Battered by Katrina, Gulf Coast workers stand up

NEW ORLEANS — Gail Andrews, a quiet, unassuming African American woman from New Orleans East, found her mother two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Six weeks later, she lost her again. This time forever. At age 68, Andrews’ mother died.

“She died grieving to get home,” Andrews said, as her eyes welled up with tears. The floods destroyed her mother’s house located in the hardest-hit Ninth Ward neighborhood in New Orleans.

“After I found her, I visited her every Sunday at the nursing home,” she said. “I couldn’t find her insurance policy so I had to raise the money to pay for her care.” Both Andrews and her mother were relocated to Baton Rouge.

Andrews is the youngest of her mother’s 16 children. “Half of the family doesn’t even know I had to bury her,” she said. Andrew’s brothers and sisters are scattered across the region, some in Texas, some in Arkansas, displaced from their homes in the New Orleans East neighborhood by flooding in the wake of Katrina.

Andrews, herself a mother of three and foster mother of three more, is separated from her children and doesn’t know where the foster children are. Southern University in Baton Rouge took in Andrews. Her children are with relatives in Texas going to school.

Andrews, who is studying to be a teacher, found a job at a Baton Rouge day care center by word of mouth, not through any government assistance. But she doesn’t have health care coverage. An asthmatic, she has one more inhaler left and can’t afford to see a doctor.

Still traumatized and disoriented by the flood, evacuation, break up of her family, losing her mother, her home, job and school, Andrews began to cry.

Crime of great proportions

New Orleans is a majority African American city. Sometimes referred to as America’s most African city — New Orleans was a major power during the slave trade and stood as a crossroads between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and indigenous America. The city was also the site of freedom struggles during slavery and after.

New Orleans’ neighborhoods are woven with tight-knit families: Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents living near each other.

Troy Sanders, who was working for Foy’s Drywall Specialist in the French Quarter, said this is the first time in 22 years that he has been separated from his family. His parents ran a corner grocery store on Esplanade Ave. that was destroyed.

More than two months after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of families are still separated. Four thousand people are still missing. Nearly 2,000 of them are missing children, and according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 63 percent are African American. Of the some 1,200 official dead from the storm, the great majority were elderly.

The pain of family separation — with no end or help in sight — brings up the historical memory of slavery, when millions of children were taken from their mothers. Husbands sold off from their wives. Families forcibly separated, yet the loving bond held strong. Upon the defeat of slavery, newly freed slaves immediately took to the road, placed advertisements in newspapers to find family members. The freed people helped each other along the road of reunion.

After the storm, thousands of families took in their family members and many still live in these close quarters.

Elouise Lane, a public high school teacher from Baton Rouge and a member of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, took in seven family members who are still with her. “They live with me,” she said. “I made room for everybody. Four are children who are in school now in Baton Rouge. They love the teachers and classrooms.”

Black colleges step up

Historically Black colleges and universities opened their doors to provide comfort and relief to thousands of Gulf Coast students. In Baton Rouge, Southern University and A&M College took in hundreds of students from Louisiana affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Terence La Nier II, a double major in music education and psychology, said the school’s efforts inspired him. “It showed how as a community we can help each other.” As a resident assistant in a dormitory, La Nier worked to accommodate the different families that came to stay on his floor. “I had three people living with me.”

Everyone pitched in, La Nier said, even Southern University’s homecoming queen Sharika King, who donated her $10,000 prize to the school’s Hurricane Relief Fund to help purchase books and supplies for displaced students.

But La Nier is struggling also. “I’m having problems too paying for tuition and books,” he said. “What we need is funding. We need grants, not loans.”

Private acts of charity vs. public programs

Like the canary in a coal mine, the horrendous conditions faced by African American families in the wake of Katrina are an alarm for all working-class families and people. Despite the tremendous efforts of individuals, unions, community organizations, schools, local governments and churches, half a million people are still displaced and homeless, 300,000 are without jobs and 70,000 still living in shelters in Louisiana alone, according to the AFL-CIO.

The catastrophe also left New Orleans broke. The city laid off 7,000 workers. All 12 institutions in the Louisiana charity hospital system will be completely out of money by Thanksgiving. The state has lost $1 billion in revenue and expects to drastically cut jobs and services as well.

The unprecedented crisis calls out for a massive federal response. But the Bush administration and his corporate cronies are dragging their feet. FEMA recently announced it would loan, not grant, money to New Orleans and surrounding parishes to help pay for essential services. Estimates put the cost of rebuilding the area at $200 billion. (About $203 billion, to date, has been spent on the war in Iraq.)

Capitalism fails to provide housing

Private industry is not the solution to the region’s enormous housing crisis. Four of FEMA’s biggest no-bid contracts for Hurricane Katrina work were for temporary housing, worth up to $100 million each. The contracts, which will not be reopened as previously announced, went to politically-connected, huge corporations like Shaw Group Inc., Bechtel Corp., CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp., right after Katrina struck. (Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root is also a prime contractor.)

Despite the contracts to these mega-corporations, housing remains a major issue. Many evacuees are still living in hotels, unable to cook meals and begin to put their lives back together.

On the radio, commercials abound, especially from notorious, low-wage corporations like Home Depot, about the need for workers. Jobs may abound, but housing is in short supply and high demand.

