Hurricane Katrina's Emotional Hangover

News & Politics

Great tragedies like Hurricane Katrina always trigger emotional chain reactions. They are the unmeasurable consequences of the storm: broken hearts, ruined health, seething anger.

For the Sanders family, which found its way from the flooded Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans to a vast apartment complex in Houston, there are an abundance of emotional chain reactions. Harry Sanders, 16, has transferred from the "zoo" of JFK High in New Orleans to a much better private school in Houston, where he is making better grades and is, unexpectedly, happier. His sister, Ashley, 20, was pregnant when the hurricane hit and experienced skyrocketing blood pressure with the stress of escaping the flooded city. Because of this, she gave birth prematurely to a little girl weighing only 3 pounds, 15 ounces. The infant had to stay in the hospital for five days, causing more currents of worry to spread through the family.

Sedra Sanders, the matriarch of the family, has reacted with anger that eventually has turned into political activism. The family spent days stuck on a balcony, running out of water and hope of rescue. Then, when they were finally rescued, they spent a couple more days camped out on a bridge. There, a law enforcement officer shocked Harry with an electric taser during an altercation that started when he demanded a bottle of water for Ashley.

"I truly believe it was a racial thing that happened to us," Sanders says now, as she calmly sips chicory-flavored coffee. She is not alone in her thinking. Many survivors are even convinced that the disastrous response to Katrina was premeditated. It is this basic belief spun off in many directions that has propelled Sanders to get involved in the politics of the rebuilding process.

Sanders has recruited several family members to accompany her to a Washington, D.C., rally this week organized by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). At least 400 people are expected to turn out at the Feb. 8 and 9 demonstrations, demanding that their voices be heard during the rebuilding process. Specifically, they will voice their objections to the rebuilding plan proposed by the city's Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission. Sanders, and ACORN, are part of a significant opposition to this plan, which has been labeled as discriminatory.

When the neighborhood rebuilding plan was introduced at a public meeting last month, many New Orleans residents reacted to it with angry statements reminiscent of the infamous revolutionary call "Give me liberty or give me death!" At the mention of eminent domain, a few New Orleanians said they would rather die on their land than be bullied into selling or abandoning their property. One resident said the government would only be able to take her property "over my dead body." Others warned that, "If you come to take our property, you better come ready!"

While debates about how to rebuild after a natural disaster are nothing new, the level of volatile, emotional dissent surrounding New Orleans' reconstruction is new. And the challenges are profound, pitting ordinary New Orleans residents against the officials who govern them in a racially charged environment. Much of the opposition to the rebuilding is propelled by emotional class and race tensions between black residents and a government they fear will abandon them a second time.

Orderly and organized

On the surface, the idea behind the proposed plan is to ensure that residents don't rebuild in areas likely to flood again and to consolidate the rebuilding to efficiently provide city services. The plan presents an orderly, organized and rational approach to rebuilding. The problem is that it ignores something terribly important: the emotional hangover from the hurricane. Phrases like "eminent domain" and "building moratorium" struck fear among the displaced, traumatized, distrustful and angry New Orleanians who are anxious to come back home. All other aspects of the plan -- such as the proposed resident-centered planning teams, parks and community centers -- have melted away in a hot, emotional debate about control, class, race and discrimination.

Many of the people who have worked on the rebuilding plan have characterized this opposition as understandable but unfounded.

"I'm black, and I am working from the perspective of every citizen of New Orleans has a right to return to the city," says Ray Manning, co-coordinator of the neighborhood planning process. "The apprehension [about the plan] is coming from the historical perspective. There has been neglect for 30 years or more, so the creation of conspiracy theories is not groundless, but I would hope we can all take a deep breath and get all the facts, input and start communicating," says Manning.

"People are missing the golden opportunity that this plan presents," adds an exasperated Jeanne Nathan, a communications consultant for the Bring New Orleans Back commission. She refers to the noncontroversial parts of the plan, like the neighborhood center model that has schools, parks and community centers linking residential areas. "This has been kind of clouded by the really strong and understandable emotions that are all experiencing in the city," says Nathan.

It is true that two huge issues have obscured all others. First, the plan recommends that the city should not give out any building permits until August, when entire neighborhood plans will have been drawn up. Many residents have viewed this suggested building moratorium as dictatorial control that threatens their right to return.

The second contentious issue is the proposal that "neighborhood planning teams" must determine how -- and if -- neighborhoods should be rebuilt. The plan does not overtly say that people will be relocated, but rather says it will "consolidate neighborhoods with insufficient population." Along with this comes the suggestion that some of the lowest-lying areas should not be completely rebuilt, but rather should be converted into green spaces that will help control flooding.

If the plan is put into action, planning teams comprised of both displaced residents and city planners would have three months, beginning Feb. 20, to see how many residents are committed to returning, engage them in the planning process, and create individual neighborhood plans based on that. "We are going to have a massive outreach to be in touch with them to get their understanding and input in this process. It will be the largest public participation process that any city in the U.S. has done," promises Manning.

While the plan does include residents in its process through the neighborhood planning teams, it is unclear who would make final decisions about home buyouts, demolition or where to rebuild. While the proponents of the plan keep saying that residents would have decision-making powers, the rebuilding report proposes the immediate creation of a corporation that would have control over the distribution of redevelopment money and power of eminent domain. For some residents, this sounds the beginning of a "land grab" by greedy developers.

