Hurricane Katrina Victims Return, But to What?
Published on Saturday, July 1, 2006 by Inter Press Service
Hurricane Katrina Victims Return, But to What?
by Katherine Stapp

For the last six months, Dana Montana has been living in a tent on the lawn of his aunt's ruined house in New Orleans. Never a particularly pleasant scenario, now that Louisiana's summer heat has arrived, it has become downright awful.

"I'm representing my relatives who are displaced and living in Texas," he told IPS in a telephone interview. "They're ageing and didn't have the strength to come down here and advocate the right to return. I'm staying close to the rebuilding, doing a lot of listening and observing."

Montana lost everything, including his own home and landscaping business, when Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in late August 2005, killing more than 1,800 people. For a while, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paid for a hotel room for him in New York City, but that money soon dried up and he decided it was time to return to his home in the southern state of Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico.

"We felt really strongly about people returning, rebuilding, getting their hands dirty themselves," he said.

At the same time, volunteers from around the country have poured into New Orleans to help residents put their lives back together. Common Ground, for example, has about 250 mostly young, white volunteers working on projects ranging from house-cleaning and mould abatement to tutoring of local children and legal clinics.

Two-thirds of New Orleans' population is African American, and the Lower Ninth Ward neighbourhood, which was almost completely under water and suffered the greatest number of fatalities, was more than 98 percent black.

While commending many of the volunteers for their sincerity, Montana says the situation has created tensions in the community.

"We see the physical work being done, but we don't see the compassion and the spiritual side. It's students writing their little theses, lacking the passion that is needed to help other people. Lots of them just want to experience the French Quarter. It takes away from it all in a very sad and disappointing way for me."

"Ninety percent of the decisions are not being taken by residents, they have no control over what approach should be taken. The attitude is 'Why are people not stepping up?' People are, but they feel like they're not wanted. It's like being a guest in your own town."

Lisa Fithian, of Common Ground, a collective set up in the wake of Katrina to provide short and long term aid, said her group is sensitive to the issue, and makes a serious effort to work closely with local residents and community groups, including the Lower Ninth Ward Council, the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Safe Streets and the United Front for Housing.

"We are an organisation that uses [the issues of] race and class privilege to mobilise resources," she told IPS. "We're not trying to take a political leadership role. Common Ground doesn't have a formal structure for resident input, but we do have regular community meetings, sometimes nightly -- it depends on the project."

"Most people that are coming back, their lives are really wrecked and they have a host of issues and just don't have the capacity to get involved in organising work," she added. "And many of the same challenges that existed pre-Katrina are continuing, like access to education, healthcare, transportation and clean water. There is still trash piled up in certain areas, and some people have no electricity."

"Things are progressing," Fithian said. "Many people are back living in trailers, but there is big struggle going on right now for public housing."

So far, FEMA has provided temporary assistance to over 700,000 applicants. However, only one-fifth of the trailers requested for Orleans Parish have materialised, resulting in a severe housing shortage in the city.

About 1,500 people have been housed in trailer parks in the city of Lafayette, a two-and-half hour drive away, but were not provided any transportation to get into the city to check on their former homes or look for work.

Thanks to community organising efforts, a single 33-seat bus service into New Orleans started on Monday. But much larger problems of affordable permanent housing and decent employment persist nearly a year after the hurricane, said Alfreda Keelen, co-chair of the Lafayette Hurricane Survivors' Coalition.

"They want people to come back, but to what? Officials are focusing on the business side, the jazz and entertainment industry. Monsters aren't born, they're created," she added. "Do they really want a city with a large influx of homeless people lying in the streets?"

"I went there in December, and it was just eerie," she said with a note of profound sadness. "What keeps me going is being a voice for the voiceless."

So far, the George W. Bush administration has asked Congress for 105 billion dollars for repairs and reconstruction in the Gulf region affected by last season's hurricanes. But many residents view these efforts as too little, too late, and say that a lack of oversight is leaving the city vulnerable to future disasters.

"Cleanups have been slack, contractors have taken people's money and done a substandard job, and many houses are not bolted down, meaning they would simply float away if there was another hurricane," Montana said.

"Plus a lot of people were renters, not homeowners, and had no insurance. People who were paying pre-Katrina rents of 450 dollars a month are now being asked for 1,500 dollars a month."

Montana has founded a group called the Atlantis Coalition, which is fighting for tenants' protection laws and a greater voice in what kind of city will rise from the devastation. He and others point out that issues of race and class not only contributed to the federal government's slow response to the crisis, but continue to exclude residents from key decisions.

Katrina's victims were overwhelmingly poor. When the hurricane hit, nearly one-third of the city of New Orleans was living below the poverty line. Louisiana and neighbouring Mississippi, the two worst affected states, had the highest childhood poverty rates in the nation -- over 50 percent.

"What has happened here has had major repercussions in terms of human rights and where this country is going," Montana said. "This thing is deep."

© 2006 IPS Inter-Press Service