Beyond Shelters | The Nation


Beyond Shelters

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Baker, Louisiana

About the Author

Michael Tisserand
Michael Tisserand, the author of Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a...

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A chain-link fence circles the unnamed evacuee community that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has founded on the outskirts of Baker, Louisiana. Inside, hundreds of trailers have been assigned their own section letters and numbers, which are hand-scrawled on each trailer's front window. As dusk settles over Baker, residents wander down identical gravel paths, searching for new addresses.

Tanya Harris steers her dusty Camry through the gate. She slows down; nobody stops her. Harris parks near a large, unlit building that she decides must be a community hall. It's one of the few structures here that's not on wheels. Gladys Bernard, who's riding in the passenger seat, peers at the hall. "The sign says welcome," she says hopefully.

Harris, who works with Bernard at ACORN, a national community group for low- and moderate-income families, grabs an instant camera and stacks of fliers. One stack is for residents who want ACORN to field complaints about jobs, housing and other post-evacuation concerns. Other fliers announce an upcoming protest for residents of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the devastated working-class neighborhood that for weeks has remained almost entirely off-limits to residents and business owners. Harris's family has resided in the Lower Ninth Ward ever since the late 1940s, when her grandfather, a longshoreman, bought four plots of land for $200 apiece.

As Harris leads the way into the dark hall, where a few families are finishing dinner, she uncannily locates Lower Ninth neighbors. She trades addresses with one woman; they share names of people they both know. "I just want to go home, baby," the woman says. Harris gives her a flier for the upcoming ACORN-sponsored sit-in, set to take place on a bridge that crosses the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth. The group is demanding that residents at least be allowed to view their property and salvage what belongings they can. "We're going to make them let us go in," she says.

ACORN, which has temporarily moved its national offices from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, is part of a growing number of activist groups that are working to organize Hurricane Katrina evacuees and help them find roles in the rebuilding of their communities. Shortly after the hurricane struck, Harris was bunking down in the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana, when she received a text message from ACORN. The group helped her find an apartment for an extended family that includes both preschoolers and Harris's 83-year-old grandmother.

Now Harris visits shelters, trailer parks and other sites to organize evacuees. She also traveled to Washington to meet with Congressional leaders and participate in a press conference with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. "This is like therapy for me," Harris says, hurrying across a gravel lot to speak with another trailer-park resident.

In addition to the Lower Nine (as its called here) action, ACORN's activities include Wednesday meetings in Baton Rouge that usually attract about seventy-five evacuees. In mid-October the organization launched a new Hurricane Survivors Association. ACORN's most ambitious effort is scheduled for November 7 and 8, when the group will host a conference on the reconstruction of New Orleans, bringing fifty experts in fields such as urban planning and the environment together with fifty evacuated residents for a series of discussions. These discussions will be teleconferenced across the United States to cities with large concentrations of evacuees. The goal is to arm evacuees with information and to help them find entry points into a reconstruction debate that currently seems as confused as the post-Katrina rescue operation.

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