Katrina, 10 Months Later
Gutting New Orleans
by Bill Quigley
June 28, 2006
Saturday I joined some volunteers and
helped gut the home of one of my best friends. Two months after
she finished paying off her mortgage, her one-story brick home
was engulfed in 7 feet of water. Because she was under-insured
and remains worried about a repeat of the floods, my friend, a
grandmother, has not yet decided if she is going to rebuild.
Though it is Saturday morning, on my friend's
block no children play and no one is cutting the grass. Most of
her neighbors' homes are still abandoned. Three older women neighbors
have died since Katrina.
We are still finding dead bodies. Ten
days ago, workers cleaning a house in New Orleans found a body
of a man who died in the flood. He is the twenty-third person
found dead from the storm since March.
Over two hundred thousand people have
not yet made it back to New Orleans. Vacant houses stretch mile
after mile, neighborhood after neighborhood. Thousands of buildings
remain marked with brown ribbons where floodwaters settled. Of
the thousands of homes and businesses in eastern New Orleans,
thirteen percent have been re-connected to electricity.
The mass displacement of people has left
New Orleans older, whiter and more affluent. African-Americans,
children and the poor have not made it back -- primarily because
of severe shortages of affordable housing.
Thousands of homes remain just as they
were when the floodwaters receded --ghost-like houses with open
doors, upturned furniture, and walls covered with growing mold.
Not a single dollar of federal housing
repair or home reconstruction money has made it to New Orleans
yet. Tens of thousands are waiting. Many wait because a full third
of homeowners in the New Orleans area had no flood insurance.
Others wait because the levees surrounding New Orleans are not
yet as strong as they were before Katrina and fear re-building
until flood protection is more likely. Fights over the federal
housing money still loom because Louisiana refuses to clearly
state a commitment to direct 50% of the billions to low and moderate
Meanwhile, seventy thousand families in
Louisiana live in 240 square foot FEMA trailers --three on my
friend's street. As homeowners, their trailer is in front of their
own battered home. Renters are not so fortunate and are placed
in gravel strewn FEMA-villes across the state. With rents skyrocketing,
thousands have moved into houses without electricity.
Meanwhile, privatization of public services
continues to accelerate.
Public education in New Orleans is mostly
demolished and what remains is being privatized. The city is now
the nation's laboratory for charter schools --publicly funded
schools run by private bodies. Before Katrina the local elected
school board had control over 115 schools --they now control 4.
The majority of the remaining schools are now charters. The metro
area public schools will get $213 million less next school year
in state money because tens of thousands of public school students
were displaced last year. At the same time, the federal government
announced a special allocation of $23.9 million which can only
be used for charter schools in Louisiana. The teachers union,
the largest in the state, has been told there will be no collective
bargaining because, as one board member stated, "I think
we all realize the world has changed around us."
Public housing has been boarded up and
fenced off as HUD announced plans to demolish 5000 apartments
-- despite the greatest shortage of affordable housing in the
region's history. HUD plans to let private companies develop the
sites. In the meantime, the 4000 families locked out since Katrina
are not allowed to return.
The broken city water system is losing
about 85 million gallons of water in leaks every day. That is
not a typo, 85 million gallons of water a day, at a cost of $200,000
a day, are still leaking out of the system even after over 17,000
leaks have been plugged. Michelle Krupa of the Times-Picayune
reports that the city pumps 135 million gallons a day through
80 miles of pipe in order for 50 million gallons to be used. We
are losing more than we are using; the repair bill is estimated
to be $1 billion - money the city does not have.
Public healthcare is in crisis. Our big
public hospital has remained closed and there are no serious plans
to reopen it. A neighbor with cancer who has no car was told that
she has to go 68 miles away to the closest public hospital for
Mental health may be worse. In the crumbling
city and in the shelters of the displaced, depression and worse
reign. Despite a suicide rate triple what it was a year ago, the
New York Times reports we have lost half of our psychiatrists,
social workers, psychologists and other mental health care workers.
Mental health clinics remain closed. The psych unit of the big
public hospital has not been replaced in the private sector as
most are too poor to pay. The primary residence for people with
mental health problems are our jails and prisons.
