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Six months after the Bush administration did nothing...
No help for victims of Katrina

March 10, 2006 | Page 5

PETRINO DiLEO reports from New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina struck.

GEORGE BUSH sits slumped at a conference table at his holiday ranch, nonchalantly taking in an update as Hurricane Katrina speeds toward the Gulf Coast. He hears about the threat of massive flooding in New Orleans if the city's levee system is breached, and the dangers that will face mainly poor and Black residents trapped at the Superdome.

"We are fully prepared to help," Bush says. But he doesn't ask any questions as the potential of a nightmare scenario is laid out to him.

These are the damning images from a videotaped teleconference involving top administration officials, which emerged in the media last week along with seven days of written transcripts of further briefings, both before and after Katrina hit.

The video proves that the administration knew what New Orleans could face. Yet Bush did nothing, even after Katrina hit, remaining at his Crawford ranch while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the command of the incompetent Michael Brown, fumbled the rescue effort.

Bush claimed the "no one had any idea the levees might be breached," but on the teleconference, the director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center raises just that possibility. Later, the administration would claim that it was warned about water overrunning the levees, rather than breaking through them.

Fast forward six months later. February 28 was Fat Tuesday--Mardi Gras. It was the first major tourist test for New Orleans after the city was ravaged by Katrina and the subsequent flooding.

The mainstream media focused its attention on Bourbon Street, packed with tourists and wealthy locals. Turnout was below average, but the images were supposed to be a confirmation normalcy is returning to the Gulf Coast. "It's been absolutely--I don't know how to describe it--great," gushed Mayor Ray Nagin, as he traipsed around New Orleans costumed as a general, wearing a camouflage uniform and black beret.

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BUT MANY people from the Gulf South spent Mardi Gras in a different setting.

Darrell Herring, uprooted from Jackson, Miss., and Dana Montana, from New Orleans, were among dozens of evacuees and their supporters huddled outside FEMA headquarters in New York City that day. In 25-degree temperatures that felt even colder because of the whipping winds, they came from hotels out near New York's LaGuardia Airport to protest FEMA's attempts to cut off hotel vouchers for survivors.

"The response has been absolutely laughable--absolutely unbelievable and absolutely ridiculous," Montana said in an interview. "FEMA has time and time again demonstrated incompetence on top of incompetence. It's unbelievable that a government agency can function on that level and still exist, which suggests to us that they know exactly what they are doing. They are playing us."

People are slipping through the cracks. Herring and Montana say that the evacuee population at New York hotels has been dwindling as the months go by and people get discouraged with the government's lack of a response.

Despite the cold, protesters rallied for two hours, taking turns speaking. The New York Solidarity Coalition for Katrina/Rita Survivors, which has organized several demonstrations in recent months, facilitated the protest.

"I appreciate all the coalition partners that have come together and the people that are part of the Katrina/Rita network," said Brenda Stokely, president of AFSCME District Council 1707, who has played a major role bringing activists and evacuees together. "That's what survivors asked us to do, to come back and join hands with all activists in the city and to build a powerful movement throughout the country. We are beginning that process."

March 1 was to mark the next wave of evacuee hotel evictions as FEMA continues to cut off hurricane survivors. However, the day before the protest, FEMA extended the deadline for another two weeks, setting March 15 as a new eviction date for 20,000 evacuees in 8,000 hotel rooms across the country.

The two-week delay was little comfort to those facing the prospect of losing the only housing they've had since their homes were destroyed and lives uprooted. "There shouldn't be a deadline on rebuilding your life," Montana said. "The deadline should be on FEMA. Let's give them a deadline on assisting people affected by Katrina and Rita. If they don't meet that deadline, they should be dismantled."

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THE SITUATION in New Orleans, which I visited two weeks earlier, illustrates just how little FEMA or any other government agency has done to help those who suffered the most in the Katrina disaster.

While the upscale Garden District, the central business district and the French Quarter show clear signs of life, predominantly Black neighborhoods like Treme, the 7th Ward, the 9th Ward and the Lower 9th Ward are virtual ghost towns.

Most of the cars that pass through are tourists gawking at the destruction. In the hardest-hit areas, houses have been completely wiped out. In other places, the flood line is still visible on building exteriors. And everywhere in the city, the search codes remain--red and black "Xs" with dates, spray-painted on the outsides of buildings.

The same people who were left behind to face the chaos of the Superdome and Convention Center when Katrina hit are now being prevented from returning. Montana calls it "economic genocide." New Orleans' pre-storm population was 484,000. Six months after the Katrina, it is 156,000, according to a new report by Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

The racial composition of the city has been transformed. Pre-Katrina, 70 percent of New Orleans residents were Black. Now the city is majority white. The Institute estimates that New Orleans will lose 80 percent of its Black population if people are unable to return to flood-damaged neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the population of New Orleans suburbs has exploded--exceeding 10-year projections in a matter of months. For example, St. Tammany Parish to the north has seen its population rise by 50 percent--from 200,000 pre-Katrina to 300,000 today.

