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New Orleans: Leaving the Poor Behind Again!


They are doing it again!  My wife and I spent five days and four nights in a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  We saw people floating dead in the water.  We watched people die waiting for evacuation to places with food, water, and electricity.  We were rescued by boat and waited for an open pickup truck to take us and dozens of others on a rainy drive to the underpass where thousands of others waited for a bus ride to who knows where.  You saw the people left behind.  The poor, the sick, the disabled, the prisoners, the low-wage workers of New Orleans, were all left behind in the evacuation.  Now that New Orleans is re-opening for some, the same people are being left behind again.

When those in power close the public schools, close public housing, fire people from their jobs, refuse to provide access to affordable public healthcare, and close off all avenues for justice, it is not necessary to erect a sign outside of New Orleans saying “Poor People Not Allowed To Return.”  People cannot come back in these circumstances and that is exactly what is happening.

There are 28,000 people still living in shelters in Louisiana.  There are 38,000 public housing apartments in New Orleans, many in good physical condition.  None have been reopened. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that 112,000 low-income homes in New Orleans were damaged by the hurricane.  Yet, local, state and federal authorities are not committed to re-opening public housing.  Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA) said, after the hurricane, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans.  We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

New Orleans public schools enrolled about 60,000 children before the hurricane.  The school board president now estimates that no schools on the city’s east bank, where the overwhelming majority of  people live, will reopen this academic school year.  Every one of the 13 public schools on the mostly-dry west bank of New Orleans was changed into charter schools in an afternoon meeting a few days ago.  A member of the Louisiana state board of education estimated that at most 10,000 students will attend public schools in New Orleans this academic year.

The City of New Orleans laid off 3,000 workers.  The public school system laid off thousands of its workers.  The Archdiocese of New Orleans laid off 800 workers from its central staff and countless hundreds of others from its parish schools.  The Housing Authority has laid off its workers.   The St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office laid off half of its workers.

Renters in New Orleans are returning to find their furniture on the street and strangers living in their apartments at higher rents – despite an order by the Governor that no one can be evicted before October 25.  Rent in the dry areas have doubled and tripled.

Environmental chemist Wilma Subra cautions that earth and air in the New Orleans area appear to be heavily polluted with heavy metal and organic contaminants from more than 40 oil spills and extensive mold.  The people, Subra stated, are subject to “double insult – the chemical insult from the sludge and biological insult from the mold.” Homes built on the Agriculture Street landfill – a federal toxic site – stewed for weeks in floodwaters.

Yet, the future of Charity Hospital of New Orleans, the primary place for free comprehensive medical care in the state of Louisiana, is under furious debate and discussion and may never re-open again.  Right now, free public healthcare is being provided by volunteers at grassroots free clinics like Common Ground – a wonderful and much needed effort but not a substitute for public healthcare.

The jails and prisons are full and staying full.  Despite orders to release prisoners, state and local corrections officials are not releasing them unless someone can transport them out of town.  Lawyers have to file lawsuits to force authorities to release people from prison who have already served all of their sentences!  Judges are setting $100,000 bonds for people who steal beer out of a vacant house, while landlords break the law with impunity.   People arrested
before and after the hurricane have not even been formally charged by the prosecutor.  Because the evidence room is under water, part of the police force is discredited, and witnesses are scattered around the country, everyone knows few will ever see a trial, yet timid judges are reluctant to follow the constitution and laws and release them on reasonable bond.

People are making serious money in this hurricane but not the working and poor people who built and maintained New Orleans.  President Bush lifted the requirement that jobs re-building the Gulf Coast pay a living wage.  The Small Business Administration has received 1.6 million disaster loan applications and has approved 9 in Louisiana.  A US Senator reported that maintenance workers at the Superdome are being replaced by out of town workers who will work for less money and no benefits.  He also reported that seventy-five Louisiana electricians at the Naval Air Station are being replaced by workers from Kellogg Brown and Root – a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Take it to the courts, you say?   The Louisiana Supreme Court has been closed since the hurricane and is not due to re-open until at least October 25, 2005. While Texas and Mississippi have enacted special rules to allow out of state lawyers to come and help people out, the Louisiana Supreme court has not. Nearly every person victimized by the hurricane has a price-gouging story. Yet, the Louisiana Attorney General has filed exactly one suit for price-gouging – against a campground.   Likewise, the US attorney has prosecuted 3 people for wrongfully seeking $2000 FEMA checks.

No schools.  No low-income apartments.  No jobs.  No healthcare.  No justice.

A final example?  You can fly on a plane into New Orleans, but you cannot take a bus.  Greyhound does not service New Orleans at this time.

You saw the people who were left behind last time.   The same people are being left behind all over again.  You raised hell about the people left behind last time.  Please do it again.

Bill is a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans where he directs the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center and the Law Clinic and teaches Law and Poverty.  Bill can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

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