Three months after the city was flooded when levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans remains uninhabitable, without electricity, gas for cooking, or drinkable water. Devastated areas include the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, both overwhelmingly working-class neighborhoods.
We dont need your permission to return to the city, said Charles Broussard, a resident of New Orleans East, speaking at a November 28 public hearing on redevelopment plans for the city. Attended by more than 200 people, it was one of many such events organized by city officials here and in other states, aimed at people evacuated after the massive flooding. Local authorities call these hearings to let evacuees vent their frustrations, hoping to diffuse any action against ongoing government indifference at the plight of those affected by the storm. Working people, however, use them to air their views and pressure the government to take some actionwith limited success.
I came here hoping to get some information. But I am going to leave empty-handed, said Carlos Wilson, a taxi driver and former resident of New Orleans East, who now lives in Houston. We cant wait for a two-year study. We need to make decisions now!
Wilson was referring to a proposal from the Urban Land Institute. This is a think tank that has advised city officials to conduct a two-year study in areas that sustained the most severe flooding before residents are allowed to return and rebuild.
All you are doing in here is studying. All of you should be pretty smart by now from studying, Wilson remarked to applause and laughter from those in the audience.
Association of Katrina Evacuees
Rhonda Maberry is a leader of the National Association of Katrina Evacuees, and a nurse. She traveled from Jackson, Mississippi, where she now lives, to attend the meeting. We formed the group to give us a true voice, Maberry told the Militant. We saw the need to organize ourselves to deal with many issues: from housing, to finding lost relatives, and just communicating.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it would end voucher subsidies for hotels rooms for evacuees in several states by December 1, Maberry said the group organized to distribute an open letter opposing the move. Under pressure, FEMA announced it would extend the voucher payments until January 7.
The National Association of Katrina Evacuees is also among several groups planning a conference of Gulf Coast evacuees on December 9 in Jackson and a march and rally in New Orleans on December 10.
Several dozen residents from a largely Vietnamese section of New Orleans East also attended the November 28 hearing. Among them were Phat Nguyen, a maintenance worker, and his neighbor Lisa Nguyen, a seafood store owner. Standing outside his neighbors house earlier that day, Phat Nguyen told the Militant that electricity, water, and gas have not been restored to the Vietnamese section of the neighborhood, even though there was little flooding in the area. Nguyen said they have not received even one of the 199 trailers they have requested from FEMA to house residents who have returned.
Is this because of discrimination? I dont know, Phat Nguyen said. But dont try to make us scapegoats. Vietnamese residents would attend the November 28 meeting to demand that their needs be met, Nguyen said.
There are 20,000 Vietnamese in the New Orleans area, according to Uyen Le, an organizer of the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies.
You can either lay down and take it or stand up and fight, said Robert Singleton, a maintenance supervisor, as he, his brother Ronnie, a warehouse manager, and nephew Ronnie Singleton Jr., worked November 27 to clean the remains of their family home in the Lower Ninth Ward. The area was among the hardest hit by the flooding. Much of it remained under water for several weeks.
One city requirement that has angered residents requires houses that sustained more than 50 percent damage to have their foundations raised to meet the citys 100-year flood elevation plan. How do you elevate a slab house? asked Singleton.
Ronnie Singleton Jr., a truck driver, said he made a request for a FEMA trailer two months ago, and is still waiting. FEMA officials told him renters are on the back burner and the agency is taking care of homeowners first, he said. Bottom line there is no housing. They are worried about getting the parade going. Getting my house going would be my parade, he said, referring to efforts by city authorities to hold the annual Mardi Gras carnival that in the past took place over two weeks in February.
Resisting evictions, rent gouging
We dont have any electricity, water, or gas, said Jennifer Pitman, a housekeeper who returned to the city from Arkansas with her family three weeks ago. We heard they would be evicting people if they dont come back. Pitman wants to find a new house to rent before returning to work. The cost of houses has doubled, she said. I called one place that wanted $900 a month plus a deposit. She said you could rent a similar place before the flooding for $400 a month. The daily papers feature sales ads for reno homes. These are houses damaged from the flooding.
Tomilyn Wilson, a grocery store cashier, now unemployed, was among 400 people who attended a November 29 Town Hall meeting hosted by Mayor Ray Nagin. She told those present she was being evicted because the landlord refused to accept her payment in order to seek a higher rent. This is just naked rent gouging, said Wilson, who lost a legal challenge to the landlords action. That judge did everything she could to take the landlords side.
Nagin said the city has been receiving a larger number of complaints about price gouging, but offered no relief.
Working people across the city also expressed skepticism or opposition to a proposal by U.S. congressman Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge. Bakers bill establishes a Louisiana Recovery Corporation funded by issuing state bonds. The corporation would purchase the flood-damaged homes of those unable or unwilling to repair them. A description of the bill on Bakers website says homeowners will be compensated for any equity they have in the property. They would also be given first option at repurchasing the home after it has been repaired.
Mayor Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, support the bill.
Many workers see it differently. This is just a scheme to take peoples homes, said Cosetta Williams, a resident of the Ninth Ward who attended the November 29 Town Hall meeting. They say its voluntary but people who have just lost everything wont really have a choice. And how are we going to be able to pay the notes on a new mortgage. Youre not going to get my place! she said to applause.
José Avarena and Karl Butts contributed to this article.
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