What the Hurricane Revealed — Organizers in New Orleans Look at the Long Fight Ahead

Progressives talk about the aftermath--- and rebuilding.

By Rinku Sen Dec 21, 2005

In the wake of Katrina’s devastation, ColorLines interviewed Xochitl Bervera, director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, who organized statewide for progressive change in the juvenile justice system; Barbara Major, the founder and director of the St. Thomas Health Services, that served 14,000 uninsured patients in the city’s most affected areas; and Wade Rathke, the founder and chief organizer of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and president of Service Employees International Union Local 100, who has most recently worked to raise living wages and protect voting rights for New Orleans residents.

What was the effect on your members and organization? 

Xochitl Bervera: Orleans Parish was one of our strongest chapters. We’ve been trying really hard to find our members, our leaders, and the awful part is that we haven’t found many at all. There’s a good chance folks are safe, but one of the huge problems of the evacuation is simply the sending of people so far away. They’re in Massachusetts, Oregon, Maine. Having any capacity to bring people back closer in when the city is habitable again, that’s going to be a huge challenge.

Our focus is on reuniting young people and their families. Prisoners were not evacuated before the storm. They were not evacuated when the storm hit, they were not evacuated when the levees broke, they were evacuated some other time after that. People had to break out of the prison cells themselves after having been abandoned by all the staff. The water was hitting chest level and they had to hack their way out and escape, then turn themselves in because that was the only way to get to an evacuation bus. They set up makeshift jails and held hearings in the middle of all this mess. There was no food, no water, but you could still be arrested and jailed.

If juvenile representatives and organizers don’t dig around, there are going to be families who just never find their loved ones. I talked to one grandmother who was getting on an evacuation bus with her grandson. They got separated and he pushed against someone to get closer to her. Cops pulled him out, cuffed him, took him away and that’s the last time she’s seen him. We can’t find him either. No one is going to speak about that ever.

Barbara Major: People have lost family members. They’re separated from their family. My staff is scattered all over. My community is African American and Vietnamese. A large Vietnamese population. And they’re wiped out as well. I know my folks will have a lot of mental health issues now. Even if they had nothing, it still hurts to lose it.

I’ve got to get my clinic up and running. Most of the clinics are underwater. Mine might be the only one that’s not. I need to find out where my patients are. I need to locate them, get them meds and prescriptions.

I don’t have a house to go back to. I owned my house but didn’t have insurance. I may be in a house in the country. FEMA said that if you’re willing to relocate to a rural area, they’ll build a house on two percent interest regardless of bad credit.

Wade Rathke: Approximately a quarter of Local 100 members lived in between New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward. Almost a third of the ACORN membership lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, and that’s the area that looks like it’s going to be wiped out.

Some of the union members worked for the bus company, or as janitors or other kinds of city workers. Many of them are still working 24/7 as long as they still have a place to stay. Some are living on ships in the river.

The ACORN members are split up all over the country. We’ve got people in Houston, Florida, Alabama…. It’s really a tough situation. People want to go back to see what kind of shape their houses are in, but exposure to some of those houses could be a life or death health situation. 

After the 1999 hurricanes in North Carolina, they let people back into some of those houses after they put in new sheetrock, and the results were disastrous. People died. Kids got respiratory disease. Once they get that E. coli in the houses and when the houses have been under water for two weeks, there’s no way to get it out.

What kinds of fights are you going to be picking up over the next six months? The next year?

Bervera: Really short-term, we’re trying to be in the shelters and connect people to folks who were locked up. It takes a long time to find an apartment and Section 8 housing. People need to be supported in either relocating or moving back, whatever they want to do.

Juvenile justice is moving along, folks will be making plans for how money is spent and what is done. It wouldn’t be right to not continue that work, and there may be an opportunity there. Before Katrina, juvenile justice was an incredibly high-profile, media-catching topic. The high-profile nature of it was distorting the capacity to create the system. Politicians all had a hand in it, wanted it to be done by a certain date. At this moment the fact that the political world is looking somewhere else may mean that the transformation can continue to happen, but without the political pressures that weren’t very positive. Also, Governor Blanco was totally publicly committed to the transformation of the juvenile justice system. She was why certain things started to be in motion, although we many times felt that it wasn’t moving fast enough. The political fall-out of this in terms of her office is definitely going to be something we’re going to have to watch.

Major: If we’re not careful, the whole city will be gentrified. The battles will be over who gets housing, where the housing is. Out of desperation, people will say, “I don’t want to come back.” There needs to be counseling about the long-term; people will say they don’t want to come back, but in a year they will want to come home.

The landscape of New Orleans is going to be changed demographically and geographically. We could do some social engineering. We know that folks in power engineer to their advantage. We need to try to fight for something that isn’t New Orleans-land—a place with all tourist jobs—but for something better. People can monitor and organize a response, be ready to respond to the pushing out and keeping out of poor people from returning to New Orleans, and to ensure that New Orleans can be rebuilt with equity, fairness in terms of housing, education, jobs and opportunity, because New Orleans didn’t have that. I’d like to come back and have no patients who are uninsured.

For organizing, the challenge is finding the people. The people are scattered, in dismay, in disbelief. That’s a serious added dimension.

Rathke: A piece in the Wall Street Journal was quoting those yahoos from uptown who will do anything they can to see if they can keep New Orleans from being a majority Black city. They want to use this disaster to see if they can turn New Orleans into a white-majority city—a Republican-leaning Disneyland on the Mississippi river. Areas that got flooded out were about 65 to 70 percent African American and the areas that stayed dry were predominately white. The city was more than two-thirds African American. All of a sudden, the town could go back to 50/50 white-Black. There’s a full-on fight to try to keep the city from going back to where it was.

