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2005-12-09

New Orleans Evacuees and Activists Testify at Explosive House Hearing on the Role of Race and Class in Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina

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Three months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the southern coast of the United States, decimating communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, we play excerpts of an explosive congressional hearing focusing on race and the government’s response to the disaster. [includes rush transcript]

It has been three months since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the southern coast of the United States, decimating communities in Mississippi and Louisiana. After the initial slow government response to the disaster, President Bush flew to the region and promised the government will "do what it takes, stay as long as it takes, to help our citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." Well that promise is feeling increasingly hollow to many people.

Today is the start of the Survivors General Assembly and Strategy Conference in Jackson, Mississippi. Katrina survivors are gathering at this conference and demanding the right to return to their homes and to take part in the reconstruction process. They are also calling for reparations for what they say is the government’s criminal indifference and malicious actions towards the survivors before, during and after Katrina.

But survivors are not the only ones speaking out. Local reporters and politicians from both sides of the aisle have criticized the government’s inaction.

On Wednesday, Mississippi Republican Governor Haley Barbour, a staunch Bush supporter and former chair of the Republican National Committee stated, "we are at a point where our recovery and renewal efforts are stalled because of inaction in Washington D.C." Barbour went on to say there was no money to rebuild highways and bridges and school districts were close to bankruptcy. And he was just referring to Mississippi.

The city of New Orleans remains in a state of emergency with most residents unable to return. Many say they have been abandoned by the federal government, the same way they were abandoned during the first days of the storm. The Times-Picayune carried an editorial on the front page recently pleading "Do Not Let the City Die." Local advocates say the government is not committed to rebuilding the city for all of its citizens. They point to the fact that few public housing units have been reopened and that landlords are being allowed to evict people in mass numbers.

80% of New Orleans residents have not returned. And those who have are mostly white and wealthy. African-Americans especially feel the government is not making an effort to ensure that they are able to return. A group of homeless evacuees are filing a lawsuit in Federal Court today contending that FEMA engaged in illegal practices by denying or delaying their requests for temporary housing. They are also demanding that the agency back off of its plan to kick people out of their hotels in the coming days. The FEMA deadline for evacuees to be out of their hotels is December 15th with evacuees in some states granted until January 7th to find new housing.

A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post found 61% of evacuees sampled in Houston said their experience since Katrina has made them think that the government doesn’t care about them. 68% of those surveyed believed that the federal government would have responded more quickly if people trapped in the city were "wealthier and white rather than poorer and black."

On Tuesday, a special House Select Committee held a hearing focusing on the role of race and class in the government’s response to Katrina. The hearing was requested by Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney. She was one of the few Democrats to participate. It was a most unusual hearing–one that we rarely see on Capitol Hill. Survivors and activists testified that racism was a big reason so many were abandoned and allowed to die.

  • Excerpts of House Select Committee hearing on the government’s response to Katrina. Among those who testified:
    - Ishmael Muhammad, attorney for the Advancement Project and part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund.
    - Leah Hodges, New Orleans evacuee.
    - Dyan French, New Orleans community leader.
    - Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll turn now to excerpts from that hearing. We hear first from Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney for the Advancement Project, part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund.

ISHMAEL MUHAMMAD: The purpose of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition is to insure that those who have suffered the most before, during and after Katrina, and whose voices have been historically disregarded, are empowered to be heard and take charge of the monies being raised in their names, the reconstruction of their communities, and the repairing of their lives. Therefore, the testimony that I’m going to give today, on behalf of the legal work that we’re doing and on behalf of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, will be from those voices. And we urge all of you to seek out those voices that we cannot bring you today.

Denise, a 42-year-old black woman from New Orleans, interned in the Convention Center, reports, "I thought I was in hell. I was there for two days with no water, no food and no shelter, with my 63-year-old mother, 21-year-old niece and two-year-old grandniece and thousands of others. Police would not come out of their cars. National Guard trucks rolled by, completely empty, with soldiers with guns cocked and aiming at us. Nobody stopped to drop off water. A helicopter dropped a load of water, but all of the bottles exploded on impact. Many people were delirious from lack of water and food, completely dehydrated. Inside the Convention Center, conditions were horrible. The floors were black and slick with feces. Outside wasn’t much better, between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, and old and very young dying from dehydration. There were young men with guns there, who organized the crowd and got food and water for the old people and babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When buses came, it was those men who got the crowd in order. Old people in front, women and children next, men in the back. Many people decided to walk across the bridge to the west bank, but armed police ordered them to turn around at the top of the bridge. The first day, four people died next to me, the second day, six. Make sure you tell everybody," she said, "that they left us there to die."

