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Rebuilding New Orleans: The Struggle Continues

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We look at the the ongoing struggles around rebuilding New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. We speak with Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans and Tracie Washington, an attorney representing a number of evacuees in New Orleans who are staying in hotels and are facing eviction. [includes rush transcript]

We focus on New Orleans and the ongoing struggles around rebuilding the city after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. On a visit to the devastated city for the first time in three months, President Bush said Thursday “I will tell you the contrast between when I was last here and today is pretty dramatic.

Earlier this week, Bring Back New Orleans, the city’s rebuilding commission, unveiled the first of seven reports that are part of a sweeping re-development plan for the city. The committee’s proposal was presented at a meeting on Wednesday with hundreds of residents in attendance. Most of the residents responded to the proposal with anger and frustration when they heard that it would give neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city four months to a year to prove that they should not be bulldozed. Under the proposal, residents in the hardest-hit neighborhoods would not be permitted to move back for at least four months. During that time, leaders of each neighborhood would have to submit a recovery plan that would have to be approved before residents would be allowed to come back. Neighborhoods that are not able to come up with a plan or that do not attract enough development within a year, would be bull-dozed. The proposal was put together by the commission’s urban planning committee, which is headed by the multi-millionaire real estate developer Joseph Canizaro.

Also this week, a deal was reached to stall many evictions of evacuees staying in hotels throughout the city. In the last few weeks, a number of New Orleans Hotels had notified evacuees that they would soon be evicted to make way for tourists who had booked rooms during the Mardi Gras celebration at the end of February. About 15,000 of the displaced are staying in hotel rooms in Louisiana–most of them are located in New Orleans.

  • Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League. He was also Mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002.
  • Tracie Washington, attorney focusing on civil rights law, education and labor/employment law. She is currently representing a number of evacuees in New Orleans who are staying in hotels and are facing eviction.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Marc Morial. He is President of the National Urban League. He was also the Mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MARC MORIAL: I’m glad to be here. Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

MARC MORIAL: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, President Bush was in New Orleans yesterday. You were in New Orleans this week. Can you talk about the situation?

MARC MORIAL: Well, I think the recovery is slow. It hasn’t made the kind of progress that I think most people expected. While the areas of the city that were modestly hit or not affected at all by Katrina appear to be back to normal, underneath you have universities that are closed and schools that are closed and businesses that are closed, and that affects not only the areas that were dramatically affected, but the areas that were not affected.

Secondly, I spent time last week in New Orleans on Friday before the New Orleans City Council with the other two former mayors who are living, Moon Landrieu and Sidney Barthelemy, along with a number of regional political leaders, emphasizing, in a show of unity, the need for the federal government to make a commitment to a first class category five flood protection and levy system.

Then, on Saturday, I went out to New Orleans East, one of the areas devastated, spoke to about 1,000 people at Saint Maria Goretti Church, where people are having services, and there’s no electricity. There’s no carpet or flooring. It’s a concrete floor, but people’s resolve — I say all of this to say that the plan that was proposed and released the day before yesterday is just awful. It doesn’t do justice or respect to the idea that everyone ought to have an equal right to return.

It’s a plan that redlines neighborhoods and, behind it, creates an all-powerful redevelopment authority that would use eminent domain to come in and basically gobble up two-thirds of the city for some sort of redevelopment initiative. This is not the kind of plan that that commission should have proposed. It’s not the type of plan that’s designed to sort of bring together the kind of support the city needs. And I don’t think it’s the kind of plan that fundamentally respects the fact that many, many people have lost virtually everything. And their home, their equity in the home, their neighborhoods, their communities, their churches is all they’ve got. And this plan erects barriers between them and their return to the areas that they call home.

So, from my standpoint, from a standpoint of the National Urban League, and as a son of the city, we think any plan ought to be evaluated based on what we call the Katrina Bill of Rights. It’s at our website at at It talks about the right to rebuild and the right to return and that everyone ought to have that right and ought to have a right to participate in the decision making.

It seems as though the commission, according to what many people in New Orleans sense, seem to be a small — fundamentally, the decisions were made by a small group of wealthy real estate-oriented types, some of whom I have great respect for, but whose perspective is not broad and whose perspective is not inclusive, so this is an issue for the nation, because we now have a great American city, a great region, southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, fighting for survival, and I believe that a great nation which has built — rebuilt Kosovo and in the process of spending a lot of money to rebuild Baghdad, rebuilt Europe after the war and rebuilt Japan after that war, ought to have an unyielding and unequivocal commitment to do the absolute right thing to help its own citizens rebuild their lives, rebuild their neighborhoods and rebuild their communities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of how reconstruction is going in areas in, like, southern Mississippi, as well. You know, the coast areas, there have been all kinds of questions about luxury homes being built on coastal areas, on lowlands there. Is the reconstruction there going differently than what’s happening in New Orleans?

