One of the after-effects of the Katrina experience for many of us who live in New Orleans is that we stay home a lot more than ever before. Home. Home became so critically important to us after the storm. Home was the only thing we had to hold on to while we were hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. Home became our recurring dream. Songs about home evoked that curious lump in our throats that we could not quite explain. Home took on some kind of deep meaning that we never knew before.
Last night, as I double-locked the front door to the home I purchased just months after the storm, I suddenly thought how fortunate I am to even have my own front door. I have always been one of the lucky few who emerged from Katrina relatively unscathed. My employers paid me throughout the time I was exiled from home. I came back to find my apartment in good shape, my friends returning one by one, and my life intact. I never take my good fortune for granted.
So, I cannot help but wonder about those who are still struggling with home issues more than two full years after the coming of the giant wave that sought to annihilate us. Their collective plight is front page news right now. Here are some recent headlines:
- FEMA Trailers Will Undergo Testing for Formaldehyde
As if it were not bad enough that 28 months after the hurricane we still reportedly have 46,000 individuals or families living in trailers throughout the Gulf Coast, now we are told it is possible that formaldehyde, a colorless, odorless gas, may be causing respiratory problems in trailer residents. Further, the Environmental Protection Agency considers formaldehyde a "probable human carcinogen" that can lead to various cancers.
I liken this problem to what first responders are currently dealing with in New York. Those who spent time at Ground Zero in the days and weeks that followed the World Trade Center bombings are now reporting severe respiratory ailments in inordinately high numbers. Will we see similar results along the Gulf Coast because of the slow moving bureaucracy that failed to support an entire quadrant of the U.S. after the largest natural disaster in U.S. history? Will Katrina's wrath be more layered, potentially lethal and slowly revealed than we first imagined?
FEMA reports it will start testing formaldehyde levels in trailers next week, one by one. The potential formaldehyde crisis was first reported 18 months ago. Why did the government wait this long? You have not read about this in your local paper outside of this area. And the nightly news does not say much anymore about FEMA trailers in Katrina-devastated areas. But the truth is that almost 4,000 individuals or families have requested FEMA's assistance in moving out of the trailers and into alternate housing, because of their fear of the effects of formaldehyde. It is not happening. Most of them are still in their trailers. Breathing.
The U.S. government's inexcusable tardiness in confronting this problem, and FEMA's announcement of testing, comes at a most ironic moment. On December 14, 2007, FEMA announced its intention to close down all of its trailer parks in Louisiana, within six months. I am doing my level best not to envision thousands of FEMA trailer residents - some with newly minted breathing problems - without homes. It is currently estimated there are 12,000 homeless people living in New Orleans. That's roughly twice the number of homeless in the city before Katrina. Just for perspective, consider also that these 12,000 citizens are among a much smaller local population than 28 months ago. Add to these 12,000 who knows how many more displaced FEMA trailer residents, and the crisis deepens.
It is a nightmare. It needs to become a national priority. It needs to become a campaign issue.
- Duncan Plaza Residents Given Deadline to Move Out
Have you heard of Duncan Plaza? If you do not live in New Orleans, chances are you have not. Duncan Plaza is an open area downtown, surrounded by office buildings, one that used to house the Louisiana State Supreme Court. Since Hurricane Katrina, Duncan Plaza has become "home" to hundreds of homeless people who live alternately in tents and other makeshift shelters. The media seems intent on using the number 150 to quantify the homeless population in Duncan Plaza, but I disagree. I drive by Duncan Plaza every day on my way to work, and if that is 150 people I am looking at, then my third grade math teacher did not do her job. I see hundreds of people, and more importantly, I see a community of disenfranchised citizens who are suddenly an inconvenience to a city that has decided to demolish a nine-story former state office building that borders the plaza. The city announced last week that all of the homeless in Duncan Plaza have to leave.
I see Duncan Plaza as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. How does a city of this size and renown justify having hundreds of its citizens living in open air, with no facilities and no hope? Further, how does the city justify simply "removing" people from the small plot of land they have come to think of as their (hopefully) temporary home, with no plan to assist them? This is not a third world country. The citizens who live in Duncan Plaza are not useless, drug-addled degenerates. In fact, some of them actually get up every morning and go to work. They simply have not been able to reestablish themselves to the point of home ownership or rental yet. They are not cattle. They are human beings. What gives the city the right to simply uproot them and tell them to go away?