The housing market in New Orleans provides a raw view of “free market” capitalism. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s two-month moratorium on evictions expired at the end of October without extension. The next day, sheriffs had hundreds of eviction notices to post. Apartments in livable neighborhoods that once went for $600 are now going for $2,000-$3,000 a month.

No one dares tell landlords what to do with their property — not in this capitalistic society, remarked New Orleans radio talk show host Spud McConnell.

Employers rent apartments and squeeze in as many workers as possible, or they build tent cities and trailer parks. In either case, the bosses charge their workers rent. This has the effect of forming little “company towns” throughout the city.

If you are working in the French Quarter, like drywaller Troy Sanders or his co-workers Gerard Fernandez and Elliot Smith, you have a long drive back and forth to the job. Sometimes you have to sleep at the job.

The arrival of the infamous FEMA trailers is moving at a snail’s pace, as are insurance company payouts to homeowners. Utilities and water are still not up and running in many New Orleans neighborhoods. Storm survivors with FEMA vouchers have reported difficulty in getting landlords in Houston and other receiving cities to take them in.

The housing crisis has created traffic jams on the 70-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. An hour-and-a half drive turns into a two- or three-hour drive. Some people live even further from their job.

Louisiana AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Louis Reine has helped many survivors cope with the hurricane’s aftermath. He told the World that one case he was working on was to help a union member and her disabled child. The union member has her job at UPS waiting for her, Reine said, but she lives now in Houma, some three hours away, and can’t leave her child that long to get to her job.

Working-class unity

Gail Andrews, as filled with grief as she is, still dug deep and found the strength to be part of an NAACP delegation that attended an Oct. 29 rally to Rebuild Louisiana in Baton Rouge. The rally was organized by a coalition of labor, community and faith-based groups called NOAH (New Opportunities for Action and Hope). NOAH is part of a grassroots movement challenging corporate America’s plans to change the character of New Orleans. Big business wants to turn the city into a majority-white, casino-laden entertainment land for the rich.

The 1,000-plus rally of storm survivors and supporters greeted the tremendous victory that reinstated the Davis-Bacon Act. Mass pressure on Congress forced President Bush to reinstate the prevailing wage law for federal contracts. The victory was seen as a first step on a long road ahead. The coalition also called for living wages, affirmative action and giving preference in housing and jobs to people from the area.

Contractors, forever driving for the lowest wages, the worst working conditions and the highest profit margins, are recruiting out-of-state workers to rebuild the region. Many of the workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. These workers face unsafe working conditions and lower wages. Lacking any rights, they are beholden to their employers.

In the article “Gulf Coast slaves,” Salon.com’s Roberto Lovato reports that Halliburton and its subcontractors hired hundreds of undocumented Latino workers to clean up after Katrina — only to mistreat them and throw them out without pay.

Corporations see dollar signs in exploiting immigrant labor and pitting working class people against each other — white against Black against Latino — through their use of racism and immigrant bashing.

“Employers are doing it,” said the AFL-CIO’s Reine in recent telephone interview. “There’s no checks and balances. They shouldn’t profit from misusing groups of people and putting them in hazardous situations. The people who built the refineries and ports here, make them run, whose sweat has made this happen for the rest of the country to enjoy, should be able to come back home and be part of the rebuilding.”

A program of fightback

Much has been said about the “spirit” of New Orleans — the resiliency of a people and culture that celebrates living and surviving against the odds. But spirit can only take you so far. Material support for, and solidarity with, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf region have to be fought for to sustain that spirit.

“The federal government should sustain local government, which completely lost its tax base. We need help that can help people help themselves. We need some long-term solutions,” Reine said.

I couldn’t agree more. The enormous devastation of the region and of lives cannot be left to the greedy looting by corporations, banks, and construction, energy and real estate interests and their Bush administration cronies.

But the power of the federal government — on the scale of what was done in the 1930s with the New Deal that brought relief to millions suffering from the Great Depression — is needed. Congress must be compelled to act on behalf of the Gulf Coast people, immigrants, homeowners and small businesses, not corporations.

A major step toward such a visionary program to rebuild and to eliminate poverty would be the passage of HR 4197, recently introduced by the Congressional Black Caucus (see sidebar).

With a country as rich as ours funding a massive public works rebuilding effort with an independent oversight committee is not only possible but necessary to rebuild precious lives and this precious area of our country.

TAKE ACTION

This Thanksgiving week call your elected officials or organize holiday visits to gather support for:

• “The Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act of 2005” (HR 4197), introduced by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It will provide for the recovery of the Gulf Coast region and for the reunion of families. Among the bill’s provisions are a 9/11-style victims’ fund and funding for education, housing, health care. It also guarantees voting rights for all evacuees, upholds Davis-Bacon wage protection and affirmative action, and demands a plan to eradicate poverty in the United States within 10 years.

• “Rebuild with Respect Act” (S 1925), introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), S1925 would prioritize Gulf Coast families in job hiring to rebuild the area, address the racial inequalities in hiring and small business contracting, protect the health and safety of workers, and extend unemployment insurance benefits.

• Ending the war in Iraq, which has cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

• Stopping tax breaks for the wealthy.

• Preventing budget cuts to Medicaid, Food Stamps and student aid.

• Enacting a windfall profits tax on oil companies, which are now awash in billions of dollars in profits.