1 Sep 2008

New Orleans again!

Here's the article I wrote 3 years ago about the
Katrina aftermath and New Orleans.
As it's happening all over again, I'll be
following this up, but the original article makes
just as horrifying reading today as it did the
first time around. And the questions being asked
at the time continue to go unanswered.

Mitchel

People of the Dome

by Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party of NY

"I’m sick and tired of hearing things from
uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded
hypocritics. All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic,
psychotic, pig-headed politicians. All I want is
the truth. Just gimme some truth."
- John Lennon

AS HURRICANE KATRINA RAVAGED THE GULF STATES,
many organizations kicked into high gear to send
relief to local groups in Mississippi and
Louisiana, with no help from the government or
formal relief agencies. Among them was the
Malcolm X Grassroots movement, with whom the
Brooklyn Greens shared an office. Tons of donated
supplies poured into the office and were trucked
to Jackson Mississippi, where they were
distributed through community-based efforts.

I spoke daily with Les Evenchick, a Green who
lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I was
also in touch with New Orleans residents Malik
Rahim and Mike Howell; the areas in which they
live were dry and they were holding out as long
as they could. The story they tell is shocking:
U.S. and local government officials ordered the
local drinking water turned off and refused to
allow water or food relief into New Orleans.
Hundreds of people died unnecessarily as a result.

And yet, there was no shortage of water or food
being sent -- it was just not allowed into the
City! When Green Party activists tried to donate
a large amount of water for the people in the
SuperDome a few days after the levees broke,
armed soldiers pointed rifles at them and
prevented them from delivering supplies. Even
three Walmart trucks loaded with drinking water
were denied entry and turned away. No water was
allowed into New Orleans. Evenchick says that
"this was a brazen attempt to starve people out."

There was no health reason to turn off the
drinking water at the time, as the water is drawn
into a separate system from the Mississippi
River, not the polluted lake, and filtered
through self-powered purification plants separate
from the main electric grid. If necessary, people
could have boiled their water -- strangely, the
municipal natural gas used in stoves was still
functioning properly as of Thursday night of that
first week! I emailed Governor Kathleen Blanco (a
Democrat) asking, "Who ordered the turn-off of
the drinking water?" I have not received a response from former Gov. Blanco.

A commanding officer of a police squad complained
that his 120 cops were provided with only 70
small bottles of water. Hospitals were supplied
with nothing. Could FEMA, Homeland Security and
local officials have forgotten to store bottles
of drinking water in the Superdome, Convention Center and hospitals?

The only FEMA official on the scene in the early
stages, Marty Bahamonde, has testified to
Congress that he begged FEMA director Michael
Brown for water, food, toilet paper and oxygen,
saying that "many will die within hours." Brown's
press secretary, Sharon Worthy, responded that
the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner
at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. "He
needs much more that [sic] 20 or 30 minutes,"
Worthy wrote. "Restaurants are getting busy," she
said. "We now have traffic to encounter to go to
and from a location of his choise [sic], followed
by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc." Let them eat gumbo.

Green activist and former Black Panther Malik
Rahim, who lives in the Algiers section -- which,
like the French Quarter and several other areas
above sea-level, remained dry -- points out that
the government could have and should have
provided water and food to residents of New
Orleans but did not do so intentionally, to force
people to evacuate by starving them out. This is a crime of the gravest sort.

French Quarter resident Mike Howell adds that the
capability had been there from the start to drive
water and food right up to the convention center,
as those roads were clear. "It's how the National
Guard drove into the city," he said.

The evidence is overwhelming that the government
intentionally did not allow food or water into New Orleans.

These were the people, after all, who had twice
voted in huge numbers against the candid­acy of
George Bush, the only area in the state to have
done so. In recent years they also fought off
attempts to privatize the drinking water supply,
battled Shell Oil's attempt to build a Liquified
Natural Gas facility, and tried to prevent the
teardown of public housing -- battles in which
Mayor Ray Nagin sided with the oil companies and
millionaire developers. Nagin had contributed
funds to George W. Bush's presidential campaign
and was a registered Republican until just prior
to the Mayoral election in 2002.

Attempts to starve civilians into leaving an area
is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Who
gave the order to block water and food from
entering New Orleans? Who ordered the drinking
water inside the city to be turned off? No one
has yet answered those questions.

