Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lance Hill Interview on Prevalent Forms of Racism in post-Katrina United States

Note: Here are a some excerpts from a much longer interview with Dr. Lance Hill, Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research (Tulane University, New Orleans), which you can read in its entirety here, or listen to in its original form as a radio interview on Democracy Now. This interview was conducted by Brian Denzer for the “Community Gumbo” program on WTUL-FM radio station at Tulane University in New Orleans, and originally aired on January 26, 2008.

On the Closing of Charity Hospital, and the Lack of Health Care in New Orleans

Lance Hill (LH): The closing of Charity Hospital in New Orleans and the resulting lack of health care for the uninsured is the single greatest obstacle to the return of the black community, given that half of them have lost their healthcare insurance since Katrina.

It’s amazing, because it’s such a huge story, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune won’t talk about it and they never covered any press conferences on the issue for the last two years. They finally covered a recent press conference by advocates for re-opening Charity who had filed a suit to re-open the hospital. It’s an issue unlike the demolition of public housing where you have people in the city who can show up in numbers to protest.

People who need a full-service hospital aren’t here; they’ve moved to Baton Rouge or to Hammond or to out-of-state where there are full-service hospitals for the uninsured. And almost by definition, those who are near death and suffering aren’t the kind of people who can pack and disrupt city council meetings.

I’ve talked to national journalists about this and I’ve said “if you tried to close the only hospital for the uninsured in south central L.A., you couldn’t get away with it. You couldn’t do it in Chicago; you couldn’t do it in Detroit; you couldn’t do it anywhere else....

This policy really causes barbarous suffering and pain for people. There was a horrible story in the paper about a woman who showed up in one of these volunteer neighborhood clinics and half her breast was eaten away, metastasized. She was turned away by a private hospital because they’re only obligated to take you in and stabilize you, not to diagnose and treat you.

But it’s remarkable, just absolutely remarkable, that no national news organization has done a story on this problem....

Post-Katrina Racism in the U.S.

I think one of the ironies of living in post-Katrina New Orleans is that Katrina struck right about the moment when a national consensus was emerging that race no longer mattered. Someone sent me a review of a book, apparently it’s just been published, that argues that race is no longer a determinant factor in political or social, or economic life, and it had nothing to do with Katrina....

The irony is that this national consensus is based on a definition of racism that is forty years old; that one racial group is biologically, intellectually and/or culturally inferior to another group or that racism is a set of practices that denigrates and degrades people and actually inflicts real psychological and physical harm. That in its most extreme form, that racism can result in lynchings, death, and genocide.

But the problem is that we’re using this definition, which is about forty years old, and applying it like a template to America today and then saying we don’t have racism.

But the fact is that racism itself has changed. In the day to day lives of most Americans, the obstacles to progress for African Americans are certainly not nearly as great as they were at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Most African Americans, if they have access to adequate education and resources, can find work and a profession; they can find a decent neighborhood and put their kids in decent schools. The forms of discrimination that exist are subtle and we certainly live in a society where virtually everyone knows that it’s politically self-defeating to openly proclaim your prejudices.

But what Katrina showed, I think, was that we’re far from cured of racism and that in a time of crisis, in which a community is thrown into chaos and people are literally competing for resources for life and survival and trying to keep their families intact, that in the midst of that kind of social and political breakdown and chaos, that deeply embedded racial prejudices reemerged. And they reemerged in very ugly ways.

And it wasn’t just the rescue, but in the recovery phase as well. Two and a half years since the recovery, the tendency of one group to advance itself, to pull itself out of the quagmire of Katrina, at the expense of the other group has really brought out the worst in racial attitudes. All of which culminated in an open “exclusionist movement” to prevent the poor African Americans from coming back to the city....

White people have gotten to the point where they think that, even as a political minority in a city, they have the right to prevent people from returning to their homes where they have lived for generations, in some cases, for centuries, and where their forbearers literally built the city; and that by an accident of nature, poor African American’s have lost their citizenship rights. And that white people, by virtue of having more money, a home that’s above sea level, and the good fortune to have gotten back, have a moral and political right to determine who will return to the city.

To me, this is evidence of a profound problem of racism.

The Need for a New Civil Rights Movement

At some point that needs to be investigated because my sense is that if a similar disaster occurs, be it a terrorist bomb or a natural disaster, to another city with a comparable population of New Orleans, that the same double standard will apply.

I don’t think that there is any question that the first out will be people with resources and money, the first back in will be people with resources and money; and the people who will be charged with planning the future of the city will be the wealthiest and the most powerful. And the temptation to eliminate the problem of poverty by eliminating poor people will be an extremely strong temptation.

If we don’t have a bill of rights for displaced people, and if we don’t anticipate those sorts of problems, we will be in trouble.

That is what I mean when I say there is a need for a new Civil Rights Movement; that we’ve now learned that in these kinds of circumstances that our Constitution and our Bill of Rights and our national principles of treating people fairly and equally don’t apply: we need some sort of guarantees that go beyond our current laws.

The White Exclusionist Movement

[C]ertainly there was in the first year after Katrina a lot of emphasis in the national media on the spirit of volunteerism and people helping one another. But the best kept secret, I think, is that a decision was made very early on by the most powerful elements of this community, and shared across the board among white people who remained uptown, that the future of the city hinged on preventing poor people from coming back: the exclusionist movement.

It is not unusual that in times of collective trauma and crisis that movements emerge that present themselves as visionary--as rebuilding a new society. They almost always construct a role in which there is one source of the problems that the community had experienced before the crisis; and that one source is often a specific group of people. Then that group of people is transformed from victims, in the case of being displaced from their homes, jobs, and loved ones, to becoming perpetrators.

The original victims come to be viewed as obstacles of the realization of the new civic dream.

I actually had someone email me one time because I sent something out about race and disparities and they said “Why can’t we have the city of our dreams?” And I responded, “Because one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.”

The fundamental issue is that people have a right to return to their homes. Yet there were open pronouncements in the Wall Street Journal by the movers and shakers of this city that they wanted to change the demographics, which was just shorthand for saying they wanted to make the city whiter and more affluent.

If you look at the plans of the two commissions charged with planning the rebuilding of New Orleans, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, both of their initial plans did not allocate a single penny to restore rental properties. Yet 70% of African Americans rented in New Orleans.

When you devise a plan to rebuild a community, and nowhere in the plan have you provided for the kind of housing that the majority of people had before, then you can attribute that to just a blind spot, or an oversight but it doesn’t make any difference to the victims. The outcome is racially and class discriminatory.

I would say that one of the problems early on--some people refer to this as a “conspiracy”-- was the effort to prevent African Americans and poor people from returning.

The proposal to bulldoze the heavily black New Orleans East neighborhood, which, according to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the decision would have been made by March 2006—the bulldozing would have been done by that summer of 2006. Gentilly, another major black neighborhood, was supposed to have been destroyed. New Orleans East was to be destroyed; the Ninth Ward was to be destroyed, although the Ninth Ward is actually higher above sea level than predominantly white Lakeview, which was exempted from the demolition plan. And my neighborhood, predominantly black Broadmoor, was to be destroyed.

