August 29, 2005, a day of infamy remembered less for the storm, catastrophic floods and destruction, and more as a metaphor for disaster capitalism, exploiting security threats, "terror" attacks, economic meltdowns, and "natural" disasters like Katrina.
It turned this aging senior into a writer and radio host, furious over federal, state and local authorities using it to reward business at the expense of New Orleans' poor Blacks. Five years later, their lives remain in disarray through no fault of their own.
Levies protecting their neighborhoods were left weak, vulnerable to fail as they did, then Congressman Richard Baker (R. LA) saying, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it but God did," with considerable willful negligence help.
Malik Rahim, (New Orleans) Common Ground Relief (CGR) co-founder said:
"They wanted them poor niggers out of there and they ain't had no intention to allow it to be reopened to no poor niggers, you know? And that's just the bottom line."
Blank is beautiful. Ethnic cleansing was long-planned, the scheme, of course, to erase poor neighborhoods, replacing them with upscale condos and other high-profit projects on choice city land, New Orleans developer Joseph Canizaro saying, "we (now) have a clean (slate) to start (over and take advantage of) big opportunities."
A year later, an affected resident spoke for many saying:
"They('re) just messing all over us. Putting me out of our own house. We (try going) back and when we get there they got the police there putting us out....they ain't letting nobody in....but where (am I) going to go - me and my kids?"
Rahim calls New Orleans two cities, one "for the white and rich, (the other) for the poor and Blacks. (The former) recovered. They had a Jazz Fest....a Mardi Gras....But for those who haven't recovered, there's nothing." Most haven't been allowed back. Their neighborhoods were stolen for development, Katrina a chance to wage class warfare against them, no match for predators turning tragedy into profit.
It's a familiar pattern nationwide and in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, commerce following the flag abroad and exploiting natural disasters at home, complicit politicians easing "free market" solutions for the privileged.
Though no match against dark, entrenched forces, Rahim's Common Ground Relief fought back. Founded right after Katrina in the Lower 9th Ward, it's a volunteer not-for-profit organization running numerous projects, including new home construction, free medical and legal help, education for school children, community gardening, a women's shelter, job training, wetlands restoration, food security and environmental science.
By mobilizing people to work together against long odds, it provides hope through "short term relief for victims (and) long term support in rebuilding" destroyed communities. In the Lower 9th alone, 14,000 people and 4,800 homes were affected, most residents with longstanding neighborhood roots, enjoying "the highest percentage of African American home ownership of any city" in America. Losing them meant "the disappearance of (their) major asset, economic livelihood and, as a result, their future."
Bill Quigley is a longtime activist/Law Professor, Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director, and former Loyola University, New Orleans Director of the Law Clinic and Gillis Long Poverty Law Center.
Three years post-Katrina, his aftermath assessment was disturbing but unsurprising, including:
- renters getting no financial aid;
- rental homes not repaired;
- unaffordable housing for poor and low income people because rents, on average, rose 46%;
- no rebuilding plans for destroyed public housing;
- thousands of poor neighborhood homes demolished to prevent residents from returning;
- half the city's public schools destroyed, replaced by privatized ones; today, 75% are for-profit, favoring Whites, shutting out Blacks;
- all unionized city school employees fired, then selectively rehired for less pay and few or no benefits;
- displaced Blacks entirely disenfranchised;
- four of the 13 city Planning Districts as much at flood risk as before Katrina;
- only 11% of Lower 9th families returned, the community formerly one of the richest culturally, now destroyed by design; today about 20% are back;
- 25% of hospitals gone and 38% fewer beds available;
- thousands still living in temporary trailers; many others displaced across other states, still unable to return;
- 72,000 vacant, ruined or unoccupied houses;
- the city's Black population reduced by half;
- thousands of their children never returned to public schools;
- new hurricane protection construction barely started, and much more, the city wrecked for corporate predators, the poor exploited for profit.
In his early August article titled, "Katrina Pain Index 2010 New Orleans," Quigley, Davida Finger and Lance Hill updated the disturbing picture, saying:
"....tens of thousands of (New Orleans) homes....remain vacant or blighted. Tens of thousands of African American children who were in the public schools (aren't) back, nor have their parents been able to return." The metro area lost over 140,000 people, the city itself over 100,000. "Thousands of elderly and displaced people (were affected). Affordable housing" is in short supply, poor and low income people forced either to pay up or do without.
Displaced residents were scattered across the country, in as many as 5,500 cities, "the largest concentrations in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and San Antonio." Most are women. "A third earn less than $20,000 a year" - for a family of four, it's below the Census Bureau's $22,000 poverty threshold and well below minimum needs in any US metropolitan area.
In addition, one fourth of area housing is either vacant or blighted, "by far the highest" US rate. As a result, about 58% of city renters and 45% of suburban ones pay "more than 35 percent of (their) income on housing." Above 30% is unaffordable, forcing families to do without, including for essentials like enough nutritious food and health care, less available to poor people throughout the country, especially in New Orleans where the official poverty rate is double the national average. The unofficial one is even higher, given the indifference to Blacks communities five years post-Katrina.
In greater New Orleans, everything they need is in short supply, including schools, medical care, jobs, public assistance, and affordable housing, the number of public apartments down 75%. Destroying them was planned, upscale properties intended for well off White folks. Blacks aren't wanted.
The same holds for schools, mostly privatized, 85% of their students White in a formerly Black majority city. No longer, and a result, less public ones accommodate 43% fewer students, poor Blacks most affected. They also get less public assistance, fewer social services overall, or none at all.
The entire region was affected, nearly 100,000 square miles of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama communities destroyed or heavily damaged. Over one million people were permanently displaced. Hundreds of thousands lost everything, compounded by the spring Gulf disaster, the greatest ever environmental crime, potentially affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions.
Billions of dollars in promised aid never arrived, going instead for luxury hotels, casinos, private clubs, the oil industry and gentrification, the polite term for dispossessing poor communities, replacing them with upscale ones for the rich and well off, a similar pattern across the country, especially impacting Blacks and Latinos. They're victimized by class warfare under Democrat and Republican administrations, destroying the lives of millions. An uncaring nation left them on their own and out of luck.
New Orleans is a metaphor for as bad as it gets, poor Black communities devastated and ignored, most of the two hardest hit still uninhabited - the Lower 9th and St. Bernard Parish back to less than one fourth of pre-Katrina levels.
After it hit, FEMA provided 120,000 trailers throughout the region. Now, they're gone, sold at public auction, some to families using them. On August 20, Newsweek said only 860 Louisiana families were still accommodated, excluding buyers still in theirs.
Getting no federal, state or local help, others now pay unaffordable rents, live in destroyed or damaged houses, double up with relatives, or go homeless, the numbers twice the pre-Katrina rate, south Louisiana's social infrastructure gutted to displace Blacks for preferred Whites.
Even New Orleans levee rebuilding isn't finished, the Army Corps of Engineers estimating completion by late summer or early fall 2011 at the earliest. Some experts say the new system still won't protect adequately against another major hurricane.
Post-Katrina, New Orleans bears testimony to a callous, uncaring nation. "America the beautiful" is for the privileged alone - no one else, especially people of color, the poor and disadvantaged, "The Big Easy" their ground zero.
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