Nicole, a young black woman from New Orleans, who was interned in the Superdome, states, "We survived despite being abandoned by federal, state and local government. Black families with children and no money were the majority in the Superdome. I noticed only 5% of people were not black and they were mostly unfortunate white and Asian tourists. While waiting in line behind a barricade for 18 hours to board a bus away from the Superdome, I noticed a group of tourists, three white and two Asian people, rushed quietly out one side of the barricade that held thousands of exhausted, financially underprivileged black families with babies. The looting was people’s main rebellion, because it was hotter than Satan’s oven in the Dome and people wanted cold drinks, ice, anything cold. The National Guard did not serve or protect. They were constantly threatening us and herding us by machine guns like cows. I saw a teenage boy beaten up by a National Guard officer in front of a crowd of thousands of people. The National Guard was disorganized. They did not try to instill order to the chaos of ration distribution. Nobody ever knew when or where food was given out, and people stood in line for hours. I was alone and female. Many of the older men and women were protective of me in the Superdome. Nobody really laid a hand on me, except for a white police officer, Officer Hall, badge 185 or 158 (I wish I could remember). He grabbed my booty in Texas during a 3:00 a.m. bus search, while we were on the way to Dallas. The U.S. is the richest country in the world. I don’t understand why so many people would have to die in Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. has the money to evacuate people in a disaster, especially one that has been awaited for a number of years."

Shelly, a 31-year-old who was trapped in the Superdome, adds, "When buses came to take us from the Superdome, they were taking tourists first. White people, they were just picking them out of the crowd. I don’t know why we were treated the way we were. But it was like they didn’t care."

Alva, a 51-year-old grandmother from New Orleans East, remembers, "When we were taken to the higher ground in Jefferson Parish, what did we have to greet us? A line of military police with M-16 rifles. They watched us, caged us, laughed at us, took pictures of us with their camera-phones. I saw a young man get down on his knees and beg for water for his little baby, and I saw the child die right there on the concrete. This was murder. They wanted us dead. They just didn’t think so many of us would survive."

Tammy, a black woman in her mid-30s, complains, "I was trying to evacuate with my two daughters by car, when we were stopped by police, made to get out and told, 'Lie down on the ground, you black monkey bitch.' I was arrested and thrown in jail with my daughters and could not get out for several weeks."

John, a New Orleans resident displaced at the Houston Astrodome, says, "I was in the Astrodome and told to move from the bleachers to the field on the lower area, but I refused because I had seen dead bodies down there and I was with some of my 12 children in the upstairs area. There were just too many unsafe issues down there. I was forced to leave the stadium. Me and my family were taken out at rifle-point."

Agnes, a 70-something-year-old Creole woman who was a resident of Iberville Public Housing Development; Maybell, a woman in her late-70s, a longtime resident of St. Bernard Public Housing Development; Joseph and Cynthia, who are residents of B.W. Cooper Public Housing Development; and Alberta, who is a resident of Lafitte Public Housing Development, have all been displaced, and all are wondering why they have to be locked out of their public housing residence when their homes have received little to no flooding and are habitable.

These stories illustrate that these are the people who need to be heard, because their stories illustrate the failures of the government on every level.

AMY GOODMAN: Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney for the Advancement Project and part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, speaking at the House Select Committee on the Role of Race and Class in Response to Katrina. We’ll go back to that hearing in just a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We return to the House Select Committee Hearing on the role of race and class in response to Hurricane Katrina. This is New Orleans community leader, Leah Hodges, testifying.

DYAN FRENCH: Rita, Katrina, and all of the aftermath, if we are not going to sit here and be honest about the racism —

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right. That’s right. It don’t make no sense.

DYAN FRENCH: — that was perpetrated, then I have really, truly wasted my time coming here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Me, too. And I missed a day’s work.

