I left New Orleans, LA, for a couple of days, to speak at the conference of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television about indymedia.com (an independent publishing news website,) on new technology and journalism from a disaster area.
As the plane lifted off, I looked out my window to the landscape of New Orleans....the flooded area clearly distinct from the dry: The browned branches on trees, the mud-caked walls on houses. Lake Pontchartrain --much bigger than the city itself-- with one small line (the causeway) crossing the body of water. The thought of trying to escape a crowded city on that little line as 100+ mph winds whipped across the region became a very frightening prospect in hindsight.
My thoughts drifted to a higher level as the plane ascended in altitude. I began to think in general terms --the bigger picture-- of life pre-and-post hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Patchwork farmland and city streets laid grid work as if to push organic trees, snaking rivers, and hills against an encroaching Gulf. In some instances, it seemed that the vein-like spread of forests and swamps was pushing back against the grid itself...and I related it too the activist community representing people working for social justice: The rhizome. With tentacle-like fingers it spreads underground and connects one organism to the next, reaching, curving, touching, a web-like network crossing the landscape.
Nature Battles the Grid, People Battle the Process
I thought about how our relief aid services spread and grew to battle well-structured, top-down models of FEMA and the government.
FEMA's model, allowed hundreds of people to literally drown in their homes. Inflexible, lacking creativity and action, their model prevented evacuation and their process was the obstacle to serving the people who fund its organization through taxes.
Police in Gretna, across the river from New Orleans, prevented New Orleans residents from crossing the bridge. Rain-soaked, weary residents waded through rancid water onto the bridge in an attempt to reach evacuation buses awaiting them. Gretna police fired above their heads, and forced residents to turn back to the toxic waters.
Why is the story repeated throughout the country so focused upon still images of looting and shooting? Haven't you learned by now that this story was a red herring? Those images were the perfect set-up for news media to divert their attention away from the more complex issues of understanding government processes, reaction (and silence) towards the people attempting to survive on their own.
The image of a black criminal class was to blame for all the problems...that was the message. I can't believe that even now, two months later, people are still asking me about the looting. How is it that image outlasts all others?
The top-down structure of government-led relief, in combination with a state-run corporate media, shaped the picture of post-Katrina New Orleans, and I realize it is no wonder that viewers are still misled by the news.
I have pieced together --out of dozens of personal interviews-- a story, despite all evidence to the contrary, which continues to be denied by the authorities. It is the story of the prisoners in Old Parish prison, who were, by all accounts, left behind on the day after the hurricane hit 29 August.
The day before the hurricane, many of the prisoners who were on the first floor were moved up to the second floor before the guards evacuated, but no other measures were taken by the guards to ensure the survival of the prisoners.
There were prisoners left on the first floor -- they died in their cells. No one knows how many -- the prisoners don't know, they were stuck in their own cells above the first floor, and couldn't tell how many were stuck beneath them. Authorities aren't speaking publicly and they deny that anyone died.
When the guards evacuated, they left some food for the prisoners. The water poured in. The first floor filled with flood water, and the prisoners on the second floor, as they heard the drowning cries of those below, began to panic. The water was rising, dirty, oily, smelling of sewage and toxins, 90 degrees indoors and humidity that of a steam bath.
The prisoners did what they could to bash through windows. The water rose to chest level before it stopped. The men (there were women prisoners, as well, but they were not on the second floor) who had been put in the gymnasium by guards, managed to use a basketball hoop to break windows and escape. Others, locked in large cells, used a door fastener they had managed to break off to crash the glass and escape.
They joined together and tried to get out of the building as bodies floated inside the prison and outdoors adding to the stench of decay.
One day later, a boat arrived with a couple of guards who had returned to aid the prisoners.
The men and women were brought by boat to a highway overpass (an island in the flooded city,) where they waited...another day. With their records lost, and no one certain about which prisoner was incarcerated for which crime --save the prisoner himself-- everyone was simply held by default. It took two months before even those intended to stay one night in prison for small offenses where released.
Stanley, a 65-year-old man, was arrested the day before the hurricane on, what he says was a bogus, trespassing charge and remained imprisoned for weeks.
Old Boy Network Speaking
Charlestine Jones, a mother of two daughters, is being evicted from her home. Bertha Dugas was evicted. And Sonia Khan (a Guatemalan grandmother) along with her family of 11 was evicted -- because the one bedroom apartment could not sustain so many residents. Khan's relations all lost their apartments and homes to the flood except for this one room.
