Eased Out of the Big Easy
by Jesse Jackson
October 4, 2005 in the Chicago Sun Times

After his administration's incompetence and indifference had lethal consequences in Katrina's wake, President Bush has been scrambling to regain his footing. He's called for an "unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis." In religious services at the National Cathedral, he called on America to "erase this legacy of racism" exposed by those abandoned in Katrina's wake. He's called on Congress to appropriate more than $60 billion in emergency relief and outlined a recovery program likely to cost up to $200 billion, or nearly as much as the Iraq War.

All this has led the press to compare his plans to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Don't fall for it. A close look at the Bush plan reveals that this is a bad deal from a deck stacked against the poor who suffered the most in Katrina's wake.

The first clue came from Bush's first act. He issued orders erasing the prevailing wage for work on rebuilding the Gulf, and his administration gave Halliburton a lucrative no-bid contract to begin the work. Then he designated Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana an enterprise zone, and, using emergency authority, waived all worker protections in the region — protections for equal employment, for minority contractors, for health and safety, for environmental protection.

We're learning that when Bush promised to remove the legacy of racism in New Orleans, he meant he'd remove the poor who were victims of that racism. Bush's secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, revealed that to the Houston Chronicle.

"Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time," the HUD secretary said. "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." Jackson predicted New Orleans will slowly draw back as many as 375,000 people, but that only 35 percent to 40 percent of the post-Katrina population would be black. (Before Katrina, New Orleans was two-thirds black.) "I'm telling you, as HUD secretary and having been a developer and a planner, that's how it's going to be." Jackson revealed that he advised Mayor Ray Nagin not to rebuild the overwhelmingly black 9th Ward.

The people of the 9th Ward are the maids and waiters who serve New Orleans tourists. They are the musicians who give the city its blues. They are the cops and government clerks who are struggling to bring the city back. Half of the houses there are owned, not rentals. Many of these workers are dispersed — dispatched to over 40 states. Many still are in shelters.

No one could figure out why the Bush administration wouldn't give the evacuees housing vouchers to rent housing in and around New Orleans. Instead, FEMA has ordered tens of thousands of trailers and is struggling to build trailer parks — Bushvilles — to shelve Katrina's victims.

Now we know. Bush's isn't planning urban renewal, he's planning urban removal. The administration has given the victims of Katrina a one-way ticket out with no plan for their return. Instead, the planners will turn New Orleans into a gentrified theme park. They'll rebuild the white communities — even those like middle-class Gentilly and wealthy Lakeview that are as prone to severe flooding as the 9th Ward.

Congress should insist that Katrina's victims have a right to return — and FEMA should develop a plan to make their return possible. They should have preference for the jobs that will be created in rebuilding the city. They should be provided vouchers to use for nearby housing. If necessary, local military bases should be opened, with public transportation to get them to and from work. They should be paid the prevailing wage, with decent health-care benefits. The people of the 9th Ward should decide the fate of their homes, not urban planners intent on building a New Orleans without its black people. If their neighborhoods are not rebuilt, then affordable and public housing should be built in other parts of New Orleans.

That's not what Alphonso Jackson and the administration are planning, so it will take street heat and congressional action to make them see the light. Katrina destroyed its victims' homes; we shouldn't let the administration make them exiles from their own city.

Copyright © 2005, Jesse Jackson

Copyright © 2005
Last Modified: October 5, 2005.
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