Lessons of Katrina

ACORN Community Organizing Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing Organizer Training

Houston          The annual Year End / Year Begin meeting of all of the ACORN family of organizations was dislocated, but the tribes had all gathered — the purple shirts of Local 880, the welcomed addition of the New York Working Families Party, all of the A-CLOC and Wal-Mart related organizers, and obviously everyone drawing a paycheck on the ACORN staff.  We were at the Del Lago resort — the only pace available — when we were bounced out of New Orleans, but could find no bookings in Baton Rouge or Houston that could hold us.  Del Lago is on Lake Conroe about 45 miles into the country from Houston Intercontinental Airport.  This was a captive audience meeting!
Mayor Bill White of Houston and Councilman-at-large Oliver Thomas, the President of the New Orleans City Council joined Dorthy Stukes of the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association and Beth Butler of Louisiana ACORN on a panel to talk about the lessons of Katrina.  Each one said remarkable things that marked the hurricane for them, as for so many others, as a defining moment.
Bill White and Oliver Thomas of course both talked about the value of their partnerships with ACORN, but more than that the lessons they felt were coming to them.
Mayor White felt he had learned that you could not count on the federal government.  Given the poverty of the cities, that’s sobering!  He said his advisors always told him to start with a joke, and now he did, he would just face an audience and say, “FEMA” and listen to the laughter as he began his remarks.  It was the best — and shortest — joke he knew.  He also shared stories that defined a generation — registering voters in lower income, minority neighborhoods in the 1964 as the Voting Rights Act was passed — and why the same kind of commitment and compassion was important to flow from the floods of Katrina to this generation.  White didn’t mince words.  He was not a flowery speaker, but plain spoken.  A best of the breed “can do” guy who didn’t stint on his praise for the partnership he had developed with ACORN.  A key lesson he had found was the importance of the “grassroots” and the people and organizations who were there when something like this happened that required real and total participation from the grassroots up.
Oliver Thomas shared personal lessons that were moving and powerful from the streets of New Orleans.  He shared the crises of patriotism that was challenging his family values from generations of living in New Orleans.  He shared the culture of denial about hurricanes.  Councilman Thomas met extensively with various people on the ACORN Katrina Task Force at the staff level about housing, policy questions, and moving forward.  Clearly, we needed to make sure the people had a voice, and Oliver was committed to holding the microphone.  That was a lesson!
 Dorthy Stukes said one of the things she had learned was to evacuate ‘even in a hard rain!”  People knew what she meant.
 Beth Butler talked about a lot of things from the head and the heart, but as she told the story of her “double taking” when she saw a woman out waiting for a bus for the first time in 3 months and how happy it made her, we knew that there were a million lessons, and we all still had a lot of learning to go.
December 18, 2005

New Orleans Councilman Oliver Thomas speaking on the lessons of Katrina at ACORN’s annual YEYB conference with, from right to left, Dorothy Stukes of the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association, Beth Butler of Lousiana ACORN, and Mayor Bill White of Houston.