Bring New Orleans Back Commissioners have promised that they will not personally profit from the rebuilding plan, but evacuees remain suspicious. The main architect of the rebuilding plan is Joseph Canizaro, an Italian-American developer whose company, Columbus Properities, L.P., owns and manages large hotels for "the business and leisure classes." Columbia Properties also owns office buildings, housing and industrial centers in the Southeast and Southwest. Of course, none of this is proof that Canizaro, who also happens to be a big Republican contributor, has ulterior motives. But for many residents who are suspicious of government officials, big developers and upper-class elites, hearing "trust me" from Canizaro or any other commission member is hardly reassuring.

'They' don't want us

"During the hurricane we weren't being treated right," says Dorothy Stukes, the chairperson of ACORN's Katrina Survivor Association who recruited Sanders to rally in D.C. After five nights and four days in the Superdome, she came to the conclusion that "they wanted to genocide us [black people]."

Stukes' ambiguous "they" refers to the same government that is now in charge of rebuilding her hometown.

Stukes speaks to a widespread feeling within New Orleans' African-American population of being deeply unwanted. The racial tension is as fast-growing and poisonous as the black mold that has taken over thousands of flood-ravaged homes across the city. The proposed rebuilding plan has only exacerbated this tension, leaving many New Orleanians afraid they are going to get left behind in the rebuilding process the same way they got left behind during the hurricane evacuation.

When Dorothy Stukes and Sedra Sanders hear about the proposed rebuilding plan, what they hear is the possibility of more loss. "The big land developers want to land-grab us!" says Stukes. In response to a New York Times editorial, Stukes wrote, "Some New Orleans elites have publicly pined for a richer, whiter city, and commission's plan seems designed to lead to exactly that." Similarly, Sanders worries that "they'll try to turn New Orleans into another Las Vegas" that only accommodates tourists and wealthy people.

These fears have galvanized hundreds around groups like ACORN, which is pressing for the "right to return," i.e., the ability for people to return home when they want to and make their own decisions on what to do with their property. ACORN's official call to arms states, "We are working for fair treatment of all New Orleans residents, and to advance legislative and policy goals so New Orleans is not rebuilt only for the wealthy and privileged." When asked more specifically about the rebuilding plan, ACORN's communications director Kevin Whelan says, "We hate it! It is based on who has the financial or political ability to fight for their neighborhood. It's about nothing but class and power."

It is true that class and race has tinted everything since the storm. The whole experience, not just the rebuilding plan, has motivated Sanders to protest: "I am mad with Bush, No. 1. And all of the politicians. The mayor, the city government, they could have prevented [the disaster]," she says. That anger will be funneled into her trip to D.C. with ACORN. "This will be the first time I've ever been to a rally. A lot of us may be afraid to get involved because then, we think, maybe we won't get any more help from FEMA, but frankly I don't care," says Sanders, indignant.

Tomorrow, buses to ACORN's rally will depart from Baton Rouge, New Orleans, San Antonio, Little Rock and other cities housing displaced survivors. While they are in Washington, Katrina survivors and ACORN members will discuss their objections to the proposed rebuilding plan with Democratic leadership, key committee chairs and the Louisiana delegation. They will emphasize the need to ensure affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, and the desire to keep the racial diversity of the city intact. Whether this will help is yet to be determined.

Like everything else after Katrina, it is unclear what the future holds. People on both sides of the table are terribly frustrated, and there seems to be little room for compromise. The commission's proposed rebuilding plan has received little support from the masses, and Mayor Ray Nagin has hesitated to make a decision to either accept or reject the plan. Even if it is adopted, it seems that the city will probably not enact a building moratorium, which may ease some of the plans' opposition. If the plan is rejected outright, it remains uncertain what will happen.

Stories of longing

Sedra Sanders sits with her sister, Catherine, in her new three-bedroom Houston apartment where she lives with her husband and son. Her husband, Eddie, will be returning to New Orleans to start back to work as a chef. He will live in a trailer provided by FEMA, a far cry from the pretty brick house they once lived in. The two sisters exchange stories full of longing for Gentilly, their flood-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans, which they worry they won't be able to return to. They pass photos of Sanders' damaged home back and forth, exchanging bewilderment at the black mold that now covers a once-beautiful grandfather clock, the walls, the furniture, even their computer. They reminisce over the Christmases they spent going from house to house, block to block, as they visited every relative in the neighborhood. Those days are gone, replaced by a strange temporary reality in Houston, where every day is spent thinking about the lost past and the murky future.

For now, they are surrounded by the sterile but comfortable environment of new furniture in this place that is still somewhat unfamiliar. Sanders' family is doing okay. They lost no lives in the storm. But they are far from happy. "We didn't choose this," she says. "We want to go home."

More than anything, it is the desire to return home to their previous lives and the conviction that the destruction was largely the fault of a careless government that is propelling so many survivors to rally with ACORN. "They could have prevented it," Sanders repeats.

"It just hit me the other day what was done to New Orleans and what is continuing to be done to New Orleans, and I just started crying," says Sanders. "This thing is an emotional thing."

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