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Nearly Two Million Flee Gulf Coast as Hurricane Gustav Approaches

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Nearly two million people have evacuated their homes as Hurricane Gustav heads towards the Gulf Coast. The Category 3 storm is expected to make landfall by midday today, with winds at 115 miles per hour. The evacuations come just days after New Orleans marked the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Gustav has also jeopardized this week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Republican officials are already scaling back the RNC program. We go to New Orleans to speak with independent journalist, Jordan Flaherty. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Nearly two million people have evacuated their homes as Hurricane Gustav heads towards the Gulf Coast. The Category 3 storm is expected to make landfall by midday today with winds of 115 miles per hour. The evacuations come just days after New Orleans marked the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,600 people after also making landfall as a Category 3 storm. Gustav has already claimed nearly a hundred lives as it tore through the Caribbean.

On Saturday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced the mandatory evacuation.

    MAYOR RAY NAGIN: So, as a result of that, ladies and gentlemen, I will — I am announcing today that we are ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city of New Orleans, starting in the morning at 8:00 a.m. on the West Bank. We want our West Bank people to move out. We want you to move out quickly and not play around with this. We’re going to give you four hours to evacuate.

AMY GOODMAN: More residents have fled from coastal Louisiana and New Orleans, but tens of thousands have also left coastal Mississippi, Alabama and southeastern Texas.

Hurricane Gustav has also jeopardized this week’s Republican National Convention here in St. Paul. Republican officials are already scaling back the RNC program. The Bush administration drew widespread criticism for its response to Katrina three years ago. Republican candidate John McCain said today’s agenda will only include essential formalities.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: So, of course, this is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans. We have to join with 300 million other Americans on behalf of our fellow citizens. It’s a time for action. So we’re going to suspend most of our activities tomorrow, except for those absolutely necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush says he won’t attend the convention at all, will instead head to Texas.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In light of these events, I will not be going to Minnesota for the Republican National Convention. I’m going to travel down to Texas tomorrow to visit with the Emergency Operations Center in Austin, where coordination among federal, state and local government officials is occurring. I intend to go down to San Antonio, where state and local officials are pre-positioning relief materials for Texas and Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: Republicans have even floated the idea of canceling the convention altogether. On Sunday, I asked McCain campaign manager Rick Davis about the convention plans at a news conference here in St. Paul.

    AMY GOODMAN: Rick, is there any discussion of simply redirecting the some $50 million that are going — corporate money going into this convention to the Gulf to help the people there?

    RICK DAVIS: Well, the host committee, I think, will play an important role as a partner in us in supplying money, aid and support, not only financial, but also material support. We’re just now, as I mentioned, starting to work out details of what that would look like, but it wouldn’t — I wouldn’t rule out the fact that both the campaign, host committee and a lot of individuals in this region and at the convention would probably make financial contributions.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about more than contributions — all the money that would go into the corporate parties here, to direct it to the Gulf Coast?

    RICK DAVIS: Well, that’s exactly what I think I already addressed, is that we’re going to extend a request to all the participants at the convention, both inside and outside the hall.

AMY GOODMAN: Campaign manager Rick Davis, speaking about the plans for the Republican National Convention.

Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based independent journalist and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience, and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been widely published and broadcast. He is one of an estimated 10,000 people believed to still remain in New Orleans following the evacuation order. Jordan Flaherty joins me now on the phone from New Orleans.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jordan.

JORDAN FLAHERTY: Thank you, Amy. And thank you for having me on the show and for your continued attention to the Gulf Coast and to New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation right now as we speak? Where are you in New Orleans?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: I am in my home, which is in the fairgrounds area. It is storming right now outside. We have lost power. There was an explosion, and then power went off in the area. If previous storms are any history to guide by, then I would say we will not have power back for a while. I would imagine the French Quarter and the CBD may get their power back sooner, but the rest of the city, it would probably be several days before we get power back.

There are some pretty high-speed winds, although I would say not hurricane speed. I think more tropical storm winds. You may have more recent updates than me on Gustav, but last I heard, it was very close to making landfall, I think about a hundred miles to the west of here. And so, you know, we’re just catching the edge of the storm right now. I think it’s going to get worse.

You know, I was also in New Orleans for Katrina. And during Katrina, you know, we really thought we had missed a bullet, because it felt sort of like this, you know, not a very serious storm. People — most people know that Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf. But a lot of people don’t realize that by the time it reached New Orleans, you know, it dodged New Orleans, and we got only Category 2-strength winds. And the levees were supposed to be strong enough for a Category 3 storm, and they broke anyway.

And, you know, I think it’s really important for people to realize that Katrina was not a story about weather. It was a story about infrastructure, about the Bush administration not giving funding to keep up the infrastructure, about the levees not being strong enough, about coastal erosion caused by the work of oil companies and, you know, a lack of commitment to keeping the coast up. And it was fundamentally a story of an incompetent and careless response that left people abandoned. And so, you know, I think how this storm shakes out is going to be, you know, less about the strength of the storm and more about the infrastructure, about whether or not those levees really hold up and, you know, about the other response that we see.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Senator John McCain’s record, as well as Barack Obama’s record, on support for the Gulf Coast, support for New Orleans, for financing the reconstruction after Katrina?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: You know, it was just a few weeks ago now that John McCain was scheduled to make an appearance here in New Orleans. And just the day before — and he was to talk about drilling in the Gulf and how safe it was. And just before, the day before that, there was a massive oil spill, and we had — you know, our river right by the city was filled with oil. You could smell the oil from a couple blocks away. It was spattered all along, you know, the Riverwalk here. You know, so I don’t feel like he is a protector of ours.

