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"Report from New Orleans,"

by Chester Hartman November/December 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

PRRAC has tried to be of assistance in the policy dialogue taking place on race, class, and the rebuilding of New Orleans and other areas devastated by the recent hurricanes. In September, we prepared several policy analyses on housing options for displaced families, and we recently co-hosted (with the New York-based Center for Social Exclusion) a meeting of racial justice organizations (both national organizations and groups from the Gulf region) to discuss long-term rebuilding principles for housing, education, health, employment and civic participation. Last week, Chester Hartman was invited, as both PRRAC’s Director of Research and as a founder of Planners Network (a national organization of progressive urban planners) to participate in an ambitious “Community Forum on Rebuilding New Orleans,” sponsored by the community organizing network ACORN. Herewith his report:


I was privileged to be invited to participate in ACORN’s Nov. 7-8 Community Forum on Rebuilding New Orleans, held at LSU in Baton Rouge. Several dozen planners, architects and other resource people from around the country met with local and national ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) members and staff persons for a day and half, following a 6-hour bus tour of New Orleans. The thrust of the effort is to strengthen the role of displaced persons and the African-American community in general in planning and implementing what happens in post-hurricane New Orleans, and to ensure that those who want to return can and will.

The city—at least the four neighborhoods we toured (Gentilly, New Orleans East, the 9th Ward, Uptown/Carrollton—all poor or working-class)—staggers the imagination: mile after mile of partially and totally destroyed homes, stores and other small businesses, with precious little sign of any rebuilding effort or human activity of any sort. Fallen trees and abandoned vehicles are everywhere. Whole sections of the city still have no electricity, water, sewer service, telephone service, traffic lights, daily mail service. Massive, massive heaps of debris—garbage, furniture, carpets, refrigerators and other appliances—are everywhere. Why, over two months after the storms, there could not be dozens of trucks and front-loaders, hundreds of workers to remove this dangerous, unhealthy and demoralizing garbage says volumes about the failure (or is it intention) of government. In itself it is an insulting message to those who were forced out of their homes, a deterrent to return.

Because I’ve just returned and need to get the Nov./Dec. issue of Poverty & Race off to the printer, I’ve opted for a set of pithy, somewhat disjointed notes—partly due to time constraints, but it also reflects a bit of the city’s chaotic atmosphere; I hope these jottings can convey something about the city, the people who are and were there, and the impressive efforts ACORN and others are making to create a positive, progressive rebuilding process and product:

Our tour buses have on the windshield signs saying “No Bulldozing.” All 50 of us on the bus briefly introduce ourselves. Every local ACORN member ends her/his introduction with words such as “and I’m ready to go home.”
The city is something of a ghost town—little evidence of life. It is estimated that of a pre-hurricane population of close to a half million, only 50-75,000 people now live in New Orleans—counting the full range/types of abodes, temporary and permanent. To be sure, it is the upper-income wards and neighborhoods that house most of these folks. The former population is widely scattered—to 44
states, one speaker told us. Some got one-way tickets to Chicago, Montana, Alaska....

The people we heard from want to move back now—but where, how? It’s painful to hear that constant need and know how hard it will be to satisfy it. At the moment, there’s no there there.

Hundreds of FEMA trailers are sited in open spaces distant from the city, creating depressing, anomic instant slums and isolation. The bus passes many open areas within the city— parking lots of closed shopping centers and big box stores, for example—and we wonder why FEMA could
not at least place their trailers there so that displacees would be and feel closer to the city and their old neighborhoods.

Another good trailer idea that FEMA resists: Place a trailer on the lot of a family’s house, so that they can return to the neighborhood, begin to protect and salvage their old home, link back up to friends and neighbors. FEMA says it will do so only if and when electricity, water and sewer services are there. But why not provide, temporarily at least, portajohns, bottled water, generators? People want and need to return—now.

Evictions are rife, as landlords seek to get tenants out of the way to clear the path for redevelopment. With the court system in disarray, eviction actions are handled by courts all over the region, with judges unsympathetic to the plight of tenants, and in a Louisiana legal context where tenants have few rights. Some homeowners have secured forebearance and relief from their mortgage-holders, but most are forced to make monthly mortgage payments for houses they cannot live in, or even gain access to.

Health issues are prominent: unsafe conditions in the houses—mold, particularly, as well as lead and asbestos. Water is generally unsafe to drink. And with the widespread loss of jobs, given the destruction of businesses of all sizes and types, people have lost their heath insurance as well.

One health issue that seems to be virtually unrecognized and unmet is mental health: the trauma of going through the hurricanes, losing one’s home and social network, not having clarity about the near or long-term future—all that creates a need for counseling, support and, for some, more
serious services.

