Angry Hurricane Evacuees Sue Feds

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
November 30, 2005

A few short months after the nation’s greatest natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, followed by Hurricane Rita, the news media are reporting that donor-weary Americans are moving on with their lives and preparing for the holidays.

That reality flew in the face of members of the Hurricane Evacuee Council-Bay Area, who experienced disinterest and insensitivity from about 60 percent of the spectators who rushed past them to get to the tree lighting ceremony in Ghirardelli Square on Friday.

The majority of celebrants ignored evacuees’ request for support of their demands for justice, which include proper housing, access to information concerning resources, help with transportation, job referrals, quality family care, no discrimination, full accountability and the money and resources the federal government promised.

One broadcast news reporter summed up the callous attitude of the general public in one short question: “What do you say to people who say, ‘Gee, it’s been three months; they (evacuees) should have jobs by now,” she asked.

The answer is: Evacuees are neither looking for a handout nor for anyone to take care of them. What they are looking for is the U.S. government to accept responsibility for the “man-made” disaster that forced the evacuation of thousands: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New Orleans Levee Board, a state-appointed body, fiddled while New Orleans’ levees crumbled. They’d known for years that the levees could blow at any time.

What has also been underreported is that the majority of evacuees are taxpaying Americans, who worked and paid more than their share of local, state and federal taxes.

Seeking justice in the courts

The recent spate of legal actions around the poor treatment of evacuees – from attempts to evict thousands to demands for equal justice and compensation comparable to that received by others, for example, 9-11 victims – is typical of the fighting spirit of southerners, especially Black southerners, who do not tolerate injustice.

Hurricane evacuees in the Bay Area and elsewhere aren’t taking the shoddy treatment lying down. Now into court come 13 plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed Nov. 10 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The legal team consists of attorneys from the San Francisco-based Equal Justice Society, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law based in Washington, D.C., and Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP, a New York law firm. John K. Pierre, Southern University law professor, is the local counsel on the lawsuit. Attorney Steve Ronfeldt of the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland and attorney Eva Patterson, president and CEO of the Equal Justice Society, also worked on the complaint.

The lawsuit, the first filed against FEMA regarding its response to Katrina, says the agency violated – and continues to violate – federal law by failing to provide timely aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina living in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“There is no excuse for this failure by FEMA or for its refusal to fulfill its mandate,” said John C. Brittian of the Lawyers Committee. “Without judicial oversight, there is little chance that the victimization will cease or that FEMA will come through with the services it is legally obligated to provide.”

The suit specifically seeks a judicial order to force FEMA to “obey the laws put into place to address the problems associated with this kind of tragedy … Hurricane Katrina was an act of nature, but its inhumane consequences were predicted and, thus, avoidable.”

The legal brief spelled out FEMA’s 2004 participation in “Hurricane Pam,” a hypothetical emergency preparedness drill based on a massive storm that would produce the same damage Katrina ultimately did:

“FEMA and its leadership did not heed the warnings of Hurricane Pam or implement any of the precautions it called for that, at a minimum, would have mitigated some of the heartbreaking personal anguish and suffering that continues to this day. … Federal law requires FEMA to provide assistance to disaster victims with, among other things, financial assistance to rent housing, or by supplying them with a trailer or mobile home. This assistance is guaranteed by the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act,” the brief states.

“More than two months after Hurricane Katrina struck, thousands of disaster victims still have not received their desperately needed assistance from FEMA and, as a result, continue to be victimized and to suffer harm each and every day, this time at the hands of their own federal government.”

Additionally, the Stafford Act allows victims to be housed for 18 months from the date the president declares a disaster, and assistance may be extended beyond that time.

Can Equal Justice Society and co-counsel win in court?

It’s long been common knowledge that the federal government has legal immunity from various types of legal action. Therefore, the question becomes: Can any one person or group successfully sue the federal government? And if so, can EJS and its co-counsel win the pending class action lawsuit while a judge who can hear the case, in the Eastern District, is found?

“Several of the available judges in the Eastern District sustained personal damage to their homes and lives, which may constitute a conflict of interest for any judge hearing the case. As such, the case is on hold until a neutral jurist can be found,” says attorney Charles Ogletree, EJS chairman and Harvard University law professor.

“The federal government always had immunity from lawsuits. The difference here is that the feds went on the record saying it would do everything necessary to address the plight of the victims. There was talk of spending $200 billion and compensation comparable to that given during the 9-11 tragedy.

“Since that time, less than one third of the promised funds have been used. What makes this case is that it has exceptional merits. Survivors are asking President Bush to keep his promise. It will be an uphill battle (winning the case), but it is one we are ready for,” Ogletree added.

Evictions stopped!

Meanwhile, attorneys in New Orleans got busy in an effort to stop thousands of Katrina refugees from being evicted by landlords in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Their successes add to the optimistic outlook of many that the courts may, indeed, provide justice.

The Grassroots Legal Network along with the Loyola Law Clinic, the Advancement Project, the People’s Advocacy Center and New Orleans Legal Assistance Center brought suit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, its component FEMA and the Orleans and Jefferson parishes on behalf of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, UNITE-HERE Local 50-2, SEIU Local 21, ACORN New Orleans and individual tenants being victimized by landlords post-Hurricane Katrina.

Last Tuesday, they won a stay of all evictions until 45 days after FEMA mails a notice to each of the evacuees. This was a victory on two counts: Evacuees threatened with eviction will have a little time “to rescue their possessions and decide whether they wish to return to their homes,” Bill Quigley, a lead attorney on the case, explains. And the agreement also forces FEMA to divulge to the courts the evacuees’ current addresses. Previously, FEMA had refused all requests, even from the state of Louisiana.

EJS turns up the heat

“The federal government’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina constitutes one of the great racial justice tragedies of our time. The class and color lines drawn by this disaster are undeniable,” Equal Justice Society leadership said in the civil rights organization’s Nov. 17 petition.

“The petition is calling for action by Congress, the president, FEMA, Homeland Security, and the United Nations,” explained attorney Kimberly Thomas Rapp, public policy director for EJS.

Seizing on the First Amendment right to petition the government, the document was delivered to the White House, congressional leadership, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the acting director of FEMA. The petition was also presented to several United Nations agencies, including the Commission on Human Rights and the office of three Special Rapporteurs on Racism, Internal Displaced Persons and the Right to Adequate Housing.

The petition to the federal government calls for “bold action” in the wake of the nation’s worst hurricane. The 14-point demands include a call to President Bush to reorder national priorities and restore funding to federal agencies responsible for fortifying the nation and administering relief programs.

Professor Charles Ogletree added validity to the buzz that government has a vested interest in keeping New Orleanians – particularly those who are poor and Black – from returning home, when he made this statement to Katrina evacuees: “Our biggest concern is that they (government, FEMA, private sector) don’t scare you into not coming back. Then we’ll have the Donald Trumps and Donald Ducks taking over property that rightfully belongs to homeowners.”

Email CC at campbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.