Multinational Monitor

SEP/OCT 2005
VOL 26 No. 9


The Storm This Time: A Personal Account of the Natural and Unnatural Disaster in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
by David Helvarg

Disaster Profiteering: The Flood of Crony Contracting Following Hurricane Katrina
by Charlie Cray

Between Soldiers and Bombs: Iraq's Fledgling Labor Movement
by David Bacon

Takeover Inn Argentina: Argentina's Worker-Run Cooperative Movement
by Aaron Freeman


The Human Engineering of Catastrophe: Coastal Maldevelopment and Katrina's Wrath
An Interview with Mark Davis

The Soul of New Orleans: Asseting Rights of Low- and Moderate-Income Families in Hurricane Reconstruction
An Interview with Tanya Harris

Restoring the Gulf: An Ecological Agenda
An Interview with Cynthia Sarthou


Behind the Lines

Exploiting Disaster

The Front
Fake Debarment

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


The Soul of New Orleans: Asseting Rights of Low- and Moderate-Income Families in Hurricane Reconstruction

An Interview with Tanya Harris

Tanya Harris is a displaced resident of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and a staff member of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families. ACORN is based in New Orleans. Harris is helping organize the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association, which has the aim of asserting the rights of low- and moderate-income families in New Orleans reconstruction.

Multinational Monitor: How did you get connected with ACORN?

Tanya Harris: I’m from the Lower Ninth chapter of ACORN. My mother has been a member since 1982, and therefore we’ve been a member family since 1982.

We have done quite a bit of work in the Lower Ninth Ward. My mom has been ill lately — actually she had brain surgery in June — but we’ve been quite active in trying to get a lot of services into the Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth is cut off from the city by the Industrial Canal, but we are separated in a lot of different ways. We almost seem to be a little bit forgotten. So we’ve had to fight a long time to get simple services.

When Katrina hit, my family and I evacuated. We were on the road and got a text message from a young lady at ACORN, saying: this is ACORN, where are you, can we help? Yeah, you sure can! And so before we even really got settled into the shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana, I put my bags down, and came straight to Baton Rouge. ACORN staff said, “Our people need to be located, let’s find our people first.” I started to help them and text message the members we had cell phone numbers for. From that point on, I’ve just been trying my best to make sure that we have an organized group and that the message gets out there and our demands are presented to the powers that be.

MM: Two months after Hurricane Katrina, are displaced families reconnected or are people still isolated and disoriented?

Harris: A lot of people have reconnected. That’s one of our goals — to make sure that we not only reconnect the families, but that we reconnect communities. A lot of people have reconnected, which is wonderful, and many have done that through ACORN.

To take one example, one member, an older man — I don’t think he was together as far as his mental capacities — was looking for his sister. His sister was looking for him, and we were instrumental in getting them back together.

People are connecting and they are also reconnecting to New Orleans. When this first happened, a lot of people were very upset, and said, “Oh, I may not be back.” But now as time is passing, people miss home — just like I miss home. They don’t just want to pick up and go somewhere else, they want to go back home — that’s what’s in their soul. I know someone who said, you know, you can’t get a po-boy [a New Orleans sandwich] at the corner store in Utah. People miss the little things that we take for granted on a daily basis.

It’s the same story that I keep hearing over and over: people get to a new place, it’s very wonderful and clean, there are jobs, the housing is nice. Then all of a sudden, after the shock of everything wears off, it dawns on them that this place could never be home. New Orleans is a very unique place, for a lot of different reasons, and people miss it.

Now people are calling, asking when the city is going to be opened up again. So I think people will eventually come back. My grandmother always tells a story that when Hurricane Betsy happened in 1965, most of the residents on the block said, “I’m not coming back, why would I come back to this?” But most of those people did come back. Not only did they come back, their kids built houses in the area. New Orleans draws you back in.

MM: What kind of treatment are people receiving from FEMA?

Harris: A lot of people are very dissatisfied. I spoke yesterday to an older lady, an ACORN member, in Georgia. She said, “Well, I’m at the FEMA office, and I think I’m going to go to jail today.” She was that frustrated, she was very serious; her voice didn’t even falter.

A lot of people are having a lot of complicated issues getting assistance. We’re trying to help people with Red Cross applications, and getting in contact with FEMA. But there are a lot of people who have had a lot of problems getting assistance, and they have nothing, so these are people who really, really need it.

MM: What is the Katrina Survivors Association?

Harris: The ACORN Katrina Survivors Association consists of about 2,000 New Orleans residents who are displaced around the country. We have a specific agenda, a specific set of demands. The first demand is that we must have a voice in the whole rebuilding process. We feel that the communities, the people, have been left out of the rebuilding process for New Orleans. We want a voice, we want to sit at the table.

We are organizing a housing conference, to give a voice to the residents, to the community, and to put them in contact with city planners and architects, and people who are in the business of rebuilding. They can give us a sense of what’s going on as far as the process is concerned, and also hear our input.