The result is that New Orleans has gone from being a residential city to a commuter city. Traffic on I-10--the main East/West Interstate passing through the city--has risen by 90,000 cars a day post-Katrina. At night, the city empties.

Of 22 New Orleans hospitals, only seven are open. Only 17 percent of the city's 117 public schools have reopened, another reason that many families have not come back. Of the 20 that have reopened, 16 are operating as charter schools--the "reform" scheme pushed by privatizers and teachers' union opponents.

On the surface, it appears that many neighborhoods were abandoned. But in reality, residents have been prohibited from coming back, despite Louisiana getting $10.4 billion in federal money that is supposed to go to homeowners who lacked insurance.

Basically, New Orleans officials are requiring residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods to come up with plans on how their communities should be rebuilt--but the plans are subject to city approval. Neighborhoods that don't come up with an "acceptable" plan--or attract enough developer interest--could be bulldozed and turned into wetlands.

The situation is the same with public housing. Just north of the French Quarter sits the Iberville Housing Project. Despite appearing to be largely structurally intact, the project is completely closed. A chain-link fence topped with razor wire blocks anyone from going inside. The picture is similar at housing projects around the city.

Meanwhile, wealthy developers and businesses don't face any restrictions. In fact, they have billions in tax breaks and other incentives waiting for them whenever they decide to rebuild.

Major redevelopment hasn't begun in earnest yet. Developers are waiting for FEMA to produce new flood plain maps for the region--Louisiana's maps are due in June--which will impact the availability and cost of insurance. Plus, they are waiting for further incentives beyond the $7.9 billion Louisiana already has to offer thanks to the Gulf Opportunity Zone bill Bush signed into law.

For residents, though, there is a moratorium not only on new construction, but also repairs. The city is refusing to issue building permits, so even those who return face potential stiff penalties if they get caught fixing up their own homes.

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VOLUNTEERS FROM the Common Ground Collective have found this out the hard way. Members of the grassroots organization that defends New Orleans residents have been continually targeted and arrested for helping in repairs.

Common Ground was formed in the days after the hurricane as a grassroots emergency relief effort, and has continued in the six months since.

Today, more than 400 volunteers are working at the group's various sites at any one time. Some 2,000 activists have traveled to New Orleans to help with the group's efforts, and it expects another 2,000 during March after a major push to bring volunteers down during spring break on college campuses.

Besides its original clinic in the Algiers neighborhood--started by Green Party member and former Black Panther Malik Rahim and other activists--Common Ground operates in about a dozen locations around the city. It has three health clinics, several distribution centers (including ones in the 9th Ward and Lower 9th Ward), a women's center, a legal center and a media center, where residents can get free phone and Internet access.

Common Ground provides home cleanup and gutting, and is taking on mold abatement. The group is part of the fight against evictions and is taking on the project of bio-remediation to help remove the toxic chemicals spread throughout the city by the floodwaters.

The organization has also stepped up its political advocacy work. Its distribution centers are stocked with supplies, but also political flyers. Protest signs are planted in front yards, and piles more sit ready for the next wave of evictions, or to protest the next visit of politicians touring the area for a photo op, without stopping to offer any aid.

Common Ground's health clinics have exceeded their original mandate of providing emergency care to become free, primary-care health clinics. The clinic in Algiers, for example, is the first free clinic to ever operate in the area.

"We've had 70-year old men come into our clinics saying they haven't seen a doctor since they were born, and we're able to provide them care," said Sakura Kone, a volunteer and spokesperson for Common Ground. "We've had others come in saying the only time they've seen doctors in their lives was when they were in prison. This is how the richest society in the world treats its citizens."

The predicament is that, as the Gulf Coast Reconstruction report illustrates, some evacuees have little to come back to. In the Lower 9th Ward, only 25 percent of residents who returned have electricity. Only 3 percent have gas service. Some 6 million cubic yards of debris have been removed from city streets, but an estimated eight times that amount remains.

And it is less than three months until the 2006 hurricane season begins. While some reconstruction work on the city's levees has been competed, they have not been upgraded to protect against another Katrina-sized storm. In fact, Congress only authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild the levees for a Category 2 hurricane.

So while Common Ground advocates for a "right of return" for all New Orleans residents, they also want people to know the hardships and challenges they face by coming back.

"We are advocating for people to return, but we are walking a tightrope," Kone said. "We're concerned for people's safety."

Common Ground is also facing constant supply shortages--less comes in today than it did after the hurricane.

"We used to be overwhelmed with supplies," Kone said. "I think we're not getting as much because we're off the front page, and people think we don't need it. But we're still providing relief, even six months later."

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