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Walkin’ in New Orleans

By Pat Gowens

In December, I finally made it to New Orleans for 12 days to help stop the war on the poor. And they sure need help! In both the lower and upper ninth ward most of the homes are still empty.  77,000 home owners applied for and are eligible for federal Road Home funds to rebuild... but FEMA has been stonewalling. Only 632 families have received funds as of February 15.      

250,000 former New Orleans residents are still displaced persons. They are in Houston, Atlanta, and elsewhere -- unable to return because:

1) No funds to rebuild
2) It's impossible to find affordable housing -- rents have doubled in poor neighborhoods
3) Few buses are running in poor neighborhoods
4) Housing projects are closed and slated for bulldozing
5) 30 percent of jobs are gone
6) Charity Hospital, the only free hospital, is being demolished

Helping out

I hooked up with Commonground Collective. Malik Rahim founded it a few days after Katrina. He lived in Algiers on New Orleans's West Bank and realized the government was abandoning the people. So he got together with friends to provide food, water, and medics. Now Commonground has a permanent health clinic, a community media center, a distribution site and a woman's shelter. While I was there they asked for volunteers to gut houses. My goal was to help produce media materials for the nation and New Orleans.

By day I gutted houses and by night and on our days off I roamed the city taking photos and talking to folks. My only problem was the lack of a telephone on the site. It was impossible for me to receive calls -- an unfortunate side effect of our cell phone centered culture.

A Catholic Church in the ninth ward offered their empty school for Commonground’s house gutting headquarters. The neighbors had asked for help gutting their homes so they could begin to rebuild. Volunteers came from across the US and one couple came from Germany. We slept on cots and bunk beds in the classrooms. At 6:30 AM volunteers came through the classrooms singing -- to wake us. I enjoyed that. The collective also provided three hot meals each day. Even at the worksite they trucked hot food out to us! That made up for the absence of hot water or heat in the chilly schoolhouse.

We worked in teams of seven or eight women and men. After hauling all home contents to the curb, we used hammers and crow bars to tear out walls, cabinets, woodwork (great for venting!). I watched young women load the wheelbarrow, run it down a makeshift ramp, and dump it on the curb. I admit I was afraid to try balancing the overloaded wheelbarrow down that crazy ramp.

After gutting the houses, another crew treated them with a natural bacterial emulsion to wipe out at least 85 percent of the mold. We carried a big plastic backpack filled with an apple-cidery liquid. With one hand we pumped and the other held a nozzle to spray walls, ceilings, yards

Occupied by the military

Oddly, the National Guard still occupies New Orleans—despite a population reduced by half and the police force at its pre-Katrina size. All but one of the New Orleans folks I spoke with wanted the Military gone.

For the first three nights after gutting, another volunteer and I took long walks through the ghost town neighborhoods. One night we were stopped just two blocks from our school by the ever-present military boys. The soldiers treated us like enemy combatants:

“Where are you going?”  “Would you put out that cigarette, Sir.”

“Why” I asked. “Because we want you to put your hands on the truck so we can search you.”

“Why” I asked. “Because we stop everyone in this area. It’s a high drug area. Do you have an ID on you?”

“No, why” I asked. “That’s the law here. If the N.O. police stopped you, you’d be looking at a jail cell.”

“Has New Orleans seceded from the Union then?” I asked. “I don’t believe US folks must carry an ID to walk, only to drive. And I don’t believe that walking two blocks from our home constitutes probable cause for conducting a search.”

While I argued, my friend was agreeing with the military bullies and asking, “Do we look like drug addicts?” Good cop, bad cop.

When I asked why the military were occupying New Orleans, they responded that it’s a high crime area. I pointed out that all big US cities have lots of crime, would they be occupying our town next? They finally let us go -- without searching us. We now understood why the New Orleans people don’t want the military in their neighborhoods.

Walking, hitching, biking

To get around town at first I walked…and walked…and walked. I tried waiting for buses until I learned that only one bus ran in our area, and it stopped around 6 PM. While waiting for a bus for over an hour one midnight, I counted about thirty cop cars and military trucks roaming and storming past. (No they didn’t offer me a ride.)

Since my feet were rebelling, I began to hitch rides. One young woman who picked me up, explained how her family managed to rebuild already. Her 63-year-old grandpa was able to do most of the work himself.  But two months after they moved back into their home, grandpa died—cancer of the spine. Not all of the stories from my host drivers were as tragic, but each had a dramatic tale to tell. One retired couple stored food and water in their attic and stayed there. Beforehand, they reached their son in Houston to let him know where they were. When he learned that the government had abandoned his parents and all of New Orleans’ residents, he bought a boat and drove it to New Orleans to rescue them!

During my last few days, I wore my legs off peddling my roommate’s bike around town. I peddled through the lower ninth, upper ninth, French Quarter and Garden District (huff, puff) to see Angela Davis talk to a huge crowd about amnesty for Katrina prisoners. She told the story of a 75-year-old churchwoman. She and her disabled husband fled to a hotel parking lot to wait out the storm. When she went to her trunk to take out sandwiches, the police arrested her for looting a nearby delicatessen. They put $50,000 bail on her and she spent 61 days in jail. Finally they reduced bail to personal recognizance, but refused to drop the charges.

I peddled across town searching for the elusive Halliburton and Bechtel. I never did find Bechtel, but Halliburton had a couple of un-named offices in downtown skyscrapers.

After I returned home activists and residents of two New Orleans housing projects broke in and occupied their apartments. They want to force HUD to either allow residents to return to their homes -- or agree to provide apartments for ALL displaced residents in new construction. (HUD wants to replace projects with “mixed income” housing. Less than 10 percent  would be allocated for poor tenants.)

Come on down

New Orleans is waiting for your help. No more house gutting, but lots of other work…waiting for you. Check out some groups who need your help in my poster (attached). You can also copy it and help spread the word. Together we can make a difference in this latest war on the poor.

Mmo : march 2007

Poster (11x17, .pdf):
18 Months After Katrina:
Who Lost What? Who Is Benefitting? Who Is Fighting Back?

Pat Gowens, 62, is the Director of Welfare Warriors, a 20 year old activist mothers organization located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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