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 the dimensions of this tragedy, its important to look at New
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
supremacy 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 governments that have abdicated their responsibility 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 as 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 separate 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
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 portrayal 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 that's just
what the media did over and over again. Sheriffs 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, deindustrialization 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 a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine
(www.leftturn.org). He is not planning on moving out of New Orleans.