Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff spoke about the ongoing hotel evictions of Hurricane Katrina evacuees during his testimony before the bi-partisan Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. We speak with attorneys Bill Quigley and Tracie Washington, who represent a number of evacuees staying in hotels and facing eviction, and also an evacuee, about the ongoing housing crisis. [includes rush transcript]
Chertoff has been on the defensive since a Government Accountability Office Report was filed on February 1st. That report and the House report filed yesterday sharply criticized his agency’s response to the disaster. After Chertoff’s opening statement, the hearing was interrupted by audience member Reverend Lennox Yearwood. He is CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Chertoff admitted to several failures, including that he and his department had moved far too slowly in obtaining buses to evacuate the thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans superdome and Convention Center. Chertoff also admitted to wrongly entrusting former FEMA head Michael Brown with managing the response to the disaster. In testimony last week Michael Brown admitted to willfully working to circumvent Mr. Chertoff’s authority during and after the hurricane.
Chertoff blamed his department’s failures on lapses in management and communication and also said that the Department of Homeland Security’s excessive focus on the threat of terrorism had hindered its ability to prepare for a natural disaster. Chertoff also spoke yesterday about the ongoing hotel evictions of evacuees.
- Tracie Washington, an Attorney based in New Orleans and currently representing a number of evacuees who are staying in hotels and are facing eviction.
- Bill Quigley, law professor at Loyola University
- Debra Bell, Katrina evacuee living in Houston who will have to be out of her hotel by March 1st.
AMY GOODMAN: Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff testified Wednesday before the Bipartisan Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in his role in the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. Chertoff has been on the defensive since the Government Accountability Office Report was filed February 1. That report and the House report Wednesday sharply criticized his agency’s response to the disaster. After Chertoff’s opening statement, the hearing was interrupted by Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who was in the audience. He’s C.E.O. of the Hip-Hop Caucus.
REV. LENNOX YEARWOOD: Mothers and children are being thrown in the street! Our [inaudible} to the ground.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Sir, this is not a public hearing today.
REV. LENNOX YEARWOOD: This is not American! They’re being evicted! They are being thrown in the ground! It’s hard. It’s just hard.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I understand that, and the committee is working on that issue. We’ve been to the area twice. I invite you to sit quietly and allow us to proceed with the hearing. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Security ushered him out of the room. In Wednesday’s hearing, Michael Chertoff, though, stayed. He admitted to several failures including that he and his department had moved too slowly in obtaining buses to evacuate the thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. Chertoff also admitted to wrongly entrusting former FEMA head, Michael Brown, with managing the response to the disaster.
In testimony last week, Brown admitted to willfully working to circumvent Chertoff’s authority during and after the hurricane. Chertoff blamed his department’s failures on lapses in management and communication, also said the Department of Homeland Security’s excessive focus on the threat of terrorism had hindered its ability to prepare for a natural disaster. Chertoff also spoke yesterday about the ongoing hotel evictions of evacuees.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Because we all bear a measure of responsibility in a natural disaster of these proportions. It just isn’t the executive branch, it’s the Congress. And we want to be supportive, because we have learned, from bitter experience in this, the element of human suffering.
You heard the gentleman behind you get up and speak out about the plight of so many individuals today. I know they are foremost in your mind. What active steps are you taking today to try and alleviate the suffering that’s taking place every hour we sit here?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Here’s the program we have in place. In order to transition people from having the government directly pay for hotels, which are very expensive, to having people receiving assistance that they can use to find places to live or receiving trailers. We put into process a program to, first of all, validate the appropriateness of everybody in the hotel, see who is, in fact, entitled to be there and who isn’t, get them their money and then give them a couple of weeks from the time they get their money to find someplace to live.