But to others...landlords, real estate developers, and residents who see an easy gain from pilfering insurance cash on claims...corruption is the norm. Secret deals, re-development schemes, and crooked politicians involve the "haves" everywhere from the mayor's office, the governor's office, the federal government to residents smart enough to figure out a way to gain from the disaster. Some landlords see this opportunity to "upgrade" their buildings and therefore charge higher rents when rebuilding is complete. Who cares or notices such a ploy during a disaster the size of Katrina?
I had written to my congressman about the failure of the government to respond to the crisis, and I advocated that control measures be placed into the hands of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
I still stand by my request, that during an emergency crisis, local control should be given to local government in order to safely and quickly evacuate its population. And I think that Nagin has enough knowledge of local geography and resources that he would have been more than able to oversee the evacuation, had he been given the authority.
Nagin has since shown to be the stooge. He argues that rebuilding of New Orleans should be modeled after the St. Thomas housing projects.
Several years ago, this project, was developed at the financial expense of 2,785 poor residents it housed. The people were lied to at every stage of the process: First, they were promised that the redevelopment would be wholly to their benefit (a first row of homes were torn down and condos built in their place) although the people of St. Thomas housing projects did not see any benefit. The condos were out of reach for their incomes.
They were told that the next row of condos would be for them. That was followed by the next row, and then the next. But at each stage of the 'redevelopment,' citizens from St. Thomas were displaced...and their properties replaced by expensive residential real estate called River Garden.
Pres Kabacoff, CEO of HRI Properties, developed the project at, what residents say, was an astronomical profit. Kabacoff, 59, says his company mission at River Garden was to change attitudes in New Orleans...."Today's developments segregate the wealthy from the poor. This separation further disfranchises our marginal societies and isolates them from others."
Former residents of St. Thomas wound up in New Orleans' lower 9th ward -- the hardest hit part of the city after Katrina.
Kabacoff and Nagin are again working on redevelopment plans -- but this time their collaborative project is meant to rebuild the entire city. Where will the poorer residents go?
After learning first-hand from residents who are homeless (and or living in disrepair) and having inside knowledge about Nagin's old-boy network of developers, businessmen, and politicians, I am afraid that the future of New Orleans can't be described any less than "extremely disturbing."
Go to Common Ground Collective...Please
The rhizome: It can be a more effective model for action than unchecked and unaccountable hierarchies. FEMA and the Red Cross were given tens of billions in government aid and in cash donations by citizens worldwide. No accounting for the cash. The people in need have received very little help if at all. New Orleans has no FEMA relief center open east of the Mississippi River -- where most residents await.
FEMA's center is staffed by (5 to 1) Blackwater Security employees. Blackwater controlled Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The FEMA office operates as a closed door. If you qualify to enter the FEMA office, a FEMA worker will help you fill out forms via the Internet. But due to high volumes of traffic their website crashes regularly and applicants must start over.
Once finished with the application process you are issued a FEMA ID. In two weeks you may (or may not) be issued an emergency check for $2,000 for hurricane-related expenses.
Displaced residents are handed a flier with a phone number for emergency shelter...in Baton Rouge, accessible by automobile. The Red Cross offers box lunches and bottled water. They offer cash assistance to those who qualify.
Both the Red Cross and FEMA usually turn away applicants and send them to Common Ground Collective instead...an organization I've been involved with. Allow me to repeat...the multi-billion dollar cash donations to Red Cross and trillion-dollar-backed FEMA send residents to Common Ground Collective to seek assistance.
Some Hope Remains
Charlestine Jones, the evicted mother I spoke of earlier, led a campaign to pressure her landlord in her public-funded housing complex to stop the forced evictions. With the help of local supporters and a national campaign, she was able to get the owner to negotiate, and he agreed to the tenants' demands. This is what gives me hope.
It gives me strength, to know that with the power of people working together, we can get this entrenched power structure and old-boys network to budge.
Now, we just need to push more and harder. And from every possible angle as the rhizome twists beneath. Eventually, we, who work for justice and truth --not for money or personal interest-- will win in this struggle...for we must win to take back New Orleans.
Jenka Soderberg is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Think & Ask on issues affecting people in the United States and Palestine.
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