New Orleans: Rebuilding on People’s Bones
Jordan Flaherty: Rebuilding of New Orleans stunted by flawed legislation and missing federal aid.
Sept. 16 – TRNN While coverage of Katrina’s aftermath has stopped, the city is anything but rectified. In an interview with The Real News, Jordan Flaherty, journalist and author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, said there are still roughly 100, 000 people displaced from New Orleans. Twenty-five per cent of housing in the city lies empty, and the ninth ward remains a “vast wasteland” except for the homes built by actor Brad Pitt.
Flaherty said the Robert T. Stafford Act, which governs internally displaced people in the United States, has actually denied the displaced residents of New Orleans rights they should have had under international humanitarian law, including the guarantee of returning home.
Flaherty told TRNN another challenge is that much of the money intended for rebuilding never made it to those in need.
“That money that was supposed to come to the Gulf never arrived. Much of it went to Bush cronies, like
Halliburton, Kelloge Brown & Root, Blackwater, various industries that profited off of this disaster… and so this recovery that was promised to the city of New Orleans never made it to the people of New Orleans.”
He added that the money that did reach New Orleans, was not distributed according to greatest need.
“The major federal program for rebuilding the city was the Louisiana Road Home program, that was about 11 billion of federal money. But that money… none of it made it to renters or those most in need, and even among home owners it was found to be racially discriminatory, with white home owners receiving about 40 per cent more money than African American home owners.”
He said grassroots organizations have emerged to foster civic involvement and restore services, helping to bring many back to the city, but those with the power to rebuild are failing to consider this community in their plans.
“The problem is, these people that are trying to change the city have no interest in consulting the people most affected.” He gave the example of public housing that was torn down in the rebuilding, despite not being damaged.
People are demanding a public inquiry, he said, “…to really look into where that money went and why it did not reach the people most in need.”
To view/read full interview – New Orleans: Rebuilding on People’s Bones
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Around five years ago, something remarkable happened: the American media discovered there’s such a thing as class and race in America. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and for maybe around two weeks we saw the suffering of African-Americans and others in New Orleans. We heard stories about poverty and unemployment and how disproportionately it had affected the black population there. We heard about how lousy the housing and education was. We heard story after story how this wasn’t even just a New Orleans phenomenon, that there was such a thing as race and class right across the country. Well, that lasted around two weeks, and it wasn’t very long until that window closed and we went back to news as normal and race and class merged into some kind of consumer mix of ads and entertainment programming and unconnected news stories. Now, five years later, let’s look at what is the situation of New Orleans and look at the issues of race and class, which certainly have not gone away. And to help us do that, we’re now joined by the author Jordan Flaherty. He’s the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks for joining us, Jordan.
JORDAN FLAHERTY, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul. It’s a pleasure to be on.
JAY: Talk about the consequences now, five years later. Have the people that make decisions in New Orleans learnt anything from all of this? And how are people being affected?
FLAHERTY: I think some of the voices that really haven’t been heard in this five years of recovery are those that are still displaced, 100,000 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 percent 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 home, their job no longer exists, or they simply can’t come back. And those voices have really been absent. And 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, the federal law that actually takes away a lot of the 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.
JAY: Now, we’ve seen some stories—I should say interviews, with some people who were displaced and have moved to what they say are simply better circumstances and don’t want to go back. I mean, do we have any idea what portion of displaced people are represented by that position?
FLAHERTY: It’s hard to say, but even those that 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. We’re—more than 40 percent of oil and natural gas in the US is flown in from that port. More than 40 percent 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 have received very little economic benefit from that. The economy of the city is mostly based on tourism, and certainly a little bit of health care, education. Very few high-paying jobs available for the people that brought so much to this country. And to say nothing of the culture, whether that’s Mardi Gras, jazz, Mardi Gras Indians, socialite and pleasure clubs. These very specific New Orleans cultural institutions, I think, have enriched this whole country, and the culture-makers, the people of the city, have received very little in return.
JAY: In the year following Katrina, we heard stories about people being ejected from their houses after someone just puts a notice on their door saying, you have to show up at such-and-such court for lack of paying your rent, which is kind of crazy ’cause the places were abandoned because they were destroyed. But people’s goods thrown on the streets. But it was quite controversial. How did that all end up? Did people end up simply losing their places? Or were there any remedies in court?
FLAHERTY: Many people have lost their places. We have the highest percentage of any city in the country of empty or dilapidated or unrepaired houses. About more than 25 percent of the housing stock in the city lays empty. Detroit is number two in the country, but that happened over decades, while it happened virtually overnight in the city of New Orleans. Certain neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, remain a vast wasteland with very few houses, except for the few that were built by Brad Pitt. You know. And if Brad Pitt had no successful movie career, would there be no houses in that neighborhood at all? I think the major federal program for rebuilding the city was the Louisiana Road Home program. That was about $11 billion of federal money. But that money overall, first of all, none of it made it to renters or those most in need, and even among homeowners it was found to be racially discriminatory, with white homeowners receiving about 40 percent more money than African-American homeowners.
JAY: At the time of Katrina, the whole nation was focused on it. There was all kinds of talk how, you know, we look at other countries and the poor people in other parts of the world or wars or even 9/11 attack and have a massive response to it, and at the time, people were saying, well, now there needs to be a real response to urban poor, and especially black poor. In terms of planning in New Orleans, is there any sense that there actually is an attempt now to address these kinds of issues? Or are we actually seeing more a gentrification of these neighborhoods?
FLAHERTY: You know, I think there’s a whole new strata of the city, of urban planners, designers. They self identify as yurps—young urban rebuilding professionals. And 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. And as New Orleans poet and educator and long-term civil rights activist Kalamu ya Salaam has said, it wasn’t a blank slate, it’s a graveyard, and they’re building on people’s bones. The problem is, these people that are trying to change the city have no interest in consulting the people most affected, whether you look at the school system and the changes that have 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, public housing residents who had their homes torn down even when they weren’t damaged and new homes rebuilt where there was 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.
JAY: And what are the people most affected doing about it?
FLAHERTY: There is some very 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’s 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 overall framing of the issues; the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which has worked with many of the Latino day laborers and other new population of the city, immigrant population in the city; really inspiring organizing that I think has had a major positive effect on this city. And, in fact, I think many of the people that are back in the city would not be back without an incredible rise in civic involvement across neighborhoods and across the city.
JAY: So if they have specific demands at the national level, or even state level, what are they? I mean, what do they want addressed? What kind of policy do they want to see?
FLAHERTY: I think overall the 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 of this disaster. Much of it was diverted to Mississippi, which had Republican governors 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. And 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 that either the city has been rebuilt, or if it 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. And let’s remember, not only have the people of New Orleans 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, and we just received the winds and rain of the outer bands, which was a Category 2. The levy should have been strong enough to hold up, and they weren’t, and this man-made disaster flooded 80 percent of the city, massive, massive disaster that people still have not recovered from and still have not received the support to recover from.
JAY: Is there a demand being raised for a public inquiry to where the money went?
FLAHERTY: People are absolutely demanding that. I think we need a whole truth and reconciliation commission to look at the actions of police in the aftermath of Katrina, the profiteering of corporations, and to really look into where that money went and why it did not reach the people most in need.
JAY: Thanks for much for joining us, Jordan.
FLAHERTY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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