By Bill Quigley
Each morning, Debra South Jones drives 120 miles into New Orleans to cook and serve over 300 hot free meals each day to people in New Orleans East, where she lived until Katrina took her home. Ms. Jones and several volunteers also distribute groceries to 18,000 families a month through their group, Just the Right Attitude. Who comes for the food? “Most of the people are working on their own houses because they can’t afford contractors,” Ms. Jones said. “They are living in their gutted-out houses with no electricity.”
Why do thousands of people need food and why are people living in gutted-out houses with no electricity? Look at New Orleans eighteen months after Katrina and you will realize why it is so difficult for people to exercise the human right to return to their homes.
Eighteen months after Katrina, half the homes in New Orleans still do not have electricity and a third of a million people in the metro area have not returned.FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) told Congress that 60,000 families in Louisiana still live in trailers that measure 240 square feet, usually at least three persons to a trailer. The Louisiana Hurricane Task Force estimated in December 2006 that there was an “urgent need” for 30,000 affordable rental apartments in New Orleans alone, and another 15,000 around the rest of the state.
Attacks on Public Housing
Eighteen months after Katrina, over 80 percent of the 5,100 occupied public housing apartments in New Orleans remained closed by order of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has controlled the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) since 2002. HUD pressed ahead with its plans for demolition and redevelopment even though internal HANO documents revealed the cost for repair and renovation would be significantly less. A professor from MIT inspected the buildings and declared them structurally sound, and architecture critics applaud their garden style. Still, HUD plows ahead, planning to spend tens of millions of Katrina dollars to tear down millions of dollars of habitable housing only to end up with far fewer affordable apartments—a clear loss for the community.
Over $100 billion was approved by Congress to rebuild the Gulf Coast . Over $50 billion of that money was allocated to temporary and long-term housing. Just under $30 billion was for emergency response and Department of Defense spending. Over $18 billion was for state and local response and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Another $3.6 billion was for health, social services and job training; $3.2 billion for non-housing cash assistance; $1.9 billion for education; and $1.2 billion for agriculture.
Louisiana received $10 billion in federal funds to fix up housing and over 109,000 homeowners applied to access these funds. Eighteen months later, less than 700 families have received any assistance. Renters, a majority of New Orleans residents, are even worse off—they get nothing at all. Some money is scheduled to go to some landlords and apartment developers for some apartments at some time.
Obstacles from White Suburbs
There were uncountable generous, courageous and heroic acts from people and communities who stretched themselves to assist residents displaced by the hurricane. Many of these continue, however, there are several notable exceptions. Opposition to public funding of affordable housing came from within New Orleans and neighboring parishes. Many in New Orleans do not want the poor who lived in public housing to return.
St. Bernard Parish, a 93 percent white suburb adjoining New Orleans , enacted a post-Katrina ordinance which restricted homeowners from renting out single-family homes without first securing a permit from the government “unless the renter is a blood relative.” Jefferson Parish, another adjoining majority-white suburb, unanimously passed a resolution opposing all low-income, tax-credit, multi-family housing in the areas closest to New Orleans —effectively stopping the construction of a 200-unit apartment building for people over the age of 62 and any further assisted housing.
Across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, the chief law enforcement officer of St. Tammany Parish, Sheriff Jack Strain, complained openly about the post-Katrina presence of “thugs and trash” from New Orleans public housing and announced that people with dreadlocks or “chee wee hairstyles” could “expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy.”
With rebuilding starting up and the previous workforce still displaced, tens of thousands of migrant workers have come to the Gulf Coast to work in the recovery. Many were recruited. Most workers tell of being promised good wages and working conditions and plenty of work. Some even paid money up front for the chance to come to the area to work. Most of these promises were broken. A tour of the area reveals many Latino workers living in houses without electricity, others living out of their cars. At various places in the city, whole families are living in tents.
Many former residents of New Orleans are not welcome back. Race is certainly a factor. So is class. As New Orleans native and professor Adolph Reed notes, “With each passing day, a crucially significant political distinction in New Orleans gets clearer and clearer: property owners are able to assert their interests in the polity, while non-owners are nearly as invisible in civic life now as in the early eighteenth century.”
Privatization of Schools
New Orleans is now the charter school capital of the U.S. All the public schools on the side of the Mississippi which did not flood were turned into charters within weeks of Katrina. The schools with the strongest parental support and highest test scores were also flipped into charters. The charters have little connection to each other or to state or local supervision. Those in the top half of the pre-Katrina population may be getting a decent education, but those in the bottom half probably are not. Children not in charter schools—whether it is because they lack high test scores, have disabilities or do not have parents who are involved in their schools—are certainly not getting a good education, shuttled into a makeshift system of state and local schools.