DYAN FRENCH: And I really don’t want nobody to get confused. At 60, I just don’t want to call you the names that we were called. We have documentation. We don’t have to sit in this room. I invite all of you to please come to New Orleans. The proof is there, the proof of what happened. Our little mayor — and he may get offended, I don’t care. He who knows that and not that he knows not, that’s how he got caught up. You can’t get surrounding parishes to put your disaster plan together. Most of his top staff — and I have been appointed on most of my jobs with the city —are people who don’t live in the parish. They live in the surrounding parishes. And that’s what happened to us on the day of. Rightfully so, the police who didn’t live there stayed home and took care of their people.

REP. JEFF MILLER: May I ask you —

DYAN FRENCH: But they had no business working for the city, because there’s a law — or ordinance that says you can’t.

REP. JEFF MILLER: May I ask you a question? You mention — you talked about the parishes. And this is something that I have heard people talk about. Is it true that some parishes are refusing to allow temporary housing of certain peoples within their parishes?

LEAH HODGES: Very true. Very true. Particularly true of [inaudible] and Jefferson Parish. Jefferson Parish is where the Causeway concentration camp was housed, where we experienced the Gestapo-type oppression, as opposed to being rescued. We were three minutes away from the airport. They could have taken us to the airport. Those military vehicles could have taken us to any dry, safe city in America. Instead, they dumped us at a dumping ground, sealed us in there, and they backed up all their authority with military M-16s.

And there were thousands and thousands of people. On the last day we were in there — and let me tell you something — they hand-picked the white people to ride out first. Yes, racism was very much involved. They hand-picked the white people to ride out first. Every day, the crowd got darker and darker and darker until finally there were only — there were 95% people of color in that place.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Miss Hodges, would you be offended if I respectfully asked you not to call the Causeway area a concentration camp?

LEAH HODGES: I am going to call it what it is. If I put a dress on a pig, a pig is still a pig.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Are you familiar with the history?

LEAH HODGES: Yes, sir, I am. And that is the only thing I could compare what we went through to: a concentration camp.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And that’s the truth.

LEAH HODGES: And everybody in the place with me, the lady sitting next to me was there, my mother was there, my younger brother was there, my two sisters; we ran into others. That is the point, that they broke up families and dispersed us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That’s right.

LEAH HODGES: And they stood over us with guns and enforced their authority, and yes, they tortured us. And then they used various forms of torture. And yes, I know what a concentration camp is. I’m a college-educated woman.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Not a single —

LEAH HODGES: And I love the study of history.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed.

LEAH HODGES: They died from abject neglect. We left body bags behind. Pregnant women lost their babies.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That’s one of the reasons why some of these people wouldn’t come out of those houses, because you was told to come on the street, and when people came out —

LEAH HODGES: They were shot

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: — they were killed.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Excuse me, Mr. Miller has another minute left.

REP. JEFF MILLER: I should have more time than that, sir.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Go ahead.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Thank you. I respectfully request that you not call it the Causeway concentration camp.

LEAH HODGES: Respectfully, sir —

REP. TOM DAVIS: Excuse me, it is Mr. Miller’s time. You had your time.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Mama D, you’re very smart — all of you are smart, but you obviously are a very smart and worldly woman.

DYAN FRENCH: I’m old.

REP. JEFF MILLER: I’m not going to say that. I ain’t going there.

DYAN FRENCH: I said it. I even get my discount at the places, the quarter coffee thing.

REP. JEFF MILLER: We’ve got the mayor coming next week.

DYAN FRENCH: You know what, I feel sorry for that baby. And let me just say something to you, being an older person, sweetheart, any name you call it in New Orleans, particularly in the state of Louisiana, overall — do you know me, Jeff? You don’t just know me being my congressman? You know me as a person in my community?

REP. WILLIAM JENNINGS JEFFERSON: Absolutely.

DYAN FRENCH: I was here with the Hispanic community two years ago when they came about the injustices that they’re suffering in this country. I’m always called the one that deals with — the mentally ill and incarcerated. I do special things for them, because I understand their plights. My problem with all of this, and I said this. I said this in September. I said nobody is going to believe us. This is an unbelievable story.

