The one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29th, 2006, should be a day to remember our commitments to our fellow Americans and our collective losses. It should be a day to reflect on what we as American citizens should expect from our government in our most dire hour of need. It should be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of still displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return home one year after the storm broke land.
Mayor Ray Nagin, and the New Orleans City Council callously plan to make August 29th not a time to remember but a the time to begin bulldozing what little hope remains by excluding displaced families from the city’s future. Through passing City Ordinance #26031 unanimously in May, the Council decided that those who have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered homes by August 29th risk having their property seized and bulldozed by the city.
Many working class families cannot return to New Orleans to prevent their homes from being seized. Most are still waiting to receive payment from insurance claims and can not pay the roughly $10,000 charged by contractors to gut their home nor can they afford to take time off to gut their homes themselves. Low income families in New Orleans could now lose their homes before receiving a dime from the federal government’s $7.5 billion “Road Home” home repair grant program for Louisiana’s homeowners, as those vitally needed funds continue to sit in limbo.
The Council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans of its poor, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.
Getting information is very difficult for the over 200,000 former residents of New Orleans, mostly working class African American families, who are still spread across 44 different states. Most have no way to know the current state of their homes and neighborhoods-things like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether their local schools are open. The overwhelming majority of relevant government decisions like this ordinance do not make it into the national news reports or local broadcasts in their new communities.
Oblivious to the strangulating lack of information in this crisis, the City still believes it does not need to directly contact homeowners as part of due process, required by the U.S. Constitution, before it can begin seizing property. After being sued for previously attempting to bulldoze homes in the Lower 9th Ward in December, the City of New Orleans settled with local groups by pledging to post seizure information on its City website and in New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times Picayune, to fulfill due process requirements. Never mind that most affected displaced people live outside of the Times Picayune’s distribution area and may not have an internet connection. Displaced families, without actually being notified, will remain completely in the dark as they lose their homes.
Despite these obstacles, New Orleans will begin seizing not just houses-but also the hopes of returning home-from devastated communities on the anniversary of our nation’s greatest tragedy.
The United States government would not just stand on the sidelines as a local government began seizing the homes of vulnerable disaster victims, especially without notification, in our disaster relief efforts abroad. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have significant programs supporting the protection of the rights of “internally displaced people” (IDPs) -meaning those displaced from their homes to a different part of their country by a disaster-in areas like post-Tsunami Sri Lanka. American diplomats lobby other nations to uphold internationally accepted principles for IDPs that assure things like “property and possessions left behind by IDPs should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use.” USAID also runs programs assuring displaced people have the right to information about what is going on in their former communities. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government-and the New Orleans Mayor and City Council-must think that Americans should be excluded from such rights.
Election laws have allowed officials in New Orleans to hasten the exclusion of the displaced and the disregard for their rights. Despite making up more than half of the city’s former population, the displaced had a dismally low electoral impact in the recent New Orleans mayoral elections. This resulted from a large scale denial of their civil rights after the state voted against legislation allowing for the opening of satellite polling stations outside of Louisiana and many of the displaced were no longer allowed to vote in New Orleans when their new state and municipal voting laws required registering in their new districts. The U.S., Justice Department should have upheld the civil and human rights of the displaced, rights that the U.S. Government is committed to upholding in displaced communities abroad, and even had the power to do so under the Voting Rights Act, but still the U.S. Government choose to continue to deny the displaced the right to participate in determining how their neighborhoods are rebuilt.
City Ordinance #26031 is proof that the interests and human rights of the now disenfranchised displaced victims of the storm are no longer respected in their former communities or by the federal government.
Although the government is not fulfilling its obligations, many non-governmental organizations are trying to help survivors of Katrina.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was able to win some relief for the working class families who could lose their homes. They convinced the City Council to amend City Ordinance #26031 to make the Lower Ninth Ward a hardship case, protecting those who were hardest hit by the failing levees from the seizure ordinance. ACORN is currently fighting to win protection for families whose properties are listed on gutting lists of ACORN and other organizations; as well as fighting for real legal notification for displaced homeowners and a more realistic timeline to cleanout homes.
Since December, ACORN has gutted more than 1,500 homes. They are offering families-at no cost-to have ACORN gut and preserve their home. ACORN is also working to have homes “adopted” by donors covering gutting costs for low income families. ACORN is also looking for volunteers and organizations to come to New Orleans this summer to help save the homes.
ACORN still faces an uphill battle as contacting all those affected by this policy who are still spread across the country remains difficult. Information is the most powerful weapon in this battle for working class neighborhoods.
Though the human rights situation in New Orleans remains woeful, there is still a chance to salvage the hopes of these struggling families and to save their homes. You can help honor the upcoming One Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina even if the New Orleans City Council and the federal government refuse to.
If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who is:
Call ACORN to begin the process to save your home now and get a home on the clean-out list, call 1-800-239-7379, x187.
Even if you do not know someone affect you can help by:
1. Donating to ACORN or make a tax-deductible check to:
ACORN Institute – Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund,
1024 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117.
2. Volunteer with the Home Clean-out Demonstration Program.
3. Spread the Word about ACORN’s work in your local community
4. Contact ACORN if you have other ideas about how you can help
Stephen Bradberry is the Head Organizer of ACORN New Orleans and recipient of the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award
Jeffrey Buchanan is the Information Officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights Jeffrey Buchanan, CounterPunch