The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Disaster, revisited

Weathered Voices: Stories of Struggle Through the Voices of Survivors

by Michelle Chen

NewStandard revisited some of the people and organizations whose challenges – and victories – we’ve documented over the past year. Here we present their voices.

Aug. 29, 2006 – This week, the media is awash with statistics and political taglines about the hurricane that rocked the country a year ago. But for the city of New Orleans and its displaced residents, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is just another twenty-four hours in a struggle with no end in sight.

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For our one-year retrospective, The NewStandard revisited some of the people and organizations whose challenges – and victories – we’ve documented over the past year. Here we present their voices.

Grassroots medicine
Beverly Rainbolt, Common Ground Clinic

Just after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and crippled the city’s hospital system, a group of volunteers launched the Common Ground health clinic in Algiers, a New Orleans community on the west bank of the Mississippi. The group began offering free basic medical services as well as acupuncture and herbal therapy. One year, and about 22,000 patient visits later, the project has expanded dramatically, and the clinic has moved from its initial location in a mosque to a humble storefront.

Volunteer coordinator Beverly Rainbolt said the clinic’s success reflects the resilience of its volunteer-driven model, as well as its ability to overcome the shortcomings of existing healthcare institutions. "We had been founded as a response to Katrina, the failure of the levees and the failure of governmental response," she said. "But we stayed in response to just the failure that is the healthcare system in America."

"This is a viable community and ready to return… if the government would get the hell out of the way and just let us go back in and do what the hell we have to do." -- Tanya Harris, ACORN

At the same time, Rainbolt said, the healthcare needs of the city far exceed the capacity of the clinic. "Qualitatively, we see ourselves serving as a new model: free health care, integrated health care and pretty much a non-hierarchical structure," she said. But in terms of competing with full-scale mainstream hospitals, she said, "quantitatively, there’s no way."

One of the glaring unmet needs, she said, is mental health, and Common Ground currently has no mental-health personnel on its volunteer-led medical staff.

"As we approach the anniversary of Katrina," she said, "that’s already being noted in the clinic: the stress levels and the re-traumatization. The anxiety is just incredible. People are not anywhere near whole and the mental-healthcare crisis in New Orleans is just unbelievable."

Common Ground is also wrestling with growing pains, as the organization’s volunteers, small staff and board mull over how the clinic will sustain itself in the long-term. The organization is considering instituting a system for Medicare or Medicaid payments to offset growing costs.

"We’re still having that discussion," Rainbolt said. "Many of the people that founded this clinic founded it as a political statement that healthcare in the United States ought not to be a privilege, that it ought to be free, and that’s what we want to be." But she added, "We also want to be here in the future."

"It's the fact that there is not much attention being paid to what goes on in New Orleans that facilitates the campaign of ethnic and class cleansing." -- Mike Howells, housing activist

Previous coverage:

Grassroots Group Plans Thanksgiving Relief Effort in New Orleans

Hurricane Health Crisis Largely Unaddressed by Gov’t Plans

New Orleans Activists Fill Aid Gaps Left by FEMA, Red Cross


Reclaiming public housing
Mike Howells, C3 Hands Off Iberville, New Orleans

Local housing-rights activist Mike Howells said that New Orleans public-housing residents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s apparent reluctance to allow them back into their homes. The city has reported restoring only about 1,000 units in its housing projects. There were more than 5,000 families in public-housing units prior to Katrina.

Howells accused the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of "violating every rule in the book in order to keep people from returning home." HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson affirmed residents and activists’ fears in June when he recommended that the city raze 5,000 public-housing units to make way for "mixed income" housing as opposed to low-income developments.

Howells and other organizers anticipate that in the coming weeks, displaced tenants will begin moving back into their homes without official approval from housing authorities.

"I don’t want to celebrate Hurricane Katrina. I want to mourn Hurricane Katrina." -- Charlestine Jones, survivor

"They’re going to defy HUD," he said. "These people are lease holders. They have a right to be in homes. This whole decision of demolishing these units was done without the consent of the people who live in these complexes, but were expelled as the result of a mandatory evacuation. And so we’re fighting what is a very, very undemocratic process."

"It’s one thing when the cameras of the world were on New Orleans, but now the cameras aren't on the city," Howells said. "And it’s the fact that there is not much attention being paid to what goes on in New Orleans that facilitates the campaign of ethnic and class cleansing that’s being conducted in the city today."