A universal complaint is lack of reliable information: Why, in this age of such sophisticated modes of communication, can the government not at least take it upon itself to keep people fully informed as to current conditions, available resources and how to access them, anticipated improvements?
With the city’s economic base totally undermined, there is hardly any revenue—from sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes. Neither the state nor local government has the resources needed to provide badly needed services. FEMA is held in universal contempt: They let out huge contracts
to big, politically favored firms, and forbid their contractors to talk with local people—city councillors included. They can’t/won’t give out blue roof tarps to all with broken or missing roofs, so at least the next rain won’t do further damage. Insurance companies as well are dissed—claims personnel and inspectors are in short supply, settlement offers are slow and inadequate, people don’t have the funds to begin to restore their homes. And the longer they wait, the more damage builds up from mold, rain and other factors.

Public transportation has been only partially restored. We are told that only 13 of the city’s 57 bus routes are even operating—and at far less than regular service; only 33 of the city’s 370 buses are running. So many households have lost their cars to the storms and will need to rely on public transportation to get to jobs, hospitals, friends.

Whether a house is salvageable or not is not an easy call. Red, yellow and green markers—based on what can only be cursory inspections—identify houses that, respectively, must be torn down, are rehabilitable, or (in very few cases we saw) habitable. It is estimated that some 50,000 housing units need to be built—who will do that, with what funds, where, for whom? Accurate estimates for salvaging houses are unavailable. Knowledgeable folks at the conference say that for houses that got “only” a few feet of water, we’re talking $40-50,000/unit; where the water rose above 6 feet, it will cost $90-100,000/unit. Many houses have small mountains of debris right in front—the city, clearing the streets, just piled it there.

Schools are closed—a few parochial schools have just re-opened. The school board has just decided to re-open some 30 K-12 schools as charter schools. That undermines the teachers union. And, since these schools will be able to choose their students, it is almost certain that low-income and minority kids, especially those with behavioral problems, special ed kids, low-performing students, will not be high on the preference list. And to the extent that elite institutions like Tulane take responsibility for some of these schools, preference will be given to children of their faculty and staff. Class and race disparities just keep re-asserting themselves. The disruption to education caused by classroom/school changes (several times for many students) takes its toll—high classroom turnover has been shown to correlate with school dropouts, poor performance, behavioral problems, disrupted links to teachers and fellow students.

Municipal elections are supposed to take place on February 4. How will those scattered around, without a regular address, without access to a polling place, vote? People are worried that Gov. Blanco will postpone the election. ACORN folks want to use the election as a way of ensuring accountability on the part of elected officials —punishing those who have not helped, running progressive, people-oriented candidates. Hearing/knowing that, the Governor may be more inclined to postpone.

Ever present is the broader picture and threat of the levee system and the River. Can/should the levee system be rebuilt to withstand a level 5 hurricane? What will it cost? When will/can it be done? Is the Corps of Engineers capable to carrying this out competently, given its past dereliction (“We need to think about a wrongful death suit against the Corps,” one person asserted.) Should people return if this is not done?

How to deal with, access, satisfy the needs of the evacuees? Houston has some 30,000. ACORN has established a Katrina Survivors Association, nationwide, to communicate and organize so that their voice is included in rebuilding plans.

The two dozen or so academics at the conference met a couple of times to see what kinds of research and other help we might offer (I have an academic persona as Adjunct Professor of Sociology at George Washington University). We came up with over 50 specific ideas, which are being handed over to the ACORN folks so they can identify what they regard as most urgent. Plans are being made and coordinated for architecture and planning studios to focus on reconstruction of New Orleans and other Gulf areas. Student spring semester and/or summer on-site projects are possible—some sort of “adopt a neighborhood” project by specific universities. Among the proposed research/service projects: who wants to return and what is needed for them to return, and how long can people be away before they begin to lose their attachment to their former neighborhoods; monitoring expenditure of federal disaster-related spending; evaluating the performance of insurance companies; providing maps and GIS systems help; developing a database for returning residents regarding procedures and programs for essential services. (Any academics who want to plug into this effort should contact me: chartman@prrac.org.)


Katrina Resources

Katrina Information Network: www.katrinaaction.org
People’s Hurricane Relief Fund: www.communitylaborunited.net
The Black Commentator: www.blackcommentator.com
ACORN Proposal for Hurricane Katrina Recovery and Rebuilding: www.acorn.org/rebuilding
“Hurricane Recovery . . .” Act (HR 4197): www.congress.gov
PolicyLink’s “Ten Points to Guide Rebuilding in the Gulf Coast Region”: www.policylink.org
Reports from Brookings Institution: www.brookings.edu/metro/katrina.htm
Center on Budget & Policy Priorities: www.cbpp.org/11-2-05hous.htm
For information on the class action lawsuit against FEMA: www.lawyerscommittee.org

Chester Hartman chartman@prrac.org
 
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