01 March 2007

The Right to Return to New Orleans

Most of you know that I spent a bit of time working in New Orleans after the hurricane. This article was sent to me by a friend, and it illustrates both her experience and hers.


Each morning, Debra South Jones drives 120 miles into New Orleans to cook
and serve over 300 hot free meals each day to people in New Orleans East,
where she lived until Katrina took her home. Ms. Jones and several
volunteers also distribute groceries to 18,000 families a month through
their group, Just the Right Attitude. Who comes for food? "Most of the
people are working on their own houses because they can't afford
contractors," Ms. Jones said. "They are living in their gutted-out houses
with no electricity."

Why do thousands of people need food and why are people living in gutted-out
houses with no electricity? Look at New Orleans eighteen months after
Katrina and you will realize why it is so difficult for people to exercise
the human right to return to their homes.

Half the homes in New Orleans still do not have electricity. Eighteen months
after Katrina, a third of a million people in the New Orleans metro area
have not returned.

FEMA told Congress that 60,000 families in Louisiana still live in 240
square foot trailers usually at least 3 to a trailer. The Louisiana
Hurricane Task Force estimated in December 2006 that there was an "urgent
need" for 30,000 affordable rental apartments in New Orleans alone and
another 15,000 around the rest of the state.

Eighteen months after Katrina, over 80 percent of the 5100 New Orleans
occupied public housing apartments remained closed by order of the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which controlled the
Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) since 2002. HUD pressed ahead even
though internal HANO documents revealed the cost for repair and renovation
was significantly less than for demolition and redevelopment. A professor
from MIT inspected the buildings and declared them structurally sound.
Architecture critics applaud the current garden-style buildings. Yet HUD
plows ahead planning to spend tens of millions of Katrina dollars to tear
down millions of dollars of habitable housing and end up with far fewer
affordable apartments a clear loss for the community.

Over $100 billion was approved by Congress to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Over
$50 billion of that money was allocated to temporary and long-term housing.
Just under $30 billion was for emergency response and Department of Defense
spending. Over $18 billion was for State and local response and the
rebuilding of infrastructure. $3.6 billion was for health, social services
and job training and $3.2 for non-housing cash assistance. $1.9 billion was
allocated for education and $1.2 billion for agriculture.

Louisiana received $10 billion to fix up housing. Over 109,000 homeowners
applied for federal funds to fix up their homes. Eighteen months later, less
than 700 families have received this federal assistance. Renters, who
comprised a majority of New Orleans, are worse off they get nothing at all.
Some money is scheduled to go to some landlords and apartment developers for
some apartments at some time.

There were uncountable generous and courageous and heroic acts of people and
communities who stretched themselves to assist people displaced by the
hurricane. Many of these continue. However, there are several notable

Obstacles to public funding of affordable housing came from within New
Orleans and in neighboring parishes. Many in New Orleans do not want the
poor who lived in public housing to return.

St. Bernard Parish, a 93 percent white suburb adjoining New Orleans, enacted
a post-Katrina ordinance which restricted home owners from renting out
single-family homes "unless the renter is a blood relative" without securing
a permit from the government.

Jefferson Parish, another adjoining majority-white suburb, unanimously
passed a resolution opposing all low-income tax credit multi-family housing
in the areas closest to New Orleans effectively stopping the construction of
a 200 unit apartment building on vacant land for people over the age of 62
and any further assisted housing.

Across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, the chief law enforcement officer
of St. Tammany Parish, Sheriff Jack Strain, complained openly about the
post-Katrina presence of "thugs and trash" from "New Orleans public housing"
and announced that people with dreadlocks or "chee wee hairstyles" could
"expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff,s deputy."

With rebuilding starting up and the previous work force still displaced,
tens of thousands of migrant workers have come to the Gulf Coast to work in
the recovery. Many were recruited. Most workers tell of being promised good
wages and working conditions and plenty of work. Some paid money up front
for the chance to come to the area to work. Most of these promises were
broken. A tour of the area reveals many Latino workers live in houses
without electricity, other live out of cars. At various places in the city
whole families are living in tents.

Many former residents of New Orleans are not welcome back. Race is certainly
a factor. So is class. As New Orleans native and professor Adolph Reed
notes: "With each passing day, a crucially significant political distinction
in New Orleans gets clearer and clearer: Property owners are able to assert
their interests in the polity, while non-owners are nearly as invisible in
civic life now as in the early eighteenth century."