Previous coverage:

New Orleans Public Housing Residents Set to Fight Off Developers

New Orleans’ Displaced Struggle for Housing, Jobs, Neighborhoods


Mourning Katrina
Charlestine Jones, Austin, Texas

When TNS reported on residents struggling to keep from being pushed out of their apartments in the wake of the storm, we spoke with Charlestine Jones, a tenant in the Forest Park housing complex in Algiers. Back then, Jones was resolute about staying in her apartment despite her landlord’s orders to vacate, supposedly to allow for repair work.

But even after her protests pressured the landlord to uphold tenants’ rights to return, Jones found herself overwhelmed by the battle, and decided to resettle in Austin, Texas. Though her family remains in New Orleans, she said she was ready to move away from the city. "Oh, I’m depressed with New Orleans," she told TNS last week. "I love my home. I was born there. And you can’t take New Orleans away from me. But it’s so depressing."

"As a community, we came to the awareness of our rights. We came to the awareness of our strength. And we came to the awareness of our environment." -- Rev. Nguyen Thé Vien, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church

Her husband, Joseph, tried resettling in Austin with her, she said, but decided to go back and make do with a FEMA trailer in New Orleans. "Coming here with nothing… He couldn’t stay. He just couldn’t stand it," she recalled. "And he’s living down there. I didn’t want to live in New Orleans. In no trailer, especially."

In Jones’s view, her city no longer welcomes her. The city government, she said, is "more interested in getting that hospitality [industry] part of New Orleans back, for the tourists to come in."

Mayor Ray Nagin’s optimistic statements about the city’s recovery are more offensive than inspiring to Jones: "All the mayor seems to be interested in is celebrating…. And from what I hear, as well as from what I know, I don’t want to celebrate Hurricane Katrina. I want to mourn Hurricane Katrina."

Previous coverage:

New Orleans’ Displaced Struggle for Housing, Jobs, Neighborhoods


"The city will always suffer"
Jerry Peel, Little Rock, Arkansas

Jerry Peel, a 63 year-old former New Orleanian who landed in Arkansas after the flood, also sees little incentive to return to the city. As TNS reported earlier this year, Peel was one of thousands of survivors whose rental assistance had been threatened by the FEMA's recent policy changes. Speaking from Little Rock last week, Peel said that he still regularly receives such notices, but they have become an everyday absurdity rather than a threat.

"Literally, every other month, I get a letter saying that I’m ineligible for further rental assistance. And most of the evacuees do," he said. By now, the recipients have become accustomed to filing appeals with the agency, or having a case manager petition the decision for them. "Generally, almost to [each] person, almost to an appeal, it’s overturned," he said. "It’s just the incompetence of that organization that creates these problems in the first place."

In his new job as a survivor-outreach coordinator with a local church-based organization, Promiseland Ministries, Peel helps other displaced people navigate the bureaucracy.

"This long and tedious form and application process is supposedly designed to stamp out fraud," he said. "But we all know that the real fraud is in the governments. That’s the federal government, the state government and the city government. But in any event, we are the weakest, so we suffer the most. We have to figure out how we can survive."

Now preparing to purchase a home in Little Rock, Peel said that while he still feels an affinity for New Orleans, the storm exposed the worst aspects of its political establishment. "It’s certainly not the place I want to be," he said, "because we would have to fight the same old fight of cronyism, corruption. And I guess until the people get enough strength to take their government back, then the city will always suffer."

Previous coverage:

Policy Changes Threaten to Re-displace Katrina Survivors


Struggling for recognition
Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief, Houma Nation

For the Houma Nation, an indigenous community of about 8,000 people spanning several towns near New Orleans, the recovery has been steered mainly by volunteer efforts, with little government contribution.

The community's interactions with FEMA "uncovered a lot of incompetence in our federal government," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation. She said that for the past year, federal aid has eluded the community as residents have been stymied by FEMA’s bureaucratic application process.

"All of the relief efforts that we have been able to provide have been from grassroots organizations," she said, "whether it’s just goodhearted people… or different churches from many denominations, different tribes and Indian organizations – they’re the ones who have helped us recover. It has not been FEMA; it has not been our federal government."

She added that the government neglect that the tribe endured in addition to the trauma of the hurricanes reflects a long history of economic and social isolation. "It brought to light that class and race does make a difference in the amount of services that you're provided and the type of recovery, and the speed of recovery that you’ll get," she said.

Robichaux said that another barrier in negotiating for FEMA aid has been the federal government’s refusal to officially recognize the Houma as a Native American tribe.