And early on, some people referred to this as a “conspiracy.” I think that was a misfortunate use of a term, because a conspiracy suggests that this decision was made by a few people without the knowledge or consent of other people. I think this was beyond a conspiracy; it was an open movement. If you were white, everywhere you went—bars, coffeehouses, clubs, the discussion turned to what would be the vision of this new city and how we should not repopulate the poor neighborhoods and should not try to bring back everyone who had lived here before.

This was not a conspiracy; it was a broad movement. It’s a little bit like saying, segregation was a conspiracy. It wasn’t a conspiracy; it was a consensus among white people with the power of law behind it.

National Indifference and the Injustice of Blaming the Victim

I think a far more important question is why have we gone two and a half years with this open movement to deprive poor people of their fundamental rights? Why have we gone two and a half years opening up the Times Picayune and seeing the obituaries filled with hundreds and hundreds and thousands of elderly people, African American mostly, displaced, dying because of neglect, because of stress?

Someone told me they found a homeless quadriplegic under a bush downtown. And two people froze to death right before the big football game and the story was buried in the newspaper.

Why is it that we can have children who spend two months sitting on the floor in a school with no chairs, with no tables, with no books, with no paper, and this is a system run by the state, not by the city, and why can these kinds of unconscionable injustices occur and you cannot name a single white business leader in this community who has spoken out against any of those injustices? Not a single white religious leader of a single denomination has stood up and spoken out against those injustices until Bishop Charles Jenkins did recently.

There are thousands of parents who, in the reorganization of the school system, now have their children in elite charter schools, selective admission charter schools. Their children are perfectly warm, they’re sitting in chairs, they have a nice lunch, they have teachers, they have all of these amenities of modern life, and yet, as this happened just last year, ten blocks away, children are sitting on the floor with no books.

I have a friend who taught at one of the public schools who said they ran out of textbooks six months into the school year, and he spent three months playing basketball with the kids. And for me, the question here is where is the conscience of white New Orleans? Where are those people who understand that silence is confused with consent, and everything we know about the social psychology of harm-doers, of people who commit harm, is they’re encouraged by the silence of bystanders.

You can go across the board with social clubs, civic organizations, business organizations, the chamber of commerce, and there is almost absolute uninterrupted silence in the face of injustice.

At times it’s really been incomprehensible, but I’d have to say that it is predictable is some ways. When people believe that other people are suffering and they don’t do anything about it, they often avoid the guilt by fooling themselves into believing either that the victims aren’t suffering so much.

Eighty percent of displaced people were unemployed a year ago in Texas; they didn’t find the land of milk and honey. Yet all we got from the media were success stories about how displaced people were doing wonderfully. But statistically, that was simply not the case.

The second thing people do to assuage their guilt and prevent them from having to act out of moral obligation is they blame the victim. They think that we live in a just world in which goodness is rewarded and evil is punished; so if these people are without work or without a home, then it’s their own fault. It’s a kind of elaborate rationalization and this rationalizing has resulted in a great deal of suffering and anguish and real physical pain because it has blinded us to the causes of problems.

Brian Denzer (BD): I want to back it up just a little bit. You said in another Gambit Weekly article that hate isn’t the problem—it’s indifference. You said, “I think indifference to the public education of African American youth is a moral crime. The indifference to suffering is the new form of racism.”

And I just want to bring this around to the mission of the Southern Institute in particular, and the ways in which the Southern Institute uses the expressions of hatred throughout history as an example of how to combat indifference, and the ways in which, for example, the Holocaust occurred in large part because of indifference....

One of the keys to that is the power of the bystander. We know from both history and from social science experiments that when one group is harming another group, if people who are unrelated to the perpetrator group or people who are bystanders object to the action, that it inhibits that harming behavior.

So we always emphasize the moral imperative to speak out and act against the persecution and suffering of other people.

That probably explains the many reasons for what I’ve been saying in this interview; that in the last two and a half years since Katrina I have seen very little of this “speaking out” behavior.

What the Southern Institute teaches young people is that to prevent ethnic violence and ethnic conflict and genocide, first and foremost people must act on their own conscience and speak out against the persecution and suffering of other people. And what we know is when they don’t do that, that the suffering and the persecution increases. As we devalue people, that it’s easier to harm people even more.

And we also know that people then will tend to blame the victim for their own conditions. It’s a way of relieving ourselves of our own responsibility and this happens in all kinds of areas.

The Need for Awakening the National Conscience re: Social Justice

BD: Given these intractable problems that you’ve been talking about, healthcare, education, things that have been long-standing, but in particular have come into very sharp relief post-Katrina, in which in many cases are driven by, as you say, a broad movement of racism—are you optimistic or pessimistic going forward that New Orleans can tackle these, what seem like fairly insurmountable problems?

LH: Well, I’m optimistic only because the disparities and the injustices over the last two years are beginning to get national attention.

I know that one million volunteers have come in the last two years and I’ve seen a big change. They initially came in thinking of themselves as humanitarian relief workers, and humanitarian relief really implies that one is going to help people regardless of their needs or income or resources.

Humanitarian relief is almost religiously based in the notion that it does something good for you to help people, rich and poor alike. After Katrina hit, I helped people rich and poor alike; it made no difference, we were just helping people. But as time has gone along, I think people have come back to the city and I think they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes; that they have not always been helping the communities that needed help the most.

They’ve seen that some neighborhoods have come back and some haven’t. And they’ve asked, “What is preventing these people from coming back?”

That’s when they move toward what they call “social justice” work.

In humanitarian relief work, you’re not trying to change people’s ideas or the systems that produce and reproduce inequality or injustice. But in social justice work, you ask a lot of questions before you come in, and you make sure that the work that you’re doing is work that if you didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. And you understand how systems work; that sometimes systems are opaque--it’s not clear where the injustices are; there’s not a “white” and a “colored” sign. But the outcomes can be just as discriminatory.

And so the optimism that I have comes from seeing a growing social movement nationally among young people of conscience who believe that when the old-line white leadership was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying they wanted a whiter and more affluent city, they got it. They have that city. And if that’s what they set out to do, that’s what certainly occurred.

And I think that the sort of things that Brad Pitt’s doing in the ninth ward, is emblematic that outside the city there’s a perception that people who are inside the city and in positions of power are not attending to those problems and aren’t really determined to solve them.

As an historian, I view this moment very much like Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement. You come to a point when you have to ask: Do the people in the local community have the moral conscience and the will to correct this injustice? Or is the only solution the awakening of a national conscience and the intervention of a national government?” And usually the answer is both.

The Importance of Admitting Our Failures

I think it’s a very important lesson that we’re far better off letting the nation know what our failures are, and our shortcomings are, because we have a Congress now that is prepared to help and realizes that we don’t have the local resources to accomplish this.
And with the new presidential race we may end up with a president who also shares that belief.

There is a sense in this nation, and I’ve talked to people coming into the city and volunteers, that we have our national priorities askew, that we have misplaced national priorities and New Orleans is uniquely positioned because there’s a Congress and there’s a nation out there eager to prove that we are a caring and loving and compassionate country.

And there’s no better place to prove it than in a community in which a natural disaster occurred that was then followed by a human disaster in which the government did not treat its people the way that a great nation should treat its people. And I think Americans have a conscience and they believe that if there’s an injustice, it needs to be remedied.

