 
assistance. Renters, who comprised a majority of New Orleans, are 
worse off they get nothing at all. Some money is scheduled to go to 
some landlords and apartment developers for some apartments at some time.

There were uncountable generous and courageous and heroic acts of 
people and communities who stretched themselves to assist people 
displaced by the hurricane. Many of these continue. However, there 
are several notable exceptions.

Obstacles to public funding of affordable housing came from within 
New Orleans and in neighboring parishes. Many in New Orleans do not 
want the poor who lived in public housing to return.

St. Bernard Parish, a 93 percent white suburb adjoining New Orleans, 
enacted a post-Katrina ordinance which restricted home owners from 
renting out single-family homes "unless the renter is a blood 
relative" without securing a permit from the government.

Jefferson Parish, another adjoining majority-white suburb, 
unanimously passed a resolution opposing all low-income tax credit 
multi-family housing in the areas closest to New Orleans effectively 
stopping the construction of a 200 unit apartment building on vacant 
land for people over the age of 62 and any further assisted housing.

Across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, the chief law enforcement 
officer of St. Tammany Parish, Sheriff Jack Strain, complained openly 
about the post-Katrina presence of "thugs and trash" from "New 
Orleans public housing" and announced that people with dreadlocks or 
"chee wee hairstyles" could "expect to be getting a visit from a 
sheriff,s deputy."

With rebuilding starting up and the previous work force still 
displaced, tens of thousands of migrant workers have come to the Gulf 
Coast to work in the recovery. Many were recruited. Most workers tell 
of being promised good wages and working conditions and plenty of 
work. Some paid money up front for the chance to come to the area to 
work. Most of these promises were broken. A tour of the area reveals 
many Latino workers live in houses without electricity, other live 
out of cars. At various places in the city whole families are living in tents.

Many former residents of New Orleans are not welcome back. Race is 
certainly a factor. So is class. As New Orleans native and professor 
Adolph Reed notes: "With each passing day, a crucially significant 
political distinction in New Orleans gets clearer and clearer: 
Property owners are able to assert their interests in the polity, 
while non-owners are nearly as invisible in civic life now as in the 
early eighteenth century."

New Orleans is now the charter capital of the U.S. All the public 
schools on the side of the Mississippi which did not flood were 
turned into charters within weeks of Katrina. The schools with 
strongest parental support and high test scores were flipped into 
charters. The charters have little connection to each other and to 
state or local supervision. Those in the top half of the pre-Katrina 
population may be getting a better education. Kids without high 
scores, with disabilities, with little parental involvement who are 
not in charters are certainly not getting a good education and are 
shuttled into the bottom half - a makeshift system of state and local schools.

John McDonogh, a public high school created to take the place of five 
pre-Katrina high schools, illustrates the challenges facing 
non-charter public education in New Orleans. Opened by the State 
school district in the fall, as of November, 2006, there were 775 
students but teachers, textbooks and supplies remained in short order 
months after school opened. Many teens, as many as one-fifth, were 
living in New Orleans without their parents. Fights were frequent 
despite the presence of metal detectors, twenty-give security guards 
and an additional eight police officers. In fact several security 
guards, who were not much older than the students were injured in 
fights with students. Students described the school as having a 
"prison atmosphere." There were no hot lunches and few working water 
fountains. The girls, bathrooms did not have doors on them. The 
library had no books at all, not even shelves for books in early 
November. One 15 year old student caught the 5am bus from Baton Rouge 
to attend the high school. "Our school has 39 security guards and 
three cops on staff and only 27 teachers," one McDonogh teacher reported.

It took two federal civil rights actions in January 2007 to force the 
state to abolish a waiting list for entry into public school that 
stranded hundreds of kids out of school for weeks.

Healthcare is in crisis. The main public healthcare provider, Charity 
Hospital, which saw 350,000 patient visits a year, remains closed, as 
do half the hospitals in the city. It is not clear it will reopen. 
Plans are being debated which will shift indigent care and its state 
and federal compensation to private hospitals. Much of the 
uncompensated care provided by Charity has shifted to other LSU 
hospitals with people traveling as far as 85 miles to the Earl K. 
Long Hospital in Baton Rouge which reports a 50 percent increase in 
uncompensated care. Waiting lines are long in emergency rooms for 
those who have insurance. When hundreds of thousands lost their jobs 
after Katrina, they lost healthcare as well. A recent free medical 
treatment fair opened their doors at 6 am and stopped signing people 
up at 8 am because they had already filled the 700 available slots for the day.

