18 months after Katrina, little progress

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, broke the levees and flooded his home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, Allsee Tobias and 20 of his relatives, including 10 children, are relocating once again. Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency forced 58 families, including Tobias’, to evacuate their trailer homes in Hammond, La.

The trailer park has been plagued by chronic problems of open sewage and electricity shut-offs. FEMA said the owners of the park were delinquent in paying their bills; the owners charge FEMA didn’t pay its rental fees on time.

Meanwhile, Tobias is again without a home. “They know how to put me out, but they don’t know how to help me out,” he said.

A recent report titled “Eighteen Months After Katrina,” written by Bill Quigley, a fellow evacuee and a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, confirms what many residents, evacuees and groups like the NAACP have charged for some time — namely, that the plans to rebuild the Gulf Coast involve abandoning Black and poor people.

New Orleans now has a much smaller, older, whiter and more affluent population. The casinos in Biloxi, Miss., have been rebuilt, but the low-income people who were forced out of their homes there remain in distress.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, The Wall Street Journal reported that 40 members of the Conservative Congressional Caucus had developed a plan titled “From tragedy to triumph: principled solutions for rebuilding lives and communities.”

The plan included vouchers for private schools, more deregulation and tax breaks for big business, social service cuts, limits on a victim’s right to sue and weakened anti-discrimination, wage and environmental laws. It did not include rebuilding the predominantly African American 9th Ward.

Events to date have generally followed this script.

Like other cities with large Black populations, New Orleans was a troubled city even before Katrina, with high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and low-achieving schools. The hurricane and the breeched levees just exacerbated conditions and exposed them to the world.

Since the hurricane, the city’s population has decreased from 484,000 to about 188,000. The African American population plummeted by 73 percent, from 325,000 to 89,000. Many will never be able to return. No schools, housing, health care or jobs are available for them.

Only 27 percent of the city’s buses are running, so people can’t get to work if and when they find jobs. Day care is scarce.

The water is still not safe to drink. The public hospital that served 350,000 people a year will not be reopened. Seventy-five percent of the doctors, dentists and pharmacists are gone. The suicide rate has tripled and depression is at epidemic levels, but there are few spaces for psychiatric patients.

Before Katrina there were 56,000 students in 100 schools. Now there are less than 25,000. The state took over the schools. The teachers were decertified and fired. Most schools were turned into charter schools. It took a January 2007 court order to force New Orleans to provide teachers and classrooms for 300 students on a waiting list.

Thousands of people are living in their gutted-out houses because they can’t afford contractors. Before Katrina, 53 percent of people in New Orleans were renters. Rents have increased 39 percent. Hundreds had to seek court orders to prevent evictions. Others became homeless. Five thousand people lived in public housing before Katrina; only 1,040 have been allowed to return.

Congress approved $100 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but residents ask, “Where is the money?” For example, Louisiana received $10 billion to repair homes. More than 109,000 homeowners applied for this aid, but only 700 received assistance. Meanwhile, corporations and developers are making huge profits.

Residents are organizing to fight for basic services and affordable housing. A suit has been filed against the Army Corps of Engineers for the way it built the levees. ACORN, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO are defending workers’ rights and want local workers to be given jobs in the rebuilding of the city.

Prior to the November elections, Democratic Party leaders promised the first 100 hours of the new Congress would include bills to assist New Orleans, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “New Direction for America” did not mention post-Katrina needs. President Bush pointedly omitted any reference to Katrina in his State of the Union speech.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has criticized federal, state and local “foot-draggers” and promised a new day.

The Gulf Coast is waiting.

phillyrose623 @ verizon.net