On Thursday of that first week, volunteers who
had rescued over 1,000 people in boats were
ordered to stop, under the pretext that it was
too dangerous. The volunteers wanted to continue
rescue operations. They said there was little
risk, that desperate people had been welcoming
them with open arms. The military "convinced" the
volunteer rescuers at gunpoint to "cease and
desist." They did the same to a state senator who
had led a flotilla of hundreds of boats and rafts
all the way from Mississippi to rescue people.

Who gave the order to block the volunteer rescue
teams in New Orleans? No one has yet answered that question.

Officials claimed that people were trying to
shoot down the rescue helicopters. In actuality,
there were a couple of people shooting into the
air to signal helicopters to pick them up. Yet
officials repeated the lies about people shooting
at helicopters over and over, as justification
for shutting down voluntary rescue operations and
sending in thousands of fully armed military
troops, along with private Blackwater mercenaries
fresh from Iraq under orders to "shoot to kill." (1)

Two U.S. military helicopters spent a few days
plucking 110 people from the roofs of their
flooded houses. We saw them on T.V. and cheered.
When they returned to base they were called into
the commander's office. They thought they were
going to be given medals. Instead, as reported in
the NY Times, their commanding officers
reprimanded them and removed them from helicopter duty for "violating orders."

Who gave the order not to rescue people? No one has answered that question.

For more than two weeks, hundreds of volunteer
doctors and fire personnel -- including a squad
from New York City -- were denied entry to New
Orleans. They were dispatched, instead, to
provide backdrop for Bush's photo-ops in other
areas. The medical personnel were kept twiddling
their thumbs, as people were dying.

Who gave the order not to allow rescue workers
into New Orleans? No one has answered that question.

In an interview with WWL-TV, Mayor Ray Nagin
complained vociferously that Louisiana National
Guard Blackhawk helicopters were being stopped
from dropping sandbags to plug the levees soon
after the breech. No repairs were allowed on the
levees until long after the poor areas of New Orleans were totally flooded!

Who gave the order not to allow National Guard
helicopters to drop sandbags to plug the levees
soon after the breech? No one has answered that question.

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez and Cuba's
President Fidel Castro offered millions of
dollars and hundreds of doctors to help save
lives in New Orleans. They were turned down.

Who gave the order to turn down the aid offered
from Venezuela and Cuba? No one has answered that question.

Millions of concerned citizens wanted to send
assistance as well. FEMA recommended that they
send contributions to "Operation Blessing," a
front group for rightwing evangelist Pat
Robertson. Robertson had recently televised a
speech calling for the assassination of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez.

Who gave the order to divert tens of millions of
dollars in contributions sent to help the people
of New Orleans by outraged American citizens, to
rightwing Christian zealots? No one has yet answered that question.

Numerous New Orleans residents were billed
$500-$1,000 for gas and electricity by Entergy
(the same company that operates the Indian Point
nuclear power plants in New York) during the
months following Katrina, while the electricity
and gas were turned off and the meters were not
even read. Only once Entergy received millions of
dollars in subsidies did the company start
adjusting some peoples’ bills, and only if they
were challenged. Who allowed Entergy to get away
with this greed to harass poor and suffering
people, and to blackmail the state and city into
giving it hundreds of millions in grants? No one
has yet answered that question.

The Saudization of New Orleans

Les Evenchick is an independent Green activist
who lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans in
a 3-story walkup. He points out that people were
told to go to the bus depot to evacuate, but the
bus station had closed down the night before.
Unless you owned a car, Les told me, FEMA and
state police would not let you leave.

Hundreds attempted to walk out of New Orleans;
they were forced off the road and ordered back to
the Coliseum or Superdome, where no water or food was available.

As a consequence the vast majority of the
so-called looters were simply grabbing water,
food, diapers and medicine. "It's only because of
them that old people, sick people, and small
children were able to survive," Les says. "But
the 'anti-looting' hype was just an excuse to
militarize the area, place it under martial law
and evict the population, mostly Black people, mostly the poor."

On August 30, Yahoo front-page news showed two
pictures of people wading in water carrying
supplies. The caption under the picture of the
Black person read: "A young man walks through
chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery
store in New Orleans." The caption under the
picture of a White couple wading through the
water pulling supplies reads: "Two residents wade
through chest-deep water after finding bread and
soda from a local grocery store." Got that? Whites "find," Blacks "loot."

