Hurricane Katrina  
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Getting Home Before It's Gone

As corporations get rich, real estate developers circle and Katrina evacuees resettle far from home, grassroots organizations are shifting from relief to demanding the right of return.
 
 
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A dozen miles north of Baton Rouge, in a rural Louisiana town called Baker, a new city is being erected for Katrina evacuees.

The structures they will live in aren't the stylish, modernist prefab homes one might see in the architecture magazine, Dwell. They are airless metal trailers, poorly suited for 90-degree heat. In less than two weeks, 600 of these containers will be standing in a field just off Groom Road. Rows of Porta Potties and showering facilities will complete the FEMA-funded trailer-home subdivision, swelling Baker's pre-Katrina population of 13,500 by 2,000 more.

Baker's trailer camp -- and many others like it -- are being developed by the Shaw Group, a politically well-connected Baton Rouge company that has received at least $200 million in FEMA funds for post-Katrina cleanup and reconstruction. The Shaw Group is a client of former FEMA director, now lobbyist and Salon.com-dubbed "disaster pimp" Joseph Allbaugh who resigned in 2003 and arranged for the disgraced Michael Brown to become his replacement.

Last week, Shaw's CEO, Jim Bernhard, a close friend of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, stepped down from his post as the state's Democratic Party chairman, allegedly to avoid the appearance of cronyism. The week before that, after the Shaw Group announced it had secured two FEMA no-bid contracts, its stock had surged to a three-year high.

Louisiana's Shawvilles provide the outlines of what New Orleans organizer and journalist Jordan Flaherty has taken to calling "the Disaster Industrial Complex."

According to FEMA, some 300,000 displaced families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are in need of "temporary housing." Those involved in the Baker project interpret "temporary" to mean anywhere from five months to five years. But a temporary house is not a home. And as FEMA attempts to meet President Bush's request to close most shelters by mid-October, small white rural towns in Louisiana are reporting outbursts of NIMBY-ism.

The bigger picture, many community activists argue, is a resettlement policy that looks like selective depopulation. In New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast, predominantly poor communities and communities of color are being dispersed, as families scattered across the country with one-way tickets and no way to get back home.

At the Bottom of the List

At Houston's Reliant Center, Shawn, 34, waited in long FEMA lines for temporary housing. Like an overwhelming majority of evacuees interviewed, he wanted to return home to New Orleans. Failing that, he wanted to go to Atlanta where he had a cousin. But he was resigned to accept wherever they would send him and his wife and children. "It's like if they show it to you, if you want it (that's good). If you don't, you be waiting again. You'll be on the bottom of the list," he said. "So people are just going with whatever they could get. They just want to get out of the Center."

Curtis Muhammad, a longtime New Orleans resident and a leader of Community Labor United, an 8-year-old coalition that has swelled to include 49 Crescent City community-based organizations, captures the sentiment of many of the displaced. "One hundred-fifty thousand [New Orleans residents] are walking around somewhere in these United States," he says. "They're walking around wondering why their government wanted them there."

At the same time, many fear that if the Bush Administration, FEMA and the Red Cross don't accomplish the depopulation of their neighborhoods, human greed will.

Alice Britton, a 47-year-old nurse from Atlanta, returned to her birthplace of Biloxi, Mississippi, near the Gulf to clear the wreckage from the family property and pick up her elderly mother, who had ridden out the storm. She said she feared for the future of that community.

"This is a depressed population, a population that has been taken advantage of for generations, a population that has not been used to or accustomed to much," she said. "Somebody comes in and talks their slick talk and the next thing you know there's going to be $200,000 condos or townhomes that they can't afford. Then they'll bus all of them over to a new ghetto."

The L.A. Times reported last week that Latter & Blum, one of New Orleans' largest real estate brokerages, was receiving 20 buy calls for every sell call. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," James Reiss, a wealthy Uptown scion and New Orleans Regional Authority chairman, told the Wall Street Journal . "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

Some organizers worry about the effect of pro-developer efforts such as the city's pre-Katrina "Hollywood South" campaign, which sought to lure filmmakers and tourism and real estate development through tax breaks, and its "urban renewal"-driven clearance of several large housing projects in poor, black neighborhoods.

Almost Back to Normal?

In Uptown and the French Quarter, National Guardsmen have joined private security forces to secure and assist cleanup and reconstruction efforts. Things are going so well that even a Larry Flynt-owned strip club has reopened for business.

