NEW ORLEANS – To say that Hurricane Katrina was a “natural disaster” is a failure in reporting. The lives lost during the storm and its aftermath were not all lost because of wind, rain, rising water, sickness, poison, debris, trauma, murder or suicide. They were lost because there were no viable evacuation plans, because they didn’t have money in their accounts or access to cars. They were lost because the federal government did not provide money to levee maintenance and repair. The system spent more than one million dollars on consultants and simulations, but it didn’t seem to help. As one woman I spoke with said – they wanted the poor to just “go away”. The system that runs the United States does not run in the best interests of those who were in the Superdome, those who were stranded in the Lower Ninth Ward.
No one knows how many people died. Some sources count the people who died from drowning, injury, heart conditions, etc. Other sources count the people who died from lack of medical attention, PTSD, environmental contamination, who were murdered by racist cops and their vigilantes. Blackwater mercenaries had license to kill. Chris Kyle, whose life of murder was made into a high-grossing Hollywood film in 2014, bragged about killing 30 people in New Orleans as a sniper in the days after Katrina. In 2006, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney said there were possibly as many as 6,600 people missing. The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum tallies more than 4,000 deaths overall and more than 700 still missing.
The Blackwater operators described their mission in New Orleans as “securing neighborhoods,” as if they were talking about Sadr City. When National Guard troops descended on the city, the Army Times described their role as fighting “the insurgency in the city.” Brigadier Gen. Gary Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told the paper, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.” – From Mother Jones, “The Secret History of Katrina”
Human Rights Watch identified more than 500 incarcerated people as “unaccounted for” – and I could not find an update on this number. Thousands of people in Louisiana’s notorious prison system went without food, water, sanitation or power. Incarcerated children stood up to their necks in water for days until adult prisoners – not guards – broke out of their cells and came to their rescue.
People who did not have enough money in their bank account or who did not own cars were left to die or huddle on rooftops, waiting for rescue that sometimes never came. More than 14,000 people were stranded at the Superdome for five days.
This is not a dispatch to recount the specific crimes committed against the victims of a system that let them down at every turn – from failing to provide safe evacuation to failing to support survivors. This is a dispatch to give voice to one man whose story during and since the storm reveals how victims of tragedies that are not of their own making cope with the aftermath.
There are more than 100,000 African Americans missing from the city today. They have gone elsewhere. While FEMA wasn’t swift in its response to provide temporary housing for those displaced by the storm, it was willing to provide cash assistance. As much of the available housing in New Orleans was wiped away by the flood, they went elsewhere to spend their money.
During Katrina, the system revealed its disdain for the poor and people of color. The reconstruction efforts were sluggish, and stacked in favor of rewarding the rich with tax incentives and lucrative contracts. The mayor fired more than 7,000 teachers after Katrina and closed the school system for a year. Now, the Orleans school system is almost completely privatized.
It feels like one giant graveyard, this city. The Superdome looks like new, but I get the chills each time I drive by, remembering what happened here.
The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum was opened in 2013 by four young people from California.
The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum was created to celebrate the rich history of this unique neighborhood. Only one in five residents have been able to return to their homes, so many stories will be lost if we as a community fail to actively remember. The Living Museum features oral histories from community members, exhibits of key events from the history of the Lower Ninth Ward, and cultural events that entertain and educate.
Ian Breckenridge-Jackson came to New Orleans from Los Angeles in 2006. He came as a volunteer. He saw it as a chance to see Bourbon Street. Now, he helps to run the Museum. He watches over a handful of neighborhood children while answering questions from visitors. A group comes in from Houston. A couple arrives from China. Even though the Museum is only four rooms – half of a traditionally-styled New Orleans row house – the place seems like it sees its share of traffic.
Ian believes that Katrina is ongoing, that people are living Katrina every day in New Orleans.
I ask him what he thinks about voting, if he believes people here are heard by those in power.
