Revolution #57, August 20, 2006
Bush Regime’s Crimes in New Orleans:
False Promises, Vicious Reality
It has been almost one year since Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana and Mississippi. Lives were lost, and buildings and terrain in the hurricane’s path were lashed by its winds and rain.
New Orleans was damaged but not devastated by the initial barrage of Katrina. But in the storm’s aftermath, flooding swept through the city as levees along Lake Pontchartrain and several canals burst, and a toxic stew of contaminated water that rose up to two-stories high suddenly poured through the streets and into people’s homes. The world watched in anger and outrage as tens of thousands of people—largely Black, and largely poor—struggled to survive in horrific conditions.
For decades, even centuries, New Orleans has given rise to rich cultural expressions that have touched the hearts of people throughout the world. It is an historic city where a legacy of deep oppression of first African and then African American people—and the resistance to that oppression, dating back to the days of enslavement, have been a big part of shaping the consciousness and culture of the people who lived there. Ties of community, neighborhood, and history run deep in New Orleans.
Now the people of those neighborhoods—Treme, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Uptown, 7th Ward, the world famous Lower 9th Ward, and many others—have been scattered throughout the country. Most continue to battle desperately to rebuild their lives. Less than half of the pre-Katrina population lives in New Orleans now. Over 200,000 former New Orleans residents live in Texas alone.
Since the anxious moments when Katrina tracked its course across the Gulf and drew a bead on New Orleans, government agencies, starting at the top of the Bush administration, have worked NOT to do everything they could to muster every resource available to help the city and its people.
Rather, they have worked to control, suppress, and degrade the masses of people, especially Black people, in New Orleans.
Two days after Katrina, in the most desperate hours and days of the flooding and the Bush administration’s heartless and contemptuous refusal to do anything to alleviate people’s suffering, a weeping man who didn’t know whether his family was dead or alive told a correspondent for Revolution he met in a Lafayette parking lot that what was happening right then in Louisiana was “genocide.” He said, “Don’t tell me they don’t have a plan. This is their plan.”
That plan has continued and even intensified since. The Bush administration’s actions in the months following Katrina have been a trail of deceit, repression, and broken promises. Much of the city is as devastated today as it was 10 months ago. The mayor and governor have called in the National Guard to patrol what they call “wild zones” where youth whom this system has written off as having no future are trying to return to their neighborhoods and homes. Heavy police presence in the tourist areas is aimed at keeping visitors “safe” from the people who actually live in the city. Public housing projects are shut down, fenced in and boarded up. Public health care is virtually non existent. Housing and rental prices have gone through the roof, and the city is unaffordable to many of the people who had lived there before.
Promises to rebuild and restore the city have turned into vicious attempts to transform it, and in particular to create conditions where much of the Black population that had long lived in New Orleans and gave the city its distinct character and flavor are no longer wanted or welcome.
THE PROMISE: As Katrina passed over Louisiana and Mississippi, Bush was in Arizona and California. He said: “There will be extensive federal help to get your lives back in order. We’re in place, we’ve got equipment in place, supplies in place, and once we’re able to assess the damage we’ll be able to move in and help those good folks in affected areas.”
THE REALITY: Ten months after Katrina hit, Loyola University of New Orleans School of Law Professor Bill Quigley wrote: “We are still finding dead bodies. Ten days ago, workers cleaning a house in New Orleans found a body of a man who died in the flood. He is the 23rd person found dead from the storm since March. Over 200,000 people have not yet made it back to New Orleans. Vacant houses stretch mile after mile, neighborhood after neighborhood. Thousands of buildings remain marked with brown ribbons where floodwaters settled. Of the thousands of homes and businesses in eastern New Orleans, 13 percent have been re-connected to electricity.
“The mass displacement of people has left New Orleans older, whiter, and more affluent. African Americans, children and the poor have not made it back—primarily because of severe shortages of affordable housing. Thousands of homes remain just as they were when the floodwaters receded—ghostlike houses with open doors, upturned furniture, and walls covered with growing mold. Not a single dollar of federal housing repair or home reconstruction money has made it to New Orleans yet.”
THE PROMISE: George W. Bush, in September 2005 said: “We will do whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans… We will help you get your lives back in order.”
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonse Jackson said: “Any New Orleans voucher recipient or public housing resident will be welcomed back home.”
THE REALITY: In June this year, HUD announced that they plan to demolish over 5,000 public housing apartments in New Orleans. Alphonse Jackson said the demolitions would begin within a few months of his announcement.
Just prior to Katrina, in August 2005, HUD had reported that there were 7,381 public housing apartments in New Orleans. Less than a year later, HUD said there were 1,000 public housing apartments open, and they “promised” to repair and reopen another 1,000. Most of these will be in what HUD calls “mixed income” projects, meaning many low income people who had worked at or near minimum wage, people with disabilities, and elderly people who depended on public housing will no longer be able to live in them even if this number does reopen. The remaining apartments will be demolished, and city officials say they want to build “green spaces” where the people had lived. In other words, they are proposing to raze peoples’ homes and convert the land to parks. In 1996, New Orleans had 13,694 units of public housing. Less than half of those remained by the time Katrina hit. If Jackson’s promised demolition takes place, public housing in New Orleans will have been reduced by 85% in a decade.
This process of destroying public housing, which is occurring in cities throughout the country, was well underway before Katrina. But key political figures in and around the Bush administration seized on the tragedy of Katrina to accelerate it. After Katrina, Congressman Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
THE PROMISE: President Bush said that his administration’s goal was that by mid-October 2005 everyone driven from their home by Katrina would have a place to live. A big part of the stated plan of his administration was that tens of thousands of temporary trailers would be placed in locations in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coast. In late September 2005, CNN reported that FEMA announced that it was “ready to deliver 125,000 trailers.”
THE REALITY: FEMA estimated that the homes of 300,000 families were destroyed by Katrina. The people forced into locations such as the Houston Astrodome and the Baton Rouge River Center, Bush said, would be housed by mid-October. It immediately became apparent that no serious attempt was being made to meet these goals. In October 2005, the Houston Chronicle reported, “Housing options promised by the federal government a month ago have largely failed to materialize.”
Tens of thousands of trailers have sat unused in lots in Arkansas and other states. Thousands of trailers in New Orleans and adjacent towns and parishes remain unused, often because racist officials say they don’t want concentrations of homeless New Orleans people in their midst.
Of those trailers which have been set up, toxic fumes from the trailers’ construction have contributed to respiratory and other illness among countless people. A July 2006 report on MSNBC told how residents of FEMA trailers are exposed to “toxic fumes.” The report said that the fumes are from “formaldehyde, the air-borne form of a chemical used in a wide variety of products, including composite wood and plywood panels in the thousands of travel trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased after Katrina to house hurricane victims. It also is considered a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance.” Dr. Scott Needle of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, said, even before the possibility of toxic fumes in the trailers was discovered in a Sierra Club investigation, “I was seeing kids coming in with respiratory complaints—colds and sinus infections—and they were getting them over and over again… Almost invariably, these families were staying in the FEMA trailers.”
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People hit by Katrina have seen their homes and neighborhoods destroyed and family members and friends die needlessly. Many suffer from ongoing illnesses brought on by wading through the filthy water that filled New Orleans. They were shot at by police and the military, and the government failed to assist them with food, water, or medical support for days. They were callously relocated, often far from their families, and packed into conditions reminiscent of the slave ships that once crossed the Atlantic. And then in the year since Katrina, as they have struggled to get their lives back together, they have been hit over and over again, with the system’s false promises, lies, deception and suppression.
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