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Katrina Survivors are Losing the Battle to Return Home

Two months later, many poor and African American evacuees are returning to find a host of policies stacked against them.
 
 
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Two months after Katrina, the residents of New Orleans most traumatized by the hurricane and its aftermath are now traumatized by their battle to return home. And many of the city's poor, black "Katrina survivors" are losing this second battle.

Diane Watson lived in the district that was the poorest and the hardest hit: the lower Ninth Ward. Two months after Katrina, that area remains cordoned off by military guards and they're still finding dead bodies beneath the rubble. Mrs. Watson, who was evacuated to Houston, drove back to New Orleans with a relative to see the home she had lived in for the last 40 years. She was directed to the Red Cross tent, where an escort from the mayor's office took her to see the house. She returned in a daze. "It was supposed to be my house, but it sure didn't look like it. The roof was on one side, the house was somewhere else, and my neighbor's carport was smack in the middle." Her eyes bulged in disbelief and tears ran down her checks. "They wouldn't let me go inside to see if I could find something, anything, for memory's sake, like a picture of my late husband."

Mrs. Watson had no insurance. When her husband died two years ago, she forgot to keep up the payments. "A whole lifetime of work and now I have nothing," she sighed. "I'll have to move to Chicago and live with my daughter. My arthritis acts up bad in the cold, but I have no choice."

John Turner was luckier -- his house in the Gentilly section was water-logged but still standing, and he had insurance. But at 75, he was too overwhelmed by his ordeal at the Superdome and too tired to start all over again. "My house was a 'fixer-upper' when I bought it back in 1975, and I've been fixing it up ever since. This year I retired and was just able to start enjoying it. Now this," he said, tears welling up in his eyes. While Mr. Turner had home insurance, he didn't have flood insurance. He had no idea what his insurance would cover, but he prayed it would be enough for him to move somewhere else. When I wished him good luck, he tried to smile. "I sure need some good luck. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

Giselle Smith, a single mom with three children, is younger and more resilient. In early October she returned to her home near the French Quarter, an area that only got two feet of water. "I love living in this district," she said, " and I couldn't wait to get back. I know all my neighbors, they help me with the kids, and during Mardi Gras, we just go out our door and we're right in the thick of it," she laughed. The day she returned, Ms. Smith got to work cleaning up the house. She ripped up the buckled floors and put in new tiles, she scrubbed off the mold and repainted. By the end of the month her modest home was clean as a whistle. But Ms. Smith had a different problem. She was a renter.

She'd been renting the same house for 11 years, just like she had the same job as a parking lot attendant for all those years. The neighbors attested that she was a good worker, a good tenant and a good mom. But the very day that the governor lifted the moratorium on evictions, her landlord presented her with an eviction notice. The reason? Failure to pay September's rent. The Smiths, like everyone else in the city, had been forced to evacuate, and her home had no electricity or water or sewage. She also had to pay rent in Houston for September, and didn't have money to pay rent in two places.

Ms. Smith is determined to fight the eviction, and local lawyers have come to her aid. But the real reason for the eviction notice is that houses that didn't flood are at a premium and her landlord, like many others, is eager to cash in. Ms. Smith's neighbors down the block were paying $800 rent until they came home to find their rent jacked up to $1,300. By end of the week her long-time neighbors, a black family, had packed up and a white family took their place.

Similar fates are befalling residents of the city's 38,000 public housing units: they are coming home to find their apartments boarded up, even though the concrete block apartments -- ugly as they might be -- were among the best in withstanding the hurricane. Housing advocates say it is part of a long-term desire to cleanse the city of its public housing, recalling the crass comments of Representative Richard Baker, R-L.A.: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a city of 485,000 people, 65% of whom were black. Today, officials estimate that during the day there are some 125,000 people, falling to 70,000 at nighttime when many leave to find shelter outside the city. Mayor Nagin predicted that New Orleans would lose about half its pre-Katrina population. And with government policies and market forces stacked against the poor, the "new" New Orleans is becoming whiter and whiter.

What Can We Do?

The "whitification" of New Orleans, however, is not inevitable. There are many solutions: demanding a massive program for affordable housing, halting evictions and price gouging for rental properties, making it possible for evacuees who are scattered around the country to move to temporary shelters (trailers, vacant apartments, tents) back home, giving job priority to local residents, reopening pubic schools, providing support systems to those returning, demanding that the poor be represented in the rebuilding decisions.

We need to support the movements, both at the grassroots and at the policy levels, that are supporting these policies.

At the grassroots level, there are remarkable community activists like Malik Rahim, who has turned his home on the dry west bank of Algiers into the Common Ground Collective, a hub for hundreds of volunteers, a free medical clinic and many tons materials aid. Another extraordinary local figure is Mama D, whose home in Ward Seven has become a similar beehive of support for those returning home. Both are encouraging volunteers, skilled and "generalists", to join them -- anytime for any amount of time. During Thanksgiving week, Nov. 22-29, Common Ground is calling for a mass convergence on New Orleans help clean up the Ninth Ward (see commongroundrelief.org).

Community Labor United is also setting up communication/relief centers, and is asking for volunteers (see www.communitylaborunited.net). They have designated Dec. 10 the Day of Return and encourage people to join them for a march in New Orleans.

ACORN, temporarily based in Baton Rouge, is fighting home demolitions and reconnecting with its New Orleans base (now scattered throughout the country). They recently created the ACORN Katrina Survivor Association to pressure elected officials and FEMA. ACORN has also partnered with the unions and the NAACP to form New Opportunities for Action and Hope (NOAH), which is demanding housing, job training and fair wages for displaced families. Another coalition, the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition, is calling for a rebuilding process that is environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and culturally respectful. And these are just a few of the many organizations worth supporting.

Many of us gave generously with our wallets when we saw the horrific TV images of people struggling to survive the ravages of the hurricane and government negligence. Now that the people of New Orleans are struggling to return home, we must not abandon them. Let's support the grassroots groups with funds, join their efforts to change public policy, and come on down to help.

A massive movement of solidarity is the only force that will rescue the people of New Orleans this time around.