The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is approaching on Tuesday and with much of New Orleans still in ruins, many people are asking how so much of a major American metropolis could be abandoned for so long. A year after the costliest natural disaster in US history, vast stretches of the Gulf Coast are still largely vacant, and some are starting to wonder whether the destruction may be permanent.
As the Washington Post reported, tallies of electric bills and school enrollment figures show that less than half of New Orleans's pre-storm population of 455,000 has returned. The population of adjacent St. Bernard Parish has shrunk from 65,000 to less than 20,000. In small towns along the Mississippi Coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, fewer than 5 percent of destroyed homes are being rebuilt. The clean-up has been so slow that nearly a third of the hurricane trash in New Orleans has yet to be picked up, according to federal Gulf Coast Recovery Coordinator Donald E. Powell.
Again, the question: Why? The Black Activist Coalition on Katrina and the People's Hurricane Relief Fund say that the astoundingly incompetent response is an example of "the monumental failure of the US government to protect and respect the lives of blacks and the poor" and "the direct result of the institutional dimensions of race, class, and gender oppression inherent in the US government...throughout its 230 year history."
In response, these two groups, in alliance with a raft of local grassroots organizations, have launched a campaign to convene an International Tribunal on Katrina and the human rights abuses of the US government. This tribunal is expected to be held in New Orleans in early 2007. (A specific date has not been determined, but the committee is investigating March 30th and 31.)
One of this coalition's main demands is for real transparency in the reconstruction process. "Citizens must know where all the monies are being spent and with whom they are being spent." Another big one is the creation of public-works jobs for the displaced workers of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at union wages "so that our population is no longer characterized by extreme poverty." Click here or call 601-353-5566 for more info, to sign on as an endorser, and to contribute time, resources and funds.
ACORN New Orleans, one of the many institutional endorsers of the tribunal call, has been on the ground in the Crescent City for twenty-nine years. It's provided free tax services, led living wage campaigns, galvanized drives to keep lead poisoning out of schools and lobbied for voting rights and affordable housing. After the levees broke, it created the Katrina Survivors Association, the first nationwide organization of displaced New Orleans residents and other Katrina survivors. The idea is to unite members of disparate affected communities to use public pressure, direct action, and dialogue with elected officials and public policy experts to win a voice for the survivors in future planning and funding decisions in order to build stronger communities for more than just the rich and well-connected.
In fact, as America briefly refocuses on the disaster, it's critical to frame the discussions in terms of class, race and unequal opportunity in America and to build support for real change. That's the mission of the Opportunity Agenda, which has created a nifty activist Tool Kit, designed to highlight vast class differences revealed by Katrina and advance solutions to expand chances for equal opportunity in the Gulf Coast region and beyond.
Here are some of the ideas:
**Visit www.katrinaaction.org to find information, connect with local organizations and learn about actions that affect housing, health, jobs, and other related issues.
**Organize friends, family, and colleagues to watch Spike Lee's HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. It will be shown on HBO cable on August 29th. (Or rent it at Netflix.) Afterwards, talk about ways you can take practical actions. Visit www.katrinaaction.org for discussion questions.
**Help ensure that news media tell the real story of Katrina and its aftermath and continue to offer balanced reporting on the issue. Call your local news and radio talk shows, and write letters to the editor. (For pointers, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting has an online kit with contact information for media outlets and sample letters.)
**Got five minutes a week? Join the Katrina Information Network. KIN members commit to five minutes a week to send emails to their network and to policymakers to keep these issues on the public agenda.
On the creative front, the most innovative project I've seen coming out of the catastrophe is the New Orleans Kid Camera Project. Created to address the psychological and emotional impact of Hurricane Katrina on children returning home to New Orleans, the project fosters photography, creative writing and mixed media as means for children to explore their environment and express themselves, their stories and feelings. Check out the latest gallery of the kids' work here and then click here to support future efforts.
There are innumerable Katrina memorial events over the next few days--in the Gulf region and nationwide. The Human Rights Network has a good list as does United for Peace. The Sun Herald is the place to look for anniversary events in South Mississippi and check WAFB TV's site for a close-to-comprehensive list for New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Finally, if you want to donate money to help the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors still homeless and in great need, see the American Institute of Philanthropy's guide to find the best ways to help the victims, and check out the Network for Good's suggestions on Katrina giving. Habitat for Humanity is also a good recipient. It's been on the ground for virtually the last twelve months helping to rebuild the homes of those way down on the government's priority lists. Giving to Habitat will get your money to the right place.