AMY GOODMAN: Community leaders Dyan French and Leah Hodges, testifying before the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gained national headlines for its disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. Months after the hurricane hit, FEMA is still under fire for the treatment of Katrina survivors. This is New Orleans evacuee, Leah Hodges, testifying at Tuesday’s Congressional Hearing.

LEAH HODGES: FEMA has created a nightmare inside of a nightmare for some people. I had a few people to call me and ask me to please help. I know right now of a 70-year-old man in New Orleans who is a diabetic and a veteran. And FEMA — a tree fell on this man’s house, and FEMA said he has no damage, and they have not given him zip.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Before we end here, was there any government agency or non-profit that was helpful? Not not helpful. FEMA has taken a lot of hits from the committee. But is there any group —

LEAH HODGES: They deserve it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They deserve more.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Yeah, and they got it big-time. But the question I’m asking is any government agency that has proved helpful?

LEAH HODGES: Well, I’m not really understanding helpful on a scale from one to ten. I mean, is it helpful that I got help after they have given me the worst case of high blood pressure that I have ever had in my life and I have not suffered with high blood pressure before this situation?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The Red Cross? —

LEAH HODGES: Do you want to hear my answer? Now, I’m not even sure what help is in this situation, because FEMA have been so — they have been hostile. You get them on the phone, they will argue with you. They ask you a question. You answer their question. They will argue with you, and when they send you a copy of your application back, they have put things on your application that you don’t even recognize that do not apply to you. They interpret your answers, and they indicate the answers they want on your application, which are guaranteed to tie you up, so that if you get any help at all, it would not be soon forthcoming.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Any government agency that’s been helpful to you or non-profit organization?

DYAN FRENCH: You know —

LEAH HODGES: I’ll tell you who has been helpful to me: The Corinthian Church in Cincinnati, the Corinthian Baptist Church, because it is from there that I got the strength to withstand the foolishness of FEMA, because what FEMA do to people, you know, is criminal. Like I said, after they have ruined my health, then they throw a few dollars at me; is that really help? When now I need to pay to see a doctor, I don’t have medical insurance. I told them I have medical needs. They send me a letter back telling me that they deny my medical needs on the one hand, but fill out some papers saying I don’t have health insurance. They’re not forthcoming with any medical assistance that I need, and throwing a few dollars at me after they have driven my health to a very bad state, no, I don’t consider that help at all.

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans evacuee and community leader, Leah Hodges. She will be joining us live in a moment from Atlanta. She was being questioned by Connecticut Congressmember Christopher Shays. Before that, it was Republican Congressmember Jeff Miller of Florida, who was questioning both Dyan French and Leah Hodges. We now turn to Ishmael Muhammad again, the attorney for the Advancement Project.

ISHMAEL MUHAMMAD: When we talk about being truthful, and we are dealing with an environment in which lies are consistently told to the population. From the syphilis experiment, to not want to talk about how many civilians and innocent people are being killed in Iraq, to the counterintelligence program, I mean, we have a number of instances where the government here campaigns in a way to hide its problems from the international community and from its own population. So we saw in Katrina a media campaign that began in a very humane way, and then all of a sudden, take a serious turn to the same old, same old again.

We know that there was a shoot-to-kill order given in an environment that already was problematic in terms of black people being killed by authorities. So, just using your common sense — the sense we all got a little bit of, at least — you give someone rearing to go, before Katrina, in a disaster situation, a shoot-to-kill order and create an environment where everybody is a potential looter, you are going to have people getting shot down by police, by law enforcement authorities. And then you have account after account after account of people being killed. Then you have statements being made by law enforcement officials and government officials that the only — that all deaths are going to be identified as happening August 29th as the date and no identification is going to be made of what actually killed anyone, what actually made people — what actually was the reason that people died. Why is that? And then you have reports that 10,000 people may be dead, and all of a sudden we have a body count of a little over 1,000.

I mean, it’s important that we do our job as people in the — of the people, to uncover the truth, and it’s important that those that are serious about the truth in the Congress do their job to push the Congress to uncover the truth. But we have at least a number of accounts that tell us that people were shot and killed by the police. We are pursuing that. We will be suing on that, and let’s see if it gets laughed out of court. Then we’ll know something about the body count.

