8 01 2006

The spotlight is no longer on New Orleans, so it should come as no surprise that the rats have been at work there. The Big Easy, once home to over three hundred thousand Americans of colour who comprised 65% of its half-million population, has an estimated thirty-five thousand black residents now, out of a total city population of around one hundred thousand.

Alphonso Jackson, President George Bush’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary, told the Houston Chronicle, “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time … New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

Joseph Canizaro, one of the city’s biggest developers, and now a member of New Orleans’ rebuilding commission, was quoted in England’s Manchester Guardian as saying, ”As a practical matter, these poor folks don’t have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn’t have the resources to get out of our city. So we won’t get all those folks back. That’s just a fact. It’s not what I want, it’s just a fact.’ Mr. Canizaro, by the way, also contriubuted about $200,000 to W’s 2004 re-election campaign. Guess he’s just sentimental about missing all the darkies, ’cause you know and I know that a whiter New Orleans is likely to be a more Republican New Orleans.

Rental and hiring tactics countenanced by both the Bush junta and ostensibly Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco are contributing to this switchover. FEMA has said it will not give loans to rebuild in “flood-prone areas”–i.e., the lower ninth ward and other low-income, low elevation parts of the city. The city has hinted that it may require any rebuilding in low areas to be done on stilts, which raises the cost of rebuilding considerably. (Actually, it’s not a bad idea, just an expensive one)

Landlords have been evicting not just tenants who have become refugees, but those who have been making every effort to stay in New Orleans and pay their rent. When a court ruled against the landlords’ efforts to run thousands of summary evictions through the courts, many landlords turned to brute force, simply breaking into their evacuated rental properties and throwing their former tenants’ belongings out on the street so that they could rent the properties out at two or three times the rent they had been receiving—frequently to workers who have been brought in from out of state to do cleanup and rebuilding.

Why have they been brought in from out of state? Because the contracts for the cleanup have gone to out-of-state companies who are primarily geared to hire—let’s call them–”guest workers.” Guest workers come from outside of the United States, from places whose poverty we can barely grasp. They have learned to live on less, and part of that involves banding together to share food and housing. We did that thirty years ago and called it hippies living in communes, but this is (mostly) Latinos living in whatever they can rent. They do have a talent for something there. I knew a guy who came up from El Salvador and worked as a janitor for five years, making about the same money I was. While I barely survived, he put his sister through the University of El Salvador, so that she became a schoolteacher—and still earned less money than he did pushing a broom in America. But I digress. More on the economics of the hiring process a little later.

I just quoted two high-ranking Republicans’ view of the future of New Orleans. The city attempted to fulfill their prophecies by unilaterally beginning the demolition of over five thousand homes in the lower ninth ward. Residents have gotten a temporary restraining order to stop this. When I say unilaterally, I mean that no one was told that the remains of their home were about to be removed—it was only when the backhoes showed up that they had any idea of what was in store. That ain’t fair. Nor is it fair that, although much of the city’s public housing is habitable, it is not being opened and made available.

What irony—the good news is, unilateral demolitions have been stopped. The bad news is, more than four months after the hurricane, almost none of the 50,000 homes estimated to need demolition in New Orleans have actually been cleaned up. Maybe the 2006 hurricane season will take care of it, eh?

So, that’s the rat-infested mess. What’s the deep green perspective on it? First of all, yeah, New Orleans is a lousy place for a large city, and with a warming climate, rising sea levels and intensifying storm seasons, it is only going to get worse, even if we come up with the fourteen billion dollars (only a month and a half of military expenditures in Iraq, after all) it will take to restore the wetlands that once provided a measure of protection to southern Louisiana.

Now, I confess that I once had a vision that my life’s work could be tearing down a formerly great city and recreating wilderness where once it stood, and so to me there’s a certain environmental justice, I think, in turning big parts of New Orleans back into cypress swamps. But you don’t do that by executive fiat. You don’t move people around by strong-arming them from above. You educate them about the situation, you help them formulate plans of their own. And if they don’t want to move after all that? Well, you figure out the best way to help them stay where they’ve been, with their friends and family. Human life is about community, not consumerism.

And the way the wreckage from the storm is being cleaned up is just another pyramid scheme, just another indictment of the Bush junta. FEMA hires well-connected contractors—well connected to the Republican establishment, not well connected to the communities that need cleaning—for $24 a cubic yard, and those companies take a cut and find a subcontractor, and THOSE companies do the same thing, so that the guys who are actually doing the work are getting paid $4 a cubic yard to clean up the hurricane debris.
How big is a cubic yard? I mean sure, it’s three feet by three feet by three feet, but to put it more visually, the back of a medium size pickup truck will hold a little over two cubic yards. So, the contractors on site are getting about ten bucks a pickup load, while Kellogg, Brown, and Root is getting over fifty bucks a pickup load for doing none of the work—but you can bet they’ll be making some hefty campaign donations sooner or later. And that’s why they’re hiring Latinos to do the cleanup—the fat cats have squeezed it down to where an American couldn’t make a living doing New Orleans cleanup. Herr Bush talks about wanting to bring in guest workers to do “jobs Americans won’t do.” It’s more like bringing them in to do jobs companies don’t want to pay Americans a living wage to do. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would now be $8.85 an hour. If the minimum wage were high enough to keep full-time workers above the poverty level, nationwide it would be $9.50 an hour. Here in Nashville it would be $11.50 an hour. Is that too much to ask? How does it compare to what you make?

If I were running this program, I would be giving first priority for cleanup jobs to current and displaced New Orleans residents, and while I had them all together taking care of the dirty business on the ground, I would be educating them about the overall situation and helping them figure out what to do. There’s parameters, if you know what I mean. Housing that will withstand a category 5 or 6 hurricane in a location below sea level? Waterproof bunkers, big bucks, not for everyone. Inexpensive,simple structures that will keep you cool and dry during most tropical weather and be easy to replace when they blow away? That’s the time-honored way of living in the hurricane belt. It’s not the American way of life. But there might be something to it, eh?

music: Steve Earle, “Amerika v. 6.0”

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