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Issue # 1426      2 September 2009

Four years after Katrina,
New Orleans still a wreck

NEW ORLEANS: Nat LaCour is finally back at his house in New Orleans. The question is when his house will be liveable. It’ll take tens of thousands of dollars of rehab work, he says. And, at that, LaCour is still better off than many of his fellow Crescent City citizens – thousands of whom still haven’t come home, because they can’t. Four years after Katrina, there are no homes to come to in New Orleans. LaCour believes the powers-that-be in Louisiana don’t want those African-American citizens to return.

When Hurricane Katrina roared in on August 29, 2005, it drowned New Orleans. And the city, its schools, its neighbourhoods and its people are still struggling to recover. On the fourth anniversary of Katrina New Orleans is still a wreck. So are some suburbs. And labour’s efforts to help rebuild have been largely stymied.

Interviews, federal reports and court suits also reveal the city’s continuing plight. For example, a group of residents of the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest-hit area, just won the right to file a class action suit for damages against the Army Corps of Engineers.

Their complaint: by constructing and then inadequately shoring up the levees of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, also called “Mr Go” – a little-used barge canal – the federal agency exposed their homes to the devastating storm surge of flood waters.

Mr Go, they point out, was a perfect funnel for the Katrina-created wall of water into the middle of town, where the water crashed into a “T” crossing with another canal. The resulting havoc saw water undermine the levees, whose footings were inadequate, or overtop them, or both. The results were the same for the working-class homeowners of the majority-Black Lower 9th: no homes left, just curb cuts and front stairs.

Another case in point: the city’s schools. LaCour recently retired as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. He’s also former president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. It was one of the largest union locals in the South, with a contract covering 6,500 workers, 4,500 of them members. Not any more.

With 120 of the city’s 126 schools under state control or operating as charter schools – and with a post-Katrina state law banning collective bargaining for many teachers – UTNO has 1,300 members. UTNO filed a “wrongful termination class action lawsuit which is currently working its way through the system,” to help the others.

LaCour doesn’t live in the Lower 9th Ward, but he knows people who did. Even in his majority-minority wealthier neighbourhood, which was slightly higher on New Orleans’ low flood plain, there was extensive damage. Two homes across the street “are gone.”

Next door to the Lower 9th, in suburban St Bernard Parish (county), conditions are just as bad, says Tiger Hammond, president of both the New Orleans Building and Construction Trades Council and the New Orleans Central Labour Council. Labour has tried to help, promising $700 million from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust and Building Investment Trust to rebuild schools, shopping and housing. It’s been stymied.

Just over a third of that money was to finance 5,000-10,000 housing units over seven years in New Orleans. None have been built. “They keep putting up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock” to building housing for displaced residents, says Hammond, an IBEW Local 130 member.

One roadblock: Democrat Mayor Ray Nagin. Hammond says Nagin keeps setting up obstacles and sometimes is just “stupid.” Another is reluctance to try something new.

For example, a unionised modular steel housing fabrication plant about two hours out of town was all ready to produce steel-made classic “shotgun” houses, on stilts, that would survive floods, mildew and other post-Katrina hazards. But local officials in Louisiana and Mississippi resist, Hammond said. They still want the classic wood-and-stone – and ground-level – shotgun houses that Katrina smashed to flinders.

And it was another Democrat, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco, who let the legislature push through the law banning collective bargaining for most New Orleans schools.

LaCour notes that in the city there is still a fight going on over whether – and where – to rebuild Charity Hospital, New Orleans’ oldest and largest public hospital. The hospital was run by Louisiana State University, which told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) it would cost $258 million to replace. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says the job could be done for $27 million.

Out in St Bernard, the needs are more basic. “There are three little bitty trailers with six doctors in them” treating a community of 34,000 people, Hammond says. He adds that before Katrina, St Bernard had 70,000 people, plus more doctors.

It also had Methodist Hospital. That hospital had eight feet of water in the lowest floors of a 12-story building and is still closed, said Hammond and fellow Local 130 member Chet Held. The AFL-CIO offered to spend the equivalent of $100 million to restore and reopen Methodist as long as it was done under a Project Labor Agreement signed between contractors and local unions.

