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Three Years After Katrina, New Orleans Levee System Still Vulnerable

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Nearly two million residents have fled from coastal Louisiana and New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav heads towards the Gulf Coast, but tens of thousands have also left coastal Mississippi, Alabama and southeastern Texas. Hurricane Gustav has also jeopardized this week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, where Republican officials are already scaling back the RNC program. Despite the Bush administration drawing widespread criticism for its response to Katrina three years ago, the levee system in New Orleans remains vulnerable. [includes rush transcript]

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


In New Orleans, well, in the entire Gulf region, we’re talking nearly two million people evacuating their homes. They’re evacuating their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi, 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 evacuation is coming just days after New Orleans marked the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than — well, it’s believed between 1,600 and 1,800 people, after also making landfall as a Category 3 storm. Gustav has already claimed nearly 100 lives as it tore through the Caribbean.

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

    MAYOR RAY NAGIN: And I must tell you, this is the mother of all storms. This storm is so powerful, and growing more powerful every day, that I am not sure we have seen anything like it. The National Weather Service is saying it’s the worst possible storm that they can imagine, if that gives you some idea of what we’re dealing with.


Most residents have fled from coastal Louisiana, New Orleans. But tens of thousands have also left coastal Mississippi, Alabama, 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.


For more on Gustav, I’m joined on the phone by Sess 4-5. He is a New Orleans activist, hip-hop artist. He’s the founder of Nuthin’ But Fire Records and a youth organizer with Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

Also, we’re joined by Malik Rahim. He’s on the phone from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He is well known for Common Ground Relief, which has helped brought in thousands of people from all over the world to help after Hurricane Katrina.

And we’re joined in St. Paul by Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill. Jeremy is the author of the bestselling book Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. We’re going to talk about Blackwater in the streets today in New Orleans.

We want to welcome you all to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Sess 4-5. Sess, where are you right now?

SESS 4-5: Right now, I’m in Chicago, Illinois. We just had an event, the Chairman Fred Hampton block party, honoring the sixtieth birthday of Fred Hampton, Sr.


Can you tell us what you’re hearing about what’s happening right now in New Orleans?

SESS 4-5: Well, we’re definitely concerned with all the lives of the folks that’s still there. You know, they said it was going to be a big storm. And we know they have a lot of people who are not accounted for, in terms of the folks that’s in those homes that just didn’t have the money, you know, to leave. So, you know, we’re definitely concerned about those folks.


Malik, can you talk about what is happening right now, though you’re not in New Orleans? You’re in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


Well, first of all, it is always a pleasure to be — to speak with you and, best of all, be on your show.

Yes, I’m in Hattiesburg, Mississippi by Professor Curtis Austin’s home. Curtis is the national coordinator for the defense committee for the San Francisco 8. Curtis and I have been planning our strategy for this worst case scenario for months. And with his help, we was able to obtain Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, with the Reverend Carlos Wilson as the pastor. And he has allowed us and been so gracious to allow us to use his church as our offsite headquarters. We have set up internet connection.

We have people on the ground in New Orleans. Our coordinator, our operational coordinator, is in New Orleans. We have a staff of maybe about ten people on the ground in New Orleans that we are steady in touch with so that we could document just what the city is doing. This is —- I mean, it’s better than what happened during Katrina, but it’s still just a sham. I mean, they put people on buses. And you have to remember, this is deja vu. Two weeks after schools open, here come the hurricane, at the end of the month when it’s the worst time to be poor, the same thing that had happened three years ago almost to the date, almost to the hour. The same thing is happening again. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Malik Rahim, the levees?


Excuse me? Excuse me?


The levees? What has happened to the levees, breached, of course, three years ago? Have they been built adequately up today?


Well, the levees is not safe. It’s just a sham. What they’ve done has been really disgraceful, because it shouldn’t have took three years. You know? And then you’re going to come and tell, after spending all these countless billions of dollars, three years later we’re still in the same situation. You know, I mean, this could have been done. But we have a mayor that has refused to work with grassroots organizations. Amy, we have served 180,000 people. And he hasn’t even gave us the respect to give us a phone call. And 160,000 of them have been —


I want to play for you —


— right there in New Orleans. We was the first relief group to go to homes.


I want to play for both of you — Malik Rahim and Sess 4-5, I want to play for both of you the response of John McCain’s campaign manager yesterday. There was an RNC news conference held. They were saying they’re really scaling back the news conference, taking this hour by hour, seeing what happens. You know, President Bush and Vice President Cheney won’t be coming here to speak. There won’t be speeches today. So, as they were talking about the response of the Republican Party and the national convention, I got a chance to ask McCain’s campaign director Rick Davis a question.

    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.


That’s Rick Davis, campaign manager, chief aide to John McCain, talking about urging these corporations to make contributions to what’s going on in New Orleans. You know, both conventions are raising something like $50 million or more that are going into the conventions themselves and the corporate parties. Sess 4-5, your response?

Sess, are you there?

Well, let’s get response — let’s get response from Jordan Flaherty, who has also just joined us from New Orleans. Jordan, are you with us?

Let’s try from Malik Rahim. Are you there?


Yes, I am. I’m going to tell you —


Malik, your response?


I mean, it’s a good thing that they are donating. But again, this money won’t go to the grassroots organizations that’s on the ground. You know, I mean, it will go to the Red Cross. It will go pay to the United Way, to those who our mayor have selected. You know, it’s going to go to his people and his consultants, you know? But as for on-the-ground work, you know, people on the ground won’t see none of it.

I mean, we have people that — I mean, Amy, people had to leave here with nothing. You know, I mean, so many people, we had to just give them gas money. We have two vehicles that we tried to move that’s broke down. And on the highway, that’s all you’re seeing is a sea of broke-down vehicles, of people trying — who ran out of gas, who didn’t have enough money to get enough gas to bring them to any real destination. But they just wanted to get out of New Orleans, because everybody knew how unsafe these levees are. And that’s the thing. It isn’t an idea of people left because they were following the mayor’s evacuation or the governor’s evacuation orders. Everybody that’s from New Orleans knew that these levees wasn’t safe. And that’s the reason why people left. I mean it’s sad because all this — I mean, we have people right now in shelters that is — I mean, that was just hunkered down there, because no one was there to really give them the kind of support that they need, you know, when they left. You know, it’s shameful what’s going on.

That money could have been spent on making sure that everybody’s gas tank was filled, that you wouldn’t have people leaving the city with $10 and $15 worth of gas, trying to flee a hurricane. People who once again finally trying to get their lives together about to lose everything again, if this hurricane has the type of impact upon the city that it had — that they are expecting. I mean, this is shameful that this can go on, I mean, again after another hurricane. After Katrina, here come this one, three years later, just about to the date.


Malik, I want to go to Jeremy Scahill, who covered, of course, Hurricane Katrina in the aftermath.,

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As Hurricane Gustav Approaches, Blackwater Seeks Personnel to Deploy to Gulf Coast

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