"You live your whole life being Indian people," she said. "You carry on your history, your traditions, your culture, your heritage. And you were denied a basic education because you were Houma; you couldn’t visit certain business establishments because you were Houma. And the list goes on and on… But yet the federal government doesn’t recognize you because you don’t quite fit their perception of [the criteria] to be a federally recognized tribe."

Previous coverage:

Bayou Towns Still Fending for Selves After Rita’s Floods**


Lower Ninth Ward rises from ruins
Tanya Harris, ACORN

As TNS reported last fall, the grassroots community advocacy group ACORN has rallied hundreds of displaced residents in New Orleans as well as in Houston and other cities. After agitating for the right of displaced residents to return to New Orleans, the group was recently recognized by the city as an official urban-planning organization. ACORN intends to work with the city in the coming months to develop rebuilding policies that are more inclusive of low-income communities of color.

ACORN organizer Tanya Harris said over the past several months, the group has managed to beat back a "campaign of … wishing the Lower Ninth Ward away and hoping that if you neglect us enough, we’ll just go away quietly. And that’s not what’s happened at all. As a matter of fact we’re becoming more enraged, and I think people are becoming more vocal."

Harris recalled ACORN’s campaign against a city-planning commission’s proposal to force some neighborhoods to first demonstrate their "viability" in order to rebuild – a policy many decried as discriminatory. After ACORN rallied hundreds of residents who were determined to restore their community but lacked the resources to do so, she said, "that whole issue of proving viability was gone out the window." Bombarding the government with petitions declaring Lower Ninth Ward residents’ intent to return, she said, the group proved that "this is a viable community and ready to return… if the government would get the hell out of the way and just let us go back in and do what the hell we have to do."

Part of ACORN’s mission now, said Harris, is to serve as a watchdog in the heavily politicized recovery process.

Though Mayor Ray Nagin has publicly promised that neighborhoods would be rebuilt, she said, "there’s a bunch of holes in that whole statement, because he didn’t say what it was going to be rebuilt as, he just said ‘rebuilt.’ He didn’t say whether or not you could come back and see your neighborhood and [reside] in it. He just said it was going to be rebuilt – now, whether that was going to be condos, industry or whatever… So we have to make sure that he keeps his promise of the right-to-return for all citizens."

Previous coverage:

Fight Continues over New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward*

New Orleans Homeowners Fight to Save Homes from Bulldozers

New Orleans’ Displaced Struggle for Housing, Jobs, Neighborhoods

Some Neighborhoods Rebuild, But Part of Lower 9th Remains Off-limits


A political coming of age in Versailles
Reverend Nguyen Thé Vien, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, New Orleans East

In February, when TNS reported on Versailles, a Vietnamese-immigrant enclave in New Orleans East, the community was pulling far ahead of the rest of the city with a grassroots recovery effort driven by volunteer labor and tight bonds among immigrant families. Residents’ recent experience with FEMA’s housing assistance has only reaffirmed their emphasis on self-reliance. Only about 70 trailers out of nearly 200 requested have materialized. Meanwhile, liability-insurance payments on the land that the community church designated as a trailer site is costing the parish $50,000 a year.

"The rest of my people are floating around, homeless," said Reverend Nguyen Thé Vien, leader of the local church Mary Queen of Vietnam. "And at the same time they are paying for the insurance. It’s the land that they bought."

The community’s stalwart determination recently underwent a political baptism when residents challenged the creation of a massive landfill adjacent to Versailles. In the community’s first major direct action, residents led a series of demonstrations beginning in March, culminating with residents staging a blockade of the landfill’s gate to stop dump trucks. The city moved to close the landfill under public pressure this month.

Nguyen said that after its campaign, "The community has seen itself in a different light, realizing that it has to do different things to accomplish what it needs to accomplish … given the current situation. So in the past we stayed in the background, but now we know that we have to stand up and we really have to put ourselves on the line in order to be noticed. I think as a community, we came to the awareness of our rights. We came to the awareness of our strength. And we came to the awareness of our environment."

In contrast to more pessimistic predictions that people of color will be squeezed out of the city, Nguyen envisions the rebuilt New Orleans as more ethnically dynamic now that the once politically dormant Versailles has found its political voice. "We were quiet for 30 years. Now we are beginning to speak up," he said. "And the powers that be finally say, ‘Okay, we acknowledge that you’re here.’"

Previous coverage:

Do-it-Yourself Disaster Relief Snubs New Orleans Planners


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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