Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reflections on Hurricane Season 2005, Part Three

Welcome to Orleans Ave, New Orleans, or what's left of it

A house on Orleans Ave demolished by Katrina

Here is my third article generated by my recent tour of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana to inspect 2005 hurricane damage and what has been done in the aftermath. This series was published at OpEdNews.com in the Spring, but I wanted to bring Mosquito Blog readers up to date, because, as I write, the government is moving to completely shut down and level the still functional housing projects in New Orleans. This move is not about helping the Katrina survivors. This is about cynical politics and greed.

In this report I have finally made it into New Orleans, specifically Orleans Ave, which becomes, when you turn right instead of left toward the French Quarter, a glaring eyesore, to the physical eyes as well as the soul.


Along the Gulf Coast, Post Katrina, Part 3: Orleans Avenue, New Orleans

On Friday, April 13, 2007, after surveying hurricane damage in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, I high-tailed it up to Interstate 10 and headed due west. An hour plus later I was passing the state line into Louisiana and soon bearing down on Slidell as I-10 gradually curved south. Even before Slidell I began to get glimpses of Katrina's wrath out of the corners of my eyes as I sped on - torn up trees, piles of debris or damaged buildings in the distance. By time I had passed Slidell and was hitting the Huey P. Long Bridge, all kinds of questions were percolating in my head – how many towns and cities were hard-hit, how many people displaced; how much had been repaired; what have been the overall costs? And on and on.

As I drove over Lake Pontchartrain and gradually began the downward descent on the southern end of the bridge, the image of the far shore rising out of the vast blue lake waters rammed home to me just how fragile and isolated New Orleans is, and how low. You gained the distinct impression as you reached shore again that you were almost dropping into the lake, and in a sense you are, because, of course, the Crescent City is actually below sea level. And when you realize how the city and parish are bordered on the north by the lake, and east and south by the Gulf of Mexico, that is vulnerable indeed.

At last the skyscrapers of downtown New Orleans began looming into view, introducing some verticality into the geography, as if that was somehow reassuring as the next hurricane season approaches. I was getting more excited now, because I hadn't been to New Orleans since 1979, when I was on leave from the military, and had truly missed the place, which I had found magical and romantic.

Finally, I slowed down and began signaling left to take the exit for Vieux Carré (Old Square), the original French term for the French Quarter. Down I went, until the off-ramp suddenly drops you right onto Orleans Avenue, which runs parallel to better known Canal Street, which takes you smack into the French Quarter. But I had flown in here before, not driven, so I was disoriented. Should I turn left or right? My instincts told me the French Quarter was to the left and what I was really interested in was to the right, because I hadn't come down here to party, but to investigate the aftermath of Katrina. So I turned right.

A fortuitous decision. I hadn't driven two blocks before I was muttering Jesus under my breath. And I hadn't driven but several more before I was parking the car and grabbing my camera. My worst fears were materializing, based upon reports I had read, that the Polyanna depictions of New Orleans on the mend were greatly exaggerated. Now reality was staring me in the face, an entire, devastated neighborhood pretty much left to its own devices, as well as actually sabotaged, I would learn over time, from full recovery by the powers that be.

Another victim of Katrina

So I began walking around taking pictures. At the time, I didn't even know the controversial story about the Lafitte Housing Project, so it was fortunate that I happened to take a few incidental photos of the Project apartment houses, so I could include them in this photo-essay. I otherwise ignored the Lafitte complex, because it was in pretty darned good shape, although boarded up and peppered with NO TRESPASSING signs. In the back of mind I wondered why, if so many citizens had been displaced or relocated, hadn't these been reopened to ease the suffering and return some of the exiled?

The Lafitte Housing Project, with minimal hurricane damage, but locked-up anyway

What Orleans Avenue immediately reminded me of was sections of Naples, Italy that I had visited way back in 1980 while in the Navy, for there were still parts of Naples that had never been rebuilt after enduring all the carnage of World War II, as American forces wrestled Italy from German control. So in Naples, you incidentally walked up on a bombed out building every now and then and stared.

Well, I was staring now at street after street that looked like they may each have received a few rounds from Howitzers too. That there was this much damage still visible after some 20 months was shocking and embarrassing, embarrassing for a nation that claims to be the greatest super-power in history. A few trucks, work crews and sledge hammers could remove many of the hideous eyesores marring the neighborhood in a few weeks. Is City Hall, the State of Louisiana and FEMA incapable of something so basic, simple, and inexpensive? Or is something else going on here?

To understand what I am talking about, please visit my photo album on Orleans Avenue by clicking here. You can view the photos singly or as a slide show. You don't have to sign in. Here are a few more of the album shots:

The abandoned Carver Medical Clinic

An abandoned grocery store

A massive, abandoned laundry plant behind Orleans Avenue

Why hasn't the Carver Medical Clinic been reopened? Why haven't the local grocery stores been repaired? These are core necessities. To Hell with making the owners jump through insurance and legal hoops! Subsidize them and get the establishments reopened, and reopen the Lafitte Housing Project as well to repopulate the neighborhood, even if only temporarily reopened.

But there are agendas at work here. The poet Edward Sanders has a great online article about this in a piece explaining why and how he wrote his latest book of poetry, Poems for New Orleans (click here to read). To quote him:

What happened in New Orleans and the Gulf after Katrina is fairly widely known- the ineptitude of FEMA, the callousness of Bush, Karl Rove and the White House, the privatization of much of the recovery- which resulted in massive excess pain for the victims, and profits aplenty for the sharks that grabbed control of, or siphoned off cash from, the recovery.

