Mardi Gras 2006: As Partying Resumes, Struggle to Recover and Return Continues

CC Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
February 22, 2006

Mardi Gras 2006

As partying resumes, struggle to recover and return continues

by CC Campbell-Rock

When you go to New Orleans, you ought to go see the Mardi Gras. When you get to New Orleans, somebody will show you what Carnival's for." ­"Go to the Mardi Gras" by Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd)

The late great Professor Longhair, a pianist, songwriter and singer, whose combination of R&B, jazz and Latin rumba-style piano riffs helped create a new genre of music in the birthplace of jazz - 'Carnival music» - must be turning over in his grave.

While the few who are in New Orleans try to breathe life into a dead city and jumpstart the heartbeat of its economy via Mardi Gras, the devastation caused by the levee breaches remains, casting a long shadow over the once great Crescent City. As they scramble for beads and trinkets during the greatest free show on earth, few remember that a living legend, one of the nation's most renowned musical artists, Antoine "Fats" Domino, who turns 78 on "Fat Tuesday" aka Mardi Gras, Feb. 28, has no home to return to.

And while the merriment continues on the surface, looming in the background is a tidal wave of activists and a plethora of attorneys fighting FEMA and insurance companies and for the right of return for the approximately 200,000-300,000 evacuees who can't go home - even if they want to.

The reasons for their inability to go home are as diverse and strange as an episode of the "Twilight Zone": no electricity or gas, toxic air, no money for renovating their homes, no homes, recalcitrant insurance companies that refuse to pay wind damages and government officials who, since the news media ran so many negative images and stories up their flagpoles, decided that they would not only not come and see the damage themselves, but they also voted against additional emergency aid.

Many evacuees are not happy with the fact that the city is partying while they are twixt and between living and surviving.

In the effort to revive its dead city, the New Orleans City Council authorized $2.7 million in Mardi Gras expenditures. City legislators were apparently "baffled" and downright irate with federally-picked no-bid contractors who declined to help the city out financially with the "greatest show on earth."

The daily paper quoted Councilman Eddie Sapir as saying, "It is shameful that companies that have gotten the biggest contracts for hurricane recovery work in the city, such as the Shaw Group, Fluor, Phillips and Jordan, ECC and CH2M Hill, have not offered to pick up the city's Carnival expenses." He went on to say that the companies "are making millions and millions and millions of dollars" from their work in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Women of the storm

Another phenomenon emerged recently, however, that may turn the tide in New Orleans. Women of the Storm, a group led by influential and well-to-do white women in New Orleans, seem to have made a major impact on at least two Republican congressmen who, after the women went to Washington, D.C., to deliver personal invitations, came to see the damage first-hand.

Ann Milling and Peggy Scott Laborde are members of Women of the Storm. They have done civic work and are among the "who's who" in New Orleans. Two Republicans and the aide of a third toured the wreckage left by the city's broken levees, according to a report in the Times-Picayune, New Orleans's only daily newspaper.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, House member Scott Garrett, R-New Jersey, and aide Chandler Morse, who represents U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, saw first-hand what media could not capture, a catastrophe of major proportions.

"Westmoreland and Garrett were two of 11 House members who voted in September against providing $52 billion in immediate aid to victims in the storm-affected area; the measure failed," the newspaper report affirmed.

"Although a frequent visitor to New Orleans and its rich surrounding fisheries, the Georgia lawmaker admitted the actions of some of the city's representatives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina had left him with a largely negative impression. To him, the faces of Katrina were the looters, the crooked politicians and the derelict police officers," Keith Darce surmised.

Darce confirmed that Westmoreland felt better about the city after his tour. He met with a cadre of New Orleanians, the majority of whom were white.

"Westmoreland said the fresh faces were a welcome change," the reporter continued.

"This visit definitely helps," Westmoreland told the writer. "I'm so glad to see some different faces of people who are trying to make a difference. All we had seen in Washington and on TV were people that did not give a real good representation of what was going on down here."

Justice advocates take the fight to the courts

Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and ex-slave, once said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will," and "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." Douglass' words have not been lost in the Battle Royale facing Katrina victims.

"Katrina and its aftermath have spawned many individual lawsuits and class action lawsuits as well. Not enough of these lawsuits have really addressed the pain and suffering of those grassroots, on-the-ground New Orleanians who have and still suffer from environmental injustice, mental anguish and so much more," said Minister Harold Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, who informed friends about a town hall meeting that took place in New Orleans last Monday.

"History has taught us that power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will. Therefore, a group of attorneys from various out-of-state law firms have been asked to travel to New Orleans and conduct a town hall meeting. This meeting is designed to listen to the people and start the process of class action lawsuits that will get the desired results for those who deserve to be compensated, and compensated well, due to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath," Muhammad added in calling fellow evacuees back to New Orleans.

Kevin J. Cumin, a lawyer with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, is one of a diverse group of lawyers who are organizing to assist New Orleans' small businesses community in rebuilding their companies.

"Lawyers at Stroock, Citigroup and Lawyers Committee, with guidance from NOLAC and many others, have been meeting with and organizing the small business community to stand up for itself and have a voice in the recovery process. This includes both advocating for financial assistance, Le. grant programs, such as those provided to small businesses in Lower Manhattan after 9/11, and having a role in decisions about how New Orleans will be rebuilt.

"The group is being incorporated as a 501(c)(6) and is meant to be a wholly transparent, grassroots entity - of, by and for small businesses. Although it seems clear that their recovery goals and the recovery of the city as a whole are, to a great extent, interdependent, there has been no real recognition, much less outreach or programming, for this core constituency," Cumin said.

The campaign for small business inclusion in the rebuilding of New Orleans and their firms is called Second Wind. "If you had a small business that was disrupted or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, you should join us and learn how you and other small business owners can unite and advocate for necessary disaster relief," the Second Wind flyer states.

The Second Wind meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 7,6 p.m., at 4300 S 1-10 Service Road, Suite 201, in New Orleans. While celebrants second-line and have a good time, lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund threw down in court in an effort to stop those who want to bum-rush the municipal election through by April 22, without any regard to whether the majority of voters, most of whom are in forced exile, will have an opportunity to select the next mayor and city council members to represent their interests in the City of New Orleans.

Additionally, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's widely reported reconstruction legislation is set to be debated. Blanco might finally proceed with caution, after members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus walked out during the session that ended last Friday.

In the most racially charged incident to occur in the state capitol in a while, Black lawmakers left the building when a bill by State Representative Jalilah Jefferson, to change the existing law so that displaced evacuees could vote absentee and participate in electing the next mayor of New Orleans, was sent to a committee, where opponents would have gladly let it die, and a similar bill was pulled from the calendar altogether.

At that point, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus left the session. But, by the end of the day, the bill passed. Now, the ball is in the governor's court. The bill has been sent to her for her signature.

Round two of the session begins on March 27.

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