New Orleans: One year on

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Over 1,500 people were killed. One year on, amid fierce fighting over the city's regeneration, widespread disillusionment with the state and federal authorities and with hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced, New Orleans is gearing up to commemorate the storm.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

As the news crews leave, the real story begins

Bells have been rung, silences have been observed, and a humble George Bush has dined at a local pancake house and moved on. Like the floodwaters that overwhelmed the city a year ago, the national and international media presence in New Orleans has subsided, leaving residents to get on with the job of rebuilding their lives. But now that Hurricane Katrina’s one-year anniversary is over, the real story is just beginning.

With hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced and unsure of what – if any – future they have in the Crescent City, a complex but determined network of community activists and campaign groups are fighting to ensure those worst affected by Katrina’s devastation are not punished a second time over by an incompetent, if not indifferent, programme of recovery. These organisations vary from church-based outfits to collectives of young radicals who have travelled to Louisiana from across America in order to play a part in the city’s regeneration.

A common thread linking the campaigners is a belief that the official vision of post-Katrina recovery reflects a wider trend in US politics – a neo-conservative attack on public services. The city is awash with planners offering competing proposals on how a brighter, brasher metropolis can rise from the rubble of the storm. In the eyes of many, they have a clean slate to work from, with vast swathes of the area wiped out physically and psychologically by the hurricane.

The problem for residents is that the attitude of many of these planners – an attitude seemingly shared by city officials – is that the New New Orleans should be shorn of many of the social problems is was previously saddled with – and consequently shorn of the communities from which, it is claimed, those problems arose. The way to achieve this transformation? Attack the resources that poor, predominantly black residents relied upon most – namely publicly funded schools, hospitals and housing.

Conspiracy theories abound; whilst some of the more extreme rumours (including the claim that the levees protecting the poverty-stricken Lower 9th Ward were deliberately dynamited during the storm to protect wealthier, whiter parts of town) are hard to swallow, it is easy to see why many believe that the city, state and federal authorities are doing everything in their power to discourage large sections of the population from returning home.

Take public housing. In 1996 there were over 13,000 publicly-funded, affordable housing units in the city; by the time Katrina struck, that had been steadily reduced to 7,100. Now, with New Orleans facing the greatest shortage of affordable housing in its history (rents have skyrocketed in the past year), the Department for Housing and Urban Development has announced plans to demolish 5,000 of the remaining units.

For residents who have lived in and built communities around these public housing projects all their lives this is difficult to accept, not least because the units are set to be replaced by so-called ‘mixed income’ developments, which by their very nature are going to leave a lot of displaced former residents out of the equation. Unlike the wind, water and mould-battered wooden houses of the Lower 9th, most of the public housing projects are made of brick and so withstood the flooding comparatively well. In fact, those that have been inside the units say they are practically ready to be inhabited again, a ready-made solution to fulfil the city administration’s plea to “make the impossible possible and get our people back home.”

Which makes it all the more incredible that rather than tidying the projects up and getting the evacuees back inside, the city’s housing authority has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars boarding the units up and, in one public development, even installing a 7ft-high barbed wire fence around the perimeter to keep out those who used to live there. On the eve of Katrina’s anniversary, in an incident largely unreported by the local media (who were focusing instead on Bush’s flying visit to the Gulf Coast), some former residents took ladders and boltcutters and forced their way back into their old homes. Unsurprisingly police officers soon appeared on the scene and arrested nine people (although significantly they decided not to arrest the residents themselves, all of whom were in possession of valid leases for the properties they were entering).

There are now two interesting debates going on in the Big Easy. The first is the argument over whether the public housing projects should be reopened. It’s part of the wider issue of how New Orleans should be regenerated, and whether the poorest neighbourhoods, including the Lower 9th, should be coaxed back to life at all. As one former high-ranking city official told me, people here have a tendency to think with their hearts, not their heads – great when it comes to music, art and food, but problematic when it comes to rebuilding a city.

