On the New Orleans docks: Workers fight to rebuild their city

NEW ORLEANS — A small sliver of downtown New Orleans has bounced back as a neighborhood of gleaming corporate office towers and a playground for the rich.

There, on Oct. 19, in the “isle of denial,” as it is called, I met David Magee, 47, an African American who is president of Local 3000 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. He agreed to get me onto the docks to interview workers at the Port of New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina.

We drove where the tourists don’t go — uptown New Orleans, New Orleans East, the 9th Ward, in short, more than 80 percent of the city. Vacant homes, boarded-up stores, empty and crumbling apartment buildings, abandoned gas stations, shuttered libraries and shells of school buildings and playgrounds lined the rubble-strewn streets.

Some buildings had plywood nailed over windows and doors. Others displayed their internal damage through gaping holes. Mountains of crushed appliances, water-soaked carpets, broken wood and shattered glass lay piled on sidewalks and in lots where houses once stood.

Magee stopped his car at the entrance to a trailer park sitting on a city block that had been leveled. “I want you to see where Rudy lives,” he said. Rudy Price is a 40-year worker at the port and a member of Magee’s union local.

While Magee distracted the Blackwater USA guards at the entrance by making small talk, I slipped through an opening in the barbed wire fence to take pictures of Price’s trailer. A 30-day eviction note was taped onto his door. FEMA is closing the trailer park.

Deborah Wood lives in the next trailer with her nephew, a teenager with mental retardation. The boy’s mother and Wood’s other sister were killed during Katrina when they were trapped in rising water at their home six blocks away. Deborah and the boy survived and moved to the trailer park.

“I thank God that we have a place to put our heads,” she said, “but we all got sick here and we all need medical care. I had to get my nephew into a hospital 40 miles away.”

Many people in FEMA trailers have gotten ill because formaldehyde was used in the construction of the mobile homes. Magee’s union has joined in a class action suit on behalf of members and others who have suffered illness as a result of living in the trailers.

Past security and out on the docks, we caught up with Price as he operated a crane that lifted container after container from a huge stack on a ship to the dock. When he saw us, he climbed down from the crane’s cab.

Price, 60, told us that after Katrina struck and the levees broke, he was rescued by boat after spending two days on the roof of his home in East New Orleans. He had stayed behind while his sister, her two daughters and his mother evacuated to the Superdome, where unbeknownst to him they and 30,000 others were enduring living hell with the heat, no power, no water, no food and no toilet facilities.

“Thank the Lord that I found them when I got there and thank Him that they were alive,” he said. “I saw too many dead there.” Price’s mother had become very ill, however, and when they got to Texas, she died. After settling his family in a Houston apartment, Price said, “in two and a half weeks I came back to work here on the docks because I needed the money for my family and because I am a longshoreman — always was and always will be.”

“You couldn’t rebuild New Orleans unless you rebuilt this port,” Price said, “because through our hands here passes all the commerce that makes a country great.”

“All of us who came back lost homes and we had to stay on military or cargo ships. It wasn’t so bad, the sleeping in a bunkroom on a ship. What was really bad was how I missed my family.”

Most of the workers lived on ships well into 2006, Price explained. “After a year I was able to get the FEMA trailer. It is less expensive than an apartment. One-bedrooms here are $1,200, and I have to pay my family’s rent in Texas. I can’t bring them back here just yet because there are no schools or hospitals — a family needs those things. They would have gotten sick if they had to live in one of these trailers.”

As Price talked, I marveled at the courage it must have taken to live through what he had lived through, and then pick up and work to rebuild the port.

“The huge containers were upside down and the tractor-trailers were blown all over the place. There was mud and grease and dangerous chemicals. Every day for nine months, hundreds of us worked with all that and we did it. We cleaned this all up and we got this port open again and it was union labor that did it,” he said proudly.

Asked whether, after all he’s been through, he was angry about his pending eviction from the trailer park, he replied, “Anger’s only good if it gets you to do what you gotta do. I’m gonna fight it like I fought all the other fights, and my union is going to help me.”

jwojcik @pww.org