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.
“Everyone is talking right now without any plan,” says ACORN founder Wade Rathke, who’s displaced from his own residence in New Orleans. “I certainly don’t have the answers to some issues. I don’t know the future of the Ninth Ward. But what I’m certain of is that the voices of people who live in New Orleans are currently being left out of the discussion, and they’ve got to be at the center of it.”
That’s also the aim of the Survivors Leadership Group, a Houston-based assembly of evacuated community leaders organized in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), a group affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation network. Renee Barrios, the Foundation’s lead organizer in Houston, recalls a Labor Day meeting when the distinction between treating Katrina evacuees as victims and as potential leaders became especially pronounced. On that day, she says, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities were appearing in the Astrodome, each of them promising aid in voices that boomed over the arena’s PA system. Organizers with TMO almost turned around and left, but then decided they should first announce that they were looking for evacuees who wanted to organize.
A core group of about 100 evacuees met that day. Their first successful action was moving a line of evacuees who were waiting for Red Cross assistance at Houston’s Reliant Center out of the stifling heat and into the air-conditioned building. The group also launched a successful petition drive that prompted Houston Mayor Bill White to ask the Federal Communications Commission to restrain cell phone providers from cutting off 504-area phones for nonpayment of bills.
The group also gained a spot in White’s “Katrina Working Group,” along with police officials, school administrators, city councilors and other local decision-makers. “When the mayor asked us to come to the table,” says Barrios, “we said that we’ll participate, but we’re going to organize. Survivors are going to know best what’s going to work and not work.”
Christine Stephens, an Industrial Areas Foundation supervising organizer, says the group is working on two fronts: to help evacuees work toward better living conditions in their new communities, and to help those returning to New Orleans have a say in the rebuilding. In Louisiana that means gaining access to the various commissions headed by Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, as well as getting folks’ voices heard in upcoming special legislative sessions.
TMO and ACORN are working on separate tracks toward common goals; neither Rathke nor Barrios seems particularly interested in combining forces. Some coalitions are forming, however. ACORN has teamed with the NAACP, along with the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, to form New Opportunity and Hope, calling attention to worker-related issues during the reconstruction. In New Orleans veteran activists and political consultants have formed two umbrella groups for activists: the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, and the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition.
Organizing displaced residents to agitate on their own behalf poses unusual challenges. “I call people to tell them about a meeting,” says Tanya Harris, “and they say, I’m in Idaho.” For Harris, the first step remains getting her old neighbors back to the Lower Nine. As she sees it, that will keep them on the path toward home. Walking through the Baker trailer park, she doesn’t hide her disappointment every time she encounters residents who say they’re not going back. About half the people she meets tonight tell her this.
“Are you going to return?” she asks a couple from Harvey. “To what?” the man answers blankly. “My apartment? It’s gone.”
Harris tells them ACORN can help them find housing wherever they land. She takes down their names and phone numbers. On her way back to the car, she says that she knows everyone has tough choices to make, but it’s difficult talking to people who are moving on. “Decisions are being made all around us,” she says. “I want us to go back to fight.”