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In New Orleans, injustice and disaster team up to make recovery difficult


Fri, Mar 23rd, 2007
Posted in Commentary

Editor's note: The author spent a week in February as a volunteer working with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a non-governmental organization, working with disenfranchised populations in New Orleans.



"A society that lives by organized greed or by systemic terrorism and oppression will always tend to be violent because it is in a state of persistent disorder and moral confusion. The first principle of valid action in such a society then becomes non-cooperation with its disorder, its injustices, and more particularly with its deep commitment to untruth" Thomas Merton.

What is happening right now in New Orleans is the result of corporate greed. The protecting wet lands surrounding the city have slowly degraded, filled in and built up by oil, gas, and shipping interests; the levee systems are under-funded, poorly constructed, and the citizens of New Orleans were lied to when reassured they were safe.

What is happening right now in New Orleans is the result of years of systemic racism as white males made laws benefiting white males, leaving all others to scrabble as best they can to get by. The communities not being helped and, in fact, actively discriminated against, are working class and poor black homeowners and renters. It was not until December 3 that people from the predominantly black 9th Ward were allowed to return, months after other communities. Mary Fontenot, forced to sneak past armed officials denying access to the 9th Ward, discovered her home was to be auctioned. After the flood, attests Miss Mary, surveyors and multiple black SUVs appeared in her neighborhood. The city thought the Lower 9th Ward, which is some of the higher land in New Orleans, would make a nice airport. Homeowners returned to discover, in their absence, the city razed their homes or sold their land as condemned property.

A new ordinance declares no individual may buy land; homeowners may only sell to the city. Gwen Adams, a local teacher, left a note on her home announcing she was coming back and planning to rebuild, leaving her number if anyone needed to contact her. Her neighbor called days later, telling her a bulldozer destroyed her home - the city plans to widen industrial canals.

Another public official thought New Orleans would make a good "Manhattan of the South" and public housing remains locked down. The buildings, though structurally sound, remain boarded up with personal belongings still in them. The plan is to raze the area to build apartments. The contractor attending to the rebuilding is Halliburton.

Volunteer organizations are the ones creating order, fighting injustice and facing the truth about a broken system.

A local paper, The Gambit Weekly, recently wrote, "citizen-led recovery planning efforts have been the true success story in New Orleans' recovery to date". A year and a half later, "not one home has been rebuilt with government funds even though congress appropriated $17 billion" for this task.

My group, which was made up of 24 volunteers from around the country, spent the first three days touring parts of New Orleans to understand, not only the damage done by the storm but, the dynamics of the political scene. In most places, it still looks as if the storm happened last week. Homes, moldering and festering in toxic waste, are as Katrina left them, minus the water. There are no systems in play to help returning folk find jobs or rebuild, no street signs, no garbage pick up, no streetlights, no water, no electricity, no schools, hospitals, or convenience stores. There are no day care facilities, gas stations, food stores, no restaurants or police and fire protection. Pre-Katrina, 57 public transportation routes were available, now a year and a half later only 49% are up and running. People lucky enough to be able to return live in flimsy, ill-made formaldehyde filled FEMA trailers next to their home or in FEMA compounds established in isolated white-dominated areas.

We met people trying to provide services to the community whose efforts are blocked by local authorities. In the 9th Ward, for example, Alice Craft-Kerney, RN, established a much needed clinic in a repaired home which is staffed by volunteer nurses. The city offered no assistance until the day before the clinic was to open its doors and an inspector closed it down because the handicap incline was a half inch off.

The networking going on in New Orleans is phenomenal. JustWorks, who ran our camp, connected with the local Acorn (Association of Community Organizations or Reform Now), which is the nation's largest community organization of low and moderate-income families operating since 1970. Acorn contracts with individuals to gut a house and keep owners appraised. Along with Common Ground, Acorn finds where groups of volunteers can best serve. A group of Presbyterians arrived at the Church of God to provide hot meals for workers, the food donated by another party. Hazmat suits as well as goggles, gloves, and respirators are gifts from an environmental group to organizations dealing with clean up and gutting.

LEAN, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, developed to challenge the insanity of continued economic and ecological suicide, works with Subra Company informing citizens about environmental hazards. EPA scientist Wilma Subra, who quit her job with the EPA when she learned they did not intend to inform citizens that they are rebuilding in a Superfund area, founded Subra Company.

According to Gandhian philosophy, changing an unjust world begins with changing the individual. I have had an experience so profound and valuable I am no longer the person that went to New Orleans.

Seneca said, "It's not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult."

My challenge, and yours, then, is to continue to dare to do that which we can.

Marianne Zerbe lives in rural Houston.

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