The ACORN Katrina Survivors Association is also prioritizing living wage jobs for our people. Even when we started organizing in shelters, the first thing people said was, “What do I do for a job?”

People began to see contracts given out before the city had finished draining. And then the President suspended Davis-Bacon [the law requiring federal contractors pay the “prevailing wage” in a locality]. People who are displaced and jobless looked around and said, “You mean to tell me that out-of-state companies are getting these contracts?” Making sure that people have jobs with a living wage is a priority.

Housing is an issue. People are concerned about whether or not they’ll be able to live in the city of New Orleans, whether they will be economically shut out, whether they will be able to return.

I think low-to-moderate income families are being discouraged from coming back to the city, honestly.

Trailer parks are being put up all around Louisiana, but not in the city of New Orleans, as far as the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association knows, and we’re wondering why not. If somebody is a homeowner, and they have a place on their property for a trailer, and there is a water and electricity hook-up there, why aren’t people being offered trailers to go back to live in the city, on their property?

Even homeowners, if they are low-to-moderate income, don’t feel like they’re warming up to us and saying come on back, we want you back. The attitude is more, “Stay where you are until we do what we have to do, and set this up the way we want it; and then, if you can afford to come back, you can.”

That’s the mentality we’re bucking up against. We are demanding the right of return.

I’m a Lower Ninth resident, as is most of my family. To this day I have not opened my door. I don’t even have the right to go onto my property. Two months after Katrina hit, we’re concerned as to why it is that we can’t go onto our property. I can’t even walk in there with a contractor, or a civil engineer to tell me if I can safely go into my house.

St. Bernard Parish was as damaged as the Lower Ninth, if not more because they had an oil spill in St. Bernard Parish. Destruction was great in that area, but these people are allowed to go in; while we don’t have the right even to access our own property. This is a problem for a lot of people. This is a problem for me personally.

I couldn’t tell you what’s salvageable in my home. I couldn’t tell you what it looks like on the inside; I have no idea. I know it’s a brick structure and it is still standing — that’s it.

MM: What’s been the role of local New Orleans people in the clean-up work that’s been going on so far?

Harris: When I lived in a shelter, every morning a bus would come for workers who wanted to clean up in the city. Now at this point, the city was telling us that we could not return as citizens to survey our property because the city was teeming with germs, and the contaminants were just everywhere. However, they would take shelter residents, people who they knew were desperate for work, who were not getting anything in the form of assistance from FEMA or anything else, and bring them into the city. As far as I know, they did not take all that many protective measures with these people.

I returned to the city two weeks after Katrina, and I saw a lot of Hispanic, probably Mexican, workers, and I didn’t see anyone with a hazmat suit or whatever. I saw only a few people with masks on. So there has been a concern about the clean up effort and how safe or unsafe it is.

Some people from New Orleans are doing debris removal, but they’re being sub-contracted and getting something like $6 a yard when the contractor is getting $30 a yard. I have people who want to get back to work, and they have no choice but to take the six bucks a yard for the debris.

I know that when I was in shelters talking to electricians and plumbers, they said, “We applied to FEMA but they said you have to wait, you have to wait to be sub-contracted through another contractor.”

MM: Many people are suggesting developers hope to turn New Orleans into a Disneyland and keep the poor people out. What is ACORN’s alternative to that?

Harris: It seems to me that you’re going to lose your tourism industry if you turn it into something that you can find anywhere else, because it was the whole mystique of New Orleans that made it a tourist destination.

I went to a meeting the other night and a gentleman got up. He asked about who in the room was part of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club. These clubs have second line dances — a slow, moving dance through the streets. And in the second line, there’s a dance called the buck-jump. It is something that if you are low-to-moderate income, I guarantee you know, because these are the people that actually carry the traditions of New Orleans and make it more interesting. And so this gentleman asked, “If we get rid of all our low-to-moderate income families, who is going to buck-jump?” It was funny to people, but it was so serious at the same time.

Where do the Mardi Gras Indians come from? A lot of our Indians live in the Lower Ninth Ward and areas that were flooded.

If our people are forced out and New Orleans is changed into something that it is not and should not be, why would a tourist even come to New Orleans? Why would you come to this blistering hot and mostly wet place in the summertime, to see something that you could see in sunny California or sunny Florida? So I think that is a plan that may backfire.

In terms of what we want the city to look like, we want each community, each individual group of neighbors to decide for their own neighborhood what it should look like.

If you are a homeowner and you plan to rebuild, I would like to make sure that the government gives you all of the assistance that it possibly can to do that.

They’re saying that a lot of neighborhoods have to build higher, up off the ground. But a lot of people only have insurance sufficient to replace their house and probably not even the contents. They can’t afford to build up like that; it costs money. I want to make sure that these people have assistance from the government to do so.


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