Mental health is worse. A report by the World Health organization 
estimates that serious and mild to moderate mental illness doubled in 
the year after Hurricane Katrina among survivors. Despite a suicide 
rate triple what it was a year ago, the New York Times reported ten 
months after the storm New Orleans had still lost half of its 
psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and other mental health 
care workers.

In the months after Katrina, the 534 psychiatric beds that were in 
metro New Orleans shrank to less than 80. The Centers for Disease 
Control and Prevention surveyed the area and found 45 percent of 
residents were experiencing "significant stress or dysfunction" and 
another 25 percent were worse.

By default, the lack of mental health treatment facilities has forced 
more of these crises towards law enforcement. "The lack of mental 
health options forced the New Orleans Police Department to 
incarcerate mentally ill people who normally would have been taken to 
Charity," said James Arey, commander of the NOPD crisis negotiation 
team. "The only other option is to admit them into emergency rooms 
ill-equipped to handle psychotics who may have to wait days for care. 
This is past the point of being unsafe," Arey said. "It's just a 
matter of time before a mental patient goes berserk in one of the ERs 
and hurts some people."

With day care scarce down 70 percent, and public transportation down 
83 percent of pre-Katrina busses, there is little chance for single 
moms with kids.

It is impossible to begin to understand the continued impact of 
Katrina without viewing through the lenses of race, gender and 
poverty. Katrina exposed the region,s deep-rooted inequalities of 
gender, race, and class. Katrina did not create the inequalities; it 
provided a window to see them more clearly. But the aftermath of 
Katrina has aggravated these inequalities.
In fact if you plot race, class and gender you can likely tell who 
has returned to New Orleans. The Institute of Women,s Policy Research 
pointed out "The hurricanes uncovered America,s longstanding 
structural inequalities based on race, gender, and class and laid 
bare the consequences of ignoring these underlying inequalities."

The pre-Katrina population of 454,000 people in the city of New 
Orleans dropped to 187,000. The African-American population of New 
Orleans shrank by 61 percent or 213,000 people, from a pre-Katrina 
number of 302,000 down to 89,000. New Orleans now has a much smaller, 
older, whiter and more affluent population.

Crime plagues parts of the city and every spoke of the criminal 
justice wheel is broken. Hundreds of police left the force and 
several were just indicted for first degree murder of an unarmed 
mentally retarded man during Katrina. When the accused police 
reported to jail, they were accompanied by hundreds of fellow 
officers holding up signs calling them heroes. The DA and the police 
are openly feuding and pointing fingers at each other. The judges are 
fighting with the new public defender system. Victims and witnesses 
are still displaced. People accused of serious crime walk out of jail 
because of incompetence and the fear of witnesses to cooperate with police.

Others are kept in jail too long because they are lost in the system. 
For example, Pedro Parra-Sanchez was arrested six days after he 
arrived in New Orleans to find work in October 2005. He got in a 
fight and allegedly stabbed a man with a beer bottle. He went through 
the local temporary jail in a bus station and two other Louisiana 
prisons. Under Louisiana law he was supposed to be charged within 60 
days or released. However, he never went to court or saw a lawyer. 
When he did not show up for his original arraignment date last May, a 
warrant was put out for his arrest, but he was already incarcerated. 
He was found by a Tulane Law Clinic attorney and was released in 
November 2006. Lost in the system, he was doing what they call in the 
courthouse "Katrina time."

Though crime is issue one in most of the city, crime is not the cause 
of a city dying. Crime is a symptom of a city dying. Crime is the 
sound of a city dying.

There are major problems with the drinking water system eighteen 
months after Katrina. According to the City of New Orleans, hundreds 
of miles of underground pipes were damaged by 480 billion pounds of 
water that sat in the city after Katrina. They were further damaged 
by the uprooting of tens of thousands of trees whose roots were 
wrapped around the pipes.

The city of New Orleans now loses more water through faulty pipes and 
joints in the delivery system than it is uses. More than 135 million 
gallons are being pumped out daily but only 50 million gallons are 
being used, leaving 85 million gallons "unaccounted for and probably 
leaking out of the system." The daily cost of the water leaking away 
in thousands of leaks is about $200,000 a day.

