NEW ORLEANS — Undaunted by a tropical downpour, Hurricane Katrina survivors rallied in the Lower Ninth Ward and marched across the Claiborne Street bridge, Aug. 29, chanting, “Justice … now!” They were protesting President Bush’s failure to deliver on his promise two years ago of quick, generous assistance in rebuilding this devastated city.
“Houses and lives were washed away and we are facing a government that has done nothing to bring the people home,” Malcolm Suber, director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, told the crowd. “We’re going to keep fighting until all the people come home.”
The marchers had gathered for a prayer service at the point on the Industrial Canal where the levee broke on Aug. 29, 2005, unleashing a deluge that killed anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 people. A row of placards propped against the new concrete levee wall listed names of those who died. A makeshift altar was festooned with flowers and candles. Olay Eela Daste, a Yoruba preacher, led the crowd in a prayer.
The levee has been rebuilt, but behind it block after block has been swept clear of houses. Concrete slabs and porch steps are all that remain, many of them cared for lovingly by the former residents. Beyond are blocks of boarded up, abandoned homes, most of them the quaint “shotgun” houses with ornate gingerbread decorations that make New Orleans so picturesque.
Patrice Milton knelt and pointed at a name on one of the memorial placards. “Darryl Milton,” she told the World. “He was my cousin. His home was right across the street from mine. He and his house were swept away. My house was knocked off the foundation but here I am. I am saddened because we have not had the attention that was given to some other national disasters.”
Her cousin Angela Valdery interjected, “We should make this a major issue in the 2008 elections. If it can happen here, how do we know it isn’t going to happen somewhere else next time? Will the response be the same as it was here?”
Many people want to come home, she said, “but can’t because they lack the resources. Even if you find a job, finding affordable housing here is really hard. My husband was working as a carpenter in Kansas City for $31 an hour. Now he’s back in New Orleans earning $18 an hour.”
Stephanie Mingo, a People’s Hurricane Relief Fund leader, was holding a sign reading “Re-open public housing.”
“They closed down the Lafitte housing project and displaced 900 families,” she said. “They closed down the St. Bernard project where I lived. That displaced 1,400 families. They don’t want to reopen it.”
Federal and local officials, she charged, want to turn these public housing sites over to a developer who plans to build a movie theater and luxury condos where low-income workers once lived.
These government officials “think low-income people are not deserving,” Mingo continued. “But they forget that we are the hardest-working people in America. We’re not afraid of cooking and cleaning.
“We went back in and cleaned up our houses,” she added. “We said we would even pay with our own money. They wouldn’t let us.”
On Aug. 28, she and other public housing tenants converged on the Housing Authority of New Orleans office with the aim of staging a sit-in to demand full funding of public housing and the re-opening of the closed housing units.
“We were met by NOPD [New Orleans police officers] who blocked our way,” she said. “But we are going to go back. We’re not going to give up. Affordable housing is our right.”
Lionel Blake, 80, was standing outside the “Blue House” in the Lower Ninth, headquarters of the Common Ground Relief Collective. It is one block from the breach in the levee that destroyed the ward.
Blake had warm praise for Common Ground’s tireless work on behalf of the people. He moved into the community with his family in 1951 and lives here still. His wife is in a nursing home now, and he is awaiting his federal-state “Road Home” grant so he can rebuild. It will be the second time for him. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy engulfed his home.
“I’m looking ahead to the future,” Blake said. “We can get the tax dollars we need to rebuild if we can get out of that war we had no business getting involved in. We rebuilt Europe and Asia after World War II. We can rebuild New Orleans. They are spending billions over there in Iraq and now they’re getting ready to go into Iran. We need those tax dollars right here in New Orleans.”
Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party, who just returned from the Gulf Coast area, called it “a national disgrace” that the federal government has failed to rebuild the area for its former residents. “It’s also a real example of racist indifference,” starting with the White House, he said. “Every presidential candidate must have a program to address this.”