Katrina Wars

Wanda Sabir
Date Published: 
November 16, 2005

Some people seem to think New Orleans and the rest of the more well-known towns in the Gulf States are located in a Third World country. True, the news images of the hurricane and flood damaged area didn't look like anything we knew - dirty bedraggled people dying from thirst and exposure - in the richest country in the world?! Nah! This had to be footage from India, Africa or South America, maybe Eastern Europe, not America, the United States.

The Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803 - 828,000 square miles at four cents an acre, an area as large as the combined real estate of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined - was the sweetest deal to come America's way. This country was the benefactor of Napoleon's last ditch effort to raise funds to win the war in Haiti against the Africans.

He lost.

One of the five geographically related sisters - Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, the Confederate States who grudgingly surrendered their lot and took lodging in the home of the wealthier step-siblings in the north - salvaged what they could of their antebellum culture, that is, Jim Crow laws and upper echelon status, and proceeded to export a lifestyle where African people still served their needs, which were of course legally paramount.

So enter Scarlett O'Hara and the "Wind Done Gone." Forty years after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act comes Hurricane Katrina and all the prejudiced ideology surrounding this mysterious place, a place of black magic or juju not too long ago. The South is now an attitude rather than a location, its seedlings blown all across the country in a massive dispersal - something like what happened in the European Slave Trade, only much faster ... benefits of modern technology.

Where are our babies? Where are our disabled relatives who can't speak for themselves - those people separated from family and left on bridges, on roofs, front porches, in stadiums, airports?

Long seated bigotry and hidden assumptions about the worth and value of some American citizens over others grew in this fallow ground, compounded by a stigma first world states like California – he world's fifth largest economy - place on Third World neighbors within its own borders if "Third World" means African people, the poor and the disenfranchised.

According to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services' map, Katrina survivors as of Sept. 22 have a huge presence in California: San Francisco with 600 evacuees, Alameda County 1,750, Sacramento 850, Santa Clara 400, Solano 354, Sonoma 92, Marin 26, San Mateo 80, Santa Cruz 24. In Southern California, there are 4,645 evacuees in LA County, 1,554 in San Diego, 848 in San Bernardino County and 1,439 in Riverside.

When photojournalists TaSin Sabir and Sara Henderson heard about the evacuees coming into San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, they rushed over to St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to cover the story, but a police officer told them there was no one there. Two months later, Lori Nairne with Crossroads Women Inc. invites me to an organizing meeting at Calvary Baptist Church, 5655 Mission St. near Geneva Avenue in San Francisco.

Though the numbers weren't huge, the gathering was an opportunity to hear first hand from some of the evacuees we'd been lOOking forward to meeting months ago. They have been staying at a motel for all these months, cut off from the larger community and in many cases an opportunity to repair their lives.

I'd wondered where they were and who knew or had a contact list. I wondered how people were doing, if they needed assistance and how we could help them get the resources they deserved. How can one hide over 600 people in San Francisco and another 2,000 in the East Bay?

San Francisco received $20 million federal dollars to assist with the relocation, yet to date none of those present at the meeting Sunday had benefited from any monetary resources. Most hadn't even gotten the $4,350 promised, which included housing assistance for three months.

One man went all the way back to Arizona to get his check when FEMA wouldn't mail it to him. Then when he arrived, they told him there were other problems which kept the agency from issuing it.

their homes destroyed just like their neighbors who qualify for assistance from FEMA because they are within the zip codes slated for assistance. The other evacuees don't qualify for anything; they were fortunate to get help from the Red Cross for housing.

Another man, a veteran, spoke of a social worker at St. Mary's who told him he would get $400 a month when he arrived in San Francisco in September, "retroactive," she stated when she scheduled his appointment for three weeks later. When he arrived at his appointment at 1 p.m., 45 minutes early, then signed in, he said he didn't get seen until 3:30 after he noticed the empty waiting room and asked the attendant why he had not been seen.

His social worker grudgingly agreed to see him when she realized the missed appointment was the agency's fault. "She didn't even apologize. She just made certain I knew I was keeping her from going home." he stated.

This is when he learned that the promise of $400 a month would be reduced to $59 if Social Services were paying rent. Also, the recipient had to seek work and take any offered even if the person was skilled and could find better paid work elsewhere.

"Care not Cash" is what the program is called.

Another woman - whom the hotel tried to evict from her room that next day, we were told - stated how she was penalized when she went on television and spoke about the faults in the national "Rescue Katrina Survivors' Mission." Red Cross snatched her subsidy, and FEMA forgot they knew her name.

Still another man spoke of wages he still hasn't been able to collect for work completed in New Orleans. He also told us about having a new apartment he's moving into early December, with no furniture.

It seems like a no-brainer for St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, two organizations that get free merchandise, to give Katrina survivors gift certificates for $400-$500 to completely furnish their homes from towels and dishes, to beds, TVs, sofas and linen. These agencies don't pay for any of the things they sell, often at crazy expensive prices; why not give it away to fellow citizens in need?

One woman said she had a gift certificate for Goodwill; then when she went to shop, the clerk tried to restrict her purchases to used items. She left and complained to the people who issued the gift certificate.

They told her to return to the store and get what she wanted. Do you know the merchandise she wanted had been removed? Who were they saving the new items for? Who is more deserving than a person who lost everything, much of which is irreplaceable?

One story after another filled the air, people so full of despair, anger or grief, some wept. The stories poured forth like a faucet. At times people had to pause and take a breath - voices colliding as if they wanted to get it all out and on tape - patience a virtue in short supply now that here were people who were listening who could help.