The second is a debate within the network of campaigning groups about what their purpose is, and how they should formulate their opposition to the Mayor’s rebuilding plans. There is a disagreement over whether the broad movement is one primarily aimed at providing practical support and relief for those that need it, or whether it is a political struggle against the neo-conservative agenda – a divergence typified in the decision to use the anniversary as a chance to remember the dead, instead of protesting at Bush’s visit to the city. And amid all the genuinely powerful work being done by some ‘outsider’ groups, tension has arisen about the role they are playing in local, mainly African American, community work. A leaflet distributed at an alternative anniversary rally denounced one of the main organisations assisting working-class New Orleans residents with gutting their homes: “White folks = White racism,” it declared, “White groups are seeking to deceive the oppressed in their struggle for national liberation.”

These are the issues New Orleanians are facing as they begin a second year of recovery. Katrina was the worst natural disaster in American history but the bungled and insensitive handling of the city’s regeneration has been entirely man-made. Although the news crews have moved on following the hurricane’s anniversary, the problem of tackling that man-made disaster remains.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Images of an anniversary

More photos from the anniversary (from the top): discarded placards at the rally in Congo Square; one person advertises his return to the city; residents vent their anger at the attitude of the city authorities; at the site of the Industrial Canal levee breach, the names of those who died in the lower 9th ward are read out (note the number of family members); prayers are held at the exact time the waters rushed in

(Four photos, above): the devastation of the lower 9th ward

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A year on, and people find different ways to remember

Allan Mercadel has spent the morning jostling amongst the crowds, enthusiastically shaking his tambourine in time with the music and shouting greetings at passers-by. “Love you all too, take care of that little one now,” he grins as a smiling pregnant woman pushes past us. “And don’t fall!” he yells after her, slapping the tambourine against his thigh in delight as she makes her way down onto the muddy path beneath us. “I’ve been knowin’ her all my life, she a childhood girlfriend from 7th grade,” he confides. He gives the tambourine a final, more doleful shake and adds quietly: “She lost her grandmother due to the storm.”

We’re standing on a non-descript patch of grass, gazing out over what remains of the lower 9th ward. A year ago, the name of this metropolitan district meant nothing to most Americans outside of New Orleans; today it is national shorthand for poverty, racial division and the evident failings of federal government at a time when its citizens needed it most. Hundreds of people, many sporting t-shirts or bandanas emblazoned with the photos of relatives killed by Katrina, flocked here for an unofficial anniversary rally but they have now moved on, snaking down the crumbling road next to the canal on their way back to the city centre. Row upon row of deserted, dusty roads spread before us to the horizon. In some places the vista is sprinkled with the wreckage of houses and the bright glint of crushed car parts reflecting the morning sunshine. But for the most part the roads border nothing but emptiness, with grass and weeds having overgrown the plot where a home once stood.

With the levee wall behind him, Allan Mercadel surveys the lower 9th

“Hard to believe ain’t it,” chuckles Allan softly. “This little bitty ass city is where the whole world wants to come.”

A year on from Katrina’s devastation, New Orleans is apparently back in business. Restaurants are throwing open their doors, tourists are returning and in less than a fortnight the New Orleans Saints will begin a new season in the infamous Superdome – an event heavily advertised on local TV with images of the American football players huddling together in the venue’s changing room, repeatedly chanting ‘There’s no place like home’. In St. Louis Cathedral, a beautiful, understated white brick building at the heart of the city’s French Quarter, the city’s political elite have welcomed President Bush to a special mass, remembering the dead and marking the progress made since rising waters overwhelmed the creaking levees and flooded 80% of the area. “The signs of progress are not always easy to see, but they are here,” announces Norman Francis, chairman of the state recovery authority. “Schools are in session, people are rebuilding, businesses are reopening and the music of life has begun to return.”

Less than four miles away, with our backs to the point in the newly-rebuilt levee wall where the Industrial Canal gushed in, Allan tells me a different story. Maligned by politicians for its crime levels and sidelined in some visions of the city’s rebirth, the lower 9th ward, with its community scattered across America, is on the defensive. “Over here we all homeowners, there ain’t no project [public housing] here, no apartment complexes – these are homeowners,” explains the 28 year old, whose family have lived in the lower 9th for seven generations. “It’s a majority black neighbourhood and people didn’t deserve to die here and lose everything. These are people who spent their blood, sweat and tears building their homes and a year later the place looks like the city dump. A year later, and there’s still debris on the streets.”

