New Orleans At the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse book launch for The Battle for the Ninth Ward, we asked a number of activists gathered on the second floor to share their perspectives and experiences. It was a rich and sometimes painful reminder of how much Katrina is still a daily experience in New Orleans six years later. For many living in the city Katrina is not a question of fatigue, but an advanced syndrome.
Some of the discussion sounded more like battle reports from ongoing fights. Brad Ott with the Save Charity coalition talked about almost 200 lawsuits still outstanding with individuals and others around the hospital construction and closing. Vanessa Gueringer, a leader of A Community Voice in the Lower 9th Ward, detailed a litany of promises still waiting fulfillment in her community and at one point commented that the only physical evidence of the city’s rebuilding effort to date “was a bicycle path.” Rebecca Sloboda Theriot shared her challenging experiences on the front lines teaching in a charter school in the severely broken school system. Perhaps these are old stories after six years, but each telling opens raw wounds and I could see tears in some eyes.
The report by Mark Moreau, director of New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation (NOLAC), was the most stunning and sobering to me though because the crises he raised are still ahead of many families and communities and would likely erect insurmountable barriers for some families not only to return to the city but to live securely in the future under any circumstances. From earlier published reports by the states Road Home authorities there has seemed to be an effort to constructively work with families who were still trying to assemble the resources to rebuild, but might have missed some of the deadlines and technical requirements to do so because of loan issues, contractor scams, and the impact of the recession.
Mark and his legal staff though were already finding cases that indicated that FEMA was back in New Orleans again, but was back this time trying to collect monies they had given earlier to families where these families had failed to complete the rebuilding. He gave a number of examples in this area that included efforts where people were still building, but also where FEMA was tracking down families is the diaspora to wrest back refunds of FEMA money, since they were not back home yet. Mark predicted that within six months there might be a deluge of suits that NOLAC would be handling on FEMA related clawbacks. He already had two lawyers working virtually full-time on the problem.
One of the lessons of disaster turns out to be that there is no real end to the disaster. It is a tragedy that keeps reverberating into the future; even as the ripples become smaller they continue unremittingly to hit people over and over. The Katrina Clawback Campaign will be painful, and in this mean spirited political and economic time, will be difficult to win where mercy collides with justice.