Don’t Let New Orleans Die


August 27 – September 3, 2005

Its been a day since I evacuated from New Orleans, my home, the city I love. Today I saw Governor Blanco proudly speak of troops coming in with orders to shoot to kill. Is she trying to help New Orleans, or has she declared war?

I feel like the world isn’t seeing the truth about the city I love. People outside know about Jazz Fest and Bourbon Street and beads, and now they know about looters and armed gangs and helicopter rescue.

What’s missing is the story of a city and people who have created a culture of liberation and resistance. A city where people have stood up against centuries of racism and white supremacy. This is the city where in 1892 Homer Plessy and the Citizens Committee planned the direct action that brought the first (unsuccessful) legal challenge to the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” This is the city where in 1970 the New Orleans Black Panthers held off the police from the desire housing projects, and also formed one of the nations’ first Black Panther chapters in prison. Where in 2005 teens at Frederick Douglas High School, one of the most impoverished schools in the US, formed a student activist group called Teens With Attitude to fight for educational justice, and canvassed their community to develop true community ownership of their school.

I didn’t really understand community until I moved to New Orleans. Secondlines, the new orleans tradition of roving street parties with a brass band, began as a form of community insurance, and are still used to benefit those needing aid. New Orleans is a place where someone always wants to feed you. Instead of demonizing this community, instead of mistreating them and shooting them and stranding them in refugee camps and displacing them across the southern US, we need to give our love and support to this community in their hour of crisis, and then we need to let them lead the redevelopment of New Orleans. As Naomi Klein has already pointed out, the rebuilding money that will come in doesn’t belong to the Red Cross or FEMA or Homeland Security, the money belongs to the people of New Orleans.

Hurricane Diary

Many people have asked for more information about my experience in the past week. I was one of the fortunate ones. I had food and water and a solid home. Below are notes from my week in the disaster that was constructed out of greed, corruption and neglect.

Saturday, August 27

I’m in New Orleans, and there’s word of a hurricane approaching. I don’t consider leaving. Why? Because I don’t have a car, and all the airlines and car rental companies are sold out. Because the last two hurricanes were false alarms, despite the shrill and vacuous media alarms. Because I have a sturdy, second floor apartment, food, water, flashlights, and supplies. Because there is not much of an evacuation plan. Friends of mine who evacuated last time sat in their cars, moving 50 miles in 12 hours.

Sunday, August 28

As the storm approaches and grows larger, everyone I know is calling. “Are you staying or going? where are you staying? Are you bringing your pets? What should I do?” Governor Blanco urges us to “pray the hurricane down” to a level 2. I relent to pressure somewhat and relocate to a more sturdy location, an apartment complex built out of an old can factory in the midcity neighborhood. The building is five stories high, built of concrete and brick. There are seven of us in the apartment, with four cats.

Monday, August 29

Its morning, the storm is over, and we survey the streets outside. There has been some flooding. A few of us explore the neighborhood in boats, and we see extensive damage, but overall we feel as if New Orleans has once again escaped fate.

Later in the day, we hear some reports of much greater flooding in destruction in the ninth ward and lower ninth ward neighborhoods, New Orleans’ most overexploited communities.

Tomorrow, we decide, the water will lower and we’ll walk home. We expect power will start coming on in a week or so.

There are many relaxed and friendly conversations, especially on the roof. With all of the lights in the city out, the night sky is beautiful. We lie on our backs and watch shooting stars.

Tuesday, August 30

We wake up to discover that the water level has risen several feet. Panic begins to set in among some. We inventory our food and find that, if we ration it tightly, we have enough for five days. As we discuss it, we repeatedly say,“not that we’ll be here that long, but if we had to…”

We continue to explore the area by boat, helping people when possible. The atmosphere outside is a sort of post-apocalyptic, threatening world of obscure danger, where the streets are empty and the future seems cloudy. The water is a repellent mix of sewage, gas, oil, trash and worse.

We meet some of our neighbors. Most of the building is empty. Of at least 250 apartments, there are maybe 200 people in the building, about half white and half Black. Many people, like us, are crowded 7 or 10 to an apartment. Like us, many people came here for safety from the storm. Some have no food and water. A few folks break open the building candy machine and distribute the contents. We talk about breaking into the cafe attached to the building and distributing the food.

We turn on a battery-powered tv and radio, and then turn it off in disgust. No solid information, just rumor and conjecture and fear. Throughout this time, there is no reliable source of information, compounding and multiplying the crisis.

The reporters and politicians talk 80% about looting and 20% about flooding. I can’t understand how anyone could blame someone for “looting” when they just had their home destroyed by the neglect and corruption of a country that doesn’t care about them and never did.

