NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - Four years ago when Angel Robinson evacuated from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she only expected to be away from home for a few days and looked forward to returning back to her job at City Hall.
"You really don't know how fragile things are and life is until you have to throw everything you own into a garbage pile on the side of the street. It is still painful because I will never forget that moment," she said.
The world watched as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, making landfall on Aug. 29 in southeast Louisiana. It has been recorded as the costliest hurricane as well as one of the five deadliest, in the history of the United States.
From central Florida to Texas, Katrina caused severe destruction, much of it due to the high storm surge. Then there were the failures that happened after the storm rolled through the region. The most severe loss of life and property damage occurred in New Orleans, which flooded as the levee system catastrophically collapsed. Eventually, 85 percent of the city became flooded along with neighboring parishes, and floodwaters remained for weeks.
Nearly 1,900 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and subsequent floods. Millions were evacuated to all corners of the country via cars, planes, and charter buses. Thousands are still displaced and in need of psychological repair.
"Four years later, the mental weight of Katrina is still on many of us, including myself," longtime New Orleans activist Mtangulizi Sanyika told The Final Call. Sanyika is project manager for the African American Leadership Project. He has been commuting back and forth to Houston the last four years.
"There has been some progress made in the city but most of the poor areas are still in need of repair," Sanyika said. "But I believe Katrina fatigue has settled in more and more every year, meaning people have forgotten about us. So the struggle continues."
"Though New Orleans has been somewhat shielded from the recession due to substantial rebuilding activity, four years after Katrina the region still faces major challenges due to blight, unaffordable housing, and vulnerable flood protection," according to the Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center annual New Orleans Index Anniversary Edition.
This year's report highlighted the progress—or the lack thereof—in the areas of population, economy, housing and infrastructure to go along with public services presently available. Statistically, New Orleans lost 0.9 percent of its jobs since last June, compared to the 4.1 percent lost nationally. The city's unemployment rate rose to 7.3 percent while the national rate climbed to 9.5 percent.
Over 8,500 households are actively receiving mail, the largest growth since 2007. However home sales are down 39 percent and new construction down 48 percent. Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans with an unprecedented level of unoccupied residences, with 65,888 unoccupied residential addresses.
"Steep rent increases have abated, but at 40 percent higher than pre-Katrina, rents remain out of reach for many critical workers. Typical rent for an efficiency apartment is $733 per month, unaffordable for food preparation, health care support, and retail sales workers," the report said.
Groups like the Katrina Information Network (KIN) are pushing for Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, legislation introduced in the 110th Congress but never called for a vote. The bill would create a minimum of 100,000 jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced workers.
"This is a very important act to protect workers right to return to work who are displaced," said Neville Waters, KIN media adviser. "There is a lot of work left to do in the recovery."
Robinson escaped to Texarkana, Texas, after Katrina. She lived there for three years after landing a consulting job. "I was looking out the window of a LaQuinta hotel in Texarkana and it hit me all at once that I had lost my home, my job and I cried. But then I determined that I couldn't sit by and wait for anyone to do anything for me," she said.
That self-determination prompted her in 2006 to also launch her dream business, Write Robinson, a stationery designing firm. She now has clientele nationwide and moved back to New Orleans in 2008. She lives in the home originally owned by her great grandparents. "This company is a dream come true and I am happy I used Katrina as motivation to get up and do something about my situation. And I would advise others, although I understand the pain, to help yourself. Stop waiting on the government, FEMA or anyone else," she said.
Keisha Reed moved forward as well. "When Katrina struck I thought I would only be gone for a few days. I only had a few changes of clothes and my cat when my friend left, not knowing I would lose everything," she recalled.
Reed, a college graduate, had just landed a job she loved at a restaurant in New Orleans before having to evacuate to Houston.
"Most of the time the media only wants to talk about those who couldn't escape. What about all of us who were educated and employed before the storm? We lost everything too and it was just as painful for us. I believe people still do not know the full story of what we all went through," she told The Final Call.