"We are watching them open up the white hotels already. We're watching them rebuild the casinos. We're watching them rebuild the oil rigs in the ocean. We see construction going on downtown. You wouldn't believe it," says Muhammad. "It's almost back to normal."

Last week, in largely poor and black neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, there was almost no government presence. Instead, relief and rebuilding was being administered by groups like Community Labor United, the Common Ground Collective and Food Not Bombs. With the second break of the Industrial Canal levee on Friday due to rains from Hurricane Rita, and the reflooding of the Ninth Ward, it was unclear how these grassroots operations would be affected.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, community organizations that had been working on issues such as police brutality, education, migrant workers rights, prisoners' rights and hip-hop activism quickly retooled themselves into urgent relief agencies. At the same time, long-standing institutions, such as black churches and mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples, the New Black Panther Party, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the NAACP and migrant workers group Project Prep sprang into action.

These efforts are likely to continue because FEMA and Red Cross shelters are under pressure to close. The Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson was recently cleared of displaced people -- reportedly so a Disney on Ice "Finding Nemo" show could go on as planned. At the same time, many evacuees of color increasingly say they feel patronized by shelter workers. "The volunteers are middle class and white, and folks coming out of these areas are poor blacks and poor whites. There is already a problem there, because the volunteers have all these assumptions," says Tarana Burke, who helped coordinate the 21st Century Youth Leadership Project's relief efforts.

In many instances, FEMA and the Red Cross simply left African American populations unserved. In Biloxi, many African Americans remain camped outside of their demolished houses and apartments, and under highway overpasses, awaiting aid from FEMA and the Red Cross. In the poor, rural, still racially segregated Jefferson Davis County, the Red Cross set up at the single registered church, which was white; and African Americans watched as relief trucks drove past their towns and churches.

"I can't tell you what I think the Red Cross needs to be doing more because I can't say that I have seen them," says Pastor Luther Martin of Mississippi's Crossroads Ministry.

Where FEMA and the Red Cross failed, the community organizations stepped in to provide food, shelter, medical aid and family reunion information.

Across rural Mississippi, black churches such as the Crossroads Ministry were the first responders to isolated residents. In Algiers, Louisiana, Malik Rahim's Common Ground Collective has fed, housed and provided medical care to tens of thousands of people. The 21st Century Youth Leadership Project opened its camp outside of Selma, Alabama, to a surge of 200 families.

From Relief to Return

But as Shawvilles rise and Gulf Coast residents continue to be dispersed far from home, many of those same organizations now believe they must transition from relief issues to return issues.

"At first we were overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem. We were still in a state of shock," says Shana Sassoon of the New Orleans Network, a federation of organizations trying to map the community assets of evacuated neighborhoods. "But now ideas like the right of return, the right to reconstruct the city ourselves -- those terms are starting to become clearer to us."

Derrick Johnson, the State Conference president of the Mississippi NAACP, says the main question now is, "How is the government going to support these people it betrayed? What is it going to do to make these cities and these peoples whole? We believe part of it is making sure our communities they betrayed are at the table for reconstruction, awarding of contracts, and the development of affordable housing."

On Sept. 8, with news reports that up to $50 billion in government aid might be released, Community Labor United convened dozens of activists in Baton Rouge to form the People's Hurricane Relief & Reconstruction Project. "The most fundamental demand," reads the Project's manifesto, "must be the right of people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to return to their homes and their communities and participate in reconstruction."

Demands also included government funds for family reunions, including making the databases of FEMA and the Red Cross public; a Victims Compensation Fund like the one created in New York after 9/11; representation on all boards that are making decisions on spending public dollars for relief and reconstruction; public work jobs at union wages for the displaced workers and residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; and transparency in the entire reconstruction process.

The lesson of Katrina, Curtis Muhammad says, is self-determination. "Those dollars that are being sent to the government, that are being sent to the Red Cross by the international community, all these stars raising money, giving it to this and giving it to that, they really still believe the government is going to help us," he said. "Maybe that's the blessing in all of this -- that maybe we needed to know that we were alone and that we needed to look out for our own. Our self-determination comes from the realization that we're all we got."

Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Anita Johnson are reporting from the Gulf Coast for Hard Knock Radio (Pacifica Radio) and Thirld World Majority . Jeff Chang is based in Berkeley, Calif., and wrote this article. Additional reporting done by Macho Cabrera Estévez.