Charles Jackson, media coordinator for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), was anxious last week as today's anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached. The city had declared that on this day it would seize whatever homes had not yet been cleaned-up or reclaimed in order to resell and/or demolish them – without even notifying the former residents.
"We are trying to get the deadline extended to November," Jackson said. "Why hit people with another act of devastation on the anniversary? How about a little compassion?"
But compassion has been in as short supply as clean water in the Lower 9th Ward over the last year. ACORN had 9,000 member families in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and one year later 7,500 have not yet returned. It looked as though they might not have homes to return to at all.
However, yesterday marked a small victory for ACORN. The New Orleans City Council amended its seizure order so that residents with homes scheduled for gutting and cleaning by ACORN (or 15 other groups) will be deemed in compliance (it should be noted that the city is not providing any funds to groups like ACORN for this vital work). For homes not yet scheduled for clean-up, the city will attempt to contact the owners twice in 60 days before proceeding to take possession of the property. Jackson says that ACORN didn't get everything it wanted with this compromise but at least it stopped the bulldozers for now.
"We had already fought to get the anniversary deadline amended so that the Lower 9th residents and the elderly were exempted due to hardship," Jackson says. "But what about New Orleans East and other parts of the city? We've literally got neighborhoods with thousands of homes where we've been able to get, maybe, one family back. Lower-income families can't even afford the transportation to come back here. Now at least we've gained a little more protection for struggling families we are working with."
The work to protect homeowners, tenants and neighborhoods began in the immediate aftermath of the disaster when Mayor Ray Nagin announced that the city would demolish approximately 50,000 homes in the wake of the flooding. In December, the city was set to bulldoze the first 2,500 homes when ACORN members won a settlement requiring that homeowners be notified and given the opportunity to appeal before any action is taken.
That same month, ACORN launched its "Home Clean-Out Demonstration Program" to handle the work that the government is still failing to do. ACORN crews clean out debris, gut the interior of homes, eradicate mold and provide roof repair free of charge (ACORN spends an average of $2,500 per home). Without this remediation, many of the homes would deteriorate beyond repair. Which, perhaps, is exactly the result being hoped for by some power elites in the city.
As of August 1, ACORN crews had cleaned and gutted 1,450 homes. There are more than 1,000 homes on the waiting list. More than 5,000 volunteers have helped with the project, including students on spring break, and workers from the AFL-CIO, and the Canadian Autoworkers Union.
"At the program's peak we were gutting hundreds of homes per week," Jackson says. "Now that's down to maybe 20-30 homes per week. Volunteers can't afford the skyrocketing hotel prices and FEMA closed Camp Algiers in July."
Camp Algiers housed volunteers in town to help with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts, so it was a vital resource for groups like ACORN, Catholic Charities, Common Ground, and Habitat for Humanity. But a cut in funding has shut the camp down.
"We're hopeful though that with the anniversary, and the Spike Lee documentary, people will refocus their efforts to get down here, support our work financially, do whatever they can to help New Orleans come back," Jackson says.
In addition to the clean-up work, ACORN has gained a place at the table for long-term planning efforts. Not surprisingly, it looked early on as if low- and middle-income families would be shut out of the process. The Mayor's "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" proposed to direct resources first to the areas that received little or no flood damage. Other neighborhoods had from January to May to "prove their viability."
Jimmy Reiss, a member of the Commission articulated ACORN members' worst nightmare when he said: "Those who want to see the city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically."
ACORN didn't wait for more bad news. Instead it met with city planning partners from Cornell University, the Pratt Institute, and Louisiana State University to solicit input on rebuilding. The organization also held community meetings with displaced New Orleanians in the cities where they were currently relocated. This collaborative effort produced detailed plans for the neighborhoods of the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East. On July 21st ACORN Housing was recognized as one of 16 "official" New Orleans planning teams. The planning teams will submit neighborhood plans to the Mayor and City Council and – upon approval – will be part of the Unified New Orleans Plan" to direct resources for rebuilding as well as serving as the city's long-term vision.
Jackson says this victory cannot be overstated: "It means the people's voices are being heard."And none too soon, either.
According to the Institute for Southern Studies, as of June 30 only 37 percent of New Orleans pre-storm population of 460,000 had returned; no federal funds had been dispersed to rebuild homes – zero; and the New Orleans suicide rate had increased 300 percent since the hurricane.
"We are committed to staying here until the job is done," Jackson says. "But we're also trying to get the word out: 1 year later, all is not well here."
The small victories of ACORN and its allies have been hard-earned. As Chris Kromm writes in this week's issue of The Nation, "Ask Gulf activists what it will take to turn around the region's fortunes, and many will come back to the idea that the Katrina movement must go national – even international." Regarding the international perspective, the Institute for Southern Studies indicates that legal scholars believe that 16 of the 30 UN Principles guiding the handling of "Internally Displaced People" were violated in the case of Katrina.
To help ensure that the suffering of Katrina victims is not compounded by greed and opportunism, there are actions you can take: Contribute financially or Adopt a Home; volunteer with the Home Clean-out Demonstration Program; or contact your federal representatives via the ACORN Legislation Action Hotline at 800-643-9557.
One year after the initial devastation, be a part of the movement to demand that the rebuilding of New Orleans is undertaken in accord with our greatest democratic principles.