The second major water problem is that the leakage makes maintaining 
adequate water pressure extremely difficult and costly, particularly 
in tall office buildings. Water pressure in New Orleans is estimated 
at half that of other cities, creating significant problems in 
consumption, sanitation, air-conditioning, and fire prevention.

Insurance costs are skyrocketing for homes and businesses. So are 
rents. Though low-wage jobs pay a little more than before Katrina, 
they do not pay enough for people to afford rent.

The overall planning process for the rebuilding of New Orleans has 
been derailed by several competing planning operations. The Mayor 
initially created a Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which met for 
months. While the Bring Back New Orleans Commission was underway, the 
Urban Land Institute, a D.C. based think tank, created and released a 
report of recommendations in January 2006. After several months of 
hearings, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission issued a report 
issued from the Mayor,s Office, but it was never funded. In April 
2006, the New Orleans City Council awarded a $2.9 million grant, 
funded by federal grant money, to a Miami consultant to create a plan 
for the 49 neighborhoods of New Orleans. A fourth planning process, 
the Unified New Orleans Plan, was launched in spring 2006 with 
funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to integrate all the planning 
processes. In September 2006, the City Council plan was released, 
while the UNOP process was just getting underway that fourth plan is 
starting to wind up now.

These problems spread far beyond their most graphic illustrations in 
New Orleans throughout the Gulf Coast. As Oxfam documented, 
government neglect has plagued the rebuilding of smaller towns like 
Biloxi Mississippi, and rural parishes of Louisiana, leaving the 
entire region in distress. In Biloxi, the first to be aided after the 
hurricane were the casinos, which forced low-income people out of 
their homes and neighborhoods. In rural Louisiana, contradictory 
signals by government agencies have slowed and in some cases reversed 
progress. Small independent family commercial fishing businesses have 
been imperiled by the lack of recovery funds. The federal assistance 
that has occurred has tended to favor the affluent and those with 
economic assets.

Visitors to New Orleans can still stay in fine hotels and dine at 
great restaurants. But less than a five minute drive away lie miles 
of devastated neighborhoods that shock visitors. Locals call it "the 
Grand Canyon effect" - you know about it, you have seen it on TV, but 
when you see it in person it can take your breath away.

Our community continues to take hope from the resilience of our 
people. Despite lack of federal, state and local assistance, people 
are living their lives and repairing their homes. People are 
organizing. Many fight for better levee protection. Some work for 
affordable housing. Some are workers collectively seeking better 
working conditions. Neighborhoods are coming together to fight for 
basic services. Small business owners are working together to secure 
grants and low-cost rebuilding loans. Others organize against crime.

We graciously accept the kindnesses of strangers who come by the 
hundreds every day to help us gut and rebuild our homes. Churches, 
synagogues, and mosques from around the country come to partner with 
local congregations to rebuild and resource their sisters and brothers.

The new Congress appears poised to give us a hand. Congresswoman 
Maxine Waters, head the House Subcommittee overseeing HUD, delivered 
pointed questions and criticisms to federal, state and local 
foot-draggers recently and promised a new day.

Young people are particularly outraged and activated by what they see 
they give us hope. Over a thousand law students alone will come to 
the gulf to volunteer over spring break with the Student Hurricane Network.

The connections between the lack of resources for Katrina rebuilding 
and Iraq and Afghanistan are clear to everyone on the gulf coast.

Despite the guarantees of the United Nations Guiding Principles on 
Internal Displacement that people displaced through no fault of their 
own have the right to return to their homes and have the right to 
expect the government to help them do so, far too little progress has 
been made.

As U.S. Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City observed in a 
recent public hearing, "When it is all said and done, there has been 
a lot more said than done."

But still each day, Ms. Debra South Jones and her volunteers drive 
into New Orleans east to dish out hot food and groceries to people in 
need. In the past eighteen months, they have given out over 3 million 
pounds of food to over 130,000 families. We never dreamed we would be 
still be so needy eighteen months after Katrina. We look forward to 
the day when she will not have to feed us, when we will not need 
volunteers to gut and fix up our homes, when we can feed ourselves in 
our own fixed up homes in a revitalized New Orleans.

[ If you would like to learn more about Ms. Debra South Jones and the 
work of her organization Just the Right Attitude, see 
<http://www.jtra.org/>http://www.jtra.org ]

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola 
University New Orleans. He can be reached at 
<mailto:Quigley at loyno.edu>Quigley at loyno.edu


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