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New Orleans Forgotten

In a time of despair, hope marches on New Orleans
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Update December 16, 2005:

 The Bush administration agreed on Thursday to double what it would spend on flood protection for New Orleans, promising a system that it said would make the city safe from catastrophic flooding from a storm as powerful as Hurricane Katrina.  — New York Times

In New Orleans, it is said,  “it's all about the spirit.”

Those on the scene of the Human Rights Day march say skies were a bit brighter,  even though temperatures were on the cool side for New Orleans. Just over 100 days ago, many of those marching to City Hall experienced life-threatening neglect of the highest order.  On this second Saturday in December, the legacy of Katrina had faded just a bit, while the city's celebrated spirit – along with a shadow of hope  had returned.

About 5,000 displaced residents marched from Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park to City Hall, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Many of the demonstrators had come to make clearly evident their inalienable stake in the rebuilding of a city rich in history and creative arts. The march was organized by the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition.

Displaced New Orleans residents march on City Hall on December 10, 2005.
Rally in New Orleans gives displaced residents some hope. Courtesy of http://katrinainfonet.net/

Demonstrators held signs demanding an end to a storm path of evictions throughout the devastated Ninth Ward, an opportunity to participate in rebuilding contracts doled out to third party developers, and assurances of low-cost health care for those still suffering in Katrina's aftermath.

Positive indicators are emerging outside of New Orleans that the voices of the displaced are beginning to be heard.  Just two days after the march, a federal judge ruled that FEMA must extend its hotel assistance program for an additional month beyond its January 7, 2006 deadline.  The New York Times, in an editorial

the day after the march demanded that the President use his bully pulpit to push Congress to appropriate money for reconstruction of New Orleans' levees. The Times says building the levee system is required before any rebuilding of the city can begin. “Only his voice is loud enough to call people home and convince them that commitments will be met,” the Times said of Bush's role. 

Earlier in the week, Tamika Middleton made some members of Congress extremely uncomfortable when she told a House panel on the reconstruction that the federal government's neglect in the aftermath of Katrina amounted to nothing short of planned genocide.

“This government left us here (after Katrina hit) to starve and to die,” local activist Malcolm Suber told a crowd outside of City Hall. “We are here to stand up and fight to ensure we get what we deserve.”

“They don't want to say what happened in New Orleans was racism.” she told the committee, ”And it was indeed the murder of thousands of people from a particular community and people with a specific racial and ethnic identify.”

 Displaced residents returned for the march on New Orleans transported  by bus from Houston, Baton Rouge, Chicago, New York and even San Francisco.  For many, it was the first visit to the Crescent City since another bus took them to temporary shelter in the Houston Astrodome. “This government left us here (after Katrina hit) to starve and to die,” local activist Malcolm Suber told a crowd outside of City Hall. “We are here to stand up and fight to ensure we get what we deserve.”

While commercial developers and FEMA-contracted construction firms fill up the livable space remaining in the city, said Cassandra Burrows, a spokesman for the march organizers, poor people have not been able to return to their old neighborhoods – even if their homes remain standing.  Electricity and other utilities are not generally available in the ravaged areas where helicopters had to rescue hundreds stranded on rooftops.

The city's commercial focus is now on bringing visitors back to the French Quarter, which survived Katrina with few scars. Controversy continues regarding any commercial Mardi Gras celebration this coming February. Many in New Orleans – especially those displaced – believe the focus should be on assisting the city's poor return to the city they love.

A day before the march, about 150 Katrina survivors met for a delegate assembly in Jackson, Mississippi, to take some “first steps” to assure that the voices of the poor are heard.  Among the demands in the organization's declarations were:

• Temporary housing within the city for those returning to rebuild their homes.

• Hiring of local residents by rebuilding contractors.

• An end to “price gouging” and evictions, and the implementation of affordable rents.

Already, there is some hope.  Litigators have already won some basic rights for those displaced.  Until recently, landlords were able to simply tack a note on the door of a residence where the tenant had not returned in order to evict the residents.  Now, the court requires that landlords make contact through FEMA to find the former residents. The delegates continue to seek “accountability” from local, state and federal governments, while working with the Congressional Black Caucus to implement legislation that will help Katrina survivors, says Burrows.

The group is now organizing a project to find all of the thousands of displaced residents scattered across the country since Katrina. They will continue to make their proud voices heard.  As long as they are heard, Burrows says,  there is hope for New Orleans' future.


Barbara Sehr is Online Editor for YES! magazine.

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