I think Barack Obama has at least paid more lip service and been here more. But, you know, in a recent study that was done of attitudes from New Orleans, New Orleanians, eight-in-ten felt that the federal government did not care about the people of New Orleans. And two-thirds of them felt that we were forgotten by the rest of the country, and I think that includes by — people feel Democrats and Republicans have mostly forgotten us and don’t really understand, you know, what has happened.

I mean, it’s been three years since Katrina, and still, you know, in vast stretches of the city remain undeveloped. Only 11 percent of homes are back in the Lower Ninth Ward. You know, the school system is still in crisis. The criminal justice system is in crisis. The healthcare system is in crisis. You know, things have not — on so many scales, have not improved here. And, you know, the support that was promised has not come. The billions of dollars in federal money and even in the money from foundations, from Red Cross, from nonprofits, has overall not made it to the people most in need.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to — we’re talking right now, going directly to New Orleans, where the storm has not hit landfall. Jordan Flaherty is our guest, independent reporter. Jordan, last week, during the Democratic convention, there was the film Trouble the Water that was shown. The senator, Mary Landrieu, was there. It’s about New Orleans. Also, the mayor, Ray Nagin. He left before the end. He was very angry about the portrayal of New Orleans, a critical film. What about Ray Nagin and his — how he’s dealing with this now? Actually, the whole delegation, I think — most, at least, of the delegation — went back before Barack Obama gave his major address on Thursday because of the looming hurricane.

JORDAN FLAHERTY: You know, I think in New Orleans there’s mixed feelings about Ray Nagin. My opinion is this: Ray Nagin is not a very good mayor. But I’m not convinced even a great mayor really could have done what New Orleans needed. I mean, the damage that New Orleans faced was in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. We’re talking about the biggest engineering failure since Chernobyl. It was — you know, we needed federal support.

And I think that what Nagin was told, basically, was, you know, if you want this money for your school system, you need to go to this charter system, you know, and switch over from this system to a charter system. If you want funding for your healthcare system, then you have to close Charity Hospital. You know, I think Nagin was given those choices, and I think he very willingly made those choices, and it fit with his ideology anyway. But I think that if another mayor had taken more principled choices, they would have had even less support for the city. You know, so I do place the blame more on the federal level and on the state level for the crisis that this city remains in.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to do now, Jordan — this is right before landfall — if, in fact, New Orleans is the epicenter of this hurricane, as it makes landfall?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: Well, you know, as you mentioned, there’s probably about 10,000 people left in the city. You know, we’re here. We’re holding down. I feel — you know, I’m on fairly high ground, not as high as the French Quarter or the Central Business District, or what’s called the Sliver by the River or the Isle of Denial, where they’re on, you know, much higher ground. But I still feel pretty safe.

But, you know, I’m most worried about the people that, in the days before the storm, you know, went through the mandatory evacuation, didn’t have their own means of transportation and were put on buses and, in some cases, we’re told, planes, to places where, even as they were in transit, they were not told where they were going. And no one was guaranteed a ticket home.

And I really encourage people all around the country to really think about these people from New Orleans who went through so much to try and come back and to try and rebuild their lives and rebuild their homes. You’ll see where we had, you know, three times the rate of major depression than we had just two years ago. People have been through so much and fought so hard to come back. And now people have been shipped away, shifted away. About 30,000 people, overwhelmingly poor folks, overwhelmingly people of color, you know, overwhelming the people with the least resources, were shipped to places all around. And we really need to fight for those folks to be able to come home, to be able to come back.

I know organizations like the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice were out there documenting problems that a lot of people were having, getting bounced from shelter to shelter, problems immigrants were having in being able to use the system to evacuate. And they’re right now organizing out there in the shelters, contacting people. I know a lot of other organizations are out there doing it, as well. Folks from the Loyola Law Clinic were out there monitoring the situation. Safe Streets/Strong Communities — many of these organizers and organizations have been out there doing the work of really trying to reach folks and trying to help them to return to rebuild the city.

One thing that was really painful for me as I was going around the city yesterday and talking to people as they were evacuating, I would ask people if this is another situation like Katrina, will you come back? And overwhelmingly, people were saying that, you know, they would not come back. They were — they just felt like they couldn’t go through that again. They’ve been through three years and just starting to get their life in order. And, you know, if they have to go through the same hurdles that they had to go through last time to come back again, they won’t do it. So we really need to help people to be able to come back to their city, to their family, to their community, and not have them go through another dislocation that they — as they went through before.

AMY GOODMAN: Jordan Flaherty, I want to thank you for being with us. We will touch base again. Be careful. Independent journalist, he’s editor of Left Turn Magazine. He is of about, oh, 10,000 people who are remaining in New Orleans.

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