She became a permanent resident of Houston and worked toward achieving her dream of opening a restaurant. That restaurant was launched in 2006 in the Third Ward area, a little over a year after Katrina.
"I am not the type to just sit by and wait for someone to do for me what I can do for myself," said Reed. "I encourage others that after four years, it is time to get up and make it happen. Put yourself in position that if it happens again your family can leave too. In New Orleans we have had generations pass on apartment units. Break the cycle now."
For those unable to start fresh elsewhere and to mark Katrina's toll, the Hands Around the Dome gathering was an annual gathering to mark the anniversary of the storm. The Louisiana Superdome was the refuge that thousands sought and, with government failures, a place of suffering and death in the storm's aftermath.
"The Hands Around the Dome is our way of remembering the human suffering and pain caused by the unexpected flooding of the city, the human errors and the failure of the emergency response system to adequately respond to the crisis," said Sanyika.
"Despite the suffering, loss of life and property, the Hands Around the Dome is also a way of affirming the resilience of the people of New Orleans," he added.
The African American Leadership Project also hosted a town hall meeting to discuss building a community-based agenda for next year's elections and beyond. The three main issues were the present safety of the levees, the state of the recovery and disaster preparedness lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.
Charity Hospital, the largest medical facility in New Orleans, sustained severe flood damage during Hurricane Katrina and has been closed since. In January 2008, the Louisiana Justice Institute filed a lawsuit seeking partial reopening of the facility.
"Charity Hospital was critical to serving the mentally ill of our community," Jacques Morial told The Final Call. He is a member of New Orleans' famous Morial family—his father Ernest "Dutch" Morial and his brother Marc Morial served as mayor and is now president and CEO of the National Urban League.
"Instead of people with anti-social issues being imprisoned, they could be serviced at Charity. People are suffering from serious mental health issues and now result to things like self-medicating, drugs, and drinking to cope," said Jacques Morial, who is co-director of the institute.
According to Morial, the institute is awaiting a decision by the Louisiana State Supreme Court on whether to hold the hearing lawsuit in Baton Rouge or New Orleans.
"Before Katrina, Charity was one of the leading crisis intervention facilities in the country. It was high quality service for the mentally ill. We need it back," said Morial.
No hospitals in New Orleans were providing in-patient mental health care as of September 2009 despite post-Katrina increases in suicides and mental health problems, according to an analysis written by Davida Finger, a social justice lawyer and clinical professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer on leave from Loyola now serving as legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The authors noted New Orleans ranked number one among U.S. cities in murders per capita for 2008, and an estimated one-third of 134,000 FEMA trailers in which Katrina and Rita storm survivors were housed by the federal government had formaldehyde problems. There has been a 35 percent increase in demand at emergency food programs with underemployment and rising food, housing, and fuel costs, they added.
Louisiana ranks last among states for overall healthcare and 128,341 Louisianians were looking for jobs, while Governor Bobby Jindal rejected $9.5 million in federal Medicaid stimulus money, which would have expanded temporary Medicaid coverage for families who leave welfare and get a job. Gov. Jindal also rejected $98 million in federal money available to bolster the unemployment compensation funds to assist 25,000 families in Louisiana, according to writers Finger and Quigley.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is in his last term and has received mixed post-Katrina reactions on his performance the last four years.
"Since my initial visits to Washington, D.C. after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the breached levees, I have long advocated for reforms that specifically include the need for arbitration and an appeals process to expedite recovery funding to communities in need," said Mayor Nagin in an Aug. 6 media statement.
In a 2009 voter opinion poll, led by Tulane University and Democracy Now, 64 percent of the respondents and nearly 50 percent of Blacks disapproved of the job that Ray Nagin is doing as mayor. His disapproval rating was 92 percent amongst Whites and 47 percent amongst Blacks. Also poll results showed respondents believe the upcoming mayoral race will be "the most important city election in my lifetime."
"I honestly cannot give him a grade and really don't care to because I'm just focusing on rebuilding myself," Rachel Murphy told The Final Call. "I believe he did the best he could but I believe the federal government deserves the bigger blame. But it doesn't matter to me anymore."