MSNBC interviewed dozens of people who had
managed to get out during the first few days.
Every single one of them was white.

Some tourists trapped in the Monteleone Hotel
pooled their funds and paid $25,000 for 10 buses
to get them out. The buses were sent (there was
no shortage of available buses -- why didn't the
government use them?) but the military
confiscated all ten of them for its own use. The
tourists were not allowed to leave the city and
were ordered to the Convention Center.

How simple it would have been for the government
to have provided buses before the hurricane hit,
and throughout the week. AMTRAK says it offered
free rides out of town but that City officials
never got back to them to finalize arrangements.
Evacuating the 100,000 people trapped in the city
should not have been that difficult. Even without
AMTRAK or private cars, it would have taken at
most 3,000 buses to get them out, fewer than come
into Washington D.C. for some of the giant
anti-war demonstrations. Even at $2,500 a pop --
highway robbery -- that would only be a total of
$7.5 million for transporting out of harm's way
all of those who did not have the means to leave.

The people who are poor (primarily Blacks but
many poor Whites as well) who were trapped in the
city as well as those thousands who were refusing
to evacuate, not wanting to leave their pets or
their homes and who had neither money nor places
to go, were locked in the Superdome and not
allowed to leave -- five days of hell. Those who
survived the first dome were then -- finally! --
bussed out of the area to another stadium, the
AstroDome in Houston. Call them "People of the Dome."

The Grassroots Organizing Itself

Gulf Coast resident Latosha Brown reports that
the first group to send emergency supplies was
TOPS, The Ordinary Peoples Society, a prison
ministry in Dothan Alabama founded and staffed by
ex-offenders. They organized food, pooled their
money for additional goods and brought the
supplies to a second organization of former
prisoners in Mobile who distributed them, while
they went back to Dothan for more. "That's why we
tell everybody now that it was felons who were
the first to feed, the first to respond to need,
the first to get up and do something. They didn't
wait for permission or for a contract. That's
real leadership." ("Rescue Came from the
Grassroots: The People, Not FEMA, Saved
Themselves," by Bruce Dixon, in The Black Commentator. )

Volunteer medics established free clinics with
the Common Ground Collective:
www.commongroundrel ief.org in defiance of
governmental edicts and machine guns. Common
Ground has also mobilized thousands of young
people from all over the country to come to New
Orleans and help with the rebuilding, while using
non-toxic alternative methods of mold removal and
prevention that they developed. Others, working
in solidarity with tribal leaders, have created
a dedicated relief effort for Native American
communities: www.intuitivepath. org/relief. html.
Food Not Bombs volunteers have been feeding
people all over the region, with no help from the
government or the Red Cross: www.foodnotbombs. net/ dollar_for_peace. html.

On the other hand, from Day One huge war
profiteering corporations such as Halliburton,
Bechtel and other private contractors began
descending on the region, their pockets stuffed
with billions of dollars in government handouts.
Currently, thousands of poor homeowners and
rental tenants -- including those unable to
return to New Orleans just yet, having been
evacuated to the far away domed stadiums -- are
being evicted and their homes confiscated and
torn down, says Mike Howell, who is organizing
tenants to resist eviction. The phony
"reconstruction" of New Orleans begins with the
land grab, and with Mayor Nagin proposing
gambling casinos, which he says would "rescue"
the city, while destroying the remaining
wetlands. Wetlands are nature's way of protecting
large areas from floods; their destruction prior
to Katrina contributed to the devastation of New
Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. The city,
meanwhile, sprayed massive amounts of
cancer-causing pesticides over the entire flooded areas.

Many people are resisting this blatant
confiscation of their lands and homes. As the
resistance grows, New Orleans may soon become
known as the first battle of the new American revolution.

------------ --------- --------- --------- --------- --------- -
NOTES
1Blackwater, Inc. billed the federal government
$950 per man, per day -- at one point raking in
more than $240,000 a day. At its peak the company
had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to
Mississippi, reports Jeremy Scahill in his
pathbreaking book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the
World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," published by Nation Books.

Mitchel Cohen is co-editor of "G", the newspaper
of the NY State Greens, and the coordinator of
the No Spray Coalition www.nospray. org . Write to
Mitchel directly at mitchelcohen@ mindspring. com.
If you'd like to donate funds and be sure the
money is going to a good purpose, donate to CommonGroundRelief. org .

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