Now, about this insurance issue — and it’s interesting, too, with the body count that FEMA doesn’t want to release any information. FEMA has been asked for information after information from various organizations. We actually got FEMA to give up some information to protect people’s rights not to get evicted from their home without notice. That was just like the only FEMA victory so far. But FEMA doesn’t want to tell anyone anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney for the Advancement Project, part of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. While plans are underway for the rebuilding of New Orleans, many fear reconstruction contracts are going out-of-state corporations at the expense of local workers and businesses. This is Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

HARRY ALFORD: Between 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war, a phenomenon happened in the federal procurement system. Certain members of what President Eisenhower regarded as the military-industrial complex began to look at other new markets. Today, we have this cartel that deals with disaster recovery. It is not shocking to see that the same companies who enjoy bundled contracts and no-bid contracts in the Iraq war are now receiving such gravy in the Katrina recovery. FEMA has assembled a new team, and the federal procurement system has been hijacked. This cartel has been assembled in places such as the Capital Grill and Palm restaurants. Scope of work has been determined in suites along K Street in downtown D.C.

It’s not about quality, but about power and greed. Money — big money, tax money — are the rule, and ethics and procurement law have been tossed aside. America is at risk, due to a runaway lobby train that manipulates who gets the jobs, regardless of price, quality and due diligence. Bona-fide and qualified companies that belong to the NBCC cannot get into this cartel. The fees are too high and the country clubs, et al., don’t have a policy of inclusion.

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. He went on to talk about big business and disaster relief.

HARRY ALFORD: I’m remembering of a story told by a tactical officer in my officer candidate school class. He said: "You men are here at Fort Benning, Georgia, training to become lieutenants because of a certain situation, which is Vietnam. War is business, and right now, business is damn good." Here you are, all husbands and many fathers with fine college degrees and should be heading to corporate America to begin your careers. Instead, you are draftees, because war is business, and business is damn good. The bigger the war, the better the business.

Now, what scares me about Katrina is the thought that the bigger the disaster, the greater the business. The 82nd Airborne can deploy anywhere in this world in 24 hours. It took them eight days to travel 600 miles to New Orleans. National television showed the plight of New Orleans, but FEMA would not budge, as if they never turned on the TV set. The longer the wait, the greater the disaster, and if disaster is a business, right now business is damn good. Let’s end this nightmare. Fortune favors courage, thank you.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Thank you, very much. I’m also a Benning alum. So, I appreciate it.

HARRY ALFORD: All right.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. After three hours of moving testimony, the hearing came to a close. The Republican chair of the committee was about to end the proceedings before he was interrupted by Congress member Cynthia McKinney.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Let me just thank this panel. Thanks for your patience and sitting through it. Thank you for the dialogue, and we very much appreciate this information.

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY: Mr. Chairman, don’t bang the gavel yet, because I would like to have concluding words.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Ah, yeah. Ms. McKinney.

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY: I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for allowing us to have this day.

REP. TOM DAVIS: You can take as much time as you want on that comment.

[laughter]

REP. CYNTHIA McKINNEY: Because were it left up to — I’ll get in trouble now — but were it left up to the Democratic leadership, we would not have had this day, because we wouldn’t be here. The Democratic leadership has instructed us to boycott this panel, because we can’t trust the results or the report of this panel. But if we participate as our constituents voted us to do up here, we can at least insure that there’s more integrity than by boycotting it.

And so I would like to thank my chairman for giving us the opportunity to invite people who don’t have the opportunity to come and testify before Congress, except for Barbara, of course, she comes up here a lot. But, we’ve heard from people for whom getting here has been a struggle, whether it’s just because they are Katrina survivors at the armory, and it was a struggle for them to get to the armory, or if they are Katrina survivors living in New Orleans still, determined to stay there and maybe every once in a while get a glimpse of their member of Congress.

We are here to serve all of the people of this country, and too rarely do we hear from all of the people. But thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Shays, for staying here throughout the entirety of this hearing to hear what my people — my people — have to say. Because the road that we walk is not paved. Or as some great poet said, life for us ain’t been no crystal stair.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Thank you. Cynthia, thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia thanking Democratic Congressmember Cynthia McKinney, who called for the hearing on race and class as it relates to Hurricane Katrina.

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