"I was deported here," one man said. "I need housing, clothing, a job. I'd like to be independent, get back on my feet. I just need a little help, a little compassion. We didn't ask to be here. Hopefully, we'll make something positive of this situation. I didn't ask to be here."

All I could think of was what about the other 300-plus families in San Francisco? What about the families in Oakland at Jack London Inn?

What about all those who don't have $25 to deposit on a phone to make calls from the hotel? What about those who can't afford to catch the bus - forget BART, Golden Gate Transit or Amtrak? It was at least seven miles from where we sat to downtown San Francisco.

People need everything. One man, who still hasn't located his wife, wanted a medical check up. He hadn't received a tetanus shot, and he'd been in the filthy flood water. One woman whose dog had to swim seven blocks - he's in a hospital now - spoke of how she had trouble breathing and didn't want to go back to New Orleans to check on her house to assess damages, but FEMA told her she could not let another family member handle it; she had to return herself.

From the Ninth Ward, Fifth Ward, Lafayette and other parts of New Orleans, people with good sense told us what they'd been through. They weren't indigent, homeless or used to going without - patient? yes, fools? no.

A few people chose to come to San Francisco because they had relatives here. Others wanted to go as far away as possible. Many owned homes and needed to get back to check on their property. Others had high paying jobs and satisfying lives which were interrupted when Katrina hit.

What stands out is that the Katrina aftermath is almost as bad as the actual storm.

"If the levees were blown up, then charge those that did it with murder!" one man stated. In the meantime. the opportunistic "charities," both the well-known and the lesser known that have taken money in the name of Katrina survivors, need to be audited. As a matter of fact, all charities need to post their earnings and dispersals, the Federal Emergency Services Agency (FEMA) one of the biggest criminals.

A man present that afternoon said he'd found four apartments ready to rent to him in the past few months, yet FEMA won't give him a letter regarding their financial obligation. They refused, yet they're willing to waste hundreds of dollars a day when the money could solve his dilemma very easily: "While the water was climbing up to my neck, I forgot to grab a phone bill with an address on it, just in case," he remarked.

When another survivor was on her roof carving her name into the wood just in case one of the alligators or other animals swimming in the water below her legs began to eat her alive, she knew in this great country someone would come by boat or helicopter to rescue her.

One thing was evident at the close of the three-hour meeting which could have gone longer: This disruption in the hurricane survivors' lives didn't have to be as devastating as it has been for them, and it's time we intercede on their behalf so they can recover from the trauma and heal. …

Margaret Prescod, host and producer of Sojourner Truth on Los Angeles' KPFK 90.7 FM, sister station to the Bay Area's KPFA, hosted the afternoon meeting, which closed with a review of the "Evacuee Demands," a document which included but wasn't limited to a list of what resources and services each city agency is responsible for providing with contact names and numbers.

Initial Demands from Katrina-Rita Evacuees in the San Francisco Bay Area

  • Stop all evictions of people from hotels and other housing; stop all threats of eviction by Red Cross, FEMA and other government entities;
  • More resources for housing; housing must be provided immediately; extend the time that FEMA is paying for housing; no hierarchy based on how housing is provided; resources should not be distributed based on former or present income; permanent housing, not hotels or motels, should be prioritized by FEMA; hotels, motels and trailers should be provided as needed on a temporary basis;
  • Stop moving people from room to room at the hotels; housing to include basic essentials including kitchens facilities and refrigerators; people should have immediate access to decent clothing, furniture, things for the home and other necessities;
  • Wide circulation by all city agencies, FEMA and non-governmental organizations of lists of what resources and services evacuees are entitled to; all evacuees and those providing services to evacuees must have copies; resource lists should include city agencies, what they are responsible for providing, a person's name to call and emergency contact number;
  • Immediate access to CalWORKS, welfare, food stamps, medical care and housing for all survivors;
  • Wide distribution of a list of where to get free or discounted meals;
  • Free of cost Muni bus and Golden Gate transit system passes, BART tickets and Amtrak tickets for evacuees; paratransit should be made available to anyone who needs it;
  • Access to California driver's licenses;
  • All evacuees must get the $4,350 they were promised and entitled to (an initial $2,000 per family for evacuees and then an additional $2,350 for housing costs from FEMA);
  • no discrimination based on former or present income; many people did not get this money, others got different amounts;
  • Give back the money from the debit cards (Red Cross gave people $660 in Houston, and many people report having between $300-360 taken away from them upon arrival in San Francisco);
  • Access to free quality childcare, elder care; care and support for people with disabilities; family members who are caring for children, the elderly and those with disabilities should be paid and receive other resources for that work;
  • Everyone who can and wants to should have the opportunity to have a job, waged work; all evacuees must have immediate access to an income, including for their unwaged caring and survival work; the federal government should offer incentives to employers to hire evacuees; companies who owed people for their work before the hurricane should pay this money now;
  • Community based networks that want to and are providing help should have access to information on where evacuees are;
  • Legal and other services and aid must be made available to evacuees;
  • No discrimination based on sex, race, age, economic, background, immigration status, sexual orientation, disability, etc;
  • Accountability and transparency for all monies from government and non-governmental organizations that is to help evacuees; how much for evacuees did Red Cross, United Way, FEMA, the City of San Francisco and other Bay Area cities receive for relief; how much money has come in and how is it being spent; how much of it is going to administrative costs and how much directly to evacuees.

Call the Bay Area Katrina-Rita Evacuees Council at (415) 626-4114. E-mail wsab1 [at] aol [dot] com.