And so there’s a great benefit for us to make public what the failings are. I think that it only will be through the intervention of the federal government and the resources that it has, that 20 years from now we’ll be a more successful and a better city. So I’m more optimistic now than I was maybe a year ago, but I’m optimistic for reasons quite different than probably most people in the city.

BD: New Orleans is a test care for how we err as a nation, I couldn’t agree more... Dr. Lance Hill, director of the Southern Institute, thank you very much for your time.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Detroit's Katrina: Where is the National Response to Assist Detroit's Residents in Rebuilding Their City?

On October 7, an estimated 50,000 Detroit residents descended on Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit--not to escape the ravages of a hurricane, but with the simple hope of being able to escape the increasing ravages of homelessness and hunger that are threatening many of Detroit's residents.

This human surge was a response to news that 3500 federal grants were available to assist city residents needing temporary housing assistance to avoid homelessness. This is how badly the residents of Detroit are hurting. But they've been hurting for a long time--so long, in fact, that the nation seems to yawn whenever they hear another story like this one, which hit the headlines only days after TIME magazine's lead cover story on "The Tragedy of Detroit."

Detroit has been drawing a lot of media attention over the last year, and has now even "earned" for itself the "honor" of a Detroit office for TIME magazine with a front page cover titled "The Tragedy of Detroit" that launched its one-year "Assignment Detroit" project. This project will feature Detroit-area stories over the next year.

But while the "tragedy" of Detroit has been receiving news coverage, along with a lot of freelance photographic coverage of its decaying urban architecture, the slow-moving tsunami that has devastated Detroit's human population over the last decade has received no national or federal response similar to the kind New Orleans received after the Katrina disaster.

While Katrina devastated New Orleans in a single week in August 2005, Detroit has been in crisis for decades, the victim of repeated waves of slow-moving economic "hurricanes" that have left Detroit's physical and human infrastructure severely damaged. And of course this damage has only been magnified over the last year by the triple hurricane of the national economic recession, the crisis of the auto industry, and a series of local governmental scandals that have virtually paralyzed Detroit government over the last year.

At the very time Detroit's citizens have been needing an effective and responsive government, the city has gone further into debt to fund a long series of mayoral elections in 2009. And while the city has been spending millions to fund these elections, new Mayor Bing has been threatening to cut even further an already bare-bones public bus transportation system. This would mean that the ever-diminishing numbers of residents who still have jobs, but rely on public transportation to get to work, will have yet another hurdle thrown in front of them to make it more difficult for them to maintain their jobs.

But now that the elections of Mayor and City Council are over, we hope for the kind of government in 2010 that will work with, rather than against, the community and its energy and capacity to bring about change in Detroit. While more efficiency in government spending is clearly necessary, this efficiency cannot be achieved by cutting the basic services needed by Detroit's residents, such as public transportation, which are already at bare-bones levels.

Meanwhile, the nation seems to react to every story of about the Detroit "tragedy" with a collective yawn.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans suddenly, and its devastating impact, largely the result of human neglect and failed response, was highlighted every night on the national news for weeks at a time. President Bush's miserably failed leadership in response to this crisis helped to raise New Orleans to the center of national consciousness, and it became a symbol of the racialized impacts of bad policy, neglect, and the poor planning that made the nation take the Katrina disaster in New Orleans to its heart, and respond in kind.

Detroit is a twin sister to New Orleans, not only in its French heritage, but in its suffering as a result of the racialized impacts of bad policy, neglect, and poor planning over many decades. Yet Detroit is the twin sister whose major needs have been all but ignored by the nation--even though the needs of its citizens, and of the city as a whole, are just as great, and perhaps now even greater, than those of New Orleans.

The twinned collapse of the national economy and the local auto economy have left Detroit with a depression-level 30% unemployment rate, and a rate of housing abandonment that probably tops that of any other city in the nation. Without having suffered the destruction of the wall of water that devastated the lower ninth ward in NOLA, significant parts of Detroit closely resemble NOLA's most devastated ward.

But where is the national surge of response to help Detroit's residents, its nonprofit organizations, and its local government to recover from this disaster?

We need a national recovery program that will fund the many nonprofit organizations and residents in Detroit to put the city back to work rebuilding itself. As someone who has gotten to know many of the amazing people and organizations in Detroit who have been doing great work under the most trying circumstances for many years with very limited resources, I've seen the great things that are possible for Detroit--if only the nation will move beyond simply telling the story of Detroit's tragedy, and will instead move to funding Detroit's recovery.

Detroiters are ready to rebuild their beloved city. They have the passion, the energy, the commitment, and the vision for rebuilding. All they need is some help with the financial resources, which have been drained from the city for several decades.

The nation and much of the rest of the state of Michigan has stood idly by for decades and watched the city decline. Some, but not all, of Detroit's problems have been self-inflicted. The state of Michigan is now in almost as desperate an economic condition as Detroit, so has not been able to extend much help to Detroit in the current crisis. And so Detroit's recovery requires and demands a national response.

Its time for the nation to stop yawning, and to start doing what is necessary to lift up the city that was once the arsenal of its democracy. Its citizens can make the city great again, with a bit of help from their fellow citizens across the nation, and from our shared federal government.

So let this be an appeal for shared labor and collective national investment in the future of Detroit and its residents. For the fate of Detroit will signal, in many ways, the fate of our entire nation.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Katrina & the Racial Wealth Divide

Chaka A.K. Uzondu, an Education Coordinator at United for a Fair Economy, is part of the Racial Wealth Divide project, and has written:

Our task is clear. We have to build a movement for wealth equality and a people centered democracy. And the most pressing issue for such a movement must be racial justice and racial wealth equality.

Check out Uzondu's article here.

This is just one of the many resources accessible through the United for a Fair Economy website.

Check it out!

Friday, February 23, 2007

For Information on the National Emergency Management Summit in New Orleans:


The Leading Forum on Medical Preparation and Response to
Disasters, Epidemics and Terrorism

New Orleans Marriott
New Orleans, LA

March 4 - 6, 2007

Monday, August 21, 2006

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

The broadcast of Spike Lee's Film "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," begins tonight on HBO--
As the world watched in horror, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Like many who watched the unfolding drama on television news, director Spike Lee was shocked not only by the scale of the disaster, but by the slow, inept and disorganized response of the emergency and recovery effort. Lee was moved to document this modern American tragedy, a morality play witnessed by people all around the world. The result is WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS. The film is structured in four acts, each dealing with a different aspect of the events that preceded and followed Katrina's catastrophic passage through New Orleans. Acts I and II premiere Monday, August 21 at 9pm (ET/PT), followed by Acts III and IV on Tuesday, August 22 at 9pm. All four acts will be seen Tuesday, Aug. 29 (8:00 p.m.-midnight), the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Read more.

Lee and his team selected close to 100 people from diverse backgrounds and representing a wide range of opinions to interview, including Governor Kathleen Blanco; Mayor Ray Nagin; residents Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, Kimberly Polk, Shelton "Shakespeare" Alexander and Rev. Williams; activists Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte; CNN's Soledad O'Brien; and musicians Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Kanye West.

