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.