A week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans—while government officials and charities were still discussing how to send aid to the area—ACORN was already moving into action. ACORN staffers quickly discovered that many displaced African-American homeowners were in danger of losing their homes. Banks were giving their middle-class, mostly white customers ninety days or more to make their payments, but borrowers who had subprime, high-interest loans (like many black homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward) were given only one month. Three weeks after the storm, ACORN released a report exposing the industry’s double standard and demanded meetings with lenders. Along with labor unions and consumer groups, it successfully negotiated plans to prevent foreclosures for dozens of homeowners. This campaign was only one of many victories, large and small, that ACORN achieved by mobilizing Katrina survivors to confront banks, insurance companies and public officials.
ACORN members’ homes, in places like Houston, Little Rock, Birmingham, Vancouver and New York, became refuges for the Katrina diaspora. From its temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge, ACORN sent text messages to members’ cellphones and received 200 replies. Joe Stafford, a member from the Uptown New Orleans chapter, whose father had died in the floodwaters, fled to Houston with his girlfriend, Carmen, and their two children. They were staying at a two-bedroom apartment with four other families when Stafford received a message from ACORN organizer Steve Bradberry offering relocation aid. Stafford messaged back: "I watched my father die…and had to leave his body behind. I don’t know where my mother is either…. I don’t think she left the house, she loved that house, wouldn’t leave it. ACORN helped her get that house. That’s how we joined ACORN, by getting a house." In a few days he and his family were housed with Houston ACORN member Tarsha Jackson.
To plan the city’s recovery effort, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked some of the region’s power brokers to form a blue ribbon task force to make recommendations. The task force, which excluded community groups, emerged with a plan to shrink the city’s population, sacrificing the hardest-hit neighborhoods to protect upscale areas from future flooding. It called for restoring the city’s tourist attractions but paid little attention to the plight of poor and working-class residents, many of them scattered in cities hours away. ACORN launched a plan to save these communities by organizing residents to speak out. After the Nagin administration announced that the city would demolish 50,000 homes in low-lying areas, ACORN plastered No Bulldozing signs all over the Lower Ninth Ward. At one point, ACORN activists chased off a backhoe crew preparing to demolish a home. ACORN also sued the city to stop the demolition, and in January 2006 it won a court settlement requiring that homeowners be given the opportunity to appeal before any action was taken.
Beginning in December 2005, ACORN crews and volunteers began working day and night to repair the homes of member families in the threatened areas. ACORN’s crews tore down moldy drywall, ripped up flooring and carted ruined possessions to the curb; then they stored salvageable belongings and put blue tarping on roofs to prevent further water damage and deterioration. Relying mostly on volunteers and private funding, ACORN’s cleanup/house-gutting program saved more than 1,500 homes.
ACORN sued to ensure that the city’s displaced, largely black population would have access to out-of-state polling places for municipal elections in the spring of 2006. A federal judge rejected ACORN’s demand for satellite voting stations outside New Orleans, so ACORN organizers (along with other groups like the Metropolitan Organization) registered more than 20,000 absentee voters.
Within three months after the storm, ACORN formed the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association (AKSA), the only national grassroots group that represented the evacuees. AKSA drafted a platform and sent delegations of members to Baton Rouge and Washington to demand bolder and quicker action. They held public protests and press conferences and engaged in regular negotiations with FEMA officials to ensure that the agency continued to provide assistance to displaced survivors. Mixing confrontation and collaboration, ACORN only sometimes proved effective against a slow-moving, seemingly uncaring bureaucracy.
Since the 2008 presidential election, ACORN has been the victim of a ferocious attack by the GOP, Fox News and Andrew Breitbart, including false accusations of "voter fraud" and the infamous doctored "pimp and prostitute" videos. This storm ACORN couldn’t weather. Although the organization was subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing, it dissolved itself as funders and Democratic allies abandoned the group. ACORN was dismantled, but its legacy—in New Orleans and elsewhere—continues. One group, A Community Voice, led by former ACORN leaders Vanessa Gueringer and Gwen Adams, continues ACORN’s mission in New Orleans, regularly confronting local officials over issues like policing and the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. The group is one of at least a dozen former ACORN affiliates that are now independent—but continuing the work of organizing the poor for power in cities across the country.