Seven months after Katrina: Tales of lunacy and hope from New Orleans

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In New Orleans, seven months after Katrina, senior citizens are living in their cars. WWL-TV introduced us to Korean War veteran Paul Morris, 74, and his wife Yvonne, 66. They have been sleeping in their two-door sedan since January. They have been waiting that long for FEMA contractors to unlock the 240-square-foot trailer in their yard and connect the power so they can sleep inside it in front of their devastated home.

This tale of lunacy does not begin to stop there.

Their 240-square-foot trailer may well cost more than their house. While FEMA flat out refuses to say how much the government is paying for trailers, reliable estimates by The New York Times and others place the cost at over $60,000 each.

How could these tiny FEMA trailers cost so much? Follow the money.

Circle B Enterprises of Georgia was awarded $287 million in contracts by FEMA for temporary housing. At the time, that was the seventh highest award of Katrina money in the country. According to the Washington Post, Circle B was not even being licensed to build homes in its own state of Georgia and filed for bankruptcy in 2003. The company does not even have a web site.

Here is how it works. The original contractor takes their cut and subcontracts out the work of constructing the trailer to other companies. Once it is built, they subcontract out the transporting of the trailers to yet other companies which pay drivers, gas, insurance and mileage. They then subcontract out the hookups of the trailers to other companies and keep taking cuts for their services. Usually none of the people who make the money are local workers.

With $60,000 many people could adequately repair their homes.

Why not just give the $60,000 directly to the elderly couple and let them fix up their home? Ask Congress. FEMA is not allowed to give grants of that much. Money for fixing up homes comes from somewhere else and people are still waiting for that to arrive.

While many corporations are making big money off of Katrina, Mr. and Mrs. Morris wait in their car.

Craziness continues in the area of the right to vote.

You would think that the nation that put on elections with satellite voting boxes for Iraqis and Afghanis and Haitians and many others would do the same for Katrina evacuees. Wrong. There is no satellite voting for the 230,000 citizens of New Orleans who are out of state. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Advancement Project, ACORN and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund have all fought for satellite voting but Louisiana and the courts and the U.S. Justice Department have said no.

The rule of thumb around here is that the poorer you are, the further you have been displaced. African Americans are also much more likely to be poor and renters — the people who cannot yet come back to a city where rents have doubled. They are the ones bearing the burdens of no satellite voting.

The people already back are much more affluent than the pre-Katrina New Orleans. The city is also much whiter. Many of those already back in New Orleans are not so sure that all of New Orleans should be rebuilt. The consequence of that is not everyone will be allowed to return. Planners and politicians openly suggest turning poor neighborhoods into green spaces. No one yet has said they want to turn their own neighborhood into green space — only other people’s neighborhoods — usually poor people’s neighborhoods. Those who disagree are by and large not here.

New Orleans has not been majority white for decades, but it is quite possible that a majority of those who are able to vote in the upcoming election will be white. Thus the decisions about the future of New Orleans are poised to be made by those who have been able to get back and will exclude many of those still evacuated. Guess what type of plans they will have for New Orleans?

There are many, many more tales of lunacy all over town as all systems have melted down: criminal justice, health care, public education, churches, electricity, water, garbage, our environment — you name it, it melted down and is not yet fully back up.

But, there are also clear signs of hope.

Across New Orleans neighborhood groups are meeting every weekend planning their own comebacks. People catch rides back into town and visit ruined neighborhoods and greet neighbors and together make plans to recover. Because governmental action and contractors are so slow, groups are looking to their own resources and partnering with churches and community groups and universities and businesses to fill in the gaps where the politicos have not yet been able to respond. The citizens themselves are our greatest hope.

We also have allies that give us hope.

We have been amazed and refreshed by the thousands of college students who took their spring break in New Orleans helping our elderly and uninsured families gut houses, clean up streets and advocate for justice with Common Ground Relief, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, Catholic Charities, ACORN and many other church and civic groups. Even law students! Over 1,000 law students helped provide legal aid and are providing the first comprehensive documentation of abuses of local and out of town workers by businesses.

Over 100 clergy from across the U.S. visited New Orleans with the PICO Network, as did hundreds of other people of faith with the Jeremiah community. The Protestant Women are here now and the Interfaith Worker Justice group meets here soon. Together, these groups raise the voices of their faith communities and call for justice in the rebuilding of our communities.

On the national level, we see rising support from numerous social justice groups. Several created the Katrina Information Network, an Internet advocacy group that enables people across the country to take action with us to influence all levels of government in the rebuilding effort. We are inspired by the veterans and allies who marched from Florida to New Orleans to highlight the diversion of money from our cities to war efforts.

Yes, we have lunacy in New Orleans. But there are also signs of hope.

Whether lunacy or hope will triumph in New Orleans is yet to be determined. But we appreciate those of you who are working in solidarity with us to try to keep our hope alive.

Bill Quigley (quigley@loyno.edu) is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a longtime public interest lawyer. This article is reprinted from www.dissidentvoice.org by permission of the author.