Katrina Survivors Fight to Return to St. Bernard Housing Project
Revolution #037, March 5, 2006, posted at revcom.us
We received the following correspondence from Houston:
On February 14, Walid and I and several others left Houston well before dawn to make the seven-hour drive to New Orleans. That afternoon, Walid and I walked through the deserted St. Bernard Development -- the largest housing project in the city. Walid grew up and lived here until he was a young man. Between then and now, he has been to Angola Prison farm, learned a skill as a cabinet maker, and lived in California for several years. He was forced out by Katrina and now lives in Houston.
"It’s pretty hard to see this, you know. It’s like a ghost town. So many memories here," Walid said. "What I see is how they have displaced all the people that lived in St. Bernard. They’ve placed them all over the United States, and now these people have other things in front of them that they have to deal with in order to come back to New Orleans. And then if you get here, that’s when it really starts. You got to deal with all this devastation, just to remain here, to remain at home. Like this telephone pole still laying right here in the middle of the sidewalk, five months later. And look at the buildings. People have the knowledge to rebuild all this. But you can’t do it by yourself."
On February 12, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) heartlessly stopped payments on hotel bills for over 14,000 people who had been evacuated from their homes after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands found themselves desperate to find a place to stay, their worldly belongings stuffed in a couple of plastic garbage bags. In New Orleans, a small tent city was immediately set up on the grounds of New Orleans City Hall by some evacuees and their supporters. On February 14, residents of the St. Bernard development and others, including anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, rallied in front of the St Bernard community center to demand that the development be reopened. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) had threatened to put a fence around the projects on that day, but postponed this when they learned of the scheduled protests. Later in the week, city authorities were doing their best to bring tourists in for the official opening of the Mardi Gras season -- housing them in the hotels which had only days before evicted New Orleans residents.
Jay Arena, who is a member of C3-Hands Off Iberville, the group that organized the February 14 protest at St Bernard, said "Alphonse Jackson, Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said New Orleans will not be as Black after the hurricane as it was before. His policy is not to reopen public housing. And this is now controlled by the federal government. The direction of HANO (the Housing Authority of New Orleans) has been imposed by Washington, so they’re getting directives from Washington, from Jackson and Bush. Jackson also came down here and said that what they did to the St. Thomas projects will be the model for the rest of the developments. Well, the St. Thomas was a project of 1,500 apartments, about the same size as St. Bernard, and they reduced it under this mixed income scam to under 200 units. So, if they’re going to do that to the rest of the developments, that’s just massive downsizing. It’s a recipe for, it’s to help guarantee a form of ethnic cleansing in the city. Ethnic and class cleansing."
Abandoned in Rising Waters
Several residents of St. Bernard, including four who had driven in from Houston that day, spoke to why they had made the long trip. Stephanie Mingo told us, "I was on the third floor waving my flag for them to come and get me, and they kept on going. The Coast Guard said as long as the water level is off on the second floor that they were going to send the boats back to get us. But the boats didn’t come back until mostly everybody was evacuated because the young men was finding boats and coming back and getting people water and something for the little children to eat. They got canoes that got most of the people out of here to evacuate. The Coast Guard didn’t evacuate everybody and they forcibly evacuated people that didn’t want to leave, like the old people that was afraid to get in that water because they didn’t know what was going to happen to them.
"Those young men were heroes. Especially the people that was on the first floor that wasn’t able to get out. Like this lady right here, she was in a wheelchair, and she can’t walk. The water got way up to my neck. The sun was shining just like it’s doing now, when I went inside and saw the toilet overflowing. I told my children we got a flood, and we went outside. By the time I walked from this building to that building, the water was up to my neck.
"Bush said his man did a great job. His great job was to keep us in this here housing project to die. They didn’t help nobody. The water was going right up over the cars, right here. Because you know, the hurricane really didn’t do nothing to us. We had some rain, and after the hurricane we were all sitting outside, then the water started coming up.
"I lost my mama in Katrina. Why do I want to come home? Because this is my home. This is where I want to be. These other people like Bush aren’t worried about me, because they have somewhere to be. I paid 418 dollars faithfully, every month, to live here. It really do hurt. FEMA ain’t doing nothing for me. Just give me my home back."
