If television cameras had focused on the urban poor in New Orleans…before Katrina, I believe that the initial reaction to descriptions of poverty and poverty concentration would have been unsympathetic.” So writes Harvard scholar William Julius Wilson in More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. As we approach the fourth commemoration of the storm and flood, the nation has reverted to its pre-Katrina blindness to the poverty endemic to New Orleans—and to local Bay Area communities, whose conditions are ripe for just such wide scale disaster given our proximity to the ticking Hayward fault.
Katrina was the steroid that continues to fuel the turbo-charged gentrification of New Orleans. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced over 2,000,000 people in the gulf coast region. Government policies have prevented the return of a quarter of the New Orleans population, disproportionately affecting the African-American, working class community. Racial demographics in the city practically have flipped, which has statewide political implications. You can be sure that the 2000 census finding of 326,000 African-Americans (out of a city total of 484,000) will fall dramatically in 2010.
How well has this class of people who have not returned, these internally displaced persons—estimated at 110,000—fared during the recession? It should be no surprise then that the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative has reported that the New Orleans homeless population is estimated at 12,000 people—1 in 26 people currently living in that city, compared to 1 in 149 in Berkeley—double the number before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—and that in a survey conducted in 2008, 60% of these 12,000 homeless people stated they became homeless after Hurricane Katrina.
The trend line does not look to change soon. The New Orleans City Council recently approved the demolition of nearly 4,500 units of public housing, and is replacing them with only 750 units of public housing in new “mixed-income developments.” And still to come: the prospect of eminent domain in Mid-City New Orleans, where the city will demolish homes—64 percent of residents there were African-American and 60 percent were renters—and replace public housing with two university hospitals. Can you say town-gown gone sour?
The international community has focused more long-term energy on the unfolding human rights disaster in gulf coast redevelopment than our own political leaders. In May 2009 a UN official noted that the federal government was not ensuring the return of displaced persons to New Orleans and denounced the demolition of public housing there. Local leaders in New Orleans are calling for a commitment to build one-for-one replacement of the public housing that has been demolished, as well as a full audit of Housing Authority of New Orleans and HUD. Sound familiar Berkeley?
Everyone has a right to return, and while government programs to date have not inspired much confidence among working class communities of color, there are models of programs that have worked. House Resolution 2269, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. It would create a minimum of 100,000 jobs for Gulf Coast residents and evacuees, increase employment in the gulf coast region, and build a skilled workforce for rebuilding and developing the lands, communities, and infrastructure impacted by hurricanes and flooding in that region.
While there are 31 co-sponsors as of writing neither local powerful Democrats George Miller nor Lynn Woolsey have even scheduled hearings since the bill was referred to their committee more than 90 days ago. Nancy Pelosi is capable of setting a timeline for getting HR 2269 at least into committee hearings.
The Bay Area Katrina Solidarity Network seeks ways to support hurricane sur
vivors’ right of return to decent conditions: quality health care and education, good housing, and a living wage. KSN calls on all citizens of good will to take action this week and not forget the thousands of Americans who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and continue to suffer from its effects. Please join us in our on-line campaign (or in front of Nancy Pelosi’s office this Friday) to remind our local elected representatives that we demand justice for the most needy, not profits for the most greedy. In doing so, please consider following this same stance of solidarity with communities in the Bay Area facing similar injustices.
Mike Bishop is an Oakland resident and a member of Bay Area Katrina Solidarity Network.