Lee uses key elements of New Orleans' cultural legacy to illustrate its history of surviving against the odds. Long before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and its citizens developed coping strategies for dealing with tragedy. Its aboveground cemeteries are not only practical, but evidence of a people used to the sight of death. The traditional jazz funerals - musical parades that mourn death, and then celebrate life - serve as testament to that fact.
Read more of this overview.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

One-Year Review of Key Indicators of Recovery in Post-Storm New Orleans

New Report from the Brookings Institution:

A One-Year Review of Key Indicators of Recovery in Post-Storm New Orleans
by Amy Liu, Matt Fellowes, and Mia Mabanta
A review of dozens of key social and economic indicators on the progress of recovery in the New Orleans region since the impact of Hurricane Katrina finds that:

--Housing rehabilitation, and demolition, are well underway while the housing market tightens, raising rent and home prices.

--Across the city, public services and infrastructure remain thin and slow to rebound. Approximately half of all bus and streetcar routes are back up and running, while only 17 percent of buses are in use, a level of service that has not changed since January. Gas and electricity service is reaching only 41 and 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base, respectively.

--The labor force in the New Orleans region is 30 percent smaller today than one year ago and has grown slowly over the last six months; meanwhile, the unemployment rate remains higher than pre-Katrina... The unemployment rate is now 7.2 percent, higher than last August.

--Since last August, over $100 billion in federal aid has been dedicated to serving families and communities impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. In the meantime, the number of displaced and unemployed workers remains high.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

New Katrina Report from Sage Foundation:

Notice from WORLDWATCH Institute:

New Report: In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina
Zoe Chafe – July 17, 2006
This interdisciplinary report, written by professors from around the country, illuminates the environmental justice implications of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The researchers focus on race disparities and linkages to environmental quality in the US, and the ways in which these disparities influence the preparation and relief efforts: before, during, and after a disaster. They provide positive examples of cities that prioritized development for poorer citizens during post-disaster reconstruction.

The report concludes with a simple but profound statement:

“Yet by allowing the weak link in the social chain—the poorest communities in the low-lying areas of the city—to be exposed, all of New Orleans was put at risk. By failing to value fenceline lives and communities, the risks rise for neighborhoods far from the first releases from a chemical incident.”

In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina
By Manuel Pastor, Robert Bullard, James Boyce, Alice Fothergill, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Beverly Wright. Supported by the Russell Sage Foundation.

Natural Disasters & Peacemaking--WorldWatch Institute

From the Worldwatch Institute:

With the number of disasters (and their devastating impacts) increasing worldwide, Worldwatch has initiated a major research and policy project on "un-natural" disasters. Many of the earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods that batter the globe are "un-natural disasters" because preventable human actions, including wetlands destruction, global warming, and population growth, turn natural hazards into humanitarian disasters.

The project looks specifically at disasters in conflict areas, proposing innovative ways to work towards peace during the relief and rebuilding processes. "While grim in its origin, post-disaster humanitarian action can be a powerful catalyst for overcoming deep human divides," says Michael Renner, Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Director of the Institute's Global Security Project. "But humanitarian impulses must be translated into tangible political change, or else lasting peace may not be achieved."

Visit our Disasters & Peacemaking portal for daily news updates and Worldwatch analysis relevant to "un-natural" disasters and their worldwide effects. The links will also be available via Worldwatch's listserv.

Recent Reports:

New Worldwatch Article on Peacemaking after Disasters - July 17

New Report: In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina

Friday, July 14, 2006

Volunteer Joins Emergency Communities and Common Ground Collective to Help Residents in Arabi and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Excerpt from:
Hard Work In the Big Easy:
Vacationers Donate Time To Help Katrina Victims

By Eric Patel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 9, 2006
Yes, the Big Easy has become a lot harder to visit, especially if, like a growing number of travelers, you're looking to volunteer in a city severely damaged and surprisingly unhealed since Hurricane Katrina's devastation last August. It's a city that even has its own version of refugee camps. Within hours of touching down, I found myself ladling out scrambled eggs to a long line of residents at a makeshift "cafe" under a tent set up by aging hippies to feed homeless locals.

Even a cursory tour around New Orleans confirms the worst you've heard. The Lower Ninth Ward -- ground zero for the worst levee break -- is a virtually untouched, surreal landscape: splintered houses lying on cars, cars in trees, trees on houses, moldy rubble everywhere. In spring, seven months after the event, the entire area was silent -- no rumble of bulldozers, no excavators, no dump trucks.

In that bleak landscape, dozens of volunteer organizations have come to help -- getting people food, water or supplies or helping them reinhabit their homes and neighborhoods. They offer hope to locals and a blend of hard work, challenge and even adventure to volunteer vacationers.

During a 10-day trip here, I worked with two grass-roots nonprofit groups. The first, New York-based Emergency Communities, fed residents in the disaster zone of Arabi, a few miles east of the French Quarter (that site has since closed, although the group has operations in other areas in the same parish). The second, Common Ground Collective of New Orleans, helps homeowners in the impoverished Ninth Ward get back into their flood-destroyed homes and provides a variety of other services. Both are run on a shoestring and are fueled by a diverse and seemingly endless supply of volunteers.

To read more, click here

Most Members of Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund Advisory Committee Resign

Religious Leaders Quit Katrina Fund Panel

The Associated Press
Friday, July 14, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- By all accounts, the group of nine was a religious powerhouse: Their ranks included rabbis, imams and ministers, including the man hailed by some as the next Billy Graham. But as of Thursday, seven of the nine religious leaders serving on a committee created by the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to disburse money to churches destroyed by Hurricane Katrina had quit their posts, claiming their advice was ignored.

Four out of nine board members confirmed their resignations on Thursday. Last week, two others--Bishop T.D. Jakes, the prominent Dallas megachurch pastor, and the Rev. William H. Gray III, former president of the United Negro College Fund--resigned as co-chairs.

Departing members of the interfaith advisory committee say the fund's Washington staff disregarded their advice, cutting checks for Gulf Coast churches without properly investigating the institutions.

To read more, click here.

Advisory Committee Co-Chairs Resign from Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund

3 Leaders Quit Effort To Aid Gulf Churches

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006
The two most prominent members of an interfaith committee set up to distribute $20 million to churches affected by Hurricane Katrina abruptly resigned in recent days, saying their grant-making decisions were being undermined by the directors of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. William H. Gray III, co-chairs of Interfaith Advisory Committee, submitted their resignations late last week. Another committee member, the Rev. William J. Shaw, said by telephone that he resigned over the weekend; he declined to comment further.

Gray said board directors and staff members of the Katrina Fund -- established by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- would agree with the committee's recommendations in meetings and then do the opposite. He said that he, Jakes and Shaw resigned when the staff sent $35,000 to a church without their knowledge, then refused to explain why. That particular church had not been inspected to determine its need, Gray said.

To read more, click here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New Books on Katrina and Its Aftermath

Here is an overview of the growing deluge of books on Katrina, by Jason Berry for NPR's "All Things Considered":
Now I am engulfed by the first tide of Katrina books. If you watched that disaster-coverage on television, you may wonder, "What's to know that we didn't see?"

