The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2006, should be a day to remember our commitments to our fellow Americans and mourn our collective losses. It should be a day to reflect on what we as American citizens expect from our government in our most dire hour of need. It should be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of still displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return home one year after the storm broke land.
Instead of commemorating the disaster, Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council have callously chosen the one-year anniversary of Katrina to begin a policy that will demolish what little hope displaced, largely African American, families have of returning to their city. In May, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed City Ordinance #26031, which sets a deadline for homeowners to gut their homes or potentially lose them.
By Aug. 29, homeowners who have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered homes risk having their property seized by eminent domain and bulldozed by the city. The Council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans of its African American low and middle income families, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.
But the survivors of Katrina are not alone. Although the government is not fulfilling its obligations, many non-governmental organizations are trying to help survivors. Groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now are working around the clock to save homes from demolition and enforce a principle of fairness and inclusion in the disaster recovery process.
Many working-class families cannot return to New Orleans to prevent their homes from being seized. Most are still waiting to receive payment from insurance claims and are unable to pay the roughly $10,000 charged by contractors to gut their home, nor can they afford to take time off to gut their homes themselves.
Low-income families in New Orleans could now lose their homes before receiving a dime from the federal government’s $7.5 billion in community block grants to Louisiana’s “Road Home” home repair grant program for homeowners. Those vitally needed funds, despite being given to the state of Louisiana months ago, remain tied up in red tape by bumbling state bureaucrats as people in New Orleans and around the state wait in desperate need of a helping hand.
ACORN has been able to win some relief for the working-class families who could lose their homes. It convinced the City Council to amend City Ordinance #26031 to make the Lower Ninth Ward a hardship case, protecting those who were hardest hit by the failing levees from the seizure ordinance.
Compounding the injury, many of the affected homeowners are displaced, living out of state and unaware of the home demolition policy. Getting information is very difficult for the more than 200,000 former residents of New Orleans, mostly working class African-American families, who are still spread across 44 different states.
Most have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods – basic issues like whether the water and electricity are running or whether their local schools are open. The overwhelming majority of relevant government decisions, including this ordinance, do not make it into the national news reports or local broadcasts in their new communities.
The City appears oblivious to the crippling lack of information in this crisis. It believes it does not need to directly contact homeowners in accordance with due process, required by the U.S. Constitution, before it can begin seizing property.
After being sued for attempting to bulldoze homes in the Lower Ninth Ward last December, the City of New Orleans settled with local groups by pledging to post seizure information on the City website and in New Orleans’ daily newspaper, the Times Picayune, to fulfill due process requirements.
Never mind that most affected displaced people live outside of the Times Picayune’s distribution area and may not have an internet connection. Displaced families, without actually being notified, will remain completely in the dark as they lose their homes.
ACORN is currently fighting to win protection for families whose properties are listed on gutting lists, as well as fighting for real legal notification for displaced homeowners and a more realistic timeline to clean out homes.
Since December, ACORN has helped survivors by gutting more than 1,500 homes. ACORN is offering families – at no cost – the service of gutting and preserving their home. ACORN is also arranging for homes to be “adopted” by donors, thus covering gutting costs for low-income families. ACORN has also been recruiting volunteers and organizations to New Orleans this summer to help save the homes.
If a foreign government began seizing the homes of vulnerable disaster victims – especially without notification – in an area where the U.S. is providing disaster relief, the U.S. government would not just stand on the sidelines. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have significant programs supporting the protection of the rights of “internally displaced people” (IDPs) – the term for those displaced from their homes to a different part of their country by a disaster – in areas like post-tsunami Sri Lanka.
American diplomats lobby other nations to uphold internationally accepted principles for IDPs that assure things like “property and possessions left behind by IDPs should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use.” USAID also runs programs assuring displaced people have the right to information about what is going on in their former communities. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government – and the New Orleans mayor and City Council – must think it’s acceptable that Americans be excluded from such rights.
Despite these obstacles, New Orleans will begin seizing not just houses from devastated communities – but also the hopes of thousands of residents returning home – on the anniversary of our nation’s greatest tragedy. City Ordinance #26031 is proof that the interests and human rights of the now disenfranchised displaced victims of the storm are no longer respected in their former communities or by the federal government.
Though the human rights situation in New Orleans remains woeful, there is still a chance to salvage the hopes of these struggling families and to save their homes. You can help honor the upcoming one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina even if the New Orleans City Council and the federal government refuse to by pledging to volunteer or donate to help community organizations like ACORN in New Orleans.
If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who is, call ACORN now at 1 (800) 239-7379, ext. 187, to begin the process of saving your home by putting it on the clean-out list. Other organizations providing free house gutting – and also seeking volunteers and donations – are listed on the City of New Orleans website, http://www.cityofno.com. They include Common Ground, (504) 312-1731; United Methodist Recovery, (504) 461-0425; Catholic Charities, (504) 895-5439; and United Church of Christ, (504) 258-7306.
San Francisco CA Bay View: http://www.sfbayview.com
Stephen Bradberry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Buchanan: Buchanan@rfkmemorial.org