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Death, Abundance and New Orleans

By: 
Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
December 14, 2005

Meg PerryOn Sunday, I drove past streets named Abundance, Pleasure and Humanity to a memorial for Meg Perry, a 26 year old Common Ground Collective volunteer from Maine. Meg died on Saturday when the bus she was in crashed near downtown New Orleans. She had come to New Orleans in September, then left and returned with more volunteers. The memorial was in a community garden she had been working on in the Gentilly neighborhood. All around were empty houses. It was a small moment of mourning, in a city of mourning. Mourning that feels like it won’t end, because the disaster hasn’t ended.

Walking the streets of New Orleans, it’s hard to escape the feeling of death and loss. The city is heavy with the weight of those not present. Many neighborhoods are still dark, not even streetlights or stop lights, with long stretches of houses that have been abandoned for months. Even Central City, a mostly Black neighborhood that saw little flooding, is mostly dark and empty, although nearby (whiter) neighborhoods like the Lower Garden District are more populated.

You almost never see children in the new New Orleans. And there is still a
2 am curfew. I’ve heard several reports of people being arrested for sitting on their porch at 2. As temperatures drop, much of the city doesn’t have gas service. Every door has a spray painted symbol from the National Guard, marking that they entered the house to look for bodies.

Compared to much of the city, my neighborhood was not hit hard by the storm, but months later there are still mountains of debris on the street and no regular trash pick up. I haven’t received mail from August, much less September through December. FEMA left a note on my door saying that because they couldn’t see our roof from the street, they reserve the right to break into our home anytime in the next six months to inspect it.

The longer homes stay empty, the worse things get. Houses that were left empty have been infested with insects and refrigerators left with food are filled with maggots. New Orleans already had a massive termite infestation – I can only assume that while the city was empty it got worse. I’ve heard the rat population has multiplied. In garbage hauling alone, the city needs to dispose of at least 22 million tons, 15 times the debris removed after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Disaster response has political repercussions. Corruption and stealing of post-earthquake disaster aid in 1972 contributed to the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. The faulty federal response to the 1985 earthquake that hit Mexico City ignited a grassroots movement in Mexico that helped to end the PRI government’s decades of one party rule. And, of course, the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi River helped to elect Huey P Long governor of Louisiana.

Within two weeks post-Katrina, Michael Brown of FEMA resigned. New Orleans police Superintendent Eddie Compass followed soon after. Now, Marsha Evans, president of Red Cross, has also been forced out. As soon as we are able to have an election in our city, Mayor Nagin will be gone. And Bush administration poll numbers have been in free fall. The stakes are high, and the possibilities for change are real.

When I saw the floodwaters rising in New Orleans, I expected poor people would be cut out of the reconstruction money. What has surprised me is the extent to which the entire city has been left out. While some local elites have profited, much of the money has gone to disaster profiteers from Halliburton and Blackwater and bureaucrats from major relief organizations. And, on a deeper level, the money necessary to rebuild New Orleans simply hasn’t come. As the New York Times pointed out in a powerful editorial this week, we are facing the death of a city, and we feel the rest of the country has forgotten us.

Money for rebuilding and relief has arrived from across the US. However, only pennies compared to the 1.5 billion dollars Red Cross has collected so far. And many organizations are providing only a dubious service. “Can anyone tell me why the SPCA is still breaking into homes to look for animals?” a friend asked. “It’s been almost four months. Peoples pets have either survived or they haven’t.”

Another friend who is working for a big relief organization expressed her concerns to me “We’re getting $35 a day for food, on top of our salaries,” she said. “Things take forever to be approved - sometimes so long that by the time we have the support we need, the effort has passed. There’s so much money behind us—we can do pretty much whatever we want and don’t have to worry about funding, but it feeds lifestyles that are much more demanding than I’d hope relief workers would be.”

Progressive resources have been scarce. With the financial and political support of the labor movement, progressive organizers in New Orleans could create a union city deep in the traditionally non-union south. The labor movement pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars towards relief, and some union organizers and activists came down to struggle with grassroots groups. But, so far, the vast resources potentially available from labor have been absent.

Progressive and liberal foundations and nonprofits will spend millions of dollars more, but its very likely most of that money will not go to New Orleans-initiated projects. One funder I spoke to told me that foundations have received very few funding requests from new Orleans-based projects – no doubt because many excellent New Orleans based projects are too overwhelmed to write grants right now. She told me that several outside organizations have leaped into this vacuum to apply for this money, while local projects will be left out.

New Orleans – and the south in general – has a long history of outsiders spending large sums of money for organizing without community leadership or involvement. Efforts like this always fail. The AFL-CIO spent millions of dollars in the late 90s on an effort called HOT-ROC to organize the hospitality industry in New Orleans. Several years and hundreds of organizers later, the campaign quietly folded up shop, without organizing a single worker. Meanwhile, vital local efforts go unfunded and unsupported.

For example, NO-HEAT – the New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team, a local organization with no paid staff or grants – has set up a phone tree, currently with at least 50 people, to respond immediately to any evictions. They’ve had demonstrations, press conferences and community meetings, and work closely with the People’s Hurricane Fund legal network.

The Latino Health Outreach Project is another small local effort that has been doing vital work with virtually no funding or attention from outside New Orleans. They have been setting up clinics for Latino day laborers wherever they can find them – from the hotels and campsites they’re staying in to a restaurant on Canal Street many hang out at on Friday nights.

Catherine Jones, who helped initiate the project, writes,

“The stories we are hearing from workers are so monumental we don’t know what to do with them. Some people are working in mold-infested houses with no masks or protective gear; some contract laborers are being imprisoned in hotels by their bosses, who won’t let them leave the premises once they return from the day’s work. People are working six and seven days a week, often for ten or more hours a day. We have talked to many day laborers who don’t get paid after working for a day or even an entire week. These cold nights, many people are sleeping in tents while their bosses stay next door in heated trailers. Some people sleep under cars or bridges. Everyone is worried about flu, what it will mean to get sick in this climate where no job is guaranteed and a day’s wage helps support as many as ten people back home.

“A friend who used to live near the clinic told us how one day, when he and some other people were going to work in Chalmette, they got stopped by the police at the checkpoint and the police asked them for their green cards. Our friend showed his Texas drivers’ license and explained that he didn’t have a green card since he’s a US citizen. ‘You need a green card,’ they said. They turned back the entire truck and told everyone they couldn’t go to work that day.”

I’m no voice for New Orleans. I’m white, I’ve only lived here a few years, and my house didn’t flood. There are many people who can speak more effectively about what is happening in New Orleans – and some have. At the same time, there are still so many stories that aren’t getting out. And many of the people who would be the best ones to tell them are too overwhelmed with the losses we’ve all faced.

So, on behalf of everyone in New Orleans too overwhelmed to write right now, please, don’t forget us. We’re still drowning.