Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Jordan's Log 12-15-05

Death, Abundance and New Orleans
By Jordan Flaherty

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On 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

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. We still don’t even know if the levees
will be rebuilt, or to what level. 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

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.
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn
Magazine. This is his thirteenth article from New Orleans. Jordan’s
previous articles from New Orleans are at
Based on conversations with organizers and community members, Left Turn
Magazine has compiled a list of grassroots New Orleans organizations
focused on relief, recovery, social justice and cultural preservation
that need your support. The list is online at
If you want to know what’s up in New Orleans, and read more about the
Latino Health Outreach Project, racial profiling in the city and more,
see these writings by Catherine Jones:
You can also listen to Catherine interviewed at
Comprehensive website for information and action related to prisoners
in New Orleans:
More info on Meg Perry:
Other Resources for information and action:
Reconstruction Watch -
Common Ground -
Peoples Hurricane Fund -
Resource for Journalists -
Justice for New Orleans -
New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team -


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