One year on, and rubble remains

Allan’s anger is shared by most of the residents I speak to. Such is the disillusionment with the city and federal authorities at their handling of the disaster and the bungled efforts at reconstruction since, poor locals are convinced that the powerful are mounting an orchestrated attempt to seize their land. Amidst the bleakness of the lower 9th, the barbed wire and boarded up windows of the housing projects and the vibrant fury of protesters in Congo Square, rumours of developers eyeing up potentially lucrative real estate and forcing out the black community are common currency. “After the storm Donald Trump and his guys were over here buying shit up and playing monopoly,” spits Allan. Whilst services such as transportation, garbage collection and social services are beginning to return to more central parts of the city and the whiter suburbs, the 9th ward seems devoid of any government presence at all save for the occasional military vehicle patrol. “We’re being left behind for a reason. They want this land. I believe there’s oil on this land, hell I used to swim in that swamp over there – I know this is good ground.”

In a seemingly inescapable cycle of chicken and egg, the city insists it cannot begin putting social infrastructures back in place without people there to make use of them. But, as Collins pointed out to me yesterday at the St Bernard housing project, how can people think of returning without schools, doctors and shopkeepers available to them? It’s difficult for underprivileged African Americans not to feel discriminated against as the city tries to pick up the pieces. Liberal whites are appalled at the suggestion that the mistakes made during and since Katrina have a racial element to them – one friend at a party bitterly chastised the British media for framing post-Katrina reporting in a black vs. white narrative – but when prominent politicians continuously disparage the value of your community to the city as a whole – albeit without directly referring to skin colour – it’s inevitable that blacks in New Orleans feel as if they are being deliberately ignored. Allan doesn’t believe that New Orleanians themselves are racist, but he is fiercely indignant at the portrayal of the pre-Katrina lower 9th in the media. “Was there crime here? Yes. But I tell you what the biggest crime is and it’s not done by the people of this city. It’s injustice – you take a group of people and put them in poverty, don’t give them jobs, don’t give them food, well then you take a pastor, a preacher, or a god damn rabbi and let him watch his wife and children starve – then watch him go steal. Everyone is a product of their own environment.”

Traffic is stuck on the Claiborne Street bridge, caught behind the parade to the city centre. As I’m weaving in and out of the cars on foot, a woman winds down the window and offers me a lift, clearing a load of papers from the back seat so I can get some respite from the exhaust fumes. Her name is Janet and she used to live just over the canal in the upper 9th. Like Allan, who was evacuated to Houston (although he prefers the term ‘kidnapped’), the mother of three has travelled hundreds of miles today to commemorate the anniversary. We swing off the main road and she shows me her house, to which she returns from Arkansas (an eight hour drive) once or twice a month to work on rebuilding. “I met President Clinton, I got pictures!” she beams, keeping one eye on the derelict side road whilst fumbling around in the seat pocket for evidence.

Janet Tobias outside her home

Her husband, a forklift tuck operator, was trapped in the Superdome after the flooding; it took two weeks for Janet to discover he was alive. Despite being fearful of another hurricane, she has thrown everything into reconstructing her home, even though her chronic asthma makes it hard to stay in the house for long. They have gutted one half of it and hope to make habitable again within three months. “Most of the homeowners I talk to, they wanna come back,” she explains, exhibiting that same pride that Allan burned with – that this was a house they owned themselves instead of relying on government handouts; a pride fuelling disbelief and resentment that so little is being done by the authorities to help them rebuild. But her anger lacks the ideological edge that Allan’s contained – a sadness at mismanagement and bureaucratic incompetence rather than a sweeping vision of oppression and inequality.

By the time we catch up with the others in Congo Square, a man is hollering to the crowd from a stage in the blazing midday sun. “Brothers and sisters, you are making a statement by being here today, and by being there at the levee,” he shouts. “Say it: ‘We wanna come home!’” he cries, and the crowd dutifully returns the call, surging forward from the isolated spots of shade under the trees and by the sno-ball van. “The proof is in the pudding,” murmurs Danatus King approvingly, President of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP. “And what you see in this pudding is the actions of the people – not the federal government, not the local government, but the people themselves.” His words reflect a righteous excitement at the rally; the city ain’t doing nothing to help us but look what we’re doing by ourselves. “I think what we see now is a stirring of the people, the beginnings of a fight back,” adds Leon Waters, curator of the flooded Louisiana Museum of African American History, just a few blocks away. “But this is not enough. I see this as a period of gathering the forces.”