MARC MORIAL: I’ve not been to southern Mississippi in a bit. From what I understand, they have more progress there. The governor there and the leaders there have moved quickly. Now, they’ve got a different set of issues, because to a great extent in southern Mississippi, the devastation was total. So they’re dealing with complete communities that were flattened. So they have no alternative except to build buildings from scratch. In New Orleans, you have buildings that are still standing but substantially destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: Might it also have something to do with Louisiana’s run by Democrats, and Mississippi, well, the governor’s the former head, Haley Barbour, of the Republican National Committee, a major force in the Republican Party in terms who have gets funding.

MARC MORIAL: I don’t have an opinion on that, quite frankly, but I do think that one thing that’s clear from the recent supplemental appropriations bill is that Mississippi has benefited from the fact that Senator Thad Cochran is Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and that fact alone puts him in a position to kind of have the final word on any supplemental, and a powerful bargaining chip, not only with his colleagues, but on behalf of the people of Mississippi. Louisiana, on the other hand, at this point in time doesn’t have a similarly situated member of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marc Morial, who is President of the National Urban League and is the former Mayor of New Orleans. We’re also joined by the telephone from New Orleans by Tracie Washington. She is an attorney who focuses on civil rights law and has been doing lot of legwork over the last weeks, as she goes from hotel to hotel to try to prevent the evictions of evacuees for tourists coming in for Mardi Gras. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tracie Washington.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening and how the court has responded?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, I’ll talk a little bit about what’s happening with the hotels, but I think it needs to be taken in light of a big picture in what’s going on with the city, and I think Mayor Morial addressed a lot of that. What’s going on with the hotels is that when FEMA made the decision to allow Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita evacuees to stay in hotels, what was not planned for adequately is what was going to happen when that hotel stay time was terminated. There is no binding contract between FEMA and the hotel operators to retain these evacuees for any given period. They are basically at will in the hotels, according to FEMA’s agreement, if you want to call it that, with the hotel operators. Unfortunately, because FEMA has vacillated and changed its position so often concerning when it will stop supplements to these hotels, the evacuees have been stuck between a rock and a hard place, not knowing from week to week, every two weeks from every two weeks, when they will be forced to leave.

When, on Saturday, we learned — last Saturday, we learned that several evacuees were being evicted from a hotel on St. Charles Avenue, namely because, in some instances, the hotel didn’t know whether the evacuees’ rooms were still going to be paid for, and also because the hotel sits right on St. Charles Avenue, where the parade routes go, and therefore had been booking rooms for Carnival tourists. Those evacuees were turned out. They were standing on St. Charles Avenue, in many cases with garbage bags filled with their things, while the hotel operator was throwing out mattresses, furniture, and things of that nature.

What I did, along with Bill Quigley, a professor at Loyola University School of Law, is go to court on Saturday, find a judge and seek a restraining order against the hotel from evicting these evacuees. Our position at that time was that — is that these individuals have been living in these hotels, in many instances, since October and have been treating these hotels just as they would any apartment complex. They were tenants. The hotels have served as landlords, highly compensated landlords, and because there’s no self-help eviction in Louisiana and New Orleans Parish, these hotel operators should have been forced to go to court and give some due process to these residents, prior to simply turning them out onto the streets.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And about how many people are still in hotels, who were dislocated as a result of the hurricane?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: It’s my understanding from FEMA’s numbers, there are approximately 26,000 rooms that FEMA is paying for nationwide, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 10,000 in Louisiana. There is one hotel chain operator, Decatur Hotels, which we have worked with, that has been housing upwards of 1,800 rooms of evacuees. Fortunately, we were able to work an agreement with that hotel chain, which owns about 22 hotels. And the hotel operators were gravely concerned about notice from FEMA and having a date certain when the supplements from FEMA to these hotels was going to end.

You know, we can put the bad guy hat on the hotels in many instances, but in most cases, when you look big picture, again it’s FEMA that’s dropped the ball, because it has changed course so many times, and I hate to say, our state and local government here, in its failure to plan adequately concerning where trailers are going to be placed in the City of New Orleans, if, indeed, FEMA has 30,000 trailers ready to be placed in New Orleans, the back and forth bickering amongst politicians here concerning where those trailers will be placed in Orleans Parish is absolutely absurd. These folks need to have a place to stay.

