Bush to New Orleans Survivors: "You're On Your Own"
— Joanna Dubinsky
LIKE EVERYONE WHO "got out" before Katrina hit, my exit was a private one. My partner and I took heed of the voluntary evacuation because we had the means to do so. We packed three changes of clothes and our passports, got in our trusty 1998 Ford Escort station wagon with some friends, and left our green-shuttered 100-year-old Victorian shotgun house in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
We thought we'd be back in three days, four tops. As we exited Saturday evening, people were performing their evacuation rituals. Boarding windows. Packing cars. But many went about their leisurely late summer Saturday. Restaurants and shops overflowed with people. Pedestrians, bicycles and cars filled the streets.
It wasn't until Sunday morning, waking up in a price-gouging hotel in Vicksburg, Mississippi that the reality sunk in: Hurricane Five, New Orleans, Direct Hit. These were the words streaming from CNN as I brushed my teeth. Instantly my stomach turned and my knees gave out.
Once Upon A Time...
THERE WAS A campaign for a citywide minimum wage in New Orleans. It succeeded. What happened to it?
The background: In 1996, ACORN and SEIU Local 100 led a campaign to get a ballot initiative setting a citywide minimum wage to be always at $1 above the federal minimum for private sector employers of a certain size. The city council refused to act by passing a law of its own or allowing an initiative, so the campaign set to gathering signatures to get an initiative on the ballot.
Louisiana state law determines whether cities have the right to set their own wage laws (home rule)—hence New Orleans seemed an ideal spot to launch such a campaign, especially given its high rate of poverty.
When the campaign got 50,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, the hotel and restaurant lobbyists persuaded the state legislature to pass a law, overruling home rule in this case—arguing that a citywide minimum wage in New Orleans would "hurt the state's economy.
The campaign filed a legal appeal against the state's new law, and after a few years of court battles, won the right to put the issue to a vote for the 2002 spring election. The initiative won by a 5-3 margin in February 2002. Employers groups appealed the vote, saying that the state law should outlaw the minimum wage. Stephanie Luce, author and activist in the national Living Wage movement, states:
"We fought back on two grounds: that the state constitution did not allow the state to pass the law outlawing home rule, and that the justification for the law—that a minimum wage would hurt the state economy—was flawed. We prepared the economic impact report to argue the second point. We won the first appeal, and it then went to the State Supreme Court. They upheld the state law, repealing the citywide minimum in September 2002.
"Watching the whole thing unfold was really shocking—perhaps not surprising, but still shocking to see the role that neoclassical economic theory played in the court cases. The opposition provided NO evidence for their claims—they didn't even attempt to get some business owners to come forward to say they would be hurt by the law."
Luce notes that at the current federal minimum wage of $5.15, someone working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year earns $10,712 a year—12.2% below the federal poverty level for a family of two (and most bipartisan observers note that the federal poverty line is too low, by about 25-50%).
"At the time, we found that about 40% of New Orleans households were at poverty or near-poverty levels. A citywide minimum wage would not affect all poor families, but would impact about half the families. The raise would amount to about $1,100 extra, on average, per worker—based on average weeks of work and hours of work in the city—which would still leave families in poverty but could, in fact, mean the difference in extra money for bus fare, or hotel rooms."
For those families, in other words, that was the difference between a reasonably orderly evacuation and the horrors of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center.
For New Orleanians—whether exiled or trapped in the city—August 29th was a rollercoaster of fear, relief, then fear again. Katrina's turn to the east gave Mississippi the brunt while sparing the city. Our guilty collective exhale was followed by the lowest-plunging low: news of the levee breach. That night, in my nightmarish and shallow sleep, I dreamt of water and woke up to news of a drowned city.
Decline to Disaster
New Orleans was once the greatest city in the South—complete with a world-class levee system—but has long been a city in decline. In the last decades, like many urban centers across the country, planning has been left to the market. Desperate to develop capital, the government bowed to all corporate interests, while social services were cut, the school system and city infrastructure crumbled, the natural environment deteriorated and the poverty rate tripled that of the national average.
Given these conditions—and the mantra of "personal responsibility" that permeates our culture—it is not surprising that there was no public evacuation plan for the most predictable catastrophes in the United States, a direct hurricane hit to the below sea-level city. A July Times Picayune article drove this prophetic point home: "City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own."
As CNN streamed horrific images of desperate New Orleanians—mostly poor and Black—struggling to survive at the Superdome, Convention Center and rooftops across the city, the message "You're on your own" rang loud. Though each day does not require such Herculean feats for mere survival, the parallels to the daily violence of this era of capitalism are striking.
From the racist disparity of our education system, to the lack of health care for the working poor, to the lingering wealth gap between Blacks and whites stemming from institutional racism and the unpaid labor of slavery, the reality is: When you are poor or Black, the system is set up—in the words of rap star Kanye West—"to help...as slowly as possible."