Tomorrow, the news announces, the water level will continue to rise, perhaps 12-15 feet. Governor Blanco calls for a day of prayer.

Wednesday, August 31

White people in the building start whispering about their fears of “them.” One woman complains of people in the building “from the projects and hoarding food.” There is talk of gangs in the streets, shooting, robbing, and lawless anarchy. I feel like there is a struggle in people’s minds between compassion and panic, between empathy and fear.

However, we witness many folks traveling around in boats, bringing food or giving lifts or sharing information.

But the overwhelming atmosphere is one of fear. People fear they wont be able to leave, they fear disease, hunger, and crime. There is talk of a soldier shot in the head by looters, of bodies floating in the ninth ward, flooding in Charity Hospital, and huge masses (including police) emptying WalMart and the electronic stores on Canal street. There are fires visible in the distance. A particularly large fire seems to be nearby – we think its at the projects at Orleans and Claiborne. Helicopters drop army MREs (Meal Ready to Eat) and water, and people rush forward to grab as many as they can.

After the third air drop, people in the building start organizing a distribution system.

Across the street is a spot of land, and helicopters begin landing there and loading people aboard. Hundreds of people from the nearby hospital make their way there, many wearing only flimsy gowns, waiting in the sun. As more helicopters come, people start arriving from every direction, straggling in, swimming or coming by boat.

A helicopter hovers over our roof, and a soldier comes down and announces that tomorrow everyone in the building will be evacuated.

Across the street, at least two hundred people spend the night huddled on a tiny patch of land, waiting for evacuation.

Thursday, September 1

People in the building want out. They are lining up on the roof to be picked up by helicopters – three copters come early in the morning and take a total of nine people. Seventy-five people spend the next several hours waiting on the roof, but no more come.

Down in the parking garage, flooded with sewage, a steady stream of boats takes people to various locations, mostly to a nearby helicopter pickup point.

We hear stories of hundreds of people waiting for evacuation nearby at Xavier University, a historically Black college, and at other locations.

Our group fractures, people leaving at various times.

Two of us take a boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If you ever wondered if the US government would treat US refugees the same way they treat Haitian refugees or Somali refugees, the answer is, yes, if those refugees are poor, black, and from the South.

The individual soldiers and police are friendly and polite – at least to me – but nobody seems to know what’s going on. As wave after wave of refugees arrives, they are ushered behind the barricades onto mud and dirt and sewage, while heavily armed soldiers look on.

Many people sit on the side, not even trying to get on a bus. Children, people in wheelchairs, and everyone else sit in the sun by the side of the highway.

Everyone has a story to tell, of a home destroyed, of swimming across town, of bodies and fights and gunshots and looting and fear. The worst stories come from the Superdome. I speak to one young man who describes having to escape and swim up to midcity.

I‘m reminded of a moment I read about in the book “Rising Tide,” about the Mississippi river flood of 1927. After the 1927 evacuation, a boatload of poor black refugees is refused permission to get on land “until they sing negro spirituals.” As a bus arrives and a mass swarms forward and state police and national guard do nothing to help, I feel like I’m witnessing the modern equivalent of this dehumanizing spectacle.

More refugees are arriving than are leaving. Three of us walk out of the camp, considering trying to hitchhike a ride from relief workers or press. We get a ride from an Australian tv team who drive us to Baton Rouge where we sit on the street and wait until a relative arrives and gives us a ride to Houston.

While we sit on the street, everyone we meet is a refugee from somewhere – Bay St Louis, Gulfport, Slidell, Covington. Its after midnight, but the roads are crowded. Everyone is going somewhere.

Friday, September 2

In Houston, I can’t sleep, although we drove through the night. Governor Blanco announces that she’s sending in more national guard troops,

“These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets. They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.”

Many people have called and written to ask what they can do. I don’t really have answers. I’m still tired and angry and I don’t know if my home survived.

But, here’s some thoughts:

1) Hold the politicians accountable. Hold the media accountable. Defend Kanye West.

2) Support grassroots aid. A friend has compiled a list at http://www.sparkplugfoundation.org/ katrinarelief.html

3) Volunteer. The following is a call for volunteers from Families and friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an excellent grassroots group:

“Come and help us walk through the shelters, find people, help folks apply for FEMA assistance, figure out what needs they have, match folks up with other members willing to take people in. We especially need Black folks to help us as the racial divide between relief workers and evacuees is stark. Email us ASAP if you would like to help with this work.

[email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

4) Organize in your own community.

5) Add your apartment to the housing board at www.hurricanehousing.org.

6) Support grassroots, community control of redevelopment. Don’t let New Orleans die.

Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine (www.leftturn.org).

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