A full year after Hurricane Katrina, 73,000 New Orleans residents remained encamped in FEMA trailer parks, an aluminum gulag spread all the way to Texas. They were waiting for a chance to reconstruct their homes. They’re still waiting. There’s little or no insurance money, and no one is even allowed to rebuild, nearly two years after the flood, in some of the poorer areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.
But waiting on compensation from Washington, waiting for a hand-out, waiting for anyone to help save the city is simply not in the constitution of Malik Rahim. The water was still high when Rahim helped create a guerrilla reconstruction corps of local residents. They call themselves Common Ground. When you see progress in the poor sections of New Orleans, you’re often seeing the group’s work crews.
The organization started out distributing food and water to hurricane victims and running a free, volunteer-staffed medical clinic (See, YES! Issue 39). It was an insurgent action, neither financed nor sanctioned by state or federal government. Since then, they have organized thousands of volunteers to gut water-damaged homes, removing deadly mold, and in the process trained residents in construction skills.
When we were filming in New Orleans, I visited The Woodlands, where Common Ground was doing a gut rehab on 350 apartment units. The residents themselves did most of the work. With sweat equity and small-scratch donations, Common Ground built hurricane-proof homes, a health clinic, even a restaurant for employment of residents once construction was complete.
Then, a week before Christmas, the owners of The Woodlands, who’d agreed to sell the property, rendered nearly worthless by the hurricane, to Common Ground, sent every resident an eviction notice. Now that the place was spiffed-up and rebuilt, it was worth a fortune in the tight New Orleans market. In January, marshals removed every Woodlands family, including a paraplegic who’d been a resident for decades. Following a too-familiar pattern, there was no compensation.
But Rahim and crew are far from defeated. Their call for the residents to take control of their city and their future was not about real estate nor even compensation. It was about teaching self-respect, self-empowerment, and self-defense, the only weapons left to the moneyless in a class war in which one front is New Orleans and another the closing Chrysler plants in Michigan. The battle is now political, as Rahim takes Common Ground’s case and story nationwide. For them, the insurgency has just begun.
Greg Palast is an investigative reporter for, among others, the BBC, and author of three books.