One of the fights is going to be with federal agencies. So far people have been able to sign up for initial aid with FEMA. But in terms of the real stuff like jobs, they’ve given these humongous contracts for construction with no bids to Halliburton, the Shaw Group and a bunch of politically-connected people out of Baton Rouge. All people who all supported Bush and the Governor.

There are no job or housing guarantees for the evacuees. The way FEMA is working, nobody is relocated back to the city. And there’s no guarantee that people will ever get back unless we can get housing close to the city. Right now Louisiana ACORN is trying to force FEMA to put temporary housing either as near to the city as possible or on the West Bank where it can be on high ground.

The other fight is on speculation. The irony is, if your house is on dry ground, in the French quarter, Uptown or Bywater—all of a sudden, it’s prime real estate. But even if you’re flooded out, the greedy will always find a way to make a buck. In the Houston shelters, speculators are walking around waving five grand at people and trying to buy their lives. It’s disgusting. I don’t know if they expect the federal government to buy back the land, or if they expect to build. Some of them are even claiming that they’re just offering the money to help people out. Right!

What do you think is the mainstream/neoliberal plan for New Orleans now?

Bervera: I think that there is going to be a range from the extreme—“we’re going to rebuild without the Black folks”—to the liberal line, “we now have an opportunity to change the school system, change the housing.”

They’ll invest in the businesses, invest in the tourist industry, use law enforcement heavily to stop people from coming back in, rebuild public housing in much smaller numbers. I know people who tried to get back to their houses and were attacked by military putting a gun to the head, making them lie down on the floor, saying “this isn’t your house, this can’t be your house” until they can prove that it is their home. That kind of intimidation will be widespread.

The focus is going to be on bringing in big money, as much as possible to bulldoze parts of the Ninth Ward. Real estate people will make ridiculous offers that folks can’t meet, so that it sounds like there’s some offer of help, but folks are not going to be able to use it. New Orleans à la Las Vegas.

Major: They have to rebuild so much of the city, the Disneyfication is a real threat. It scares me that they will re-gentrify the whole city. I want the city rebuilt. We just don’t want to push all the poor people out.

 People in Houston are going to be pissed—they’re poor too. If people get new houses because they survived the hurricane, there will be conflict in these communities. In Baton Rouge, the welcome is wearing thin. The state has little infrastructure. Jefferson Parish folks said no to people crossing the bridge on foot. That’s poor working people, too.

Race and class will do some serious intersecting. Those who had, will keep. A lot of Black folks who have don’t want the poor people back, either. I called Republicans that I know, because I figured they’re making all the decisions. They said there will be a committee set up for the redevelopment. We need to have our people at the table, and more than just one or two of us to keep that group accountable.

The challenge is how do we build community. A common unity. We need some good schools. Offer people an opportunity to own their homes, give people nice clinics, nice schools. We have an opportunity to build a health care system that works.

Rathke: Rebuilding Plan?! The evacuees have got to have a voice in that plan. The mayor’s proposal for a rebuilding team was that it be comprised of business people—half Black and half white. Well, why were they even half white? And this “team” certainly wasn’t going to represent the city’s workers or the people in the neighborhoods.

There’s a survey of evacuees in the Washington Post: 43 percent wanted to come back and 44 percent didn’t. I’m afraid that they’re going to try to make that survey gospel for future planning. The truth is that two weeks after this devastation people are still traumatized. They are living out of a plastic bag…that’s all their belongings. The government has bused them to some town in Texas or Wyoming or Utah. So they are disoriented. I don’t think there’s really any question of people wanting to come back—if there’s a place for them to come back to. We’ve had meetings of evacuees in Baton Rouge and Lafayette  where people have had to demand of FEMA just the right to go back and look to see if they can reclaim anything that’s left in their house.

FEMA is currently underwriting the hotel industry. They are renting 10,000 rooms at prime rates while our people are camping out on the outskirts of the city. For instance, there’s a tent city at the airport. That’s our concern. Unless we’re able to move the temporary housing inside the city, we’ll have a hard time ever getting back in. That’s our fight. People have the right to come back with a guaranteed job and guaranteed housing.

What can people around the country do on the organizing?

Bervera: There are some organizers who understand the relationship between service work and organizing, and there are some who don’t. If you come down here, it’s not that you arrive and rile up people and head toward an accountability session. What we need are people who can come down and find housing for families, meanwhile talking to folks about what they need, what they see, what they’re concerned about. It is helpful to have folks, there aren’t enough. We need folks to get plugged in to a local infrastructure who have the humility to do whatever needs to be done before we can even think about campaign work. We also have work for people across the country who can’t come down—research, media work and more. 

Many of the folks that we’re organizing were in emergency conditions before the hurricane. Funders, donors, liberals, we could have jumped up and down to get folks’ attention, so in some ways, that this hurricane hit to illustrate that feels like a relief. We need not to frame around the hurricane but rather what the hurricane reveals.

Major: People are struggling, desperate and isolated. I don’t know if there’s a historical precedent for organizing such a base. My suggestion is that groups meet in every city where people are. Ask the people what they want, what they’d like to see. The mayor of each city where people are needs to call a meeting. I know that it won’t be a utopia, but let the people be part of the dream.

Rathke: It’s important for everyone to raise up these issues of race and class in their own communities so that they can support people in the Gulf Coast region. This disaster is the clearest exposure of these kinds of fault-line differences since the 1960s. This is an opportunity to rekindle those discussions about what kind of society we want and what we’re willing to fight for.

Another way people can help is by connecting evacuees with housing and jobs, so that people can have a way back home. And in the near future, there’s going to be a time, once people finally get into the city, that it will become clear that the evacuees need support to maintain their voice and keep their interests and hopes alive. That’s the time for national organizing. 

It’s going to be a long fight.