A lot, in fact. About global warming, how cities live or die, the science of levees and stunning human dramas to shape our memory of the flood.

Two of the books reviewed by Berry are New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Jed Horne's Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, and Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Also, on today's Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Jed Horne about his book.

Terry Gross's May 10 interview with author Douglas Brinkley is here.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Take Action on Toxic Sediments in New Orleans

From Amnesty International USA's Action Center:
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 22 million tons of toxic sediment contamination and mold present serious health concerns for residents of New Orleans. Urge the EPA to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that News Orleans is safe and the public is protected from harmful environmental conditions created by the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Testing shows that the soil is contaminated with pesticides, arsenic, lead, industrial waste, and other cancer-causing chemicals. Without decisive action by the EPA, people will be at risk for serious and chronic health problems. Particular attention must be paid to low-income communities and communities of color, which are often situated near toxic industrial sites, and therefore suffer the greatest contamination.

Urge the EPA to meet their obligation to protect the people of New Orleans.
Environmental Justice for New Orleans
Environmental groups are sounding the alarm about the toxic chemical contamination in sediment and soil left in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The hurricanes created 22 million tons of toxic debris, now dispersed throughout Greater New Orleans. Insufficient action has been taken to clean up the toxic contamination. No decision has been made as to whether there will ever be a coordinated government effort to rid storm ravaged communities of toxic substances.

To read more about the Struggle for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, and how you can help to support it, read more here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Improving the Social Safety Net Before the Next Disaster

From the Urban Institute:
WASHINGTON, D.C., June 27, 2006--The structural complexity and inadequate benefits of four essential government programs made it hard for them to respond quickly and effectively to the deep-seated needs of people harmed by Hurricane Katrina, says a new Urban Institute study.

Katrina's scale and severity tested the intergovernmental funding arrangements, eligibility guidelines, and benefit standards at the heart of housing assistance, unemployment compensation, health care, and cash support programs. The storm's aftermath raised unsettling questions about whether these programs could reach storm-wracked residents of the Gulf Coast swiftly and fairly, and about state and local governments' incentives to address
victims' needs.

"Federalism after Hurricane Katrina: How Can Social Programs Respond to a Major Disaster?" explores the programs' responses to Hurricane Katrina, describes pre-disaster operations, specifies what made Katrina so hard to handle, and recommends better ways to respond to disaster in the future.
This paper is available here, and is part of the Urban Institute's After Katrina research series (

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Depression & Suicide Epidemic in New Orleans, Due to Collapse of Mental Health System

While the President and Congress continue to fail to respond adequately to the worsening public health emergency in New Orleans, as SUSAN SAULNY reported in a front-page article in yesterday's (June 21) New York Times,
New Orleans is experiencing what appears to be a near epidemic of depression and post-traumatic stress disorders, one that mental health experts say is of an intensity rarely seen in this country. It is contributing to a suicide rate that state and local officials describe as close to triple what it was before Hurricane Katrina struck and the levees broke 10 months ago.

Compounding the challenge, the local mental health system has suffered a near total collapse, heaping a great deal of the work to be done with emotionally disturbed residents onto the Police Department and people like Sergeant Glaudi, who has sharp crisis management skills but no medical background. He says his unit handles 150 to 180 such distress calls a month.

Cities and the Health of the Public: New Book

The essays commissioned for CITIES AND THE HEALTH OF THE PUBLIC (Vanderbilt University Press, to be published July 21, 2006) analyze the impact of city living on health, focusing primarily on conditions in the United States. With 16 chapters by 24 internationally recognized experts, the book introduces an ecological approach to the study of the health of urban populations.

For the Table of Contents and a sample chapter, click here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Katrina Overview

For Review of the New Orleans Picayune's coverage of Katrina's aftermath, and a great animated map of how the city flooded, click here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

After Katrina: Building a Better Public Health System for the Future

June 9, 2006, 2:00 - 3:00 pm ET

As a follow-up to its previous March 31, 2006 Public Health Grand Rounds session, the UNC School of Public Health and the CDC are hosted their second National Satellite Broadcast & Webcast on June 9.
Ensuring access to primary care, promoting healthy behaviors, and designing healthy neighborhoods are among the goals that will contribute to the framework for a healthier Greater New Orleans. Community leaders representing all sectors from private businesses to non-profits to government agencies have claimed a stake in achieving these goals. The challenges they face include funding, coordination with other planning efforts, gaining support from stakeholders, and the uncertainty of repopulation.

The Public's Stake in Health Emergency Planning

On Tuesday this week in Washington DC, a joint U.S.-Canadian summit titled Disease, Disaster and Democracy: The public’s stake in health emergency planning was hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity in collaboration with the Canadian Policy Research Network; The Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a U.S. Department of Homeland Security University Center of Excellence.
The purpose of the summit was to advise government, public health and disaster management leaders on the feasibility and benefits of actively engaging citizens in planning for large-scale health emergencies, in anticipation of the ethical dilemmas posed by a scarcity of life-saving medical resources and the logistical difficulties of protecting the well and caring for the sick in large numbers.
The keynote address on "Why the Public’s Trust and Help Matter in Health Emergencies" was delivered by Dr. D.A. Henderson, of the Center for Biosecurity and former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

The panel sessions that followed outlined the benefits to government of citizen engagement along with an inside look at current citizen engagement programs, by representatives from the U.S. and Canadian government organizations, and grassroots and faith-based organizations.

Afternoon roundtable exercises focused on pandemic flu, specifically addressing the issues of determining which populations would receive the flu vaccine and the healthcare system’s capacity to manage the sick and the healthy, while maintaining essential medical services. Participants in roundtable discussions included representatives from federal, state and city U.S. government, Canadian government, voluntary and humanitarian relief organizations, hospital administration, community organizations and businesses.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Help Keep Louisiana's Gov from Selling Out Displaced Citizens

Click on the image to view full-size poster ad developed by

You can learn more about the efforts of Color of Change to support Louisiana's displaced citizens here.

To support satellite voting, and to keep the Government of Louisiana from disfranchising its displaced citizens, call Governor Blanco at 866-366-1121.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Save Charity Hospital! Health Care Catastrophe in New Orleans

From New Orleans IndyMedia:

On March 25, 2006, community members, doctors, residents, medical students, nurses, hospital employees, politicians, and political activists rallied outside of New Orleans’ Charity Hospital to protest the closure of this esteemed public institution. Considered the oldest continuously running public hospital in the country, Charity has cared for thousands of members of the New Orleans community for two centuries. These New Orleans residents are now largely without access to healthcare and have been forced to rely entirely on understaffed emergency rooms for basic health needs, such as monthly prescriptions and routine medical complaints. This shift has caused a healthcare catastrophe in the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Democracy Now Being Denied to Displaced New Orleanians

This Democracy Now! broadcast from April 10 provides good overview of what Displaced New Orleanians are thinking about the upcoming New Orleans elections....

What's Wrong With this Voting Picture?

Compare the NY Times map from Oct. 2, 2005, which indicates the total number of evacuees in states outside Louisiana (more than 700,000) with the recent New Orleans Times-Picayune map of the number of people who had requested absentee ballots by last Friday (less than 11,000), and you may ask, "What is wrong with this picture?" The states of Texas and Alabama received over 100,000 evacuees, yet only 3557 requests from Texas and a mere 315 from Alabama had been received by last Friday.