“I think voting matters in some sense more to the individual’s sense of empowerment and feeling like they have a voice, and therefore becoming more politically effective beyond the vote than the vote itself.”
“At the national level, I’m talking about the presidential election, there’s nobody who really, really represents the interests in the Lower 9th Ward who’s going to be a viable candidate.”
The museum is a few blocks away from Robert Green’s house. He sits on the advisory board, and the staff recommended him as a good person to interview about his experiences.
He is 61 years old and has been almost Job-like in the suffering he endured, continues to endure. Sometimes I have a hard time following what he says. He keeps shifting in his chair, as if uncomfortable. But each time I try and give us the option of wrapping-up, suggest that I’m leaving, he has another thing he wants to tell me. He is active in advocating reconstruction efforts in his neighborhood – the Lower Ninth Ward. He has been interviewed many times on Katrina and its aftermath, but now I want to ask him about what he thinks, not what happened.
His house on Tennessee Street is sparsely furnished, though he has lived here for years. His living room is a memorial. The two stained glass panels that hang in the window behind him depict his mother holding his granddaughter in a Madonna pose.
“We came back here on the 29th of December, and literally found my mother’s body. This is the picture the coroner sent me to identify the clothing that she had on. So they could release her body to us so we could actually do it – the funeral.”
“I saw my mother die. My mother’s last words – these pictures that you see behind me? The stained glass?” He draws my attention to the scene, the halos, the peace and dignity in their expressions.
“Her last words was, her dying words was, she was going to take care of my granddaughter, who had already died at 4:30 in the morning.”
“I knew my mother was dead. My brother in Nashville was actually wanting to see her body, to know she was dead. So for him, he wasn’t satisfied. So we came back on December 29th, went to Tennessee St, and it took us maybe 20 minutes to find my mother’s body.”
Robert had experience in the process of informing families when bodies were discovered after Katrina, so he knew who to call.
“So they sent 20 [police] cars. You know, and then they played ‘good cop – bad cop’ because we found my mother’s body they thought I was trying to cover up a crime. And they made everybody upset. But the bottom line of it is, my brother was angry, and to be perfectly honest, he had a good reason to be angry. When we found my mother’s body they were bulldozing, going that way, so they would have bulldozed her body away if we hadn’t came down here and found it.”
Robert lives in a house built by Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” foundation. Aside from a rusty file cabinet, two chairs in the living room for sitting, and stacks of files on the kitchen counter, there is just the various memorabilia arranged in the living room.
Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the population of the Lower Ninth Ward fell from 15,000 to 2,800. I ask Robert why he thinks so few people returned. “Real simple. They weren’t given help to come back. Give you the best example, they did an assessment on me saying that they figured it would cost $167,000 to rebuild my house. FEMA offered me $700 of help. No, it’s true. You know what I’m saying? FEMA also told me when I got into it with a claims adjuster who couldn’t understand the anguish and the pain that I was feeling in October of 2005, my mother died, that picture shows you, she died August the 29th – he told me my mother rescinded her claim. She called them so that meant they had a hotline to heaven.”
“A lot of people didn’t understand: why would I need to prove I’ve lived in my house all my life and it was mine? and pay $6000 to [a real estate lawyer] to tell me.”
He says there are 3,000 vacant lots in the neighborhood. “FEMA could have easily helped everybody come back. FEMA could have easily provided information that made it possible for the family that lived there to come back” – from his front porch, he points to a vacant lot – “for the family that lived there to come back.” he points to another.
“You didn’t have a system, or a government, or even an emphasis to help bring people back. If they would have given everybody a FEMA trailer – they had 6,000 FEMA trailers in Mississippi just sitting on the lot. There would have been neighbors helping neighbors.”
Robert lived in a FEMA trailer for three years. A month after Katrina hit, only 109 families in Louisiana had one. The agency settled a class action lawsuit in 2012 for $42.6 million dollars – the trailers had been filling up with formaldehyde gas in the weather. FEMA had “suppressed warnings” given by field staff and stopped testing for toxins after positive results in March, 2006.