The marchers reach Congo Square

That evening, Janet has got her hands on tickets to the day’s big official event, an all-star ‘remembrance’ concert at the New Orleans Arena. The glittering stage is a million miles away from the simple apparatus at the gatherings in Congo Square and the lower 9th, but strangely the mood is somewhat similar – a joyful triumphalism, with genuine mourning shot through with a determination to make the city great again. “This city gonna come back stronger,” yells one of the comperes, and the fans lap it up, screaming their approval as the spotlights roll over them. But there is a moment of uneasiness as the crowd awaits Stevie Wonder and the same compere makes a plea for residents to get involved with the latest incarnation of the city’s recovery plan – Mayor Nagin’s ‘Unified New Orleans’ proposal, which gives each neighbourhood a chance to input their own strategies for regeneration. “This is important,” pleads the presenter as he vainly tries to make the website address heard above chants for Stevie. “The Mayor’s in the house tonight and I know you’re gonna wanna show your appreciation.” After a few seconds of doubt the crowd do break out into enthusiastic applause. “He tried to do his best,” said Janet. “Cos this never happened before and most people, they not giving him credit.”

One anniversary, but a myriad of different commemorations, each reflecting different priorities and alternative mindsets as the city moves into its second year of recovery. Tomorrow some members of the public housing projects will burn effigies of Nagin and other dignitaries, like HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. The message of unity in progress propagated from City Hall has little resonance in Iberville, or CJ Peete, or on the other side of the Industrial Canal. Everywhere there is the same determination to come back stronger, but in these areas the determination is all the more potent, borne out of a feeling that residents are fighting a second battle after the storm: first they had to survive the waters, now they are resisting the city’s attempts to abandon them.

“Of course we’re gonna rebuild,” concluded Allan as we left the levee wall behind us and went our separate ways. “We could rebuild with a fraction of the money that’s been misappropriated. But its the citizens keeping each other together, no one else. We saved each other with stolen boats, now we saving each other again.” He looked down at my ticket for the evening’s concert and smiled, shaking his head. “Just don’t believe the hype,” he said, and walked off into the emptiness.

"We finally cleaned up public housing" - pictures of stolen homes

More photos from the public housing projects (from the top): Members from the Rebirth jazz band play outside boarded up units in Lafitte; many former residents like Mike believe that they are being forced out so that developers can turn the attractively located project into luxury homes and businesses; while the French Quarter and business district is clear, the recovery effort in areas like CJ Peete seems barely more advanced than soon after the storm; residents watch the world go by in Iberville

Monday, August 28, 2006

Right of Return

Public housing is struggling to recover in New Orleans, the victim of long-term decline and a sustained conservative attack that has been going on for years. "What Katrina did is give these folks a scapegoat," a young black man called Collins Jasper told me this morning. We were standing in the blazing mid-morning sun outside his home, separated from it by a length of 7ft barbed-wire fence that stretched off into the distance. He showed me around St Bernards project, the community where he grew up and the place from which he is now barred, physically kept out by spiked metal and political inaction. With tens of thousands of public housing residents displaced and dispersed by Katrina, HANO (The Housing Authority of New Orleans) and HUD (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) have spent over a million dollars boarding up units that were barely flooded and hiring security personnel and guard dogs to keep the legal inhabitants out. The Housing Secretary recently announced that 5,000 units would be destroyed, accelerating a gutting of the area's affordable housing stock that began years before Katrina.

Being made of brick (instead of wood, which is riven with mould after flooding), most of the housing units were left relatively undamaged after the waters rose. In many cases, the putrid swamp that enveloped the city barely reached the ground floor. So why the forced closures at a time when New Orleans is supposed to be encouraging and welcoming its scattered citizens back home? Some city officials argue that with only sporadic incidicences of residents returning to the developments the authorities cannot devote the basic services and amenities required to serve people in all areas of the city - it's hard to organise healthcare, schooling and waste collection to regions of the city where there are only isolated pockets of inhabitants.

