Notes From Inside New Orleans
by Jordan Flaherty
Friday, Sep. 02, 2005 at 12:03 PM
Yes, I stayed through the storm and aftermath. I'm fine - much better off than most of my brother and sister hurricane survivors. Below is my attempt to relay some of what I've seen these last few days.
Thanks to all the loved ones and long-lost friends for your sweet notes of concern, offers of housing and support, etc. Yes, I stayed through the storm and aftermath. I'm fine - much better off than most of my brother and sister hurricane survivors. Below is my attempt to relay some of what I've seen these last few days.
Notes From Inside New Orleans
by Jordan Flaherty
Friday, September 2, 2005
I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I
was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants
to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims
of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.
In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway,
thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud
and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily
armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it
would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the
barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given
about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be
told where the bus was taking them - Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas,
or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas
(for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge
would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge.
You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people
willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17
miles of the camp.
I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation
Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were
friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how
many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the
several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able
to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these
questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local Fox affiliates
complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told
me "as someone who's been here in this camp for two days, the only
information I can give you is this: get out by nightfall. You don't want to
be here at night."
There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up
any sort of transparent and consistent system, for instance a line to get on
buses, a way to register contact information or find family members, special
needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for
possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.
To understand this tragedy, its important to look at New Orleans itself.
For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible,
glorious, vital, city. A place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere
else in the world. A 70% African-American city where resistance to white
supremecy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid
beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians,
Parades, Beads, Jazz Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New
Orleans is a place of art and music and dance and sexuality and liberation
unlike anywhere else in the world.
It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can
take two hours because you stop and talk to someone on every porch, and
where a community pulls together when someone is in need. It is a city of
extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state
and federal goverments that have abdicated their responsibilty for the
public welfare. It is a city where someone you walk past on the street not
only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.
It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New
Orleans has a population of just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders
this year, most of them centered on just a few, overwhelmingly black,
neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don't need to
search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after a shooting,
the attacker is shot in revenge.
There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of
Black New Orleans and the N.O. Police Department. In recent months,
officers have been accused of everything from drug running to corruption to
theft. In seperate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were recently
charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several high
profile police killings of unarmed youth, including the murder of Jenard
Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests for several months.
The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will
not graduate in four years. Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child's
education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest teacher salaries. The
equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana
schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any
given day. Far too many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in
Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm
labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the prison. It is a city
where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are are low-paying,
transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.
Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster
is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence.
Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty
and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the treatment
of the refugees to the the media portayal of the victims, this disaster is
shaped by race.
Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this week
our political leaders have defined a new level of incompetence. As
hurricane Katrina approached, our Governor urged us to "Pray the hurricane
down" to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane,
we tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and tv stations, hoping
for vital news, and were told that our governor had called for a day of
prayer. As rumors and panic began to rule, they was no source of solid
dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the
water level would rise another 12 feet - instead it stabilized. Rumors
spread like wildfire, and the politicians and media only made it worse.
While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to
get there were left behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and
national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As
someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of
this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.
No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely
closed stores in a desperate, starving city as a "looter," but thats just
what the media did over and over again. Sherrifs and politicians talked of
having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.
Images of New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into
black, out-of-control, criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that
will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime than the
governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage
and destroyed a city. This media focus is a tactic, just as the eighties
focus on "welfare queens" and "super-predators" obscured the simultaneous
and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan scams and mass layoffs, the
hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat to cover
up much larger crimes.
City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at
least the mid-1800s, its been widely known the danger faced by flooding to
New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this week's events, was more
about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated
exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently
refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city.
While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending danger to New Orleans
and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the
Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund
New Orleans flood control, and ignored scientists warnings of increased
hurricanes as a result of global warming. And, as the dangers rose with the
floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatized vividly the callous
disregard of our elected leaders.
The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a US
President and a Governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of
In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New
Orleans. This money can either be spent to usher in a "New Deal" for the
city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new schools,
cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be "rebuilt and
revitalized" to a shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos,
and with chain stores and theme parks replacing the former neighborhoods,
cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.
Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty, racism,
disinvestment, de-industrialization and corruption. Simply the damage from
this pre-Katrina hurricane will take billions to repair.
Now that the money is flowing in, and the world's eyes are focused on
Katrina, its vital that progressive-minded people take this opportunity to
fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is a special place, and we
need to fight for its rebirth.
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn Magazine
Below are some small, grassroots and New Orleans-based resources,
organizations and institutions that will need your support in the coming
Current Info and Resources:
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