We have sent — we have done a lot of intensive work sending teams in to meet with people in hotels to give them housing solutions. If they have to wait for trailers or if they have to wait for apartments, they will have individual assistance that they can use to pay for places to live until that happens. I know the hotels were a little impatient. And with tourism coming up, some of them want to push people out. We’ve tried to be very hard — to be sensitive to helping people find housing, but ultimately move us away from what is a very expensive program of having large numbers of people in hotels.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Chertoff, being questioned by the Virginia Republican Senator Warner at Wednesday’s hearing in front of the Senate Committee for Homeland Security. We’re now joined on the telephone by Bill Quigley, an attorney based in New Orleans who’s been representing a number of evacuees who are staying in hotels and also have been evicted. He’s a law professor at Loyola University. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
BILL QUIGLEY: Glad to be here. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Actually, before we have you respond to what we just played of Michael Chertoff in his testimony, I wanted to ask you a quick question on another issue, and that is Haiti. We have just gotten word that the decision has been made to declare Rene Preval the victor in last week’s Presidential elections in Haiti. Bill, you have been longtime active on Haiti, representing Father Jean-Juste, while he’s been imprisoned for many months there. Your response?
BILL QUIGLEY: Well, I think that’s wonderful. It’s actually something I didn’t hear yet, so that’s very exciting. I know that that is a reflection of the will of the people of Haiti, and the will of the people of Haiti has been frustrated so frequently by the small elites in Haiti, backed by the United States, France and Canada, that this is a wonderful victory that people, I’m sure, are going to celebrate hopefully for a very long time. But as your listeners well know, any victory for the people in Haiti is something that has to be guarded, and they have to be very vigilant. So I think that’s wonderful news. And I think that reflects the strength and determination of the people in Haiti and also their allies across the world who are fighting for human rights and democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, now we are going to go back to the issue at hand, and that is Katrina. We are joined by Bill Quigley, as well as by Tracie Washington, who have been working side by side on the issue of the evacuees. First, Bill Quigley. Your response to Michael Chertoff at the hearing?
BILL QUIGLEY: Well, I think it’s just, you know, too little, too late. Clearly what’s happened in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is a massive failure. But the importance is not only that it’s a massive failure, of the poor and the disabled and the elderly, people of color at the time of the response to the hurricane, which everybody saw, but the same people are being left behind now in the reconstruction. And also there’s a big missing point in what the House did. I would encourage people to look at Representative Cynthia McKinney’s analysis of it. And that is, this didn’t just happen. There was a reason that one-quarter of the people in New Orleans didn’t have cars.
AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington, your response? You have been spending many months going from hotel to hotel to try to stop people from being evacuated. Michael Chertoff says they’re doing all they can to take care of people, yet the big eviction notice is going out this past week. What are you doing?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, you may be hearing some feedback. It seems that I may have another program on my side. But, you know, I think it’s just disingenuous. There can be no doubt, after looking at the Arkansas trailers on the ground and all the other mismanagement and waste by FEMA, that they’ve not done everything that they can do to help the evacuees in the Gulf Coast area. We have people here who are suffering, who do not have housing, who are living in their cars right now. And the statement by Chertoff that they have — an admission that they have mismanaged many of the resources tells me that they’ve left New Orleanians, who have suffered gravely through this tragedy, they’ve left us out high and dry.
AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined on the phone by Debra Bell, a Katrina evacuee living in Houston. She’ll have to be out of her hotel by March 1. We’ve heard a lot about trailers, about trailers that were bought but are not being used. What is happening with you, Debra?
DEBRA BELL: Hi. I first applied for a trailer in October of last year. I was told that the process would be expedited, because, for medical reasons, I needed to be in the trailer in order to be close to Ochsner Hospital. I had a double lung transplant. But months went by. Months and months went by. I kept being told that I was going to get the trailer. But in the meantime I was having to take that six-hour drive from Houston to New Orleans for the specialized care that I’ve needed.
Just last week we got the trailer but we have no electricity for the trailer. FEMA didn’t bring the pole out. Entergy, which is the electronic company for New Orleans, they haven’t turned our service on. And so my husband is going to be evicted from the hotel on March 1, because we have a trailer there that we can’t use at this time. And so that’s been our frustration.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: And you hear that story over and over and over again.
AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: It’s probably one of the biggest tragedies out here, that so many people have been promised so much by FEMA, be it adequate rental assistance or trailers. And when FEMA doesn’t deliver, the evacuees are penalized.
AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have a New Orleans evacuee, Debra, who had a double lung transplant, has finally gotten a trailer, which is more than a lot of people, but there’s no electricity for her and her family to function in it. So, Tracie Washington, what about specifically these trailers? How many are there? How many haven’t been delivered? And what is your response to Michael Chertoff saying they’re doing all they can?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, they’re not doing all they can. I mean, that’s just not true. You know, anytime you can look on any of the news stations and see 10,000, 15,000 trailers and mobile homes parked in Arkansas, when you see trailer parks, basically, here in New Orleans, where folks cannot get into the trailers — we’ve had demonstrations by trailer parks that are empty here in New Orleans and in the New Orleans area. And an outlying parish, St. Bernard Parish, they did a beautiful act of civil disobedience, and the parish council went and moved trailers off the lot so that their people could have housing.
You know, and a bigger tragedy, not to take away from just the individuals who are going to be without homes, but on March 1 our police officers and firefighters who are waiting for trailers, who were living temporarily on a ship, will also be homeless. We will have homeless police officers and firefighters. And it’s just the most absurd thing for Mr. Chertoff to say, "Look, we’re doing everything we can." You’re not.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, at the height of the levees breaking and right after the hurricane, we were speaking to you each day from the hospital, where you were with your wife, who is a nurse. And I’d like to ask you about the state of the hospitals right now in New Orleans. We just heard that Tulane has opened up a part of the hospital, but we also heard about questions of doctors deciding to help patients die, because they just didn’t want them to go through the suffering. Your response?
BILL QUIGLEY: Well, very few of the hospitals in the metropolitan area are open. I think seven of the 22 hospitals are open right now. I’ll give you an example. We had — it just shows you some of the interrelatedness of the problem is one of the people in my office, the night before last, at 8:00 at night, took a man up to Baton Rouge, which is 85 miles away, to set a broken arm. His arm had been broken for 11 days. The undocumented worker fell off of a roof. The contractor left him. And there was no facility in the New Orleans area that could set his arm, for somebody who was an uninsured patient. So he had to be brought — he waited ten-plus days. His arm was purple and swollen. So the health care provisions here are very patchwork. We do have some people go to the emergency room with heart problems and heart attacks and that stuff. They are looking at waits of eight to twelve hours in the emergency room. The medical system has melted down, along with many of our other institutions.
And the criminal investigation into the euthanasia that has been alleged at various hospitals is continuing and sounds like it should be coming to a head here before long. And I think we’re going to find out that doctors did, in fact, perform what they would term "mercy killings" but the state may term something else. For people who had been without electricity, without water, without food and didn’t look like they could be evacuated, after days and days of inaction by the federal, state and local government, they thought in their mind that it was better to put these folks out of their misery than try to bring them down places without electricity and that sort of stuff. So it’s a very, very tragic situation.
And the one last thing would I like to say is that people here are not advocating for some sort of special luxurious treatment. These trailers that people are getting in are tiny, tiny trailers. They are, you know, set up in front of destroyed houses. People are — all they really want is a chance to be able to get on their feet to hold onto a job. FEMA has said for people who are working in New Orleans but were in these hotels, we’ll take you to North Louisiana or Tennessee where you can get a cheap apartment, but they have to give up their job. They have to pull their kids out of maybe the fourth school they’ve been in already to do this stuff.
FEMA is — either doesn’t care — and I mean, FEMA, when we say FEMA, we shouldn’t just say FEMA. FEMA is George Bush. This is an executive branch of the government that is doing exactly what the President says. George Bush either doesn’t care what happens to the poor people in this area of the country, or he is so incompetent that they can’t do any better. It’s not a question of "We’re doing the best we can." They’re doing as good as they are doing, which is terrible. And that’s either a conscious choice that they don’t care, or it’s a decision that the thing is so messed up that there’s nothing more that they can do.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, and I want to thank you all for being with us. Bill Quigley, professor of law at Loyola in New Orleans. Also, Tracie Washington, attorney, on the line with us from New Orleans. And we’ve been joined by Debra Bell, who is an evacuee from New Orleans.