New Orleans is now the charter capital of the U.S. All the public schools on
the side of the Mississippi which did not flood were turned into charters
within weeks of Katrina. The schools with strongest parental support and
high test scores were flipped into charters. The charters have little
connection to each other and to state or local supervision. Those in the top
half of the pre-Katrina population may be getting a better education. Kids
without high scores, with disabilities, with little parental involvement who
are not in charters are certainly not getting a good education and are
shuttled into the bottom half - a makeshift system of state and local

John McDonogh, a public high school created to take the place of five
pre-Katrina high schools, illustrates the challenges facing non-charter
public education in New Orleans. Opened by the State school district in the
fall, as of November, 2006, there were 775 students but teachers, textbooks
and supplies remained in short order months after school opened. Many teens,
as many as one-fifth, were living in New Orleans without their parents.
Fights were frequent despite the presence of metal detectors, twenty-give
security guards and an additional eight police officers. In fact several
security guards, who were not much older than the students were injured in
fights with students. Students described the school as having a "prison
atmosphere." There were no hot lunches and few working water fountains. The
girls, bathrooms did not have doors on them. The library had no books at
all, not even shelves for books in early November. One 15 year old student
caught the 5am bus from Baton Rouge to attend the high school. "Our school
has 39 security guards and three cops on staff and only 27 teachers," one
McDonogh teacher reported.

It took two federal civil rights actions in January 2007 to force the state
to abolish a waiting list for entry into public school that stranded
hundreds of kids out of school for weeks.

Healthcare is in crisis. The main public healthcare provider, Charity
Hospital, which saw 350,000 patient visits a year, remains closed, as do
half the hospitals in the city. It is not clear it will reopen. Plans are
being debated which will shift indigent care and its state and federal
compensation to private hospitals. Much of the uncompensated care provided
by Charity has shifted to other LSU hospitals with people traveling as far
as 85 miles to the Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge which reports a 50
percent increase in uncompensated care. Waiting lines are long in emergency
rooms for those who have insurance. When hundreds of thousands lost their
jobs after Katrina, they lost healthcare as well. A recent free medical
treatment fair opened their doors at 6 am and stopped signing people up at 8
am because they had already filled the 700 available slots for the day.

Mental health is worse. A report by the World Health organization estimates
that serious and mild to moderate mental illness doubled in the year after
Hurricane Katrina among survivors. Despite a suicide rate triple what it was
a year ago, the New York Times reported ten months after the storm New
Orleans had still lost half of its psychiatrists, social workers,
psychologists and other mental health care workers.

In the months after Katrina, the 534 psychiatric beds that were in metro New
Orleans shrank to less than 80. The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention surveyed the area and found 45 percent of residents were
experiencing "significant stress or dysfunction" and another 25 percent were

By default, the lack of mental health treatment facilities has forced more
of these crises towards law enforcement. "The lack of mental health options
forced the New Orleans Police Department to incarcerate mentally ill people
who normally would have been taken to Charity," said James Arey, commander
of the NOPD crisis negotiation team. "The only other option is to admit them
into emergency rooms ill-equipped to handle psychotics who may have to wait
days for care. This is past the point of being unsafe," Arey said. "It's
just a matter of time before a mental patient goes berserk in one of the ERs
and hurts some people."

With day care scarce down 70 percent, and public transportation down 83
percent of pre-Katrina busses, there is little chance for single moms with

It is impossible to begin to understand the continued impact of Katrina
without viewing through the lenses of race, gender and poverty. Katrina
exposed the region,s deep-rooted inequalities of gender, race, and class.
Katrina did not create the inequalities; it provided a window to see them
more clearly. But the aftermath of Katrina has aggravated these
In fact if you plot race, class and gender you can likely tell who has
returned to New Orleans. The Institute of Women,s Policy Research pointed
out "The hurricanes uncovered America,s longstanding structural inequalities
based on race, gender, and class and laid bare the consequences of ignoring
these underlying inequalities."

The pre-Katrina population of 454,000 people in the city of New Orleans
dropped to 187,000. The African-American population of New Orleans shrank by
61 percent or 213,000 people, from a pre-Katrina number of 302,000 down to
89,000. New Orleans now has a much smaller, older, whiter and more affluent

Crime plagues parts of the city and every spoke of the criminal justice
wheel is broken. Hundreds of police left the force and several were just
indicted for first degree murder of an unarmed mentally retarded man during
Katrina. When the accused police reported to jail, they were accompanied by
hundreds of fellow officers holding up signs calling them heroes. The DA and
the police are openly feuding and pointing fingers at each other. The judges
are fighting with the new public defender system. Victims and witnesses are
still displaced. People accused of serious crime walk out of jail because of
incompetence and the fear of witnesses to cooperate with police.

Others are kept in jail too long because they are lost in the system. For
example, Pedro Parra-Sanchez was arrested six days after he arrived in New
Orleans to find work in October 2005. He got in a fight and allegedly
stabbed a man with a beer bottle. He went through the local temporary jail
in a bus station and two other Louisiana prisons. Under Louisiana law he was
supposed to be charged within 60 days or released. However, he never went to
court or saw a lawyer. When he did not show up for his original arraignment
date last May, a warrant was put out for his arrest, but he was already
incarcerated. He was found by a Tulane Law Clinic attorney and was released
in November 2006. Lost in the system, he was doing what they call in the
courthouse "Katrina time."