John McDonogh, a public high school created to take the place of five pre-Katrina high schools, illustrates the challenges facing non-charter public education in New Orleans . Opened by the state school district, as of November 2006 there were 775 students, but teachers, textbooks and supplies remained in short order months after the school opened. Many teens, as many as one-fifth, were living in New Orleans without their parents. Fights were frequent despite the presence of metal detectors, twenty-five security guards and an additional eight police officers. In fact, several security guards who were not much older than the students were injured in fights with students. Students described the school as having a “prison atmosphere.” There were no hot lunches and few working water fountains. The girls’ bathrooms did not have doors on them. The library had no books at all, not even shelves for books as of early November. One 15-year-old student caught the 5:00 am bus from Baton Rouge to attend the high school. “Our school has thirty-nine security guards and three cops on staff and only twenty-seven teachers,” one McDonogh teacher reported.
It took two federal civil rights actions in January 2007 to force the state to abolish a waiting list for entry into public school, stranding hundreds of kids for weeks.
Healthcare is in crisis. The main public health care provider, Charity Hospital, which saw 350,000 patient visits a year, remains closed, as do half the hospitals in the city. It is not clear if it will reopen. Plans are being debated that will shift indigent care and its state and federal compensation to private hospitals. Much of the uncompensated care provided by charity has shifted to other hospitals, forcing people to travel great distances—as far as eighty-five miles to the Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge , which reports a 50 percent increase in uncompensated care. Waiting lines are long in emergency rooms for those who have insurance. When hundreds of thousands lost their jobs after Katrina, they lost health care as well. A recent free medical treatment fair opened its doors at 6:00 am and stopped signing people up at 8:00 am because they had already filled the 700 available slots for the day.
Mental health is worse. A report by the World Health Organization estimates that serious and mild to moderate mental illness doubled in the year after Hurricane Katrina. Despite a suicide rate triple what it was a year ago, the New York Times reported that ten months after the storm, New Orleans was still without half of its psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and other mental health workers.
In the months after Katrina, the 534 psychiatric beds that were in metro New Orleans fell to less than eighty. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed the area and found 45 percent of residents were experiencing “significant stress or dysfunction” and another 25 percent were experiencing conditions even more severe than this.
By default, the lack of mental health treatment facilities has forced more of these mental health crises onto law enforcement. “The lack of mental health options forced the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) to incarcerate mentally ill people who normally would have been taken to charity,” said James Arey, commander of the NOPD crisis negotiation team. “The only other option is to admit them into emergency rooms ill-equipped to handle psychotics who may have to wait days for care. This is past the point of being unsafe,” Arey said. “It’s just a matter of time before a mental patient goes berserk in one of the ERs and hurts some people.”
Window into Inequalities
It is impossible to begin to understand the continued impact of Katrina without viewing it through the lenses of race, gender and poverty. Katrina did not create the region’s deep-rooted inequalities of gender, race and class; it did, however, provide a window to see them more clearly. But the aftermath of Katrina has aggravated these inequalities.
In fact, if you plot race, class and gender you can likely tell who has returned to New Orleans . As the Institute of Women ‘s Policy Research pointed out, “The hurricanes uncovered America ‘s longstanding structural inequalities based on race, gender and class and laid bare the consequences of ignoring these underlying inequalities.”
The pre-Katrina population of 454,000 in the city of New Orleans dropped to 187,000. The African-American population shrank by 61 percent, or 213,000 people, from a pre-Katrina number of 302,000 down to 89,000. New Orleans now has a much smaller, older, whiter and more affluent population.
Crime plagues parts of the city and every spoke of the criminal justice wheel is broken. Hundreds of police left the force and several were just indicted for first degree murder of an unarmed mentally retarded man during the storm. When the accused reported to jail, they were accompanied by hundreds of fellow officers holding up signs calling them heroes. The DA and the police are openly feuding and pointing fingers at each other. The judges are fighting with the new public defender system. Victims and witnesses are still displaced. People accused of serious crime walk out of jail because of incompetence and fear among witnesses of cooperating with the police.
Others are kept in jail too long because they are lost in the system. For example, Pedro Parra-Sanchez was arrested six days after he arrived in New Orleans trying to find work in October 2005. He got in a fight and allegedly stabbed a man with a beer bottle. He went through the local temporary jail located in a bus station as well as two other Louisiana prisons. Under Louisiana law he was supposed to be charged within sixty days or released, however, he never went to court or saw a lawyer. When he did not show up for his original arraignment date last May, a warrant was put out for his arrest, but he had already been incarcerated. He was found by a Tulane Law Clinic attorney and was released in November 2006. Lost in the system, he was doing what they call in the courthouse “Katrina time.”
