“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) to lobbyists, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
Sad story in the New York Times:
This vast diaspora — largely black, often poor, sometimes struggling — stretches across the country but is concentrated in cities near the coast, like this one, or Atlanta or Baton Rouge or Houston, places where the newcomers are still reaching for accommodation.
The break came fairly recently. Sometime between the New Orleans mayor’s race in spring 2006, when thousands of displaced citizens voted absentee or drove in to cast a ballot, and the city election this fall, when thousands did not — resulting in a sharply diminished electorate and a white-majority City Council — the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over.
I was in New Orleans the day Mary Landrieu beat Suzanne Terrell, for whom President Bush had campaigned publicly, in 2002. I picked up a discarded Landrieu sign to send to an under-the-weather colleague as a cheer-up gift. As I walked toward the hotel with it, an African American smiled, pumped his fist, and yelled “We showed that Goerge Bush! We showed him!”
I can’t read about Katrina refugees without thinking of that young man. In the wake of the federal response to Katrina, I coined the phrase “opportunistic ethnic cleansing.” I stand by that phrase.
As Amy Goodman pointed out last September —
As the military and police surrounded the building, Sharon Sears Jasper, a displaced resident of the St. Bernard housing project, spoke: “We are not going to stop. We refuse to let you tear our homes down and destroy our lives. The government, the president of the United States, you all have failed us. Our people have been displaced too long. Our people are dying of stress, depression and broken families. We demand that you open all public housing. Bring our families home now.”
In contrast, the day before, I had asked Mayor Ray Nagin if he made any demands of President Bush as they dined together the previous night. Bush had just spoken at a school named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose issues of race and poverty are starkly laid bare in New Orleans. Unlike those who had lost their homes, the mayor replied, “It wasn’t a time for demands.”
…According to Common Ground’s founder, Malik Rahim, of the more than 12,000 people previously in the lower 9th Ward, only about 400 live there now. Where once there was a dense, vibrant African-American neighborhood, I walked with Rahim through tall marsh grass, vacant lots and destroyed churches and schools. A few isolated, damaged brick homes remain.
Two years after Katrina, as Bush flew from the bayou to Baghdad, a People’s Hurricane tribunal — putting every level of government on trial — was wrapping up in New Orleans. A group was selling T-shirts there that reads: “Don’t believe the hype. Gulf Coast recovery is not ‘slow’ — it is a privatization scheme that takes away our homes, schools, hospitals and human rights.” Mission accomplished?
Mission accomplished? I think so. If I am too harsh in my opinion, it could be that the federal (and local!) response is more business as usual:
As the displacement of Iraqis continues to increase dramatically, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken the lead in sensitizing its UN sister agencies and its donors to the deteriorating humanitarian situation of displaced Iraqis. On April 17th and 18th 2007, UNHCR organized in Geneva an international conference of State parties, UN agencies and NGOs to highlight the growing problem of Iraqi displacement and its regional ramifications. Although other countries announced some positive steps at the conference, the response of the United States remained insufficient and inadequate. The U.S. needs to increase dramatically its response to the Iraqi displacement and humanitarian crisis now.
With the vast majority of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, and sizeable populations in Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, the crisis has become regional. Countries of asylum are feeling the strain caused by these large influxes, and many have started imposing drastic restrictions on their entry requirements, with some even deporting Iraqis back to Iraq. Syria hosts more than one million Iraqis, and Jordan more than 700,000. The burden posed by these large numbers of people is enormous. Hospitals and schools are overcrowded, and prices for food, oil and rent have increased dramatically since 2004. Economies could collapse and political unrest could arise if Jordan and Syria in particular do not receive help now.
According to its representative to the UNHCR conference, Jordan is paying at least a billion dollars a year to cope with the Iraqi refugee crisis. Similarly, the Syrian representative emphasized the hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid the Syrian government has provided Iraqi refugees, without even including the cost of daily subsidies resulting from the government’s inclusion of more than one million extra beneficiaries in its centralized welfare system. In this context, UNHCR’s main goal for the conference was to emphasize the necessity for members of the international community to share the burden with the region.
Yet even after listening to harrowing statistics and concerns from regional countries, the U.S. representative to the conference, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, stated that the U.S. would contribute $100 million to respond to the Iraqi displacement crisis, including programs both inside and outside the country. This represents a mere fraction of the amounts being spent by much poorer neighboring countries.