WASHINGTON — As irrepressible as jazz itself, the people of New Orleans and many tourists celebrated Mardi Gras along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter last week.
But the usual mood, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll), was replaced by an undercurrent of anger spiced with humor.
One float in the Krewe de Vieux parade last weekend asked France to “buy back Louisiana,” suggesting that New Orleans would get a better deal from a foreign government than from Washington.
A few days earlier, Hurricane Katrina survivors and their allies blasted the Bush administration and Congress for leaving them homeless, unemployed, and stripped of voting rights six months after the storm destroyed much of New Orleans.
Speaking during a Feb. 22 teleconference arranged by the Katrina Information Network (KIN), New Orleans residents joined by grassroots leaders in Washington demanded immediate action to provide jobs, money to rebuild, the right to return to their homes and a guarantee of the right to vote in New Orleans, if necessary at satellite polling places across the country.
They contrasted the speed in reconstructing Wall Street after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack to the stalling by Bush and Congress in rebuilding majority-Black, working-class New Orleans.
“They want to put all the weight on the victims,” said Joseph Ringo, a resident of New Orleans’ hard-hit 9th Ward. “A political
game is being played.”
Ringo said he and other 9th Ward residents are fighting, so far with little success, to force the Bush administration to live up to the promise of $150,000 each in federal block grant money so he and his neighbors can rebuild their flood-ravaged homes. “The block grant money was supposed to be allocated to the most devastated areas but the people in positions of power have silver spoons in their mouths and want to get the money for themselves,” he said.
One trick is to deny grants to those who lacked flood insurance while another is to subtract from their grants any assistance received from the infamous FEMA. Ringo pointed out that it was not a flood, in the usual sense, that damaged their homes but rather the breach in the levees which the federal Corps of Engineers was responsible for maintaining. “We’ll end up getting $15,000 or $20,000. How can we rebuild with that amount of money?” he asked.
The Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans, said the Vietnamese community survived thanks to strong bonds of mutual support. “Our struggle has been with insurance companies that use different tactics to low-ball the residents,” he said. “Months later they haven’t come up with the cash, even though 90 percent of the houses are gutted and are ready to be rebuilt.”
Judith Browne, co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project, told the news briefing her group has been “working on the ground” in New Orleans to defend the right of hundreds of thousands of residents to vote, to return to their city and to rebuild their homes. “Clearly there is a housing crisis for Hurricane Katrina survivors,” she said.
“FEMA is evicting 4,400 evacuees from hotels in Louisiana and another 8,000 face eviction across the nation on March 1,” Browne said. “The government is not stepping up to the plate.” Another 1,700 people are to be evicted from cabins on cruise ships moored along the riverfront in New Orleans. FEMA was ordered to provide 98,000 travel trailers and mobile homes, but only 41,000 have been delivered while tens of thousands remain parked in Arkansas.
Matt Smith, a spokesperson for Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, charged that all of the official plans for rebuilding New Orleans “advocate a smaller footprint aimed at reducing the Black population, the ethnic cleansing of the African American community of New Orleans.” He said. “After 9/11, in New York City, there was clean up work being done night and day with no let-up until the work was done. There is no such urgency in rebuilding New Orleans.”
There must be, he added, “an immediate federal government remediation plan” starting with strengthening the levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. “The Corps of Engineers is talking about bringing the levees up to ‘pre-Katrina levels.’ That ought to set off alarm bells for everyone,” he said. “What they have rebuilt so far is absolutely unacceptable. The levees are not being rebuilt with the right kind of soil, heavy clays with proper compaction.”
Perhaps reflecting Citgo’s delivery of Venezuelan heating oil to communities abandoned by Bush-Cheney, New Orleans grassroots organizer Saad Muhammad said, “We feel we have to enlist international support from other nations to permit us to rebuild. If the U.S. government doesn’t do it, international support should be allowed to do it. This was a man-made tragedy.”
Asked about holding the U.S. House and Senate accountable in the 2006 elections, the Advancement Project’s Browne said, “The federal government has covered itself with a blanket of immunity for their inaction and negligence. … The only way the survivors are going to have accountability is by voting in the upcoming elections.”
Her group filed a lawsuit asking the courts to order satellite voting to insure voting rights. “They provided satellite polling places for Iraqis living in the U.S. so they could vote in the Iraqi elections. So why not satellite polling places for the people of New Orleans scattered across the country?”
Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled Feb. 24 against that appeal. The Advancement Project reacted sharply. “We are extremely disappointed,” it said in a statement. “Democracy itself is now a disaster in the state, threatening to disenfranchise thousands of registered voters.”