Though crime is issue number one in most of the city, it is not the cause of a city dying. Crime is a symptom of a city dying. Crime is the sound of a city dying.
There are major problems with the drinking water system eighteen months after Katrina. According to the city of New Orleans , hundreds of miles of underground pipes were damaged by the 480 billion pounds of water that sat in the city after Katrina. They were then further damaged by the uprooting of tens of thousands of trees, the roots of which were wrapped around the pipes.
The city of New Orleans now loses more water through faulty pipes and joints in the delivery system than it uses. More than 135 million gallons are being pumped out daily, but only 50 million gallons are being used, leaving 85 million gallons “unaccounted for and probably leaking out of the system.” The cost of the water leaking is about $200,000 a day.
Leakage is not just a problem on its own, it makes maintaining adequate water pressure extremely difficult and costly, particularly in tall office buildings. Water pressure in New Orleans is estimated at half that of other cities, creating significant problems for consumption, sanitation, air-conditioning and fire prevention.
Competing Planning Processes
The overall planning process for the rebuilding of New Orleans has been derailed by several competing planning operations. The mayor initially created a Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which met for months. While this was underway, the Urban Land Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, created and released a report with recommendations in January 2006. After several months of hearings, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission issued a report from the Mayor’s Office, but the recommendations were never funded. In April 2006, the New Orleans City Council awarded a $2.9 million grant, funded by federal money, to a Miami consultant to create a plan for the forty-nine neighborhoods of New Orleans . A fourth planning process, the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), was launched in spring 2006 with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to integrate all the planning processes. In September 2006, the City Council plan was released, while the UNOP process was just getting underway; that UNOP plan is starting to wind up now.
These problems, the most graphic illustrations of which are in New Orleans , have spread far beyond New Orleans to the entire Gulf Coast region. As Oxfam International documented, government neglect has plagued the rebuilding of smaller towns like Biloxi , Mississippi and rural parishes of Louisiana , leaving the entire region in distress. In Biloxi , the first to receive aid after the hurricane were the casinos, which forced low-income people out of their homes and neighborhoods. In rural Louisiana , contradictory signals by government agencies have slowed and in some cases reversed progress. Small, independent, family commercial fishing businesses have been imperiled by the lack of recovery funds. The federal assistance that has been available has tended to favor the affluent and those with economic assets.
Visitors to New Orleans can still stay in fine hotels and dine at great restaurants, but less than a five minute drive away lie miles of devastated neighborhoods that shock them. Locals call it “the Grand Canyon effect”—you know about it, you have seen it on TV, but when you see it in person it can take your breath away.
Organizing and Solidarity
Our community continues to take hope from the resilience of our people. Despite the lack of federal, state and local assistance, people are living their lives and repairing their homes. People are organizing. Many fight for better levee protection. Some work for affordable housing. Some seek better working conditions. Neighborhoods are coming together to fight for basic services. Small business owners are working together to secure grants and low-cost rebuilding loans. Others organize against crime.
We graciously accept the kindness of strangers who come by the hundreds every day to help us gut and rebuild our homes. Churches, synagogues and mosques from around the country come to partner with local congregations to rebuild and resource their sisters and brothers. The new Congress appears poised to give us a hand. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, head of the House Subcommittee overseeing HUD, delivered pointed questions and criticisms to federal, state and local foot-draggers recently and promised a new day.
Young people are particularly outraged and compelled to act by what they see. They give us hope. Over a thousand law students alone will come to the Gulf region to volunteer over spring break with the Student Hurricane Network.
The connections between the lack of resources for Katrina rebuilding in contrast to those resources available for Iraq and Afghanistan are clear to everyone on the Gulf Coast . Despite the guarantees of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which state that people displaced through no fault of their own have the right to return to their homes and the right to expect the government to help them do so, far too little progress has been made. As U.S. Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City observed in a recent public hearing, “When it is all said and done, there has been a lot more said than done.”
But still each day, Ms. Debra South Jones and her volunteers drive into New Orleans East to dish out hot food and groceries to people in need. In the past eighteen months, they have given out over 3 million pounds of food to over 130,000 families. We never dreamed we would still be so needy eighteen months after Katrina. We look forward to the day when she will not have to feed us, when we will not need volunteers to gut and fix up our homes, when we can feed ourselves in our own fixed-up homes in a revitalized New Orleans .
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans . He can be reached at Quigley(at)loyno(dot)edu . If you would like to learn more about Ms. Debra South Jones and the work of her organization Just the Right Attitude, visit