When Robert first moved to the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood was mainly white and working class. “When I moved on this block we were the first black family to live here. When my white neighbors’ daughters got funny with us, they moved, and this all became a black neighborhood.”
White flight in the 1960s resulted in the neighborhood becoming primarily black in its identity. Robert says that among the improvements in the neighborhood – greenhouses, electric cars, new homes – the arrival of white neighbors is also an improvement. He says he doesn’t care who lives there – Syrians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Native Americans. “All filled up, period. That’s all that matters.”
Other disappointments are rife when examining the details of his life. Less than three years after Katrina, the federal government fined him $8,000 and five years of probation for assisting in a tax-evasion before the storm. He tells me he nearly lost his arm from sepsis after a misdiagnosis he received when he was finally evacuated to Houston. His tells me his invitation for Barack Obama to visit the Lower 9th Ward after he was elected president was turned down. He shows me the letter from the president expressing his condolences, framed in silver.
In labor terminology, to file a grievance is to point out when the boss oversteps boundaries set out in the union contract. When you bring these charges against your employer, you grieve. And here is a man who is entitled to grieve – not just over the family that he’s lost, but against the system he lives in.
But he does not, at least not to me. He is the first person I spoke with since beginning NO PLATFORM who says he believes things are getting better in the country. He speaks about the advent of social media as a way for black youth to publicize police brutality. He speaks about greenhouses and electric cars. He speaks about volunteers and NGOs. He admits the government messed up with Katrina, messed up with housing, bureaucracy and returns. He says his family was right to be upset by how the cops treated him and his brother when they found their mother’s body three months after she died – identifiable only by the clothes she was wearing. After all, there were bulldozers coming down the street to raze what was left of his neighborhood. But Robert does not say there is anything wrong with the country that was responsible for his difficulties.
He seems exasperated when speaking about a journalist who came from London to ask why he still flew the American flag in his front yard. “This is the only country I have. So why would I run from it?”
“Just because the country looks like it’s going to hell, just because it looks like ISIS is going to take over, just because it looks like Donald Trump is going to win, I’m supposed to leave?”
“If I give in to that idea, then I’m defeating the whole purpose of why I tried to live this long.”
Is voting important to him? He says he votes every year, that he brings his living grandchildren with him to the polls. His sons do not vote. “They think it’s a good thing. They think that’s really a way of exercising your voice. They think that’s really a way of turning your back on what you consider the political turmoil that’s going on. So what? One vote matters.”
Robert tells me he’s met Brad Pitt and John Goodman. He seems proud of his letters from the White House. He is proud of his family’s extensive military history, and tells me he is learning about the history of the flag and how to fly it correctly in his front yard. He says he gets email updates when he is supposed to lower it to half mast – more and more nowadays.
“I have no choice but to believe in change. If I wouldn’t have believed in change, when my granddaughter died I still would be holding her body.”
The next day, when I return to take photos, I see a group of well-meaning volunteers standing at the intersection picking up garbage. They are mostly white youth, and it seems they came on a bus parked nearby.
The Lower Ninth’s Ward’s purpose is to record the injustice of Katrina, as well as the glories and challenges found in the neighborhood’s history. Did Ian and his colleagues ever get pushback from the local community? Do people say he’s a gentrifier?
“Not to my face. I think there’s certainly critiques and I understand them. And I don’t necessarily disagree with them entirely.”
“The problem that I have with the critique is that it can so often lead to paralysis. If we looked at that critique – what if we weren’t here? If we just decided we weren’t going to do this project? The problem is that most of the people in the Lower Ninth Ward don’t have the time and the resources to devote to doing this, because they are struggling in other ways. They’re just trying to get by. And so, while ideally this wouldn’t be an outsider’s project – that’s, in some sense, the reality of it.”
But if [these critiques] paralyze us as people who are looking to work in solidarity with those who are marginalized and oppressed by society, and trying to be allies… I don’t think paralysis is the answer.”