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Eyewitness New Orleans -- As Hurricane Gustav Bears Down

PSL Presidential Candidate Gloria La Riva reports from Louisiana

Tomorrow, the people of New Orleans and the wider area again face the possibility of catastrophic disaster. While the government's evacuation is demonstrably better than that of Katrina, the physical damage to homes and the infrastructure could exceed that of Katrina. Storm surges of 18-feet to 24-feet of water are expected. Officials on TV have said that they've strengthened the levees only to Hurricane Category 3 strength, while Gustav is likely to hit as a Category 4. Almost all of New Orleans is below sea level.

 
New Orleans housing struggle
In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans residents saw hundreds of public housing units demolished, never to be replaced.

 
The for-profit, "free market" disaster response—which resulted in tragedy three years ago—has already again rose its ugly head.

All of New Orleans will be on lockdown this afternoon. 50,000 soldiers from the National Guard have been activated in the region. The police of several parishes, including Jefferson and Kenner, have warned that anyone in the street will be "challenged." During Katrina, Jefferson police shot and killed a group of people driving on the bridge. This morning, the Kenner police chief, Steve Caraway, said, "if you are arrested, you will not go to a county jail. You will be taken to Angola prison." As those around him smirked, Mayor Ray Nagin made the same promise at a press conference this morning.

Yesterday, we visited the Harvey Canal, where construction has quite obviously not been completed. There are still holes in the wall, and the hurricane could thus fill up the Mississippi's west bank. Harvey is the district right next to New Orleans. Despite the major evacuation plan, the federal government's failure to carry out levee strengthening to a sufficient capacity means that the natural disaster's damage will be multiplied due to the government's criminal neglect.

Campaign Organizer Richard Becker and I spent the night and this morning at the house of Malik Rahim, the co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, an organization whose volunteer reconstruction and health programs have served tens of thousands of people. Malik lives in Algiers, which is on the west bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Since the Mississippi runs a twisted and meandering eastward route through New Orleans, the West Bank is actually the South Side. Algiers was not affected by flooding in Katrina, but predictions are that it could suffer major flooding now. Malik, like nearly everyone in New Orleans, has no flood insurance.

Malik is just one example of what hundreds of thousands of people could suffer. Malik's house could be flooded and there is nothing he can do. In some parishes, there were only ten sandbags per household available. All his personal belongings may be destroyed. We are doing what we can in the hours remaining. Most everyone we saw leaving had their singular vehicles filled with family members and small amounts of personal items. People who evacuate have to bring their own bedding and food to the shelter. There's no more gasoline available anywhere.

At Malik's house, we have been loading up several trucks and carloads of tools, equipment, a refrigerator, a stove, a freezer and other supplies. He will first evacuate to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and then he will travel to wherever the damage is greatest. His plan is to camp with a group of volunteers from Common Ground and begin reconstruction efforts. The volunteers are blocked from entering Algiers right now, so they cannot help evacuate the supplies from Malik's house. Our plan is to drive with Malik to the Lower Ninth Ward with one of his vehicles, where others will leave with him to Mississippi.

After we leave Malik in the Lower Ninth ward, we will head to Baton Rouge, the state capital. We came to Louisiana several days ago and completed the paperwork to get our presidential campaign on the ballot here. It may be very difficult to get to Baton Rouge because of the impending storm, and closed off roads, but Tuesday, Sept. 2, is the deadline to submit to the Secretary of State.

Traveling through the state these last few days, one cannot avoid the depth of poverty and isolation—the profound legacy of racism and oppression that extends far before Hurricane Katrina. A newspaper story in the Louisiana daily paper this week stated that adult illiteracy is as high as 44 percent in New Orleans.

The story that the politicians and pundits are running with is that the governmental authorities have "learned the lesson" of Katrina, and that FEMA is now fully ready for such disasters. But the real legacy of Katrina is not just of governmental incompetence or of a non-existent evacuation plan. Rather, those crimes have been compounded by three years of systematic exclusion of the poor, mostly Black, communities here.

As Louisiana human rights lawyer Bill Quigley recently reported, not a single renter in Louisiana has received financial assistance from the $10 billion federal post-Katrina Road Home Community Development Block Grant. Not a single apartment has been built to replace the 963 public housing apartments formerly occupied and now demolished in St. Bernard. The Gulf Coast became a test case for a massive corporate-controlled gentrification scheme that left the state with 46,000 fewer African American voters.

The corporations—backed by the federal and local government—have indeed learned a lesson from Katrina: that natural disasters are opportunities for immense profit. Can we expect these same institutions to change their priorities, and suddenly decide to put people's needs first?

Needless to say, we have to be prepared for a mighty struggle to make sure that all displaced people of the Gulf Coast be allowed to return, and so that they receive unconditional and comprehensive assistance during this time of hardship.

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