The Bushies and their ilk fervently believe in turning over as much of our government as they can get away with to the so-called "private sector." Thus, the running of the war in Iraq was considerably "privatized," or halliburtonized, with U.S.-paid mercenaries and companies in key positions in the prosecution of the war. The neocons, in the same mode, tried to privatize as many government functions as possible in the post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans and the Gulf.

In New Orleans in particular, the halliburtonized recovery has been a post-disaster disaster. It's a complicated story, but its essence is that the "Privatizing" of post-Katrina reconstruction and assistance has led to enormous bottlenecks, anger, despair and frustration.

So New Orleans' citizens have had to fight two battles, the first against the horrors of Katrina, the second against the "halliburtonization" of the recovery, to adopt Sanders' term. After the American Civil War they called this latter phenomenon "Carpetbagging", taking advantage of disaster to disenfranchise and rob the citizens of the South. This is going on today at the hands of greedy, hateful and unconscionable individuals and organizations, be they insurers, realtors, contractors, speculators, politicians or ideologues.

Sanders had this to say about irresponsible politicians in particular:

Historian Doug Brinkley called it "Lethal Ineptitude" the way Bush, Homeland Security honcho Chertoff, FEMA political hack Brown, Louisiana Governor Blanco, conservative republicrat New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, and others, dripped malice & do-not on New Orleans and the Gulf.

Mayor Ray Nagin, in particular, seems to be a disciple of the kind of privatization-batty neocons who helped ruin the Chilean pension system after the overthrow of Salvador Allende. He is the halliburtonizers best friend. Governor Blanco of Louisiana is not much better, especially in her caving into the forces of unregulated rip-offs by the insurance companies.

Now one can begin to understand why Orleans Avenue still looks the way it does. Things would apparently be even worse if the citizens of New Orleans hadn't been fighting back. Too many of them have roots in New Orleans going back generations, too deep to let themselves get screwed over by silver-tongued politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wants to demolish all the major housing projects in New Orleans, claiming that in between hurricane damage, old age and crime infestation, they have got to go, to be replaced by "mixed-income" remodeling, an urban renewal strategy anchored in HUD's Hope VI grant program, which has had only a mixed record nationally where it has been implemented. That the Bush Administration and Republican apparatiks are eager to bring HUD's plan to fruition is obvious. Who can forget Rep. Richard Baker's callous statement in the aftermath of Katrina that, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

A veteran advocate of public housing in New Orleans, Endesha Jaukali, has this retort to HUD's plans:

Mixed income is a pie in the sky illusion...What you're going to do is mix poor people and middle income people right on out of here. (from "New Orleans Housing Fiasco" by Anya Kamenetz click here)

It has been my own experience in Norfolk, Virginia that when the poor and lower middle class are dispossessed and displaced from an area, what fills the void is condominiums and luxury apartments affordable only by the upper middle class, the rich or corporations, the latter two buyers often from outside the area. The displaced are further marginalized, some to the point of homelessness and despair.

So Jaukali and others have launched a class action lawsuit against government agencies to stop the demolition of the projects:

The current class action suit alleges racial discrimination and violation of the 1937 Housing Act, which requires public hearings before demolition of any public housing. HANO (the Housing Authority of New Orleans) has used everything from steel shutters to barbed wire fences and armed guards to keep residents from reoccupying their former units. Resistance has taken many different forms. Since June, for example, the St. Bernard development has had a "Survivor's Village," a tent city of 20 or so residents on the neutral ground outside. Juakali says he modeled the Village on the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, which built a tent city on the Washington Mall. (ibid)

There has also been civil disobedience at the Lafitte. For example, on August 28 of last year, this transpired:

At 2pm today Gregory "DJ" Christy, a resident of the Lafitte housing development, joined by more than 70 supporters entered his apartment with the intention of reoccupying it for the first time since August 2005. 9 supporters of Christy were arrested in the attempt to reopen public housing. All 9 have been bailed out of the Orleans Parish Prison....

Christy's apartment was opened by a group of activists including C3/Hands Off Iberville, the United Front for Affordable Housing, and other community activists. Legal observers from the Common Ground Collective were onsite to monitor the police response. Using a ladder to scale to the second floor window, the activists climbed in, walked downstairs into Christy's unit, and opened the heavy steel door from the inside.

After the door was removed Christy entered his apartment along with several more supporters. Housing Authority police were on the scene when the door fell. City police arrived shortly after preventing others from entering or leaving the apartment. While these 7 were occupying the apartment more than 70 supporters rallied outside.
(by Darwin BondGraham, click here)

But as you can see from my photos, unfortunately the Lafitte is still locked up. However, continuous protests have caused authorities to backtrack some, HUD temporarily reopening some housing units in the city to allow some of those scattered to the winds to return. Congress has also weighed in to slow down the demolition plans, and the legal showdown over the class-action lawsuit is scheduled to take place this November. But the hard-pressed citizens of Orleans Avenue, not to mention the rest of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, can use all the support they can garner nationally and internationally in the meantime. Here is a list of organizations that Edward Sanders has come up with that you, the reader, can contact if you feel inspired to help in some way. See his full article for more info on each one:

1. Common Ground Collective
2. Neighborhoods Partnership Network
3. People's Hurricane Relief Fund
4. Rethink (Google them)
5. DNIA, dniaofneworleans@yahoogroups.com (to email)
6. St. John #5 Baptist Church, 635 Hamburg St New Orleans, LA 70122, (504) 288-3272
7. Greater New Orleans Foundation
(from http://www.woodstockjournal.com/neworleans.html )
Please help the citizens of New Orleans recover their dignity, fundamental rights and heritage. And again, to see the photo album, you can also click here.


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