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Post-Katrina and Post-Isaac Rebuilding Analysis by Mike Howells

by Mike Howells

After Hurricane Katrina, the 1 percent exploited New Orleans volunteerism in a manner that hurt the local working class. For example,  during the two months or so immediately after Katrina, locals still in New Orleans, including myself, were offered 15 to 20 dollars an hour to help gut flooded houses.  By the end of 2005 these paying jobs all but disappeared. Why?


I am convinced that the influx of no wage volunteers contributed greatly to this development.  Now I can understand the logic of using no wage volunteers during the period immediately following Katrina. However, even people with the most rudimentary understanding of the position of labor in a capitalist society should understand that the constant influx of no wage volunteers into New Orleans during the post Katrina years could not help but drive down the wages of local Katrina Survivors and reduce the number of employment opportunities available to us.


During the months and years after Katrina there was a call from Katrina Survivors and politically conscious supporters of the Katrina Survivors for the establishment of a Works Progress Administration style national public works program dedicated to the rebuilding of the storm devastated Gulf Coast areas.  Unfortunately, as a rule,  the call for a post-Katrina public works program fell on deaf ears when it came to those in charge of the non profits here during the post Katrina “recovery.”


And why is this unfortunate? Because a post-Katrina public works program would have given thousands of exiled Katrina Survivors the financial wherewithal to return home and the opportunity to participate directly in the rebuilding of the their community.  What’s more is a federally funded public works project in the wake of  Katrina would have been a golden opportunity to provide many working class, Katrina Survivors here with marketable job skills that they lacked at the onset of the crisis.


There is also a question of scale here when it comes to the resources available to the non-profits available for helping to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as opposed to the resources available to the federal government for the rebuilding effort. Simply, the non-profits did not have the resources at their disposal to bring about a just recovery. The government, the federal government at least, did.


At relatively little cost, the federal government could have significantly alleviated the acute shortage of low and moderate income housing available in post Katrina New Orleans.  The  federal government could have reopened an additional 5,000 low income public housing apartments in New Orleans within, at most, a few months at a very modest cost to taxpayers.  The New Orleans government could have refrained from instituting new zoning requirements for New Orleans East, post-Katrina, that made it virtually impossible for most private low and moderate income multi-family apartment complexes to reopen in that area.


And what’s more is the federal government had the financial resources to guarantee, with ease, the rebuilding of every storm damaged home on the Gulf Coast. What the government lacked was the political will to make the right of return a reality for poor and working class people and other Katrina Survivors.


So why did the federal government, the state government, and the local government lack the will to institute the measures above, and many other measures, that would have hastened the pace of the “recovery” and greatly increased the number of Katrina Survivors who would have returned home?  Of course the 1 percent acted as a powerful counterweight to the realization of making the right of return a reality for the poor and near poor.


But the movers and shakers of the ruling class were not the only ones who bear responsibility for the purging of hundreds of thousands of  Katrina Survivors from their Gulf Coast homes.  Sometimes sins of omission are as deadly as sins of commission.


The leadership of the non profit segment of the “recovery”, as a rule, helped make the new New Orleans a reality, above all else, by remaining silent in the face  of obvious injustices.


For example, the refusal of the leadership of the non-profits, with a very few exceptions, effectively deprived those who did struggle to defend the public sector of potentially valuable political and material resources.


And why should these non profiteers be held to account on the this point? Because these organizations were receiving funding and public accolades for the commitment to help rebuild the storm devastated areas.  And the these organizations could have done infinitely more, through political struggle, to at least increase the social weight of the forces struggling to reopen low and moderate income homes, public education, and public healthcare.  That this did not happen, again with a very few exceptions, is a truly damning indictment of  the leaders of the non-profits active in New Orleans, and no doubt many other Gulf Coast communities. And this silence helped guarantee that tens of thousands of primarily African American working class Katrina Survivors would never return home to New Orleans.


I do not have the time to go into the ways in which many non profit leaders pandered to illusion that their organizations could somehow adequately substitute for many lost or radically downsized public services in the wake of Katrina.  This didn’t happen because these organizations didn’t have the resources to fill in the gap.  The bosses of the non profits should have known this. But the non profit bosses here after the storm, acted as if they didn’t.  And the failure of the vast majority of non-profit leaders to confront this ugly truth made them, at best, George W. Bush’s local errand boys and girls.



NOTE: This analysis was written by a member of Occupy NOLA and has been published here. This is not an official statement from the Occupy NOLA General Assembly, but many members of Occupy NOLA appreciate its relevancy.