Though crime is issue one in most of the city, crime is not the cause of a
city dying. Crime is a symptom of a city dying. Crime is the sound of a city

There are major problems with the drinking water system eighteen months
after Katrina. According to the City of New Orleans, hundreds of miles of
underground pipes were damaged by 480 billion pounds of water that sat in
the city after Katrina. They were further damaged by the uprooting of tens
of thousands of trees whose roots were wrapped around the pipes.

The city of New Orleans now loses more water through faulty pipes and joints
in the delivery system than it is uses. More than 135 million gallons are
being pumped out daily but only 50 million gallons are being used, leaving
85 million gallons "unaccounted for and probably leaking out of the system."
The daily cost of the water leaking away in thousands of leaks is about
$200,000 a day.

The second major water problem is that the leakage makes maintaining
adequate water pressure extremely difficult and costly, particularly in tall
office buildings. Water pressure in New Orleans is estimated at half that of
other cities, creating significant problems in consumption, sanitation,
air-conditioning, and fire prevention.

Insurance costs are skyrocketing for homes and businesses. So are rents.
Though low-wage jobs pay a little more than before Katrina, they do not pay
enough for people to afford rent.

The overall planning process for the rebuilding of New Orleans has been
derailed by several competing planning operations. The Mayor initially
created a Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which met for months. While the
Bring Back New Orleans Commission was underway, the Urban Land Institute, a
D.C. based think tank, created and released a report of recommendations in
January 2006. After several months of hearings, the Bring New Orleans Back
Commission issued a report issued from the Mayor,s Office, but it was never
funded. In April 2006, the New Orleans City Council awarded a $2.9 million
grant, funded by federal grant money, to a Miami consultant to create a plan
for the 49 neighborhoods of New Orleans. A fourth planning process, the
Unified New Orleans Plan, was launched in spring 2006 with funding from the
Rockefeller Foundation to integrate all the planning processes. In September
2006, the City Council plan was released, while the UNOP process was just
getting underway that fourth plan is starting to wind up now.

These problems spread far beyond their most graphic illustrations in New
Orleans throughout the Gulf Coast. As Oxfam documented, government neglect
has plagued the rebuilding of smaller towns like Biloxi Mississippi, and
rural parishes of Louisiana, leaving the entire region in distress. In
Biloxi, the first to be aided after the hurricane were the casinos, which
forced low-income people out of their homes and neighborhoods. In rural
Louisiana, contradictory signals by government agencies have slowed and in
some cases reversed progress. Small independent family commercial fishing
businesses have been imperiled by the lack of recovery funds. The federal
assistance that has occurred has tended to favor the affluent and those with
economic assets.

Visitors to New Orleans can still stay in fine hotels and dine at great
restaurants. But less than a five minute drive away lie miles of devastated
neighborhoods that shock visitors. Locals call it "the Grand Canyon effect"
- you know about it, you have seen it on TV, but when you see it in person
it can take your breath away.

Our community continues to take hope from the resilience of our people.
Despite lack of federal, state and local assistance, people are living their
lives and repairing their homes. People are organizing. Many fight for
better levee protection. Some work for affordable housing. Some are workers
collectively seeking better working conditions. Neighborhoods are coming
together to fight for basic services. Small business owners are working
together to secure grants and low-cost rebuilding loans. Others organize
against crime.

We graciously accept the kindnesses of strangers who come by the hundreds
every day to help us gut and rebuild our homes. Churches, synagogues, and
mosques from around the country come to partner with local congregations to
rebuild and resource their sisters and brothers.

The new Congress appears poised to give us a hand. Congresswoman Maxine
Waters, head the House Subcommittee overseeing HUD, delivered pointed
questions and criticisms to federal, state and local foot-draggers recently
and promised a new day.

Young people are particularly outraged and activated by what they see they
give us hope. Over a thousand law students alone will come to the gulf to
volunteer over spring break with the Student Hurricane Network.

The connections between the lack of resources for Katrina rebuilding and
Iraq and Afghanistan are clear to everyone on the gulf coast.

Despite the guarantees of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement that people displaced through no fault of their own have the
right to return to their homes and have the right to expect the government
to help them do so, far too little progress has been made.

As U.S. Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City observed in a recent
public hearing, "When it is all said and done, there has been a lot more
said than done."

But still each day, Ms. Debra South Jones and her volunteers drive into New
Orleans east to dish out hot food and groceries to people in need. In the
past eighteen months, they have given out over 3 million pounds of food to
over 130,000 families. We never dreamed we would be still be so needy
eighteen months after Katrina. We look forward to the day when she will not
have to feed us, when we will not need volunteers to gut and fix up our
homes, when we can feed ourselves in our own fixed up homes in a revitalized
New Orleans.

[ If you would like to learn more about Ms. Debra South Jones and the work
of her organization Just the Right Attitude, see http://www.jtra.org ]

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University
New Orleans. He can be reached at Quigley@loyno.edu

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