NEW ORLEANS — It takes a leap of faith to believe that this lovely city can be rebuilt from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, given the cruelty of President Bush who concealed his administration’s abandonment of the working people of New Orleans with honey-sweet promises, all of them broken.
Yet on the marquee outside the gutted Mt. Carmel Missionary Ministries church in the Lower 9th Ward is posted this message from the Holy Scriptures: “Can these bones live? O, ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. … These bones shall live!”
The church is the only building still standing for blocks in any direction after the levee broke Aug. 29, 2005, unleashing a 25-foot wall of water that smashed everything in its path.
What the water didn’t destroy, bulldozers have leveled in the two years since, leaving acre after acre of empty, weed-infested lots where houses once stood. Further away from the levees, thousands more houses that could be repaired stand vacant while the owners struggle against stalling tactics on the delivery of “Road Home” grants to rebuild.
‘I grew up here’
As I was pondering that passage from the Prophet Ezekiel, Randy Gibson drove up and got out of his car. He is one of many thousands forced to flee Katrina who has now returned, helping push the city’s population back up to 60 percent of its pre-Katrina population.
“I grew up here. My whole life was here,” Gibson told the World. “I moved away the day before the hurricane hit. My wife and I ended up in Lakeworth, Fla. I worked as a mailman. Now I’m back working as a letter carrier here in New Orleans. We’re so shorthanded, I work until 9 or 10 o’clock every night, so I don’t get back down here as often as I’d like.”
He pointed toward the levees along the Industrial Canal to the west. “My house was right over there on Tennessee Street,” he said. “It’s gone. The barge that broke through the levee that night was sitting right there. It was bigger than this church.”
Then he spoke wistfully of the past. New Orleans is a party town, and nowhere more so than in the Lower 9th Ward, he said. Right around the corner from the church was a nightclub.
“We’d spend Saturday nights there listening to jazz,” he said. “When we came out at dawn, the congregation of this church was already arriving for Sunday morning services.” Underlining the vibrancy off that culture is the nearby home of Fats Domino, still standing defiantly in the Lower 9th Ward with the initial’s “FD” on its bright yellow facade.
Gibson added, “To come here now and see all this devastation, it’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. This was a disaster in America. What is the problem with coming in here and rebuilding this whole community?
“You talk about billions,” he continued. “Congress just approved another $50 billion for Iraq. Why can’t the federal government just print up that money and use it to rebuild here? If this neighborhood was up and running, there would be parties on every block for every Saints game.”
Fighting greedy developers
A few blocks nearer the levee is the “Blue House,” headquarters of the Common Ground Relief Center that played a heroic role in the days immediately after Katrina. Common Ground, with the help of Veterans for Peace, opened the first emergency medical center after the flood. It was staffed by doctors, nurses and other health care professionals at a time when the city’s hospitals were flooded and abandoned.
Common Ground and its tireless leader, Malik Rahim, orchestrated much of the volunteer efforts in the two years since to “muck” people’s houses and help them begin to rebuild. An estimated 1.1 million people have worked as volunteers in New Orleans since Katrina. It might be the greatest, most sustained volunteer effort ever.
Yet the crisis in the Lower 9th is unabated, fueled by the greed of developers who see Katrina as a golden opportunity for wholesale “urban removal” of 127,000 people — mostly poor African Americans.
Volunteer Calvin Bernard was on duty at Blue House. Common Ground, together with ACORN, now has shifted its focus to stopping the developers from wholesale theft of property of families displaced from the Lower 9th Ward. Bernard, a construction worker, was working on a job site in Baton Rouge when the levees broke. His home, with his wife trapped inside, was swept away. Her body was found eight months later.
Now Bernard works every day helping Katrina survivors, or planting lawn signs with the words, “Stop Land Grab” and “Stop the Bulldozers.”
Common Ground initiated a project of placing house numbers on the lots where houses once stood to protect the property rights of homeowners forced to flee and now lacking the resources to return and rebuild.