While racism and poverty are generally hidden from broad view—endured as an individual's "personal responsibility"—the wake of Katrina revealed this experience to be broadly and collectively shared. And in this Orwellian age of "Homeland Security," the crisis in New Orleans taught us that security does not mean a safety net for any of us—least of all the most vulnerable. We are all truly "on our own."
In our month and a half in exile—a time described by one friend as "a vacation in hell"—we've only once been back to New Orleans. Desperate to see the city for ourselves, my partner and I drove from Atlanta at the end of September, days before Rita gave the coast a second pounding.
We snuck into the city, which was once again under mandatory evacuation. Certainly our white skin and claimed "business interest"—I worked in an office in the Central Business District and could supply a business card—got us through the military checkpoint.
Our modest wooden home on Marais Street, a few blocks west of the Industrial Canal and the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, stands on three-foot piers, and had only received a foot of flooding on the interior. There was a small hole in the roof above our office, allowing rain to fall on our computer and books. Our grand pecan tree had fallen on our shed. Our stuff was a mess, many things were ruined, but our house wouldn't have to be bulldozed, as the sensationalist media had me fear.
The city as a whole looked much worse than our house. Flooded cars were strewn everywhere, some hanging off highway on-ramps; boats sat in the neutral ground and on streetcar tracks; buses with doors ajar sat in the middle of streets. In the more flood-damaged areas we could access, many houses were still standing, but some were missing roofs, and the high waterlines betrayed the unseen horrors inside.
The military was ubiquitous. Across the street, the Oregon National Guard camped out at Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude Avenue. In its former life—just a month before—it had been the second-lowest ranking high school in the state, as well as the site of community and student organizing for quality public education. Those student activists are now enrolled in schools in at least four states.
Before we left the city, we visited our friend and fellow Green Party activist Leenie Halbert, a few blocks away on Desire St. Like so many acts of mutual aid in the face of government neglect and incompetence, she turned her house into a food and water distribution center for the few hold-outs in the neighborhood and called it Common Ground Collective II. The first Common Ground Collective, located directly across the river in Algiers, was started by Malik Rahim, former Black Panther and current Green Party member.
Leenie talked of the complete occupation of the city—"Little Baghdad"—and the total "Mad Max" atmosphere, as well as her fear that the destruction and permanent dislocation of poor Black neighborhoods was already underway
We hugged and promised to meet at the Washington, DC antiwar march September 24th. Standing in our city—nearly destroyed by a government that prioritizes war over human need—that march took on even more meaning.
By the time this goes to press, my partner and I will have made our permanent return to New Orleans. Or as my friend Megan pointed out: "as permanent as it gets when everything is impermanent."
Like many others, Megan and her partner Adam, with a baby on the way, are involuntarily and indefinitely exiled from the city. Without hospitals, schools and further analysis of the environmental conditions that could impact a child's fragile immune systems, New Orleans will be "a virtually childless city" in the months ahead.
No children means no families, which means that many residents—many with deep roots in the city—cannot return for the rebuilding process. Many more can't return because the houses they rented were destroyed and, with rents doubling and tripling in the areas that never flooded, they'll have no place to live.
FEMA talks about trailers, but there is no real plan to repopulate the city with everyone who was displaced—only with those who have the means to return. For the poor, the refrain is the familiar "You're on your own."
From stories on the inside, the city is still very much a "wild west"—where a few cases of beer can get you electricity before your neighborhood is slated to get service. And where being Black and poor means you get beaten by the cops in the French Quarter.
The town is crawling with men 25-45—contractors, military, construction and cleanup workers, police officers, FEMA officials, adjusters, apocalypse-seekers. Most are not from New Orleans. Testosterone and rugged individualism run rampant.
Friends already back are anxious for their community to be home: "Why aren't you here? The city is full of outsiders, we need you!" The trauma has driven many of the displaced closer together. Whether in a shelter, or with friends and family in far reaches of the country, people want to overcome the isolation of our shattered lives. We want to connect to New Orleans.
I—like so many—want desperately to be home. But I want the normal pattern of my life. Many want the New Orleans they've always called home; I want the New Orleans I chose to call home, the magical place I sunk roots into because I couldn't imagine living in any other community on the planet.
I'm bracing for the struggle ahead, both personal and political. Certainly the bigger struggle has already begun, and time is not on our side. We will be fighting for the city and for ourselves—for the right of return of all displaced people and to rebuild the city reflecting our needs, not those of the tourism industry or corporations.
With prevailing wage rates and affirmative action suspended, and the reconstruction plan focused on no-bid contracts, corporate tax-free zones, and casinos, the government is saying, yet again: "You're on your own."
To this, we must emphatically respond in a chorus of thousands: "We refuse to be pushed aside! We are together, and we will fight for New Orleans!"
Joanna Dubinsky is a member of Solidarity. She is working with Community Labor United's People's Hurricane Relief and Reconstruction Fund to rebuild New Orleans for human need. Join us in New Orleans December 10th! See www.communitylaborunited.net for details. The author can be reached at
ATC 119, November-December 2005