Helping New Orleans




H

aving recently returned from
New Orleans, I can report that everyone I talked to there said the
same thing: “Please come down and help us rebuild.” There
is virtually no help coming from local or federal governments. Much
of the $62 billion that Bush and Congress approved is going to Halliburton
subsidiaries and a handful of other large corporations through politically-connected
contracts. Most of these sweetheart deals have nothing to do with
rebuilding homes and everything to do with privatizing public services
and turning the city into an exclusive gated community. 


For most New Orleanians, there’s little evidence that federal
aid has made it to the area; equipment is sitting idle, most of
the city is still without power, and no one can get any answers
from the government. Though many people are now getting trailers
from FEMA so they can return and start rebuilding their homes, many
more are still not getting trailers, primarily because of FEMA incompetence.
For renters in New Orleans, hope for getting them home is fading.
Rents have skyrocketed (thanks, in part, to the exorbitant rents
that our federal government is willing to spend for their contractors)
and the number of available rentals is miniscule. But even for those
who have returned, who are living in trailers or tents or squatting
in parks, the task of cleaning out and rebuilding their homes is
indescribably overwhelming. 









The
Situation 



FEMA

: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided
very little financial aid beyond the initial $2,000 (and many didn’t
even get that). In any case, the maximum that anyone can get to
rebuild their home is $26,000, which will barely cover roof repairs.
Many people are also being turned down for financial assistance
to demolish homes that are structurally unsound and will be forced
to pay around $15,000 to have it done by private companies. Most
people who are being turned down by FEMA are being referred to the
Small Business Administration to get loans. After all these months,
SBA has yet to process most of the applications and, of those that
have been processed, the majority have been turned down because
the applicants are “too poor.” 



Insurance

: Most homeowners are receiving nothing from insurance
companies who, in many cases, refuse to pay because they claim the
damage was from the flood (and those who also had flood insurance
have been told that they’re not eligible for compensation because
the majority of the damage was from the hurricane). In other cases,
insurance compensation is shockingly small because (1) insurance
companies are relying on FEMA estimates of damage which are wildly
inaccurate and (2) repair estimates are based on pre-Katrina labor
and material costs; everything is two to three times more expensive
now. 



Evictions

: Evictions have reached catastrophic levels. An
estimated 10,000 people were evicted in the month of November alone.
Many of these evictions are completely illegal, but the criminal
justice system is still in complete disarray and the political will
to rein in venal landlords is simply not there. These same landlords
are now charging rents that are two to three times pre-Katrina levels.
Though New Orleanians cannot afford these rents, private contractors—who
are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA and other
federal agencies—can. Meanwhile, FEMA continues to threaten
evacuees with eviction from hotel rooms across the country. 



Basic services:

The city of New Orleans is going broke. Unlike
the city of New York, which received virtually unlimited funds to
rebuild after 9/11, New Orleans has received next to nothing from
the federal government to rebuild an entire city. As a result, thousands
of city workers have been laid off and various agencies are in danger
of shutting down while others have shut down already. Most of the
city’s schools are unable to open; the few that will reopen
have been “charterized.” 



Temporary trailers

: A massive effort is underway to set up
trailers in various locations throughout the city to allow residents
to have someplace to live while cleaning out and rebuilding. However,
small numbers of residents in these neighborhood are holding hundreds
of thousands of evacuees hostage to their prejudice—they do
not want the trailers or the residents of neighborhoods like the
Lower Ninth Ward in their neighborhood. The situation is currently
deadlocked and neither Mayor Ray Nagin nor the City Council members
have been able to negotiate with these self-appointed neighborhood
vigilantes. Of course, the obvious thing to do is for the land in
question to be federalized and just bring in the trailers. 









What
Needs To Be Done 



Restore the wetlands

: By far, the most critical issue for
the survival of New Orleans is the restoration of the wetlands that
have historically protected the city by reducing the impact of hurricanes.
However, the Bush administration has consistently refused to fund
the $14 billion wetlands restoration initiative. Had this project
gone ahead, rather than being vetoed by Bush, the resulting restoration
would have reduced Katrina’s storm surge by five to ten feet,
and the levees most likely would not have been overtopped in the
first place. 



Fully fund the levee protection system:

The $3.1 billion
that Bush has approved only addresses the levee system for New Orleans
and only provides funding for rebuilding to a Category 3 hurricane
protection. The rest of South Louisiana’s levee system—which
was long-neglected by the federal government—needs rebuilding
as well and the entire levee system needs to be rebuilt to withstand
a Category 5, which is what Louisiana has been begging for all along.
The cost to strengthen south Louisiana’s entire levee system
against a Category 5 hurricane is estimated to be as high as $32
billion. 



Halt the evictions:

The federal government has the authority
to place a moratorium on all evictions, as well as on all foreclosures
in New Orleans. This is a public emergency and continued evictions
or foreclosures constitute an imminent threat to the lives and the
safety of the residents of New Orleans. 


This moratorium must also protect those who live in public housing
projects, all of whom are being evicted because the Housing Authority
is attempting to sell off the land. 



Federalize land

s: The government should federalize land where
trailers are to go and get the trailers there now. FEMA should provide
trailers to all who need them. 



Authorize emergency aid to individuals:

Money should be made
immediately available to help those affected by Katrina to clean
out and/or rebuild their homes. This aid must be adequate to cover
current costs of labor and materials and must include living expenses
until homes are fully habitable. There’s no moral or economic
reason why our government can’t subsidize that additional cost. 



Authorize emergency aid to the city:

An aid package should
be given to the city of New Orleans so they can rehire all workers
laid off by the disaster, rebuild all municipal facilities and reinstate
all municipal services. No strings attached, no loans: this aid
package should be no less than what was given to New York City after
9/11 and proportionate to the size of the population affected and
the number of structures damaged.  



Pass legislation to reform insurance companies:

It should
be a federal crime for insurance companies to delay compensation
to policyholders more than 60 days or if they fail to pay the full
amount to the policyholder within that 60-day period. Penalties
for these delays should include jail time for executives of insurance
companies and multi-million-dollar fines. Policyholders should have
the right to sue insurance companies. 



What You Can Do 



S

ome of you may remember the construction
and solidarity brigades that went to Nicaragua in the 1970s and
1980s. I call on all of us to create and join new solidarity construction
brigades to go to New Orleans and help rebuild. Many in the progressive
movement have valuable skills that are desperately needed in New
Orleans. Many are also involved in the alternative energy movement.
Solar energy activists could go to New Orleans and set up a solar
power grid that can serve as a model. 


We can no longer wait for “someone else”—for Congress,
for FEMA, for Bush—to take the lead and do the work. It is
up to us. Enough is enough.





Photos
in this article by Todd Sanchioni. Mimi Yahn is a long-time activist.