In the run-up to city elections that will determine the future of New Orleans, there are signs that New Orleans evacuees may be subject to a virtual disfranchisement of gigantic proportions. With less than two weeks remaining before the election on April 22, records available at indicate that less than 15,000 of the more than 500,000 evacuees scattered across the country have requested absentee ballots.

As has written, "Everyone watching knows what will happen if elections go forward without a change" in this situation: "the Black vote will be suppressed and the ability for Black New Orleanians to claim their future [will be] compromised. During Iraq's election, the U.S. government provided polling places in U.S. cities with large numbers of Iraqi-Americans. Why won't it do the same for thousands of mostly Black displaced New Orleanians?"

If you think there's something wrong with this picture, there is something you can do: Sign this petition to Governor Blanco, and demand satellite voting for the citizens of the New Orleans diaspora:

Setting up satellite voting centers outside the State of Louisiana in areas with large numbers of displaced residents is a reasonable, effective way to improve their access to voting rights. Please make your voice heard, and help to ensure that all New Orleanians have equal access to voting and being involved in determining the future of their city.

In addition to signing the petition above, please Call Gov. Blanco's office at (866)-366-1121, (225)-342-0991, or (225)-342-7015. Tell the person who answers that you're calling on Governor Blanco to provide satellite voting centers for displaced New Orleanians outside the State of Louisiana, even if it means postponing the April 22nd election.

Monday, April 10, 2006

9th Ward ACORN Community Forum Draws 250 Residents

On March 26th, 250 residents of the 9th Ward in New Orleans participated in a community planning meeting co-sponsored by the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning, the Louisiana State University School of Architecture, and State Representative Charmaine Marchand.

Residents came to register their intent to return and to voice their concerns about rebuilding. During the day, residents formed committees to work on rebuilding plans, and they met directly with planners and other residents about community needs.

Also present were City Council member Cynthia Lewis and City Council President Oliver Thomas, who both committed to authoring a city ordinance making it law for anyone with a city contract to pay a living wage.

In addition to discussing the future, 9th Ward residents documented their stories and contributed to the design of a memory map to record pre-Katrina 9th Ward neighborhood characteristics and experiences. An Information Center provided updates and assisted residents in local support services, and ACORN tax preparers were on hand to prepare taxes for free while residents participated in the meetings and workshops.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Who is Killing New Orleans?

Mike Davis has written an excellent essay with this title, published in the April 10 edition of The Nation. This essay examines the politics of power interfering with recovery efforts in New Orleans. Check it out!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Hurricane Katrina Accountability and Contracting Reform Act (H.R. 3838)

The Hurricane Katrina Accountability and Contracting Reform Act (H.R. 3838)

A bill to create an anti-fraud commission to prevent wasteful spending, to ban abusive contracting practices, and to increase contracting transparency. This commission would help ensure that the government money going to relief efforts actually goes to relief efforts. The GAO and The Washington Post have already reported severe money mismanagement, and it seems it would be in the best interests of the Gulf Coast if this stopped.

Who to call: Rep. Candice S. Miller (10th District, MI)
Phone: (202) 225-6465

What to say: 1. This bill is critical to the speedy recovery of the Gulf Coast.
2. No action has been taken on this bill since September, 2005. 3. As a concerned citizen of Michigan, I would like to see the House take action to approve this bill immediately.

Grassley-Baucus Emergency Health Care Relief Package (S.1716)

--Key Legislation and Contact Information, Courtesy of Students at the UNC School of Public Health

The Grassley-Baucus Emergency Health Care Relief Package (S.1716)

This legislation would provide Katrina survivors with health coverage wherever they are now located. A simplified eligibility and enrollment process would be created to enroll people from federal disaster counties in Mississippi and Alabama and federal disaster parishes in Louisiana into Medicaid. It would also extend to people who live elsewhere in the affected states who have lost their jobs since Hurricane Katrina. This coverage would encompass everyone with income below the poverty level, pregnant women and children with income up to twice the poverty level. Once enrolled, Katrina survivors who are located in other states would receive Medicaid as though they were Medicaid enrollees in that state. This means no new systems or rules for health care providers or states. The federal government would pay all of the cost of providing Medicaid to covered Katrina survivors in any state in which they are enrolled. This would continue for five months with a potential five month extension. The federal government would pay the full cost of Medicaid coverage for all residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama through December 2006. In addition, the proposal would ensure that no state would experience a decrease in its federal matching rate in 2006. A new, federally administered Disaster Relief Fund would offset uncompensated care costs that health care providers have incurred caring for Katrina survivors.

Who to call: Sen. Carl Levin (MI)
Phone: (202) 224-6221

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI)
Phone: (202) 224-4822

What to say: 1. This bill is critical to the health and well-being of Katrina survivors.
2. No action has been taken on this bill since September, 2005.
3. As a concerned citizen of Michigan, I would like to see the Senate take action to approve this bill immediately.

Friday, March 31, 2006

UNC Webcast: Lessons from Katrina on Emergency Preparedness and Response

"Learning from Katrina: Tough Lessons in Preparedness and Emergency Response"

As part of the CDC and UNC School of Public Health's "Public Health Grand Rounds" series of public webcasts, today's program was especially valuable for providing perspective on the public health response to Katrina, as viewed by the public health and hospital officials who were directly involved in coordinating the local and state public health response in Louisiana. This webcast features brief interview segments with six members of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, as well as representatives from the Louisiana Hospital Association, the Louisiana Public Health Institute, and the New Orleans Health Department.

Overall, this program is especially valuable for stressing the need for forms of local planning and preparedness training that build strong relationships and patterns of behavior among local first responders as a foundation for effective communication and coordination of improvised and creative responses to the unexpected aspects of any disaster.

As posted on the website, the six "Objectives" of today's program were to:

1. Describe three communication problems that challenged the Katrina disaster response.
2. Identify three concerns in evacuating vulnerable populations from a disaster area.
3. Describe two strategies to prevent infectious disease outbreaks.
4. Describe the public health response when hospital systems are overwhelmed. 5. Describe two factors that impacted coordination between federal, state, and local public health partners.
6. Discuss the need to anticipate behavioral reactions to a disaster.

The UNC Public Health Grand Rounds website makes this webcast available for viewing, and for the next week until April 7 also has an on-line Post-Program Discussion Forum available for addressing questions raised by the program.

The next Public Health Grand Rounds Program is scheduled for June 9 and will be a follow-up to today's program, and is titled "After Katrina: Building a Better Public Health System for the Future."

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Writer Walter Mosley recently published a short book that challenges all Americans to quit being satisfied with the limited options offered by our two dominant political parties. Life out of Context offers a "Proposal for the Non-violent Takeover of the House of Representatives" that should be read by every citizen concerned about what is and is not happening to support the Gulf Coast, the evacuees, and the next victims of our current government's strategic policy of neglect.

Mosley concludes with these words:
Economic globalism has pressed many lives out of context. It's about time we push back.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What Will It Take?: Seven Months After, and Still Waiting....

