Katrina Wars

Wanda Sabir
Date Published: 
November 16, 2005

Some people seem to think New Orleans and the rest of the more well-known towns in the Gulf States are located in a Third World country. True, the news images of the hurricane and flood damaged area didn't look like anything we knew - dirty bedraggled people dying from thirst and exposure - in the richest country in the world?! Nah! This had to be footage from India, Africa or South America, maybe Eastern Europe, not America, the United States.

The Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803 - 828,000 square miles at four cents an acre, an area as large as the combined real estate of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined - was the sweetest deal to come America's way. This country was the benefactor of Napoleon's last ditch effort to raise funds to win the war in Haiti against the Africans.

He lost.

One of the five geographically related sisters - Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, the Confederate States who grudgingly surrendered their lot and took lodging in the home of the wealthier step-siblings in the north - salvaged what they could of their antebellum culture, that is, Jim Crow laws and upper echelon status, and proceeded to export a lifestyle where African people still served their needs, which were of course legally paramount.

So enter Scarlett O'Hara and the "Wind Done Gone." Forty years after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act comes Hurricane Katrina and all the prejudiced ideology surrounding this mysterious place, a place of black magic or juju not too long ago. The South is now an attitude rather than a location, its seedlings blown all across the country in a massive dispersal - something like what happened in the European Slave Trade, only much faster ... benefits of modern technology.

Where are our babies? Where are our disabled relatives who can't speak for themselves - those people separated from family and left on bridges, on roofs, front porches, in stadiums, airports?

Long seated bigotry and hidden assumptions about the worth and value of some American citizens over others grew in this fallow ground, compounded by a stigma first world states like California – he world's fifth largest economy - place on Third World neighbors within its own borders if "Third World" means African people, the poor and the disenfranchised.

According to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services' map, Katrina survivors as of Sept. 22 have a huge presence in California: San Francisco with 600 evacuees, Alameda County 1,750, Sacramento 850, Santa Clara 400, Solano 354, Sonoma 92, Marin 26, San Mateo 80, Santa Cruz 24. In Southern California, there are 4,645 evacuees in LA County, 1,554 in San Diego, 848 in San Bernardino County and 1,439 in Riverside.

When photojournalists TaSin Sabir and Sara Henderson heard about the evacuees coming into San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, they rushed over to St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to cover the story, but a police officer told them there was no one there. Two months later, Lori Nairne with Crossroads Women Inc. invites me to an organizing meeting at Calvary Baptist Church, 5655 Mission St. near Geneva Avenue in San Francisco.

Though the numbers weren't huge, the gathering was an opportunity to hear first hand from some of the evacuees we'd been lOOking forward to meeting months ago. They have been staying at a motel for all these months, cut off from the larger community and in many cases an opportunity to repair their lives.

I'd wondered where they were and who knew or had a contact list. I wondered how people were doing, if they needed assistance and how we could help them get the resources they deserved. How can one hide over 600 people in San Francisco and another 2,000 in the East Bay?

San Francisco received $20 million federal dollars to assist with the relocation, yet to date none of those present at the meeting Sunday had benefited from any monetary resources. Most hadn't even gotten the $4,350 promised, which included housing assistance for three months.

One man went all the way back to Arizona to get his check when FEMA wouldn't mail it to him. Then when he arrived, they told him there were other problems which kept the agency from issuing it.

their homes destroyed just like their neighbors who qualify for assistance from FEMA because they are within the zip codes slated for assistance. The other evacuees don't qualify for anything; they were fortunate to get help from the Red Cross for housing.

Another man, a veteran, spoke of a social worker at St. Mary's who told him he would get $400 a month when he arrived in San Francisco in September, "retroactive," she stated when she scheduled his appointment for three weeks later. When he arrived at his appointment at 1 p.m., 45 minutes early, then signed in, he said he didn't get seen until 3:30 after he noticed the empty waiting room and asked the attendant why he had not been seen.

His social worker grudgingly agreed to see him when she realized the missed appointment was the agency's fault. "She didn't even apologize. She just made certain I knew I was keeping her from going home." he stated.

This is when he learned that the promise of $400 a month would be reduced to $59 if Social Services were paying rent. Also, the recipient had to seek work and take any offered even if the person was skilled and could find better paid work elsewhere.

"Care not Cash" is what the program is called.

Another woman - whom the hotel tried to evict from her room that next day, we were told - stated how she was penalized when she went on television and spoke about the faults in the national "Rescue Katrina Survivors' Mission." Red Cross snatched her subsidy, and FEMA forgot they knew her name.

Still another man spoke of wages he still hasn't been able to collect for work completed in New Orleans. He also told us about having a new apartment he's moving into early December, with no furniture.

It seems like a no-brainer for St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, two organizations that get free merchandise, to give Katrina survivors gift certificates for $400-$500 to completely furnish their homes from towels and dishes, to beds, TVs, sofas and linen. These agencies don't pay for any of the things they sell, often at crazy expensive prices; why not give it away to fellow citizens in need?

One woman said she had a gift certificate for Goodwill; then when she went to shop, the clerk tried to restrict her purchases to used items. She left and complained to the people who issued the gift certificate.

They told her to return to the store and get what she wanted. Do you know the merchandise she wanted had been removed? Who were they saving the new items for? Who is more deserving than a person who lost everything, much of which is irreplaceable?

One story after another filled the air, people so full of despair, anger or grief, some wept. The stories poured forth like a faucet. At times people had to pause and take a breath - voices colliding as if they wanted to get it all out and on tape - patience a virtue in short supply now that here were people who were listening who could help.

"I was deported here," one man said. "I need housing, clothing, a job. I'd like to be independent, get back on my feet. I just need a little help, a little compassion. We didn't ask to be here. Hopefully, we'll make something positive of this situation. I didn't ask to be here."

All I could think of was what about the other 300-plus families in San Francisco? What about the families in Oakland at Jack London Inn?

What about all those who don't have $25 to deposit on a phone to make calls from the hotel? What about those who can't afford to catch the bus - forget BART, Golden Gate Transit or Amtrak? It was at least seven miles from where we sat to downtown San Francisco.

People need everything. One man, who still hasn't located his wife, wanted a medical check up. He hadn't received a tetanus shot, and he'd been in the filthy flood water. One woman whose dog had to swim seven blocks - he's in a hospital now - spoke of how she had trouble breathing and didn't want to go back to New Orleans to check on her house to assess damages, but FEMA told her she could not let another family member handle it; she had to return herself.

From the Ninth Ward, Fifth Ward, Lafayette and other parts of New Orleans, people with good sense told us what they'd been through. They weren't indigent, homeless or used to going without - patient? yes, fools? no.

A few people chose to come to San Francisco because they had relatives here. Others wanted to go as far away as possible. Many owned homes and needed to get back to check on their property. Others had high paying jobs and satisf