MR
17.09.10
New Orleans: Rebuilding on People's Bones
Jordan Flaherty Interviewed by Paul Jay

Jordan Flaherty: I think some of the voices that really haven't been heard in these five years of recovery are those that are still displaced: a hundred thousand or more former residents who were dispersed around the country in the aftermath of Katrina and still have not been able to come home.  One recent survey found 75% of African Americans who used to live in New Orleans want to return home but feel they've been kept out, mostly through economic means, either because they can't afford to rebuild their homes, their jobs no longer exist, or they simply can't come back.  Those voices have really been absent.  Part of the overall systemic problem is the way we look at disaster recovery in this country.  Disasters are governed under the Robert T. Stafford Act, a federal law, that actually takes away a lot of rights that displaced people should have, instead of the international covenants on internally displaced people which guarantee the right of people to come home and even to have some say in the way they come home and what the reconstruction looks like. . . .

Even those who feel that they have more economic opportunities in their new homes, I think we still need to look at that and say: why aren't those economic opportunities in New Orleans?  This is a city that's given so much to this country.  More than 40% of oil and natural gas in the US has flown in from that port.  More than 40% of seafood for the US is coming through that port -- a much higher percentage of oysters or shrimp.  And yet the people of the city receive very little economic benefit from that.  The economy of the city is mostly based on tourism, a little bit of health care, education -- very few high-paying jobs are available for the people who have brought so much to this country, to say nothing of the culture. . . .

Many people have lost their places.  We have the highest percentage of any city in the country of empty or dilapidated or unrepaired houses.  More than 25% of the housing stock in the city lies empty.  Detroit is number 2 in the country, but that happened over decades, while that happened virtually overnight in the city of New Orleans.  Certain neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, remain a vast wasteland. . . .  The major federal program for rebuilding the city was the Louisiana Road Home program.  That was about $11 billion of federal money.  First of all, none of it made it to the renters, those most in need.  Even among homeowners, it was found to be racially discriminatory, with white homeowners receiving about 40% more money than African American homeowners. . . .

There's a whole new strata of the city, of urban planners, designers -- they self-identify as YURPs, Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals.  Many of them have very good ideas for the city, but the problem, what's missing, is they see the city as a blank slate.  The New Orleans poet, educator, and longtime civil rights activist Kalamu ya Salaam has said, "It wasn't a blank slate.  It was a graveyard.  They are building on people's bones."  The problem is these people who are trying to change the city have no interest in consulting the people most affected, whether you look at the school system, where the changes happened without consulting the parents or the students, or the housing system, which has been changed without consulting the people living in the housing, especially, for example, the public housing residents who had their homes torn down even when they weren't damaged and new homes rebuilt where there's no room for them to live.  So, the people most affected haven't been consulted.  In fact, it's been a survival-of-the-fittest recovery, where those who had the most to begin with received the most in this new New Orleans. . . .

There is some exciting organizing at the grassroots, and that's part of what I write about in my book: community organizations, like Safe Streets / Strong Communities that has worked on criminal justice issues, Survivors Village which has worked on housing issues, Incite! Women of Color against Violence which has worked on health care and the overall framing of the issue, the Workers' Center for Racial Justice which has worked with many of the Latino day laborers and other immigrant populations of the city.  A really inspiring organizing that I think has had a major positive effect on the city.  In fact, I think many of the people that are back in the city would not be back without the incredible rise in civic involvement across neighborhoods and across the city. . . .

I think the overall message from people in New Orleans is that money that was supposed to come to the Gulf never arrived.  Much of it went to Bush cronies like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root, Blackwater, various industries that profited off this disaster.  Much of it was diverted to Mississippi, which had Republican governor and senators that were well positioned to receive the Bush administration's aid.  Much of it was stopped in Baton Rouge and never made it to the city.  So, this recovery that was promised to the city of New Orleans never made it to the people of New Orleans.  I think many people around the country think whether the city has been rebuilt or hasn't been rebuilt it's because people are lazy or because they squandered the aid.  But the truth is that that aid didn't come.  Let's remember not only the people of New Orleans have given so much to this country but they were supposed to be protected by those levees -- those were built by the Army Corps of Engineers who said they would be strong enough to hold up to a Category 3 hurricane.  Hurricane Katrina mostly missed New Orleans -- we just received the winds and rain of the outer band, which was a Category 2; the levees should have been strong enough to hold up and they weren't, and this man-made disaster that flooded 80% of the city, a massive, massive disaster that the people have still not recovered from and still have not received the support to recover from. . . .

I think people are absolutely demanding that [a public inquiry into where the money went].  I think we need a whole truth and reconciliation commission to look at the actions of the police in the aftermath of Katrina, the profiteering of corporations, and to really look into where the money went and why it did not reach the people most in need.


Jordan Flaherty is the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.  This video was released by The Real News on 16 September 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.
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