Today's front-page article in the New York Times, "Evacuees' Lives Still Upended Seven Months After Hurricane: Burdens and Frustration Linger," only further emphasizes the many reasons people across this country need to be organizing in new and dramatic ways to demand more adequate government support for evacuees and the community organizations and people of the Gulf Coast who continue to suffer from insufficient resources and support seven months after Katrina.

The President has made clear that he would rather continue to support tax cuts for the wealthy and an indefinitely extended war in Iraq, than adequately support the needs of the citizens of this country. If anything is to change, concerned citizens across this country need to organize in dramatic new ways to demand greater government accountability and response at all levels.

Why haven't there been major protests in front of the White House, and in cities across the nation, to castigate the immorality and unaccountability of a federal government that is willing to continue to invest billions of our tax dollars in a failed strategy in Iraq, while the citizens of this country are not being adequately served? Why aren't Washington politicians getting harried by a perpetual barrage of letters, emails, and phone calls from angry constituents demanding major changes of government policy to provide more robust support for Gulf Coast recovery?

Why could President Bush at his Washington press briefing yesterday get away with laughing and joking with the press, without being called repeatedly and persistently to account for the terrible moral wrongs of an executive policy more dedicated to providing tax cuts to the wealthy than to supporting decent health care and housing for the citizens of the Gulf Coast scattered across this country?

Where are the moral and political outrage required to demand a fundamental change in this administration's policy priorities?

Are the people and press of this country sleepwalking through the history of the present? Would the press rather brown-nose and laugh with this President than risk this President's displeasure by demanding that his administration change its policy priorities to serve the citizens of this country most in need?

If the continuing disastrous failure of response (of government, press, and policy) after Katrina is not enough to rouse the citizens of this nation to call for fundamental changes in this administration's priorities, what else will it take? Another Katrina, or worse?

The change that is needed will not wait until the next Presidential election. This year's congressional elections can be part of a change strategy, but even these elections are still 7 months in the future.

The citizens of the Gulf Coast need and deserve greater support from their/our government NOW, not seven months from now. The pressing question is: What will the citizens of this country do NOW to make sure our fellow citizens get the support they need?

Nothing much will change unless every one of the politicians up for reelection in November is clearly put on notice that he/she will not be reelected unless we begin to see major changes in policy priorities.

While the evacuees and residents of the Gulf Coast continue to suffer, no politician should feel secure about reelection.

So long as the evacuees are insecure, no politician should rest secure in office.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Future National Preparedness at Stake

According to the Associated Press, Senator Lieberman said that "nothing less than the future preparedness of our nation to respond to a terrorist attack or another catastrophic natural disaster is at stake" in what we learn from our failures post-Katrina.

That "Future" will be here within three months when the next hurricane season arrives--

Meanwhile, Congress is still busy writing reports. While The U.S. House of Reps. released its Katrina report A Failure of Initiative on February 15, the Senate committee on Katrina is only now beginning to wrap up its "investigation" into the failed planning and response to the hurricane. What will the Senate report be titled?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rationale for Community-Based Participatory Process of Disaster Recovery

The Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado has produced an excellent resource on Holistic Disaster Recovery for use by all citizens, community-based organizations, and government leaders interested in Building Local Sustainability After a Natural Disaster. This publication gives explicit attention to:

--Engaging Participatory Processes in Disaster Recovery, with emphasis on:
--Using Disaster Recovery to Maintain and Enhance Quality of Life
--Building Economic Vitality into Recovery
--Promoting Social and Intergenerational Equity During Disaster Recovery, and
--Protecting Environmental Quality During Disaster Recovery.

IF WE FORGET or Turn Away...

Michael Eric Dyson concludes his book Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster with the following warning:

The only way Katrina can be kept from becoming a passing moment of self-reflection along the national path to even more carnage is if we continue to tell the truth about poverty, race, class, environment, government, the media, and our culture. Memory warfare pits us against the forces of cultural, racial, and class amnesia.... If we forget, then poor people of color become little more than fodder for the imperial imagination of a nation that has exploited them and thrown them away. God forbid we count ourselves in that number (p. 212).

Louisiana's Coastal Tribes Appeal for Help

Louisiana's Coastal Tribes have been calling for aid ever since the devastation of six months ago, but have been receiving little help. See the website of Four Directions Solidarity Network--

Oxfam Report: Recovering States? The Gulf Coast Six Months After the Storm

According to a new report by Oxfam America titled Recovering States? The Gulf Coast Six Months After the Storm, state and federal agencies are continuing to neglect poor communities six months after Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 800,000 people from their homes:

"Despite critical reports and investigative hearings of government failures, despite the flurry of commitments to confront poverty in the U.S.--six months after Katrina, little has changed," said Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America's Regional Office. "It's unconscionable that the same vulnerable people abandoned in the height of the storm could again be neglected in the recovery. There are still thousands of people who don’t have a place to live and don’t have answers to the most basic questions about their futures in the Gulf Coast."

Rebuilding New Orleans

New Orleans residents are not waiting for help from a delinquent federal government to begin the work of rebuilding. Residents of many neighborhoods are meeting to discuss their needs and plan their next steps in the stuggle to rebuild their lives and homes....

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

So What Can We Do?

What can the PHAST students of the School of Public Health do now to begin to build sustainable working relationships upon our one-week experience in the Gulf Coast? What can we do to make sure that our brief trip to the Coast becomes the basis for providing sustainable assistance to the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast calling out for assistance from the rest of the country?

In New Orleans we met some of the wonderful people who are trying to save and rebuild this city, in spite of all the challenges they face, and the slow and largely inadequate governmental response on all levels--local, state, and federal. We met and talked with Dr. Mary Abell of the St. Thomas Clinic, Kimberly Richards of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, and Adam Becker of the Louisiana Public Health Institute. But we also met with local citizens who shared with us their rich stories of survival and struggle. (I will note some of these stories in future entries).

One clear thing I learned from my time in New Orleans is that since government has been so slow and inadequate in fulfilling its responsibilities to support and assist all citizens in their rebuilding efforts, it has been the work of citizens and community organizations that has made it possible for New Orleanians to nurture the hope that the city can rebuild, and do so in a way that addresses the racial and class inequities that have plagued its past, continue to plague its present, and threaten its future.

You need only compare the rebuilding efforts going on in the white or wealthy areas of the city with the relative lack of attention to the hardest hit black portions of the city (especially the ninth ward) to note the tremendous disparities and inequities evident in the current rebuilding effort. Parts of the lower ninth ward look like they have not been touched since the flood waters burst through the industrial canal in August 2005. Decimated houses still sit astride the same streets into which the flood waters moved them over six months ago.

If the rebuilding of New Orleans is to occur in ways that address class and racial inequities, instead of preserving or aggravating them, there is much citizens of the rest of the country need to do to insure that the people and organizations of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast get the resources they need for a just and equitable rebuilding. As students of the UM School of Public Health, we can participate in this process over the weeks ahead by helping our School and University begin to build the kind of sustainable relationships with the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast that will support equitable rebuilding efforts.

