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A tale of two crises

Lebanon rebuilds, New Orleans waits

Published Aug 23, 2006 11:21 PM

In the Middle East, after a month of Israeli bombing, the people of Lebanon are digging themselves out from the rubble and struggling to return to their homes. In the United States, a full year after Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans are still fighting to do the same thing: return home.

It might seem odd to compare the two. After all, Lebanon is recovering from war, and New Orleans from a natural disaster and broken levees. But this is only the superficial story. A look at the New Orleans relief effort and its aftermath shows that poor people’s right to return home has become just as much a battle there as it is in Lebanon.

In the United States, the New Orleans relief effort was spearheaded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington’s disaster relief arm. In Lebanon it is being organized by Hezbollah, the grassroots Lebanese resistance movement that George W. Bush calls “terrorist.”

Which group would you want conducting a rescue effort if you lost your home? Let us see how the relief efforts compare.

The rescues

In New Orleans, the people who could not self-evacuate the city, including the sick and people too poor to afford cars, were left to their own devices when the waters rose. Many of the most vulnerable drowned in their homes.

The tens of thousands of old, sick and infirm people who the city encouraged to gather in the Superdome until the storm passed were left there for five days. They had no medical attention, no sanitation, little water and food. Many died. Some 3,000 other flood survivors stranded at the Convention Center suffered the same fate.

All day the television networks showed footage of people stranded on roofs waving hand-made “help me” signs, and others in the Superdome begging for water and medicine for dying seniors. Yet FEMA head Michael Brown said he didn’t realize the extent of the crisis until four days after the levees collapsed. Then he took another four days to rescue the survivors.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah, the force fighting and defending the villages, at the same time started helping the population as soon as the Israeli bombing began. The Leba nese resistance provided the ambulances and scores of searchers who pulled people from the rubble. They helped organize getting tens of thousands of refugees to schools, public parks and private homes. (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 16)

In Beirut alone, Hezbollah organized 10 mobile medical teams that cared for 14 schools each, in two-day rotations, helping 48,000 people. Another 70,000 were treated in houses by other professionals.

In a Hezbollah kitchen near downtown Beirut, volunteers prepared 8,000 hot meals a day—part of a daily total of 50,000 they distributed across Beirut, reported the Monitor.

In New Orleans, families evacuated from the Superdome and the Convention Center were scattered all over the country. Parents were sometimes separated from children. Some didn’t know if loved ones lived or died. Three months after Katrina hit, 6,500 people were still unaccounted for, and more than 400 bodies still unidentified, according to the National Center for Missing Adults.

In Lebanon, within 24 hours of the Aug. 14 cease-fire, Hezbollah had set up a hotline to help refugees, and so refugees could connect based on their place of residence, according to Lebanese TV. (www.foreignpolicy.com)

In the Superdome, bodies remained for four or five days in 100-degree heat. Relatives standing vigil were forced to abandon the remains during the evacuation, sometimes at gunpoint. Bodies were left in flood waters, many to be discovered by loved ones returning home months later. Evacuees who had lost everything could not afford to bury their dead with dignity. Grieving relatives sent to different states could offer each other little comfort.

After the cease-fire in Lebanon, finding and burying the dead with dignity became a priority. The resistance immediately began digging out bodies buried in the rubble and identifying them. Remains were held for burial until the family returned. Mass funerals were held, paid for by the resistance, so neighbors could comfort each other and lean on the communities’ strength. On Aug. 18, a caravan of cars made its way from one service to the next. Said Shiite cleric Sheik Shoue Qatoon, “It was decided that we would schedule the funerals so that we could all attend them all.” (AP, Aug. 19)

Scattered in hotels around the country, without jobs or sources of income, New Orleans refugees were offered by Washing ton a maximum of $2,000 per family to live on. That was enough for a hotel room for two weeks. Even then, the media launched a racist campaign claiming to expose “cheaters” who were “misusing” the tiny sum. In December, New Orleans’ displaced people were given 15 days to leave hotels, with no further provisions made for them.

The right to return

On Aug. 14, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he would give money for “decent and suitable furniture” and a year’s rent to any Lebanese who lost a home in the war. Beginning in the very poorest community of Dehiya south of Beirut, the resistance is distributing $12,000 per family, a huge sum in Lebanon where monthly rents average $300. (New York Times, Aug 16)

A year later after the New Orleans flood, “thousands of people are living amid ruins that stretch for miles on end. ... All you see is debris, debris, debris. ... The reminders of death are everywhere.”(New York Times, June 21)

Little to nothing has been done to rebuild the Ninth Ward. This majority African-American community is filled with rubble, coated with mud and mold. Advocates point out that much damage, such as advancing mold, could have been stopped if the area had been cleaned early on. Many residents would have gladly organized their own cleaning brigade, but they were banned entry for the first four months after the flood.

In Lebanon, on Aug 14, the very day of the cease-fire, while Israel was withdrawing its troops from Southern Lebanon, there were reports that hundreds of Hez bollah members spread over dozens of villages across southern Lebanon began cleaning, organizing and surveying the damage. Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble. Roads blocked with the remnants of buildings were, just a day after a cease-fire began, fully passable.

The actions of both the Bush administration and key corporations indicate a determination to stop the African-Americans of New Orleans from returning to their communities.

In September, the home insurance giant Allstate refused to reimburse New Orleans homeowners who had flood insurance policies.The company claimed the homes were destroyed by the wind, not by flood. (MarketWatch, Sept. 20, 2005)

In October, the Bush administration reneged on its promised to provide thousands of mobile homes as temporary housing for returning refugees. (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2005)

After promising New Orleans federal housing loans to repair and rebuild, it became apparent that no special loan provisions had been made for victims of the flood and that the White House was pushing for hurricane disaster-recovery loans at a higher rate than any other administration in the last 15 years. (USA Today, March15)

Regarding public housing, in a thinly veiled racist attack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in April that only the “best residents” should be allowed to return to public housing. (USA Today, April 25) And in June HUD, which had previously reported that it had 7,381 public apartments in New Orleans, now said it had only 2,000, and would demolish the rest.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, a Hezbollah spokes person announced, “We have full information on all the buildings that have been destroyed or damaged. … “we will either pay for new flats or rebuild the buildings that were destroyed.” (Aljazzera.net, Aug. 19)

Representatives of Jihad al-Binaa, Hezbollah’s construction arm, are touring the south to assess the damage and start repairing and rebuilding. (Beirut Daily Star Aug. 22)

And what of those who could not wait, but have returned home in the devastated areas of the south before essential repairs have been made and services restored?

“There are people from Hezbollah coming regularly to check on us and give us bread and other basic items,” said Mohammad Bazih, 30, from the village of Baakline. Residents of Zabqine, where tobacco is cultivated, told the press that Hezbollah was providing them with basic services. (Beirut Daily Star Aug. 22)