In another poll in April by the University of New Orleans, Nagin was deemed the third "biggest problem" for the city, following crime and education. Only 24 percent of residents approved of him as mayor, which is the lowest rating ever given to a mayor of that city.
"Many of Nagin's progressive efforts to further the city's recovery have been opposed primarily by the White members of the city council, some who have aspirations to be the next mayor of the city," said Nation of Islam Student Minister Willie Muhammad of New Orleans.
He said, "Mayor Nagin will be the standard for which others who go through similar disasters will be compared to. He is a pioneer in regards to having the responsibility to rebuild a city that had its complete infrastructure destroyed. Those who forge a way, that will be an example for others, do not do so traveling down a mistake free road."
Meanwhile, a study released in late August by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found that despite an array of programs designed to help low-income residents find safe, affordable housing in New Orleans, 82 percent of landlords either outright reject them as tenants or create insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible for those with Section 8 vouchers to rent units.
"Housing Choice in Crisis" used testers to examine 100 two-bedroom rental properties in the greater New Orleans area with advertised rental rates of $1,250 or less to determine whether available rental units would be offered to residents with Section 8 vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Housing Choice Voucher Program. Essentially, the GNOFHAC found that only 18 percent of New Orleans landlords would accept these vouchers as rental payment without creating any obstacles or additional terms or conditions for prospective renters.
Testers found that in 9 percent of the cases in which prospective tenants were denied a voucher, landlords denied Black testers on the basis of their voucher after previously telling White testers that vouchers were accepted at the property. Testers also found that many landlords also used subjective, discretionary measures in determining which prospective tenants they would accept, saying that it would "depend on the person." Two landlords reportedly told White testers that although they did not normally accept Section 8 housing vouchers, they would consider renting to them because they sounded "nice."
According to last week's report, four landlords told Black testers that they would only accept voucher holders as tenants if their voucher amount exceeded the advertised rental rate, which would allow the landlord to collect additional rental income above the advertised rate. One landlord told a Black tester that the advertised rental rate was for "cash-paying tenants" and that if a voucher holder wanted to rent the unit, the price would be increased to the voucher amount of $1,030. The landlord said that the Black tester shouldn't object to the higher rental rate since "no money would be coming out of the [voucher holder's] pocket."
Morgan Williams, interim general counsel for the GNOFHAC, said that there's no denying the racial undertones of the practices of New Orleans area landlords. "The discriminatory intent behind the denial of voucher holders is clear from surveys conducted with housing providers which reveal prominent stereotypes and perceptions of Housing Choice Voucher Holder participants," Williams said. "A majority of the landlords surveyed identified voucher holders in a racially coded fashion. For example, to describe voucher holders as wearing 'dreadlocks.' Despite the fact that voucher holders must contribute 30 percent or more of their income towards rent, the use of racially explicit and coded language was coupled with the perception that voucher holders 'don't want to work' and are 'fraudulent.'
"The prejudice that links African-Americans and the social ills of the inner city cause landlords to believe that they are exposing their property to an increase risk of those harms when considering a tenant in the voucher program," Williams added.
Gina Martin, a 42-year-old New Orleans resident who works in the hotel industry as an operator and uses a voucher, said that while she has benefited from using a voucher it has also been "hard."
"The best part about having a voucher for me has been not living in substandard housing and just being able to find decent housing with a landlord who has actually worked on their property," Martin said.
"The struggle for me has been finding affordable housing," she added. "The way the process is set up, the rents are kind of high depending on what you are making. As soon as you get a job that pays $1 more than what you were making two years ago, the rent goes up astronomically. That has been a real struggle for me."
Martin says she has experienced landlords discriminating against voucher holders by raising rental rates as soon as she informs them that she has a voucher.
Martin added that she was concerned about "people running for different offices in the city who vow to keep Section 8 users out of their areas" and remarks like "'We don't want the government to tell us who we can rent our homes to.'