As individuals alone, each of us may be at risk of feeling overwhelmed by what we witnessed, and feel frustrated about how little we can do to address the great needs of the region. But if we work together, we can each contribute something positive to the work of rebuilding by uniting our individual efforts--however small they may seem--to help our School and University develop the kind of sustainable relationships that will support the work of the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast dedicated to a just and sustainable future for all the people of the region. This is, at least, what I hope PHAST and other interested students at the School of Public Health will begin to work toward in the busy short weeks ahead before the end of the term.

A Disaster of Government and Citizenship?

I reacted to what I witnessed on the TV screen after Katrina with a deep sense of betrayal because I recognized that the deaths we were witnessing were not the result of any natural disaster, but a disaster of our own making--a disaster of government stemming from a long-developing failure of policy vision and policymaking--a disaster stemming from a fundamental failure of citizenship by all Americans. For me, the voices of the people abandoned to death or hunger after Katrina screamed of the failures of policy and political vision that had been preparing this disaster for many long years, and that will continue to prepare many disasters to come until we, as citizens, change this country's policy of wilful blindness and neglect toward the poor and uninsured.

I take our current and ongoing failures of government initiative personally because I know we can do better, in this culturally and materially wealthy country, than this. We not only can do better, we must do better--if we want a future for this country that will be worthy of what the citizens of this country have to offer each other and the rest of the world.

As I prepare to head to New Orleans tomorrow, I've begun to read Michael Eric Dyson's new book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Dyson begins by discussing the long history of our nation's blindness to the structural politics of race and class, along with the short-sighted practices of policymaking, that long before August 2005 paved the way for the failures of response to Katrina (which continue six months later).

Most valuable in Dyson's opening chapter "Unnatural Disasters" is his move to look beyond the immediate failures of government to the failures of citizenship and civic responsibility that made the response and policy failures not only possible, but inevitable. Dyson underlines the naivete of the majority of white middle-class and wealthy Americans who were surprised to see their government leave behind the most vulnerable poor and black citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi, and he indicts a culture of "blissful ignorance" that keeps so many Americans "deliberately naive about the poor while dodging the responsibility that knowledge of their lives would entail."

And Dyson quickly moves to the heart of the matter when he underlines the blissful escape from responsibility embodied in the framing of what happened to the Gulf Coast six months ago as a "natural disaster." When we frame what has happened to a million of our fellow citizens over the last six months as the result of a natural disaster, we can be angry about what happened without feeling responsible for what happened:

"We are thus able to decry the circumstances of the poor while assuring ourselves that we had nothing to do with their plight. . . . We are fine as long as we place time limits on the origins of the poor's plight--the moments we all spied on television after the storm, but not the numbing years during which we all looked the other way. But we fail to confront our complicity in their long-term suffering. By being outraged, we appear compassionate. This permits us to continue to ignore the true roots of their condition, roots that branch into our worlds and are nourished on our political and religious beliefs" (4).

Dyson then moves immediately to restating a basic fact: "There are 37 million people in poverty in our nation, 1.1 million of whom fell below the poverty line in 2004."

Meanwhile, as we all know, our federal government has dedicated itself for more than four years now to enriching the wealthiest among us with tax cuts, while cutting what little remains of the social safety net of government programs that were created once upon a time when the citizens of this country still understood what it meant to use government as a common instrument for helping all Americans to share with each other the responsibilities and privileges of being citizens.

As I have watched the political game of failure and blame play itself out over the last six months in Washington, my long-developing fears and despair about the future of this country have only been compounded. I fear we now live in a country where the most advantaged individuals, who have gained the most from living and doing business in this country, no longer feel they owe any duty or responsibility to either their fellow citizens, or the social infrastructure (which includes public health), that has made their success and wealth possible. Why else would they accept increasing tax cuts while the least advantaged of their fellow citizens go without health care and fight their wars overseas? And based on the way those with the most power in our society and government have been devoting ever-increasing fractions of the tax dollars some of us pay (along with the lives or our fellow citizens) to fighting wars overseas while ignoring the poverty and suffering that increases among our own fellow citizens, I have lost faith in our current national "leadership" (of both parties).

My only hope (and this is why I am going to New Orleans this week) in the future of this country is that we can learn from each other as citizens to allow Katrina to teach us all to be citizens of a common country. 9/11, for all its trauma, and for all the media-inspired celebrations of patriotism that followed, apparently failed to do this. Otherwise we would not be allowing our government leaders to continue to abandon our fellow citizens as we have been since 9/11. While near 3000 died that day, how many more of our citizens have died since then of poverty and lack of access to proper health care treatment? How many more have died from despair at watching their government leaders talk of promoting democracy in the rest of the world while the most basic of human services are denied them at home?

And by abandoning our fellow citizens, I mean not just those from the Gulf Coast, but those 37 million in poverty (including the 1.1 million new poor in 2004), and the 46 million of our fellow citizens without health insurance, all over this country, who are suffering because of a national policy of wilful neglect and failure. Until we all, as citizens of this country, take responsibility for summoning the collective will to create a government and a policy structure worthy of the people of the United States, I will continue to live in despair of this country's future--for the poverty of other Americans is my poverty. Until we begin as a nation to understand and feel the poverty of others as our own, we will not escape our current national state of spiritual impoverishment. And this spiritual impoverishment is already showing its very material hand.

For no matter how much American citizens like to criticize their government when it does badly, and take it for granted when it serves us well, our government and our policy are what we make of them, for better or worse for all of us. Our government's failures (at local, state, and federal levels) to serve the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens only underline our own failures as citizens to create the kind of government that will not leave our fellow citizens (us) behind in their (our) times of need--

And so I continue to take our ongoing failures of government policy and vision personally. We can do better, in this rich country, than this. We owe it to ourselves and to each other, as citizens, to make sure our government does better in the future. We owe it to ourselves and each other to join together as citizens to demand new political vision and new policy frameworks for addressing the suffering of our fellow citizens. And so I am going to New Orleans to learn from, and contribute to, what the citizens of New Orleans are already doing to rebuild and demand better of this country, and better from all of us.

And lest we make the mistake of thinking that doing better for the citizens of the Gulf Coast would demand that we all become selflessly noble and philanthropic, we need simply to remember that a country filled with increasing numbers of poor and impoverished people, without hope, and living in despair, can not long continue to be a prosperous and successful country on any level. We should demand of ourselves that we do better for the citizens of the Gulf Coast because one day we will depend on the citizens of the Gulf Coast to do their part to help the rest of us in our time of need. This is the meaning of citizenship in common.

The great Mississippi flood of 1927, and the government failures of response after it, preceded the Great Depression by only a few years. But the market, policy, and political failures that brought on the Depression were already firmly in place by 1927. One need only compare the economic policies of Coolidge during the 1920s to those of today to begin to see the much larger failure toward which we may be heading in an era which seems to think there is little reason to pay attention to the lessons the history of the past century of human market failure and war might have to teach us.

A country of people too self-involved to summon the collective will to demand that its government insure the health and well-being of ALL its citizens can hardly serve as a good model of democracy to the rest of the world. Such a country has only a poor future ahead of it. The future we help (or do not help) to build in the Gulf Coast will mirror the future we are building (or not) for the rest of the country. Perhaps the best way we can begin, as a people, to earn back the respect of the rest of the world for this country is to show that we can insure the well-being of our own fellow citizens, beginning with those on the Gulf Coast.