Loretta Lyons said she had lived in St. Bernard since she was seven years old and now wants to come home. She said, "They’re paying the rent for us now, but what’s going to happen to me when the 12 months is over? I’m going to be on the street somewhere. I lost everything I had. I don’t have anything, anything. I was on the first floor. I’m not able to buy a house or anything, but I do want to come home and there’s plenty of people in Houston who want to come home to New Orleans. There’s a whole lot of talk out there about the Louisiana people. When I got to the employment office I tell them I’ve worked all my life. They tell people on the TV that Texas has a lot of jobs for you. When I go to the unemployment office they see I’m from Louisiana, and they tell me, ‘oh, we don’t have no jobs.’ I need a job, I need a home, and I want to come back to Louisiana, to New Orleans. FEMA money is never gonna take care of the people. You done lost your job, lost your home, lost everything."
A civil engineer who examined St. Bernard emphatically made the point that the development is livable. The restoration of electricity and other utilities would make the second and third floors immediately livable. And while that was being done the first floors of the buildings, where the flooding happened, could be restored.
Cindy Sheehan spoke powerfully to how her experiences in New Orleans affected her: "Every time I think that our government cannot disgust me or appall me more, they do. They sink to the level where they disgust me. Last time I was here was right after the hurricane. I couldn’t get in because the areas were so flooded. Yesterday I took a tour of the Lower 9th Ward. I have a question for the media. Why don’t we see that in the rest of America? Why haven’t helicopters flown over that war zone and shown us the images? Because the corporate media does not want us to be exposed to the failed policies and the incompetency of our government."
When the rally ended, Loretta and her daughter took a couple of us over to the section of St. Bernard where they had lived. A lot of St. Bernard looks much as it did months ago when everyone was forced out in the days of the flooding. Kids’ bikes are still chained to the railings of second and third floor apartments. Barbecue grills and stuffed animals are on the patios, and there are still family pictures on the walls.
HANO has posted "No Trespassing" signs on all the buildings in St. Bernard, and put metal plates over the windows and doors of many of apartments. But we were able to walk right into Loretta’s old apartment. The possessions of her lifetime -- from family treasures to the TV set, are still in there, all ruined, moldy, and rotting from the flooding. The memories of a lifetime, of a family and community now scattered, are also here. Loretta slowly walked through the small apartment, pointing out things big and small, telling us what they had meant to her.
"I was here over thirty years, since my daughter was a little baby. But there ain’t no sense in crying over it. I worked hard to keep this place. And now they tell me I can come in here and clean this up. But I could never clean this up. The whole building has to be cleaned up. This is my third time back. The first time, I couldn’t do anything. The water was still in here, and the whole place was stinky. The second time I did what I could and got what I could. You see here all these encyclopedias I got for my children. Now they don’t want us back, and I can’t get no job in Houston. This is still home to me."
After Hurricane Katrina, Richard Baker, a Congressman from Baton Rouge, said: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did."
On February 20, the New Orleans City Council met to discuss the future of public housing in the city. Council President Oliver Thomas said that "public housing residents who are unwilling to work are unwelcome to return." Thomas made the outrageous and enormous lie that people in public housing have been "pampered" by the government and said, "at some point, you have to say no, no, no, no, no." Two other council members and Nadine Jarmon, the federally appointed head of HANO, agreed with the outrageous and condescedning comments from Thomas. Jarmon said that no decisions have been made on whether all the projects in New Orleans will be reopened and that even for those that are, there will be "a series of steps to determine who can return," including background checks and "asking about people’s ability or willingness to work."
As Jay Arena, member of C3-Hands Off Iberville, said at the February 14 protest at St Bernard, "The mayor has said, ‘people come back.’ Well, what does that mean if you don’t reopen public housing for the thousands of families that resided there before the hurricane? It shows the hypocrisy, that they don’t want people to come back. In practice they’re doing everything that they can to prevent working class Black people, the majority of the pre-Katrina population of this city, from returning."