“But we hit denial after denial after denial. Can you believe this? Even Iraq is getting rebuilt more quickly,” Hammond says. Without a hospital or stores or services – like their neighbours in New Orleans – former St Bernard residents have nothing to come back to, Hammond says. LaCour adds the same view of New Orleans. Federal reports confirm their comments.

“Barriers to providing (health) services are those that affect the ability of health care organisations to provide services, such as a lack of providers, and barriers to obtaining services are those that affect the ability of families to gain access to services,” such as lack of transportation for working-class people, GAO reported in July 2009.

Another report, a year before, confirmed that when thousands of residents returned to their homes, all they saw were piles of debris. “FEMA estimated in July 2008 that it had funded about 16,900 home demolitions, (and) an estimated 6,100 homes remained to be demolished around the New Orleans area,” one report said. Much of that home debris was hastily dumped into landfills, releasing asbestos – a carcinogen – into the air, GAO added.

And in human terms, Hammond tells tales of poorer New Orleans residents first living in FEMA-provided small trailers – many laced with formaldehyde – then being moved into apartments until special federal subsidies for Katrina victims ran out. Then they had to camp out, literally, and were evicted again.

“There were 200-300 people until last February living in a six block stretch of tents and shacks under the Claiborne Street Bridge,” Hammond says. “They tried to put some of them into shelters after knocking down the tents. Some went to jail, and LaCour says that apartments are few and more expensive than ever. In a city with a huge poverty rate and median income lower than the national average, 1-bedroom apartments were going for $1,200 a month two years after Katrina – if you could find them – compared to $700 beforehand. The rent’s gone up since then.

New Orleanians also are often ripped off by fly-by-night contractors. Hammond cites the example of a retired Letter Carrier and his wheelchair-bound wife, who paid a non-union contractor “$40,000-$50,000 to do repairs on their Katrina-hit home – and the contractor was never seen again. Our volunteers got him back in his house by repairing it, before he was kicked out of a FEMA trailer” they were living in their front driveway.

Of the $11 billion-$13 billion in federal reconstruction money for Louisiana and Mississippi since Katrina (and Hurricane Rita after it) hit, some $1 billion has been lost through fraud, single-source overpaid contracts and misspending of various types, GAO calculates. Some is contractor fraud and some is individual fraud – people claiming money they weren’t entitled to. The losses cover Republican-run fiscal years 2005-2008.

As a result of all the problems after Katrina, the city, which had 484,674 people in the 2000 census, now has 311,853, up from 210,768 in 2006, the Census Bureau says.

That still leaves more than 170,000 people. “Who wants to come back to the Lower 9th Ward or other areas when you don’t have a hospital, or any playgrounds, or any stores or any schools?” LaCour asks, before restating his point that the power structure doesn’t want many of those residents – minorities – to return.

“Middle-class people get hurt” when others are denied the way back to New Orleans, he added. “Physicians lost their patients and groceries lost their customers when a neighbourhood isn’t up and running. A lot of doctors, especially blacks, had to relocate.”

“There’s probably a lot of truth in what Nat says, but I don’t actually know. On the other hand, look at what they did to multi-family housing,” says Hammond. That housing was mostly 2-story low-rise public housing for the working class. Almost all has been knocked down. Only now “are pylons being driven” for some replacement units – single-family housing – in one development in the city, he adds.

Other former residents get discouraged and decide to give up on returning. “ ‘Hold ‘em off and they’ll quit fighting’ is the attitude,” Chet Held says. “You’re seeing a lot of that now...they’ve quit fighting.” Hammond estimates up to one-third have given up.

There is one bright spot in all the gloom in New Orleans and labour will have a hand in it, Hammond reports: Washington, DC-area volunteer Zack Rosenberg moved down to New Orleans determined to do something privately for the suffering residents. He’s succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, and area unions are helping.

“First, he started out with volunteers helping rebuild houses for the elderly who had been left with nothing” by the hurricanes, Hammond explains. “Rosenberg did about 10-15. Then he did some more, for veterans. Now he’s built 200 and has applications for 2,000 more. Each applicant has about $30,000-$40,000 from insurance settlements, savings and other sources, but that’s nowhere near enough and Zack’s searching federal programs for more money.

“We’re helping: We just signed a Project Labour Agreement for those homes,” Hammond says.

Nevertheless, much remains to be done. “It’ll take 7-10 years to recover,” LaCour says of his hometown.

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