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Abandoned in New Orleans

January 6, 2006 | Page 4

ISO member JOHN McDONALD was part of a volunteer relief delegation to New Orleans during the week of Thanksgiving. He wrote this report.

DRIVING INTO New Orleans is what you might expect to find when driving into a war zone--or more aptly, a city after it's been through a war and is now deserted. The city remains largely emptied of people, but piled with debris. Criminally, large sections of the city remained without electricity three months after Katrina struck.

While the French Quarter is lit up and open for business, the predominantly working-class and Black neighborhoods of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards, which adjoin the French Quarter to the North and East respectively, remain dark and piled with mud, moldy furniture, drywall and other assorted debris, utterly neglected by all federal authorities.

Much of this prime real estate is the target for demolition, displacement of the community, and construction of profitable casinos and other tourist attractions.

In contrast, the Lakeview neighborhood, which sits on Lake Pontchatrain and along the largest levy break, suffered some of the worst destruction in the city, with water lines reaching up over roofs. Yet some of the largest homes in this area are up and running. The people with money in New Orleans are able to hire private contractors to gut their homes, re-insulate and drywall, set up generators and move back in. This is, for obvious reasons, not an option for the majority of the city's residents.

A community organization called "The Common Ground Collective" based in the eight and ninth wards, as well as the Algiers neighborhood, has been working in their community to rebuild in spite of government inaction. For the Thanksgiving holiday week, Common Ground launched its "Road Trip for Relief," which brought more than 300 community activists and volunteers from around the country to start rebuilding one house at a time.

Common Ground has also set up distribution centers for food, clothing and cleaning supplies, as well as organizing against landlord and government evictions. Their motto is "Solidarity, Not Charity"--a slogan that accurately describes the city's true needs. People unable to afford the high costs of private contractors and unable to get their insurance companies to pay up, have turned to others in their community to work together to rebuild.

The backdrop to this inspirational grassroots show of solidarity is, of course, the response--or lack thereof--from the government and national charities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is hauntingly absent from the most devastated areas in the city. The only indication of its presence are small notices attached to people's houses reading: "We received your request for assistance, but when we came by to do a damage assessment, we were unable to enter since you were not at home." While the tone is neighborly, the message it sends to the community couldn't be more callous.

The "relief efforts" of the Red Cross are equally inadequate. Its focus includes standing on corners, mostly near the French Quarter, handing out bottles of water, chili dogs, mops, brooms and buckets. Even more indicative of the Red Cross's detachment from reality in New Orleans is the hired help that can be found at its distribution centers.

At most of the places the Red Cross set up shop, they brought with them hired thugs from Blackwater Security and other private security firms. The armed mercenaries, most notorious for their actions in Iraq, claimed to have been hired by the corporate charity to "protect the volunteers." Their real purpose became clear when several activists went to hand out leaflets at one Red Cross location and were belligerently confronted by one of the armed guards, who shouted, "These people don't want to talk to you, so you better leave."

The mercenaries certainly aren't volunteering for the Red Cross, and when their lofty price tag is considered, one can't help but wonder at the fact that this organization feels it more appropriate to hire private security than contractors to rebuild the homes of those in need.

As if the negligence and seeming indifference to the desperate state of affairs in the storm-ravaged neighborhoods described above were not incriminating enough, FEMA now seems committed to accelerating the crisis in the city. Most of the working-class sections of New Orleans remained without electricity or running water.

Yet despite this, FEMA announced that as of December 13, it would cease to cover the expenses of hurricane victims now housed in hotels--a deadline it was later forced to push back, but only somewhat. In short, this means residents from the Ninth Ward and other poor sections of the city are going to be abandoned by the federal government once again.

FEMA's attack is but one front in the assault being launched against the city's working class. Seizing on the opportunity to cash in on skyrocketing demand for housing, landlords citywide are illegally evicting tenants and subsequently inflating rents to double or triple their former rates.

So even those fortunate enough to escape excessive damage to their homes at Katrina's hands are now being ravaged by the unnatural disaster unleashed by the mad dash for profits that followed in the hurricane's wake.

What's more, city authorities have refused to reopen public housing projects, and seem postured to make their closure permanent. At the Iberville projects, this scheme is already in motion, as steel shutters now block all the windows and doors.

Many residents feel that this is part of an effort to remake New Orleans in the image of the city's social elite. It is a plan that was started prior to the hurricane, and has rapidly picked up speed following the massive displacement of residents caused by Katrina.

In response to this brazen attack on the poor, the organization NOHEAT has been organizing community forums. It called a march through the Iberville project on December 3 to demand that public housing be reopened, and that evictions be discontinued.

This, in conjunction with the efforts of Common Ground, is going a small way in reclaiming the Gulf Coast for the people who live there. But ultimately, nothing short of a massive grassroots campaign will be able to put an end to the plundering and profiteering now at work in New Orleans.

For more information about the fight for housing rights in New Orleans, visit and on the Web.

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