But the residents, who have set up a small but moving 'tented city' on the other side of the road from the units, disagree. They believe the powers-that-be are seeking a smaller, whiter city with no place for people like them. "Who's gonna do their cleaning, their waitering, their greeting when we all gone?" snorts Collins mother Sharon, a 57 year old who has been living in Houston, Texas for the past year. The public housing projects have always been seen by many as a byword for crime and poverty - Republican Congressman Richard Baker, from nearby Baton Rouge, infamously declared in the storm's aftermath that "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." - and there is real anger amongst the residents that they are being forced out of their own communities because they are seen as undesirables. "Look at these places," says Collins angrily as he pressed his head against the fence, "these places fine. We wouldda moved back in the next day if we could, because we don't need no lights, no gas. We can get candles. But this is our home. We want the nation to see this is something they are stealing from us - they are stealing our heritage, our pride, our homes."

Him and Sharon have no truck with the notion that it is unsustainable to try and rebuild communities in this poorer areas. "My elementary school was just three blocks away," says Collins, pointing down the deserted street "Anyone had any problems, they go talk to Dr Wiley over here," he nods, jerking his finger in the opposite direction. "And see Bynums over there? I weren't even a wet dream when that family moved into the neighbourhood. We are a community, but we are being denied that community because how can we live and maintain ourselves when the government keeps out out of our homes?" "This is it for talking," agrees Sharon soberly. "It's time for action."

The derelict pharmacy opposite St Bernard

Back in downtown, our guide round the projects - a relief worker called Sean who is living over in the lower ninth ward - gets in to some light-hearted banter with a fellow Wisconsin Packers fan who walks out of the Sheraton hotel. "What you folks doing over here anyway?" the man asks Sean after they have finished discussing the team's prospects for the coming season. "We're with a non-profit organisation helping with the reconstruction," replies Sean. "Hey, I'm helping with the reconstruction too!" grins the man, pointing at a cap emblazoned with the words 'Roof Krewe 2006'. "We're building the superdome roof. But we're definitely for profit!"

There are thousands of out-of-state businessmen and workers making a fortune from the huge contracts put out to tender for the recovery effort. None of the money is going to the projects. As the mans lopes off, Collins parting words come back to me: "They say you can't understand a man before you've walked a mile in his shoes. You need to swim a mile with us in this toxic water before you can even begin to appreciate the mental anguish these people are going through," he said, gesturing towards the small huddle of residents sitting in a clump of shade by the fence. "We'd do anything just to be home."

Collin and Sharon by the barbed wire separating them from their home

Sunday, August 27, 2006


People told me that everyone in New Orleans had a story, and they were right. The taxi driver, a father of three from the suburb of Metairie, launched straight into an unprompted overview of the city a year on from Katrina, lambasting local and federal politicians as we lurched around corners. "The people here have learnt not to believe what they're told," he explained. "No, sir. We won't be believing anything they tell us again." Reassuring words, as officials are currently insisting that Tropical Storm Ernesto - currently brewing over Cuba - will only brush Florida, leaving Louisiana undamaged.

In a city politicised by a man-made tragedy, it wasn't surprising that people were so ready to volunteer their opinions on what had gone wrong - before Katrina, during the crisis and in the painfully slow reconstruction efforts since. And it was equally predictable that it wouldn't take long for the conversation to steer towards race. The driver, a portly, rambunctious white man who slapped the wheel at regular intervals to emphasise his points, shook his head and said what a shame it was that the blacks in power were so corrupt. "At least the whites would leave some money for the people," he sighed. In fact, Mayor Nagin's administration is a product of white elite support and increasingly despised by the black populace, as alienated as the city's white population by his desperate "chocolate city" gaffe.

As we sped over the 17th street canal, my Russian companion, a student from Moscow who was in the city when Katrina hit and has returned from the anniversary, described swimming to higher ground. "We were swimming through this toxic mix of chemicals and shit," he said quietly, gazing out the window, "and pushing bodies aside."

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