During Democracy Now’s recent trip to New Orleans, we managed to get inside the largest FEMA trailer park set up after Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after we interviewed hurricane evacuee Donna Azeez, we were kicked out of the park by security guards working for Corporate Security Solutions, the private company hired by FEMA to police Renaissance Village. [includes rush transcript]
Earlier this month, Democracy Now went down to Louisiana and had a chance to take a rare look inside Renaissance Village–a trailer park on the outskirts of Baton Rouge that houses over 2,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The trailer park has been described in the Louisiana press as "Fema’s Dirty Little Secret" in part because of FEMA’s tight control over who has access to the park. Prior to being kicked out of the trailer park by private security guards, we managed to speak to Donna Azeez who lives at the trailer park.
- Donna Azeez, resident of Renaissance Village.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to continue now to look at New Orleans and the problems facing citizens who are displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Earlier this month, Democracy Now! went down to Louisiana. We had a chance to take a rare look inside Renaissance Village, a trailer park on the outskirts of Baton Rouge that houses more than — close to 2,000 Katrina evacuees. The trailer park has been described in Louisiana press as "FEMA’s dirty little secret," in part because of FEMA’s tight control over who has access to the park. Prior to being kicked out of the trailer park by the private security guards in charge, we managed to speak Donna Azeez, who lives at the trailer park.
DONNA AZEEZ: Couple of my things got flooded. My car got flooded. My refrigerator was gone. And I had a shed in the back with my washing machine, my dryer and a lot of other stuff. All that got destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up here?
DONNA AZEEZ: Well, my brother — it was like 13 of us in a van, and we all came in my brother’s van, and he brought us up here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, did you end up first at the shelter and then here?
DONNA AZEEZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the trailer park like?
DONNA AZEEZ: It’s horrible. It smells bad out here. You smell the sewer. It’s horrible living out here. You’ve got to deal with all the bugs, caterpillars coming all up on the porch, going up in your house. And some of the trailers, like the trailer I’m living in right now, is very small. And it’s hard to keep clean. It’s me and my baby in there. And it’s very hard to keep it up. And it’s a lot of wear and tear on your mind.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you get your food?
DONNA AZEEZ: Oh, well, I buy my food. We had a cafeteria over here, but they just closed it April the 6th.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
DONNA AZEEZ: They say enough people wasn’t going to eat it, but the food was horrible. Only had a couple of things that taste good: the fish and the chicken. Everything else was like slop.
AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you get the money to buy the food?
DONNA AZEEZ: Well, I get food stamps. But everything here is so high. You just got to really be wise in spending it, because the cost of living is very expensive.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about propane?
DONNA AZEEZ: Oh, I have to buy my own propane.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you always have to buy it?
DONNA AZEEZ: No. FEMA was supplying it. And they told everybody you have to — you could stay here — and propane, I believe, for 18 months, and then now we have to start paying for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you been here for 18 months?
DONNA AZEEZ: No. But there’s a program going on now. They’re trying to really get you out. We just been here maybe about six months. But they said 18 months. But they’re not agreeing to what they said.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back?
DONNA AZEEZ: Home? I could go back home, but I think it just might be — I would rather stay here in Baker, but I think it’s just even worse over there, because everything has jumped up — the rent, everything. Everything is very, very high. Higher, probably higher than here in Baker.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you go back into your house?
DONNA AZEEZ: My house, I could go back, but I’m really sure my landlord probably have tripled, 'cause it didn't get flooded. A lot of houses on my block — what saved my house was that it was up high, up on steps. That’s the only thing that saved it. But mostly everybody else, their houses were destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you could go back into your house?
DONNA AZEEZ: I could go back, but I couldn’t afford it. The rent is too high. I couldn’t afford it.
AMY GOODMAN: But how do you know that the landlord increased the rent?
DONNA AZEEZ: Well, because it’s everywhere. You know, everywhere you go, the rent has increased. Everything has increased. And then I heard that the government was going to help you out, but that’s just for a certain period of time. And then after that, you’re on your own. So, even if I stay here, I have to find a house that I can afford, because they’re only going to give you a certain amount of money to help you for a while, and then if you can’t afford that high rent, well, then you’re out the door.
