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Still Hurting After Katrina

A damaged home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where the first new houses were completed and turned over to owners just this February — a full 18 months after Hurricane Katrina.

By

By Jon Melegrito
Photography by Jim West


AFSCME Members Continue the Struggle to Rebuild


A damaged home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where the first new houses were completed and turned over to owners just this February — a full 18 months after Hurricane Katrina.

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

NEARLY TWO YEARS LATER, AFSCME members and their families exemplify the plight of many Gulf Coast families who are still struggling in the wake of the Bush administration’s shocking neglect of public services and inept response to America’s greatest natural disaster.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina — this country’s most destructive and costly natural disaster — ripped apart the lives of more than 800 of our New Orleans members and their families. Oblivious to the human impact, the Bush administration launched a second disaster driven by poor leadership which exposed, for all the world to see, its abject indifference toward the millions of Americans who live in poverty.

Tragic photos broadcast via television and the Internet showed thousands of people stranded in oppressive heat for days on rooftops, along highways and inside the increasingly filthy Louisiana Superdome. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head Michael Brown claimed unbelievably that he “didn’t know they were there.” Still, George W. Bush told him during a briefing, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Perhaps Bush was referring to how quickly no-competitive-bid contracts to political friends like Halliburton and Bechtel were being doled out.

Neglected Public Services

For generations, Katrina will stand as a tragic example of how Bush’s public services and pro-privatization policies have imperiled this nation, and how cutting taxes and starving the nation’s infrastructure can turn a horrible storm into a series of nightmares. Had they not been neglected, the levees might have held. Had the Bush administration not outsourced and privatized disaster management, FEMA might have been there when people needed help. As public outrage grew, President Bush promised to “do what it takes . . . to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” His administration has yet to make good on the claim.

Meanwhile, once vibrant neighborhoods remain littered with debris and stench. Fewer than half of the area’s hospitals are functioning. Big Charity Hospital, which employed many AFSCME members, remains closed. From the Lower Ninth Ward to East Biloxi, survivors have yet to receive any real aid from the government. For several months following Katrina, hundreds of empty FEMA trailers remained unused while thousands of homeless struggled to survive. Today, thousands continue to live in FEMA trailers. Others await insurance payments so they can rebuild. Just this February, the first new houses were completed in the Lower Ninth Ward, and more than a quarter of a million people remain displaced from their homes.

Amazingly, in the face of such slow recovery, the administration has continued to cut critical social programs, which make up the vital safety net that is needed by Katrina’s victims and millions of Americans.

Abandoned By Bush

Just look at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, which allows low-income families to seek homes in the private real estate market. With proper funding, the program could have helped resettle Katrina’s victims faster. Instead, says an op-ed piece published this March in The New York Times, the administration’s mishandling of the housing crisis “often looked like an attempt to discourage survivors from applying for help.”

AFSCME members who survived Katrina called on Congress to oppose the new tax breaks and devastating cuts to much-needed public service programs. At congressional briefings, town hall meetings and other events their first-hand accounts made clear that proper funding and maintenance of public services is vital — particularly in times of crisis. At the same time, AFSCME members traveled to the area to give aid and contributed generously to a special fund used to help the victims resettle into temporary housing.

But before these members’ lives — and the tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents they represent — can truly be set right, George W. Bush must keep his administration’s promises and stop turning his back on Katrina’s victims. He must view Katrina as the humanitarian crisis it is, not as an opportunity to line the already fat pockets of privateers.

Picking up the Pieces

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Like many Hurricane Katrina survivors, Daren Stacker of Local 872 (Council 17) and his family are still struggling to rebuild their lives, waiting for government relief that will “allow us to pick up the pieces and move on.” Before Katrina, Stacker was the head custodian of the New Orleans public school system. He has lived in Houston for almost a year now and has been unable to find a permanent job. Out of desperation, he accepted temporary employment as a custodian of a charter school in New Orleans. He works 12-hour days and commutes 10 hours every two weeks to be with his family. He hopes to save enough money so he can rent a place for his wife and three children. But finding affordable housing in New Orleans has been difficult. “It’s been frustrating trying to provide for my family,” he says. “Our government has let us down. Renters like me who wanted to come back should have been given assistance. And the way we were laid off by the New Orleans public school system without any assurance of re-employment was a slap in the face.”

'If the Levees Had Been Fixed...'

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For seven hours before the storm hit, Michael Mitchell had transported nearly 1,000 refuge-seeking passengers across the Mississippi River until the ferry he operated was shut down. Only then did he drive home to East New Orleans to evacuate his own family. Mitchell’s selfless devotion to duty typifies the heroism of AFSCME members in times of crisis. Weeks later, the ferry boat captain — a member of Council 17’s Local 3805 — visited his neighborhood, only to find his two-story home under 12 feet of water. Determined to return to the area, Mitchell has worked hard and long hours to salvage what’s left of his house. Along with his wife and three children, they have endured living in a 30-foot-long, 6-foot-wide and 6'4" high trailer for several months. Mitchell, who is almost 6'4" himself, developed back aches from constant stooping. Meanwhile, with their savings almost depleted, the Mitchells are faced with mounting bills and high insurance costs. “We only got $5,000 in wind damage from our homeowner’s insurance,” Mitchell explains. “If the levees had been fixed, we wouldn’t be in this awful state.” He further laments the fact that in his neighborhood, only half of the residents have returned, “so electricity has not been fully restored and there are no grocery stores nearby.”


Trying to Start Over

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A Medicaid analyst for the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals, Charssie Muse and her family lost nearly all of their possessions when the hurricane destroyed their home in St. Bernard Parish. After living with relatives in Baton Rouge for more than a year, Charssie and her husband Lionel decided to return and rebuild their house. But “getting back on our feet and starting all over again has not been easy,” she says. “Bureaucratic red tape has made it impossible for us to get building materials so we can do all the repairs.”

Like many victims who are still reeling from the horrors of the flood-ravaged city, Charssie admits to being depressed most of the time, although she doesn’t contemplate committing suicide anymore. Still, she says, “I feel like I’m lying in a coffin after crawling to bed in this trailer. Unless the government follows through with its promises, it will be a long time before our neighborhood becomes alive and well again.”

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