GNOFHAC Executive Director James Perry said, "When one landlord was asked whether or not he would rent to voucher holders, he said, not until Black ministers start teaching morals and ethics to their own so they don't have litters of pups like animals and they're not milking the system."
A number of landlords told testers that they encountered difficulty in getting the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) to follow through on its responsibility of making certain that the program runs smoothly and all monies owed to landlords are paid in a timely manner.
HANO has also been criticized recently for not distributing thousands of housing vouchers that could have been used by low-income residents to find affordable housing in post-Katrina New Orleans. HANO's records show that the office has issued housing vouchers to 9,563 families although it was allotted 13,370 housing vouchers by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Perry said that he is particularly concerned about how poor Black children in New Orleans are being adversely affected by discrimination against voucher holders in the city. "Thirty-eight percent of children in New Orleans are poor and live below the poverty line," he said. "When we talk about this idea of not being able to use the voucher, it has a real impact on families' lives in the city of New Orleans. Thirty-eight percent of children in New Orleans live below the poverty line; these are families that would have to rely on vouchers" to find affordable housing, he added.
"This is a very important issue and I think it goes to the core of housing needs that exist in the city of New Orleans," Perry said. "We can't be successful until we can find safe, decent, affordable housing for everyone in the city of New Orleans."
The study said discrimination against voucher holders reflects discrimination against low-income Blacks in both intent and impact and attributed the widespread housing bias to two factors: Discrimination against and stereotypes of low-income African-Americans and dysfunctional administration of the Housing Choice Voucher Program.
GNOFHAC officials made the following recommendations to address the housing needs of low-income residents in the greater New Orleans area:
1. Housing analysts should implement a study of whether the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) in New Orleans is meeting its stated goals of increasing integration and enhancing access to opportunity.
2. The federal government should immediately intervene to rectify problems with the administration of voucher programs in New Orleans and throughout southeast Louisiana.
3. HUD should work in partnership with local officials and HCVP participants to develop the HANO Board of Directors to enhance oversight of HANO administration.
4. The federal government, state of Louisiana and local municipalities should adopt legislation that prohibits Source of Income discrimination.
5. Local and national foundations should fund public education campaigns to address prejudice against voucher holders.
6. HUD should institute a moratorium on the demolition of addition hard units of public housing in the New Orleans region until it is sure that the HCVP is performing properly.
7. HUD should analyze the possibility of taking a regional approach to voucher administration, rather than segmentation by individual Public Housing Authorities.
8. HUD needs to address Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) families facing housing crisis, and the federal government should commission a study of the operation of DHAP and how it could be better designed for future disasters.
9. HANO and other Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) should implement services to support voucher holders in their efforts to locate housing and attract quality landlords to the HCVP.
10. HANO and other area PHAs should implement services to proactively and reactively resolve housing authority administration disputes and frustrations.
James Perry said the New Orleans study has implications for cities across the U.S. because "the new model for low-income, subsidized housing across the country has been mixed-income housing. It has been one of the main arguments for the demolition of hard public housing units, this idea of providing mix-income housing in communities."
To illustrate his point, Perry used the example of the former St. Thomas housing development, which was destroyed to make way for the mixed-income River Gardens subdivision. While St. Thomas was once home to 1,500 low-income families, River Gardens only provides housing for about 250 families.
"The question for all of us is what happens to the rest of those families?" Perry said. "Where do they go? If they don't get to live in the new development, how are they housed? For the most part, those residents got Section 8 vouchers.
"A fundamental question is, can people use those vouchers?" Perry continued. "The vouchers are set up and designed so that they can help to deconcentrate poverty and cause integration in communities. In theory, people should be able to use these vouchers all across the city of New Orleans and the metro area. If they could do that, then we could have a city and a community that are pretty integrated where poverty is not concentrated."
The report shows that isn't happening, Perry said.
"If voucher holders can't use the vouchers to rent apartments," Perry said, "then it defeats this whole goal of mixed-income housing, defeats this goal of integrated housing opportunities and defeats the goal of deconcentrating poverty."