AMY GOODMAN: Are there rules here that you have to —?
DONNA AZEEZ: Yeah. We have the FEMA park rules. We have a lot of rules that they set up.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
DONNA AZEEZ: Well, for one, like there’s no decoration. And I think that’s just so wrong, because you’re living here and you want to be comfortable where you’re staying and you want to feel good. They won’t let us put any decorations outside. All we could do is put decorations on the inside. And I’m trying to think of some more stuff. It’s a long list of rules and regulations.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you go out and in when you want?
DONNA AZEEZ: To the best of my knowledge, yes. I didn’t hear them say anything about that.
AMY GOODMAN: And how old is your baby?
DONNA AZEEZ: She’s five.
AMY GOODMAN: Does she go to some kindergarten?
DONNA AZEEZ: Yes. She goes to Baker Heights.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long do you plan to stay?
DONNA AZEEZ: Well, I plan on staying. I don’t want to go back to New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
DONNA AZEEZ: Because I don’t think they’re going to fix that levee. I don’t think it’d be able to withstand. And then hurricane season is coming again. I just don’t trust it.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a phone that you can communicate here?
DONNA AZEEZ: Yes. I have a cell phone.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they give it to you?
DONNA AZEEZ: FEMA — you have to go and apply. And then it’s like after — they give you free 300 minutes, and then after that, then you have to pay for it.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have a landline inside your trailer for a land phone?
DONNA AZEEZ: No. And that’s the thing. We don’t have cable. You can’t have cable, you can’t have a regular telephone. There’s nothing to do out here. That’s why children are getting in trouble. There’s nothing to do. They’re trying to get some programs started, but it’s kind of — they’ve got some going on, but it’s not enough.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Donna Azeez, speaking to us in Renaissance Village in Baker, Louisiana. As we traveled around, the security guards told us that we had to leave. These were security guards from C.S.S. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, hired by FEMA. That’s Corporate Security Solutions. These were guards, a number of whom had been in Afghanistan and Iraq. The residents, though, of Renaissance Village, seemed surprised that they weren’t allowed to speak in their own community, and one man asked if he could talk to us. And this is what happened.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Deception. Lies. A famine. A shortage.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, don’t stop.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Everything. And it ain’t no good to be here.
SECURITY GUARD: Turn it off.
AMY GOODMAN: We were going in the car, and he said, "Please interview me."
SECURITY GUARD: Yeah, he — he can’t. That’s not his privilege.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s not allowed to talk?
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: What’s wrong? What’s wrong?
SECURITY GUARD: You can go — get that —- you’ve known the deal since -—
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: No, I don’t know the deal. Tell me. What is the deal?
SECURITY GUARD: You can go get interviewed as long as it’s off post. Otherwise, you, like I said, I can call the 800 FEMA number and have them come in —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean, he has to come off of the property?
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: What is — there’s a problem being interviewed?
SECURITY GUARD: Turn it off.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Turn it off, man. I don’t want no problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Okay.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: 'Cause I don't know anything about not being able to be interviewed.
SECURITY GUARD: You — no, you can be interviewed, as long as it’s off the installation.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Well, okay, we can move over there.
SECURITY GUARD: Other than that that [inaudible].
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Okay, we can move over there. 'Cause I was sitting out here reading my Bible. But I didn't know anything about —- we will not being interviewed, because -—
SECURITY GUARD: Yes, you can be interviewed —
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Okay.
SECURITY GUARD: —- if they had a FEMA representative with them, but since they don’t and do not have an appointment -—
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Oh, okay. ’Cause I know they do it all the time.
SECURITY GUARD: Yes, they have the FEMA public relations officer with them.
RENAISSANCE VILLAGE RESIDENT: Okay, well, I didn’t know.
SECURITY GUARD: I’m not mad at you, Red. You know that.
AMY GOODMAN: As we drove off of Renaissance Village, we were chased by the guards in golf carts, who said they would be taking down our license plate and that we couldn’t return. This was the day after FEMA had ended the free meals that they had been providing to the more than thousand people, anyone who wanted to take advantage of it in Renaissance Village, again, about an hour away from New Orleans in Baker, Louisiana.