Our mayor invited, begged, pleaded with evacuees all over the country to return home to rebuild, and when folks get home, they can’t rebuild in their neighborhoods. That’s part of our bulldozing lawsuits, because the mayor had made the decision, without notice, to bulldoze their properties in some areas of town, Lower Ninth Ward, and then there are no apartments and no trailers where they can reside after the supplements have ended.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just play a clip for a moment of an Alabama Congress member, Artur Davis, who was here in New York on Sunday talking about the aftermath of Katrina at the Reverend Jesse Jackson Wall Street Project event that was held, raising the issue of, well, the right of New Orleans residents who are not in New Orleans right now to vote. Let’s take a listen and watch.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: It is impossible to have a conversation about New Orleans’s future, about Louisiana’s future, in my opinion, without making sure that political participation is ensured on part of people who have been displaced. That’s why we’ve introduced a bill that would give displaced voters from Louisiana the same absentee ballot voter protection that our soldiers have right now. Right now, if you’re a soldier and you’re in Germany or you’re in Japan or you’re in Afghanistan or Iraq, you’re allowed to vote absentee. Therefore, your political right back home is preserved. We have to do no less for the evacuees because of this reality.

I remember before we left the press conference upstairs, where there were a number of people who were there, who were displaced citizens, and all of us hear the frustration every time we talk to them. Reverend Jackson, the main frustration I hear is, no one is factoring our voices into the equation. All of these people are sitting on the high side of the mountain talking about: Do we rebuild? Should we rebuild? What do we rebuild? They’re not asking the folk who live there. They’re the one set of people excluded from the conversation. So that’s the first step. We need to pass a bill giving that right to vote absentee ballot at the federal and state level to people who have been displaced.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Congress member from Alabama, Artur Davis. Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League and former Mayor of New Orleans, your response?

MARC MORIAL: Congressman Davis is right. He’s been on this issue from the very beginning. He’s been a great ally and a powerful advocate of protecting voting rights, and the right to vote being one of the Katrina Bill of Rights and one of the rights embodied in the Katrina Bill of Rights that the National Urban League released in October at a presentation I made at Georgetown University. A great nation, once again, which can ensure that Americans living abroad, soldiers living abroad, can, in fact, vote in presidential elections, can certainly ensure that New Orleanians and Louisianians and Mississippians that are living 200, 300 miles away can vote in both local — and that’s important, because there are local elections upcoming this spring — state and federal elections. And I think the elections officials in Louisiana, the Justice Department, have to weigh in to ensure this, or this is going to be a black eye on the United States of America.

People, while they may be living now in Houston, Dallas or Atlanta, they’re citizens of New Orleans. They are not living there voluntarily. They’re living there involuntarily, because of, you know, the situation which has occurred. And I really think Tracie Washington and Bill Quigley deserve a great deal of credit for protecting, working to protect their rights. One thing I would agree with Tracie on, when you look at the situation on housing with hotels and trailers, here is a classic case of there not being a coherent transition plan by FEMA and others to ensure that people have a way to transition from one type of housing, a shelter, maybe a hotel, to a trailer or a temporary place to locate. It’s got to be adequate, careful planning to ensure that people’s rights are protected.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the role of the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, in terms of their using the weight of their offices around these issues? You’re critical of the redevelopment plan, but the mayor obviously had a major role in that commission.

MARC MORIAL: And I’ve tried to not make my comments oriented towards this politician or that politician, this leader or that leader, because I don’t want anyone to interpret my thinking or our views as being political. Having said that, clearly it’s a joint responsibility of local leaders, state leaders and federal leaders to do what is necessary to get this right. And all of us in the civil rights community, other members of Congress, we are going to hold officials accountable on behalf of the people, because as I visited New Orleans, many, many people want us to play that role. They want to know that people on a national level — and what you’re doing here on Democracy Now! by continuing to keep a spotlight on this is very, very important.

And here’s really sort of the baseline point for me. 9/11 was a great tragedy, occurred in New York City. The response by the nation was swift, rapid, and unequivocal, in terms of money, in terms of resources, in terms of organization. That’s got to be the standard by which the Katrina response is measured. And in our Katrina Bill of Rights, we lay that out. That’s the standard. This ought to be no less. It ought to not be different because it’s Louisiana, because it’s Mississippi, because it’s the South, because the ethnic characters of the communities may be a little bit different, because they may be poorer. That’s the standard by which this ought to be judged.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Although, as a resident of New York, I would warn you against using that New York standard, because four years later, we still have a hole in the ground right where ground zero is.

MARC MORIAL: That’s true. You haven’t rebuilt. That’s true.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s been no rebuilding, after four years, of the major — of the epicenter of the attack.

MARC MORIAL: That’s true. That is true.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, former Mayor of New Orleans, and Tracie Washington, we’ll continue to talk to you about your work on the ground there in New Orleans.

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