By the first week of September 2005, New Orleans was in effect a virtual city. Most phones, cell and otherwise, were useless; only e-mails brought news to and from evacuees. Instead of neighborhoods, there were neighborhood forums on the Times-Picayune‘s website, for those trying to locate relatives and friends.
By then, activists had also discovered that the Internet was the only way to send and receive reliable information about what was happening on the ground in New Orleans. First-person accounts of the flood and its aftermath began circulating widely, including “This is Criminal,” written by former Black Panther Malik Rahim, as well as a detailed account of a blockade that prevented New Orleanians from crossing to safety over a Mississippi River bridge, first posted by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky on the Socialist Worker website.
A year later, the Internet remains a crucial link in the effort to rebuild New Orleans and its communities. “The Internet is now used like a telephone tree,” says Greg Peters, a Lafayette, Louisiana-based cartoonist and blogger who last fall helped evacuees access computers in that city’s Cajundome shelter. “When someone finds out about some hastily called planning meeting, they alert everyone through the blogs and get a crowd there to see what’s going on.”
After posting “This is Criminal,” Rahim relied on the Internet to raise funds and contact volunteers for the new Common Ground Collective, a community-based relief organization. Greg Griffith now works as legal liaison for the Common Ground Health Clinic; he recalls how he had just started fall classes at Kent State University in Ohio when he learned about Common Ground. He withdrew from his classes and went to New Orleans. “The good stuff, the grassroots efforts, you had to learn about online,” he recalls.
New Orleanian Sandy Rosenthal was living in Lafayette, Louisiana, after evacuating from New Orleans when she founded the organization Levees.org; her 15-year-old son acted as webmaster. This summer Levees.org used e-mail alerts to generate more than 9,000 letters urging Congress to acknowledge that massive engineering mistakes by the Army Corps of Engineers led to the flooding of New Orleans. Levees.org’s campaigns played a significant role in the recent passing of the Feingold-McCain amendment to the Water Resources Development Act of 2006, which created an independent peer-review process for Army Corps projects. “When we started, I wasn’t in my home, and all I had was a computer and a cell phone. The Internet was the only way we could have done what we did,” Rosenthal says.
One year after Katrina, more than a hundred local blogs now provide on-the-ground reports, photos and videos from New Orleans. Many are written by bloggers who go online in the off hours between gutting their houses and fighting with their insurance adjusters. Most bloggers say their primary duty is to counter prevailing myths: that the flood was a natural disaster, not an engineering debacle; that the city lies so far below sea level that it’s not worth rebuilding; that people in New Orleans are now doing just fine and have adequate federal assistance.
“G Bitch,” who blogs anonymously, is one of the few African-American bloggers in the city. “Just by looking at the flood patterns, I knew there were few people in the black middle class in New Orleans who could go online at that time,” says the New Orleans native and college composition teacher, who started her blog in January 2006, and who says she doesn’t want to reveal her identity publicly because she sometimes writes about her employer. “It’s important to keep reminding the nurses, the teachers, the social workers and everyone else who is scattered that they are important and that they have a right to a place in the city.”
For the Katrina anniversary, Mark Moseley, who posts on his own “Your Right Hand Thief” blog, helped organize a first-ever conference for New Orleans bloggers. The Rising Tide Conference (risingtidenola.com) took place August 25-27 at local sites, including the New Orleans Yacht Club, a once-flooded facility chosen in part because it was a contact point for evacuees during the disaster. A day of panels was followed by a day of salvage recovery work that brought bloggers together with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, which guts houses for members of the local music community. The work in the mold-infested structure gave conference participants a chance to “smell it, feel it, taste it,” says Moseley, who hopes the conference will help deepen connections among bloggers, as well as between bloggers and direct-action groups. “There was too much content–literally too many life-and-death issues–to let this anniversary go by,” Moseley says.
Speakers at Rising Tide included Morwen Madrigal, who explained how she used her “Gentilly Girl” blog and a neighborhood e-list to help form the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, a twenty-two-neighborhood group that advocates for the mixed-income, mixed-race Gentilly neighborhood in the city-planning process. For G Bitch, who also spoke at the conference, the next step is to find ways to make the Internet more inclusive. “There are populations in the city that aren’t represented at all online,” she says. “New Orleans is not monocultural; it never was and it can’t work that way. There are a lot of people who aren’t into the technology, but they still need to be heard.”