September 19, 2005
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
AND LAURA GARZA
NEW ORLEANS, September 5—Thousands of working people headed back today to neighborhoods on the outskirts of this city. As vehicles came to a halt on the hot, traffic-jammed highway, with only several hours remaining to pick up belongings before curfew, people began talking to one another. Many of the conversations we were part of were marked by outrage at the response of federal, state, and local governments and capitalist politicians to the social disaster that has ensued since Hurricane Katrina.
Military convoys snaked through the city, filling the highways along with National Guard troops and city and state cops. Helicopters hummed overhead.
Ten minutes into the city limits, just off Magazine Street, with police and army vehicles passing regularly, we met a group of residents who said they had yet to receive food or water from any officials or aid agencies.
“We have been here for seven days,” Cleveland Frenell Jr. said. “I got a cut on my hand. I can’t get any medical help. Yesterday was the first day we got anything. What we got was water and toilet paper, and it was not even from the government. It was from some individual. Everybody talks about what they are going to do, and nobody has done anything.” Asked what the military and police do, Frenell shouted, “Nothing! They do nothing! They ride around.”
Frenell and his neighbors had cooked beans and sausage they obtained shortly after the storm, when residents opened some local stores to allow people to get food. They shared their meal, and we gave them some water, an item in short supply.
‘Cops pulled guns on us’
“Two days ago the cops pulled guns on us,” said another member of the group, Joseph Webber, 61, a self-employed handyman. “We were riding a bicycle back from the Convention Center where we had gotten water. They demanded to know where we lived, to see our IDs, what we were doing. They could see I had the water on top of the bicycle.” The group stays together during the day and doesn’t venture out at night.
“The governor gave the police strict orders that give them the right to use any kinds of means,” Webber said. “They could shoot you and say whatever they want. The police treat you like nothing. That’s why we stick together.”
On September 6 the mayor of New Orleans announced a mandatory evacuation order for all remaining residents. An estimated 10,000 people are to be moved out, forcibly if necessary, according to city officials.
In an area with condominiums that fared well, we spoke with Robert LeBlanc, the manager of the Park VII complex. “Now they’re in here like buzzards,” he said, referring to the troops. “But it’s too late. They preached, ‘Be prepared, know where you’re going, what you’re going to do’—but they weren’t prepared.”
It’s not the hurricane “that got me pissed, it’s the way the government acted,” LeBlanc said. There was no serious effort to evacuate or help people in the aftermath. He described a body left laying near Magazine and Jackson Streets. Someone finally built a brick barrier around it after a few days. It was still there as we drove by, though now guarded by a soldier. “It could’ve been one of us,” LeBlanc said.
Riding into the city, we had joined residents of Jefferson Parish in a line of cars waiting to be allowed back into the area to visit their homes and gather needed items. Residents were instructed to be out of the city by the 6:00 p.m. curfew enforced by the cops. Nicole Flowers, a 34-year-old restaurant and retail worker, led us to her neighborhood of Harvey.
“People get displaced from their families,” Flowers said. “There is no effort whatsoever made to keep families together. They give you no information about where to go to get help, cash checks, or get food and supplies. Or, if they do tell you where to go to get assistance, you get there and they don’t know anything about it.”
Bernard Johnson, 45, a catering worker, stayed in his nearby apartment complex through the hurricane. He is not sure where his family is or whether they are together. “I’ve been sleeping outside,” Johnson said. “We can’t live inside because the roof caved in and the carpet and furniture are wet.” He hadn’t seen any buses come through the area to pick people up.
When residents asked for help, he said, cops on patrol just gave them the number of the parish president’s emergency line. Many have no working phones, and whenever they borrow someone’s cell phone they get a busy signal.
“My main concern is that we need ice,” said Hazel Thomas, 32. A friend “has seizures and if she gets overheated she needs ice, and all we have is warm bottles of water.”
Like many other working people here, Thomas has taken initiatives—sometimes dangerous ones—to save others, such as moving two elderly women to a safer building when their roof caved in during the hurricane. “There’s over 100 people here who need to get out,” said Thomas.
The Red Cross came by on September 4 and gave out boxes with 12 army-issued MRE food packets and some water. “They said they’d come back to pick people up today,” Thomas said, “but we haven’t seen them.”
What millions of people in the region are now facing is the battle to get jobs, decent housing, health care, and basic necessities from clothing to furniture. Based on recent experience, many working people here are recognizing that will take a fight.