Reaching for Higher Ground: an interview with Russell Henderson

No-bid contracts. “Opportunity” zones. Massive federal spending. Big decisions are being made about the Gulf region, but what do residents and evacuees want? YES! editor Sarah van Gelder asked Russell Henderson, a resident of New Orleans and a convener of the Rebuild Louisiana Coalition.
Higher Ground Drawing
Illustration by Richard Register

Sarah van Gelder: Were you in New Orleans when Katrina hit?

Russell Henderson: Actually. we evacuated. It was the first time I'd ever left the city for a storm. My children had been calling and telling me to get the hell out. So I left along with Jim Hayes from the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, and we‘ve been staying with my cousin in Baton Rouge.

Sarah: Tell me about your background. What did you do before Katrina?

Russell: I was a lobbyist for children's issues, pro-choice issues, and a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. And I was teaching social policy and community organization at Dillard University, an historically black college, until Katrina hit and the university was shut down.

Sarah: What have you been doing since then?

Russell: Somewhere after the fourth or fifth day, I started talking to friends in Houston and Baton Rouge, and we organized a meeting in Houston and later another one in Baton Rouge. And people showed up. We put together a coalition of businesspeople, neighborhood association leaders, advocates. We weren't starting from scratch. Between us, we had a lot of contacts.

Our modus operandi at the Rebuild Louisiana Coalition is inclusiveness. At our first meeting everyone spoke about what they were doing when Katrina hit and what they wanted to see happen. But the most important part of the conversation was sharing what positive things occurred.

Sarah: Can you tell some of those stories?

Russell: My oldest son's best friend is Ritchie Kay. He goes out in the mountains by himself for a month at a time, and he knows how to survive. He stayed in the Biwater neighborhood through the storm; he got some water in the house and some roof damage, but he had a canoe, and he spent his time rescuing people—hundreds of people. He got drinking water out of water heaters. People gave him keys to their homes, and he got out food and fed people, and he rescued people.

Another hero is a long-time activist and friend, Dyan French Cole. The media has dubbed her Mama Dee. She lives in a neighborhood that had five, six feet of water, but she lives upstairs, and so she got no water in her house. I was there on Wednesday. She had young people sleeping in tents at her place who were out cleaning up the neighborhood. She collected food, and she was cooking, and she had a generator set up in the back and she was doing interviews, and she had this whole community set up in the middle of this disaster.

There was a guy named Jimmy Dalry, who I've known for a long time. We were doing a rescue mission, we got to a beachhead—which was an intersection in uptown New Orleans—and I saw he had sores all over his legs. For 10 days, he'd been out rescuing people in uptown New Orleans—300 and some people, without the police or the National Guard.

I saw so many negative images on television that were in stark contrast to what I saw when I was in New Orleans.

Sarah: What do you see as the next step for your organizing work?

Russell: We're going to have to fight Halliburton, Blackwater USA, and Bush. We're going to have to fight the vultures that are circling the city right now.

We in the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition need to have a vision, but we are not at the point where we have agreed that we want to go in certain directions.

We have been clear from the get-go that we are going to be diverse, and the conveners are black and white, male and female.

Jim and I in Baton Rouge have been moving around from coffee shop to grocery store, and just talking to people. You can tell just by the expression on someone's face, the clothes that they are wearing, the state of shock that they are in, that they are evacuees.

We ask them, Where did you live? What neighborhood? How did you get out? And I always tell people to get to higher ground.

The people with means, they're gone. They're taking their money out, and they're getting to higher ground, whether that's in New Orleans or some place else.

We need to help the other folks get their money out of their houses—to get their insurance, because the insurance companies are trying not to make settlements that are in favor of the homeowner or the renter.

Sarah: When you envision the New Orleans of the future, do you see certain areas that were low areas becoming …

Russell: Swamps. Returning back to the swamps that they were before. Jimmy is 72 years old, and he talks about going fishing and going hunting when he was a kid—in New Orleans East, in the swamps. And when they started to build houses out there, he said the swamps were going to come back and take these places, and that's what happened. We need to get people to higher ground.

Right now, all public housing in New Orleans is shut down whether it flooded or not. There's a project called the Iberville, right across the street from the French Quarter. It was built in the 30s and it was well constructed. It had a lot of older people living there, and the developers have been salivating over that land for 20 years, and now it's empty. If there is any water at all on the floors of the Iberville Project, they're going to use that as a rationale to tear it down and get rid of more poor people, and when you talk about poor people in New Orleans, you're talking about black people.

White supremacy is the organizing principle of policy and politics in Louisiana. Hopefully one thing that comes of this is that we are able to make changes in that area.

I believe the people need to be brought onto higher ground. We have parking lots downtown that we can use to put housing on, for example—housing that is safe and secure, and that is part of the community fabric.

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