Further, where should they go? The city currently has about 200 shelter-based beds available for the homeless. So, in percentages, the city can accommodate about two percent of its homeless. Can you think of something more shameful and inhumane? I cannot.
I thought about the Duncan Plaza homeless last night as I left my home to walk my dog. The air was cold and very damp. I did not really want to even walk down the block and breathe it in. What about those who spend every night exposed to the elements? No bathrooms, no showers, no clean clothes, no heat. It is unfathomable. And it is ridiculous.
- Protesters Stall Housing Demolition Progress
Everyone knew it was coming, but when the long-planned demolition began of 14 brick buildings at the B.W. Cooper public housing development - work that had been scheduled since long before Katrina - dozens of protesters marched on the site, claiming the demolition smacked of racism and classism. Maybe it does. After all, the racial divide in New Orleans, long a dirty little secret known predominantly only among locals, is probably worse now than it has ever been. All those people still banished to places like Tennessee, Utah and Peoria are mostly black. We all know that. And we all know why. They were the ones without the resources to rebuild, return or restore their local lives. And, of course, we all know that many of them lived in places like B.W. Cooper. So, did the giant wave make it convenient for New Orleans to rid itself of the poor? Maybe it did.
Here is the carefully-crafted statement issued on December 12, 2007, by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO):
"The units that are being demolished at B.W. Cooper, which is a resident-managed site, are a part of the demolition of 14 buildings that were scheduled to be eliminated before Hurricane Katrina. HANO approved the demolition in July 2005 to de-densify this site. Both the residents and management of B.W. Cooper were included in this process. HANO approved the notice to proceed during its public meeting on August 29, 2007. The removal of these units was previously approved as part of our commitment to creating quality housing and safer communities for our residents."
Mayor Ray Nagin, speaking to a television reporter, said he found it odd that most of those who marched on B.W. Cooper were not residents of the development, and many were from out of town. How did he know that, and why does it matter? Even if they are activists from other cities, they are here to lobby the city on behalf of the residents whose homes are about to be torn down. I would point out to Mr. Nagin that most of the people who marched in Montgomery, AL in 1965 with Dr. Martin Luther King were not residents of Montgomery, either.
Nagin was not present at the demonstration. Nor was he present the next day when about 150 people peacefully protested at the entrance of a downtown Federal courthouse, under the banner of an apparently recently-formed group called Coalition to Protect Public Housing. The group also marched to City Hall, and to HUD headquarters. Eventually, four demonstrators were jailed after chaining themselves to the HUD headquarters. Civil disobedience, it is called. The object of their ire is much bigger than Cooper. C.J. Peete and St. Bernard developments were also slated to be razed this month. Demolition of a fourth public housing complex, Lafitte, near Treme, still needs approval from the City Council, but the conventional wisdom here is that approval is imminent.
By Friday, December 14, plans for the destruction of everything except B.W. Cooper were on indefinite hold, according to HANO. Now, the three remaining developments will only be demolished with the direct approval of the New Orleans City Council.
What does it mean? I believe it means that the American right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is alive and well, and that at least one Civil District Court Judge, Herbert Cade, sees the value of taking a more prudent, measured approach to the destruction of citizens' homes. However, it may just be a momentary stumbling block for those intent on demolition of public housing. Considering the complexion of the current City Council, demolitions may be fast tracked as early as next week. Just in time for the holidays.
And nothing says "Noel" quite like bulldozers and front-end loaders, right?
If demolition happens, what will replace these thousands of housing units? "Mixed-income" housing, we are told. This was already instituted on the site of the former St. Thomas development, just minutes from downtown New Orleans. The results have been mixed. After all, as mentioned earlier, the venerable racial divide is intact. Mixed income housing is the grand concept that envisions various races, ethnic groups and socio-economic population segments peacefully co-existing. Looking at the housing that today sits on the St. Thomas site, one is somehow reminded of Wysteria Lane. Still, those of us who have lived and breathed the racial tension in this town for decades have to wonder if the ghetto now just has a prettier facade.
Color me skeptical.
America needs to know about all of this -- the gas in the trailers, the eviction of homeless people, the deliberate demolition of public housing buildings that are structurally sound. All citizens need to know that government agencies founded to protect them, do not do so. Otherwise, it would not have taken 18 months for FEMA to begin testing for formaldehyde in its trailers.
And above all, America needs to know that here in the Southeast, we think of Katrina in present tense. Katrina is still happening. Maybe more than ever.