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New study asks

Who will New Orleans be rebuilt for?

Published Feb 4, 2006 7:44 PM

An important study released on Jan. 26 has confirmed what has been known for some time: the people most impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are African-American and/or indigent. “The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods” (www.s4.brown.edu/Katrina/report.pdf) is a 16-page study headed up by John R. Logan, a sociology professor and director of Spacial Structures in the Social Sciences at Brown University.

It raises important questions such as “Whose city will be rebuilt?” Most of the data for this study came from the 2000 U.S. Census and the federal government’s damage assessment maps.

One of the main conclusions of the study is that 80 percent of the Black population in New Orleans may not return, either because their homes will not be rebuilt, money to relocate them back to New Orleans is lacking, or they are deciding—or being forced—to stay in other cities.

The findings also show that upwards of 50 percent of working class whites might not return either. The bottom line is that if the local ruling class and local and state government officials get their way, New Orleans will be turned into a city catering overwhelmingly to affluent whites and big business.

Before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August and exposed compromised levees, 70 percent of the close to 487,000 residents of New Orleans were Black. The Jan. 26 study projects that the population could permanently lose 140,000, mainly Black, residents.

“The suffering from the storm certainly cut across racial and class lines,” said Logan. “But the odds of living in a damaged area were clearly much greater for blacks, residents who rented their homes, and poor people. In these respects, the most socially vulnerable residents also turned out to be most exposed to Katrina.”

The study offers statistics to substantiate its claims.

Those populating the damaged areas were nearly half Black—45.8 percent, compared to 26.4 percent in the undamaged areas. They lived in rental housing—45.7 percent compared to 30.9 percent. They disproportionately lived below the poverty line—20.9 percent compared to 15.3 percent. They were more likely to be unemployed—7.6 percent compared to 6.0 percent.

The politically appointed Bring New Orleans Back Commission recently proposed a four-month moratorium on rebuilding in the most damaged, poor areas. This has served to discourage residents from moving back to their neighborhoods.

Congress passed a $29 billion aid package in December on top of the $66 billion emergency bill passed last September for the Gulf region. It is to be shared by Mississippi and Louisiana, and amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to the real needs. By contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by the U.S. government on the war and occupation of Iraq.

Housing crisis intensifies

Right now, an estimated 25,000 families are staying in FEMA-sponsored hotel rooms, the majority in Texas and Louisiana. FEMA is planning to cut off payments for these rooms in early February, which will deepen an already major catastrophe for the evacuees. In New Orleans, Katrina evacuees are now being evicted from hotels to make room for tourists coming to Mardi Gras, which begins in mid-February.

Both FEMA and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are attempting to drive a wedge between Katrina evacuees and long-time residents of Baton Rouge by driving up housing and rental prices. Baton Rouge was already in the throes of a housing shortage before Katrina hit and now landlords and the government are thirsting to make more profits off the misery this disaster has created.

When current one-year leases expire, increases in rental and housing prices that are beyond the means of these residents will automatically go into effect. Homeless shelters and food pantries in Baton Rouge and elsewhere are finding it harder and harder to meet the demands that the Katrina disaster and government negligence have caused.

New Orleans activists, many of them housing advocates, are organizing a campaign against Home Depot and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which comes under the auspices of HUD. HANO signed a lease with Home Depot allowing the multi-billion-dollar company to take over six acres of vacant land, which had been used as a site for FEMA trailers and long-term housing for Katrina residents.

According to the New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NOHEAT), this lease violates the promise made by city officials to use all available land for temporary housing for Katrina survivors. Home Depot has already created a temporary building supply store, along with a large tent, with the long-term goal of building another permanent store there. Because the lease lasts 364 days, Home Depot is not legally obligated to call a public hearing—a requirement when leases are for 365 days or longer.

Less than 1,000 of the 9,000 residents with section 8 vouchers have been able to find low-cost housing in New Orleans.

This important study, along with the day-to-day developments surrounding the on-going plight of the Katrina survivors, not only continues to expose that racism and poverty exist inside the U.S. but also that the struggle for real justice in the Gulf Coast region and elsewhere is primary.