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New Orleans Actor & Activist Wendell Pierce on the “Greatest Crime” in Wake of Hurricane Katrina

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New Orleans actor and activist Wendell Pierce looks at how insurance companies discouraged poor and black families from returning to New Orleans after Katrina by refusing to honor homeowner policies. Pierce, whose great-grandfather came to New Orleans as a slave in the 1850s, talks about how Allstate gave his parents just $400 after they paid premiums for 50 years. Pierce writes about his family in his new book, “The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Wendell, I want to follow up on that in terms of your family, in particular, your parents, the struggles that they had to get some kind of assistance with the insurance companies or with the federal government.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you bring it home to your own family?

WENDELL PIERCE: I remember the greatest crime that ever happened, I think, was 10 years ago, when none of the large insurance companies honored the homeowner policies. My parents paid Allstate for 50 years, when they moved into Pontchartrain Park in 1955 up to the day we evacuated, and we’re still paying after the flood, because my mother said it can burn down at any time. And for those 50 years of premiums, they received $400. They said, “That’s all we’re going to pay.” There was a lawsuit, a class-action lawsuit, years later that everyone participated in to try to get some sort of mediation, and we lost the class-action suit. So, all of those insurance companies that sold insurance to my parents for years, saying that “You will be made whole. Have some flood insurance, and along with your homeowners’ insurance, when you put them together, you will be made whole,” they only gave them $400 after 50 years of paying premiums.

AMY GOODMAN: What insurance company, Wendell?

WENDELL PIERCE: It’s that sort of crime.


WENDELL PIERCE: Allstate. Allstate. Yeah, we were in good hands, all right. It’s just those hands were squeezing around my parents’ neck.

AMY GOODMAN: Monique Harden—

GARY RIVLIN: Could I add something on the insurance?

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yes, go ahead, Gary Rivlin.

GARY RIVLIN: You know, it was interesting. In 2005, Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. According to the Bloomberg wire service, record profits for the insurance companies that year. I think Mr. Pierce just told us why.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Monique Harden, your own story? Where were you 10 years ago? And talk about the stories of those who were least able to fend for themselves.

MONIQUE HARDEN: Well, my family and I, we evacuated for what we thought would be three days in Birmingham, Alabama, was the nearest place on early Saturday morning that had hotel rooms available, because between New Orleans, Jackson and other parts, all the hotels, there were no vacancies. So we drove to Birmingham and wound up living there for a couple months after the storm.

I guess the thing for me that I will never forget as long as I live is what it feels like to be displaced, what it feels like to not know whether or not you can come back home again, and how infuriating it is to know that the decision on whether or not you can go back to the place that you call home, the place that’s a part of who you are—we don’t live in New Orleans, we are New Orleans—can be decided at the whim of someone who you don’t know, who has all of this power as a result of our federal disaster law called the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. I think the reason why things are as bad as they are New Orleans and why there hasn’t been—why the right to return for many people, why the right to recover has been—have both been denied is because there’s nothing in the law that protects those rights. And human rights very much are inherent in the right to be able to find your place, live and raise families or make connections and build community. That’s all tied to what it means to live with dignity, human dignity. And not having that and being able to have that, in a situation where you need help the most—and you’re at your most neediest when there’s so much devastation all around you, you’re in a situation where you’re not with people that you know, and you’re away from your home—is really—you know, we’re seeing the repercussions of that 10 years later with over 100,000 people who are still not back, and for those who are, still living in conditions of displacement.

I guess, you know, the thing that is really galling is that the plan—you know, with this discretionary authority under the Stafford Act, you can do a really wonderful thing in terms of rebuilding a community after a disaster and ensuring that people have the ability to return and recover and are part of that decision-making and rebuilding process. You can also make really horrific, unjust decisions. And we’re living with that right now. And the decision was to make New Orleans whiter and less poor. And what does that look like for a majority-African-American city, where African-American culture and arts and heritage is very much—is very present, and it has made the city very vibrant, you know, since there was a New Orleans? And having that taken away is—it creates this really serious human rights crisis that needs a correction.

If we continue to send this message of recovery and rebuilding to the world and to the rest of the nation, we’re dooming people to live with this kind of scenario after a disaster. And so, there’s a need for corrective action in terms of ensuring that people are able to recover. As we move forward and out of this 10-year cycle and into the years ahead, that needs to be the focus, that recovery hasn’t happened, that the right to recovery needs to happen. And we should not be spending billions of dollars and giving it to people who want to make a city that’s majority-African-American to be a city that’s less—would have fewer African Americans and fewer poor people.

AMY GOODMAN: Monique Harden—

MONIQUE HARDEN: It also means that—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and we’re going to come back to this discussion. Monique Harden is with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based attorney. Gary Rivlin is author of Katrina: After the [Flood]. And actor Wendell Pierce is also an author; his new book, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. We’ll be back with all of them after break.

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