“Three families have come here today planning to begin remodeling their homes,” Bernard continued. “They found out the city had bulldozed their houses without informing them in advance. The big land developers want all this land. But they aren’t going to get it as long as I’m living.”
The New Orleans diaspora
Of the estimated 200,000 who evacuated New Orleans before and after Katrina, only an estimated 31,000 have returned. The other 170,000 are scattered in every state of the union, with heavy concentrations in Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta, Memphis, and southeast Mississippi.
The Times-Picayune newspaper featured a front-page report on this “diaspora” Sept. 2. While some of the evacuees are building new lives, many more are homesick and drive back long distances to visit the sites of their damaged or destroyed homes, the Times reported. Others are returning because FEMA has terminated hurricane relief benefits and they cannot find jobs, affordable housing or health care in the cities where they took refuge. Many also face the pressure of rising discrimination and racist hostility.
A tale of two cities
My son, Morgan, a union electrician, is working as a volunteer after his regular job. He drove me around the Lower 9th Ward, introducing me to some of the volunteers and residents he has assisted.
Then we headed across town to the Garden District. “This is still a tale of two cities,” he said, echoing Charles Dickens, as we cruised beside Audubon Park, an immaculate green oasis with magnificent 200-year-old oaks and a manicured golf course. Wealthy residents were strolling on the grass or jogging beneath the spreading boughs.
On St. Charles Avenue stood the entrance to Audubon Place, a community protected by tall wrought iron fences and a gatehouse. A sign posted outside, warns, “Illegal to enter.” Beyond the bars stand the dazzling white mansions of the rich with their fluted columns and sweeping verandas.
The floodwaters never reached this fabulously wealthy enclave, Morgan said. “They may have evacuated, but the houses they returned to were as gleaming as when they left.”
Morgan then drove me back to Treme Vieux Carre, the neighborhood where he lives with a crew of electricians from Guatemala working in the rebuilding effort.
Nearby is a big public housing complex, handsome brick buildings surrounded by neatly trimmed lawns. They are now boarded up and posted with menacing signs warning trespassers not to enter. While I was there, former residents, members of the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund, staged a sit-in at the New Orleans Housing Authority demanding that these apartments be repaired and reopened to help ease the acute shortage of affordable rental housing.
Soon after the floodwaters began to subside in New Orleans, professor Scott Myers-Lipton of San Jose State University in California launched a campaign to push through Congress what he calls the “Gulf Coast Civic Works Project” (GCCWP), a program to employ 100,000 Gulf Coast residents in federally funded jobs rebuilding schools, hospitals, libraries, streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure in cities and towns on the Gulf Coast. The campaign has caught fire, especially on campuses. Now students enlisted in the campaign are attending the debates of the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders to ask them questions like: “If elected president of the U.S., would you introduce legislation based on the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project? Do you support the idea of a WPA-like project to rebuild the Gulf Coast?”
One of the links provided on the GCCWP web site features more than 100 photographs of the magnificent reconstruction of public buildings in New Orleans during the Great Depression by unemployed workers hired through the Works Progress Administration. It includes restoration of some of New Orleans’ architectural treasures in the French Quarter, the house where Gen. Andrew Jackson lived during the 1812 Battle of New Orleans, and the St. Roch Public Market, already 100 years old in 1937. Now that market is closed and falling into ruins. All this begs the question: Why not a new WPA program to rebuild New Orleans?
A weeklong visit to the Crescent City brought home an inescapable reality: The devastation here is too immense ever to be rebuilt by volunteers or profit-driven developers. Only the federal government has the resources to rebuild this city. Use the tax dollars we have already turned over to them time and time again, the lion’s share now gobbled up in the endless war in Iraq. The program must guarantee a controlling voice for the people of New Orleans, including those displaced across the nation and still hoping to take that “road home.” The federally funded jobs must include strong affirmative action guarantees and protection of union rights.
If we can make this an overriding issue in the 2008 elections and bring it to reality after the elections, then the “dry bones” of New Orleans will indeed live again.
Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.