For children, the Washington Post reports,
the trauma of the floods has not ended. A LSU mental health screening
of nearly 5,000 children in schools and temporary housing in Louisiana
found that 96 percent saw hurricane damage to their homes or neighborhoods,
22 percent had relatives or friends who were injured, 14 percent
had relatives or friends who died, and 35 percent lost pets. Thirty-four
percent were separated from their primary caregivers at some point;
9 percent still are. Little care is directed to the little ones.
The criminal justice system remains shattered.
Six thousand cases await trial. There were no jury trials and
only 4 public defenders for 9 of the last 10 months. Many people
in jail have not seen a lawyer since 2005. The Times-Picayune
reported one defendant, jailed for possession of crack cocaine
for almost two years, has not been inside a court room since August
2005 despite the fact that a key police witness against him committed
suicide during the storm.
You may have seen on the news that we
have some new neighbors --the National Guard. We could use the
help of our military to set up hospitals and clinics. We could
use their help in gutting and building houses or picking up the
mountains of debris that remain. But instead they were sent to
guard us from ourselves. Crime certainly is a community problem.
But many question the Guard helping local police dramatically
increase stops of young black males --who are spread out on the
ground while they and their cars are searched. The relationship
between crime and the collapse of all of these other systems is
a one rarely brought up.
It has occurred to us that our New Orleans
is looking more and more like Baghdad.
People in New Orleans wonder if this is
the way the US treats its own citizens, how on earth is the US
government treating people around the world? We know our nation
could use its money and troops and power to help build up our
community instead of trying to extending our economic and corporate
reach around the globe. Why has it chosen not to?
We know that what is happening in New
Orleans is just a more concentrated, more graphic version of what
is going on all over our country. Every city in our country has
some serious similarities to New Orleans. Every city has some
abandoned neighborhoods. Every city in our country has abandoned
some public education, public housing, public healthcare, and
criminal justice. Those who do not support public education, healthcare,
and housing will continue to turn all of our country into the
Lower Ninth Ward unless we stop them. Why do we allow this?
There are signs of hope and resistance.
Neighborhood groups across the Gulf Coast
are meeting and insisting that the voices and wishes of the residents
be respected in the planning and rebuilding of their neighborhoods.
Public outrage forced FEMA to cancel the
eviction of 3,000 families from trailers in Mississippi.
Country music artists Faith Hill and Tim
McGraw blasted the failed federal rebuilding effort, saying "When
you have people dying because they're poor and black or poor and
white, or because of whatever they are " if that's a number
on a political scale " then that is the most wrong thing.
That erases everything that's great about our country."
There is a growing grassroots movement
to save the 4000+ apartments of public housing HUD promises to
bulldoze. Residents and allies plan a big July 4 celebration of
Voluntary groups have continued their
active charitable work on the Gulf Coast. Thousands of houses
are being gutted and repaired and even built by Baptist, Catholic,
Episcopal, Jewish, Mennonite, Methodist, Muslim, Presbyterian
and other faith groups. The AFL-CIO announced plans to invest
$700 million in housing in New Orleans.
Many ask what the future of New Orleans
is going to be like? I always give the lawyer's answer, "It
depends." The future of New Orleans depends on whether our
nation makes a commitment to those who have so far been shut out
of the repair of New Orleans. Will the common good prompt the
federal government to help the elderly, the children, the disabled
and the working poor return to New Orleans? If so, we might get
most of our city back. If not, and the signs so far are not so
good, then the tens of thousands of people who were left behind
when Katrina hit 10 months ago, will again be left behind.
The future of New Orleans depends on those
who are willing to fight for the right of every person to return.
Many are fighting for that right. Please join in.
Some ask, what can people who care do
to help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? Help us rebuild our communities.
Pair up your community, your business, school, church, professional
or social organization, with one on the Gulf Coast --and build
a relationship where your organization can be a resource for one
here and provide opportunities for your groups to come and help
and for people here to come and tell their stories in your communities.
Most groups here have adopted the theme --Solidarity not Charity.
Or as aboriginal activist Lila Watson once said: "If you
have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have
come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us
For the sake of our nation and for our
world, let us struggle together.
In the meantime, I will be joining other
volunteers this Saturday, knocking out the mold covered ceiling
of my friend's home and putting it out on the street -- 10 months
For more information, see www.justiceforneworleans.org
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer
and law professor at Loyola Law School in New Orleans. He can
be reached at: Quigley@loyno.edu.