Thursday, December 6, 2007

18 ans plus tard, je me souviens

Geneviève Bergeron, 21
Hélène Colgan, 23
Nathalie Croteau, 23
Barbara Daigneault, 22
Anne-Marie Edward, 21
Maud Haviernick, 29
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31
Maryse Leclair, 23
Annie St-Arneault, 23
Michèle Richard, 21
Maryse Laganière, 25
Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
Sonia Pelletier, 28
Annie Turcotte, 21

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rebuild New Orleans for Christmas

I am infuriated.

I can't understand why there hasn't been rioting in the streets of America over the government's continuing disregard for the rebuilding of New Orleans, 27 months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There are two articles in today's New York Times that, taken together, paint a frustrating picture of the U.S. government's criminal ineptitude in responding to the needs of the mainly poor, mostly black, displaced residents of a spectacular cultural gem whose rebuilding ought to be a main priority of an adminstration that is instead obsessed with what is happening half a planet away, at the expense of its own citizens. (read them here and here . )

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, began evicting displaced residents from the trailers FEMA provided to them last year as makeshift homes. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that FEMA took nearly a year after the hurricane to get these folks into those trailers in the first place, or that most of the displaced are residents of the 9th Ward, which was devastated not by the hurricane itself, but by the flooding that occured after the federally-built levees broke under pressure from the storm surge (the threat of which was ignored by FEMA until it was too late), and you have to wonder how often these people are going to be revictimized by their own government. FEMA's stated intention is to evict all residents of the five trailer camps by the end of May. Unfortunately for the residents of those trailers, estimated at 900 families, no one is building low-cost rental units, so there will be nowhere to go. FEMA's spokesperson has helpfully contributed this quote to the NY Times article: "It is the individual's responsibility to go out and find what's suitable for them".

Prior to the hurricane, more than half of New Orleans' residents rented their homes. Now, a shortage of rental units has resulted in rents virtually doubling, and while many can't afford these new rents, the vacancy rate still hovers near zero. As well, public housing units are being torn down due to the damage they suffered via the hurricane. Just last week, the New Orleans Housing Authority approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units. The plan is to build mixed-income housing in their place. Most of the evicted will not be able to afford to return. Since Katrina, it is estimated that there are now twice as many homeless people in New Orleans as previously, approximately 12,000 people living under bridges, or in parks, or in abandoned buildings. Some have taken up residence in a park directly across from City Hall, a daily reminder, to local politicians at least, of the continuing struggle to survive amidst administrative callousness.

This Christmas will be the third since Katrina. For many of the displaced, they are no closer to getting their old lives back than they were in the days immediately following the tragedy. I have a hard time believing that if the Upper East Side of Manhattan, or a chunk of Miami Beach, or the waterfront of Seattle had been devastated by a natural disaster, that those folks would still be waiting for debris to be cleared and homes to be rebuilt three Christmases later. Of course, what separates those three communities from the 9th Ward is money. The middle-class and the wealthy are visible victims - the poor are not. A second, unspoken divider, is colour. You cannot convince me that a white middle-class suburb would remain in ruins to the same degree that a poor, black inner-city wardship has, for this long.

While the government of the wealthiest nation on the planet has failed its most vulnerable, individuals are stepping in to do what they can. The actor Brad Pitt has put five million of his own money into a pilot project, to design environmentally-friendly, low-cost housing. 13 architectural firms have accepted the challenge of designing these homes, and they expect 150 houses to be pretty much move-in ready by next summer.

A cynic might ask why a movie star has been able to achieve more than a government, but I expect the answer comes down to interest - he is interested in his project, and the government is not. Let's not forget that during the hurricane and the days that followed, FEMA was in total disarray and unable to even organize buses to move people to higher ground, while TV personality Oprah Winfrey had 50 commercial trailers loaded up with food, water, and basic necessities and on the road to New Orleans within 48 hours. If it wasn't for individuals, I'd have no hope at all.

And that's where you come in. Last week on a friend's blog, we were talking about ways to help the less fortunate during the holiday season. Pitt's project is currently accepting donations large and small towards those 150 houses. You can sponsor anything, from a water heater to the house itself. Check them out and see if giving to them is right for you: Make it Right .

Of course, homelessness and poverty aren't just restricted to New Orleans, or the Christmas season, and there are any number of people right here at home who could use a hand all year round. Think about making the time to go through closets and purge warm clothing that can be dropped off at the Salvation Army or the Women's shelter; sign up to deliver Christmas hampers; shop for or write a check to the Food Bank. And don't stop just because a new page comes up on the calendar - the need runs year-round.