New Orleans: Leaving the Poor Behind Again!
By Bill Quigley. Bill is a professor of law at
Loyola University New Orleans where he directs the
Gillis Long Poverty Law Center and the Law Clinic and
teaches Law and Poverty. Bill can be reached at
They are doing it again! My wife and I spent five
days and four nights in a hospital in New Orleans
after Hurricane Katrina. We saw people floating dead
in the water. We watched people die waiting for
evacuation to places with food, water, and
electricity. We were rescued by boat and waited for
an open pickup truck to take us and dozens of others
on a rainy drive to the underpass where thousands of
others waited for a bus ride to who knows where. You
saw the people left behind. The poor, the sick, the
disabled, the prisoners, the low-wage workers of New
Orleans, were all left behind in the evacuation. Now
that New Orleans is re-opening for some, the same
people are being left behind again.
When those in power close the public schools, close
public housing, fire people from their jobs, refuse to
provide access to affordable public healthcare, and
close off all avenues for justice, it is not necessary
to erect a sign outside of New Orleans saying “Poor
People Not Allowed To Return.” People cannot come
back in these circumstances and that is exactly what
There are 28,000 people still living in shelters in
Louisiana. There are 38,000 public housing apartments
in New Orleans, many in good physical condition. None
have been reopened. The National Low Income Housing
Coalition estimated that 112,000 low-income homes in
New Orleans were damaged by the hurricane. Yet,
local, state and federal authorities are not committed
to re-opening public housing. Louisiana Congressman
Richard Baker (R-LA) said, after the hurricane, “We
finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We
couldn’t do it, but God did.”
New Orleans public schools enrolled about 60,000
children before the hurricane. The school board
president now estimates that no schools on the city’s
east bank, where the overwhelming majority of people
live, will reopen this academic school year. Every
one of the 13 public schools on the mostly-dry west
bank of New Orleans was changed into charter schools
in an afternoon meeting a few days ago. A member of
the Louisiana state board of education estimated that
at most 10,000 students will attend public schools in
New Orleans this academic year.
The City of New Orleans laid off 3,000 workers. The
public school system laid off thousands of its
workers. The Archdiocese of New Orleans laid off 800
workers from its central staff and countless hundreds
of others from its parish schools. The Housing
Authority has laid off its workers. The St. Bernard
Sheriff’s Office laid off half of its workers.
Renters in New Orleans are returning to find their
furniture on the street and strangers living in their
apartments at higher rents – despite an order by the
Governor that no one can be evicted before October 25.
Rent in the dry areas have doubled and tripled.
Environmental chemist Wilma Subra cautions that earth
and air in the New Orleans area appear to be heavily
polluted with heavy metal and organic contaminants
from more than 40 oil spills and extensive mold. The
people, Subra stated, are subject to “double insult –
the chemical insult from the sludge and biological
insult from the mold.” Homes built on the Agriculture
Street landfill – a federal toxic site – stewed for
weeks in floodwaters.
Yet, the future of Charity Hospital of New Orleans,
the primary place for free comprehensive medical care
in the state of Louisiana, is under furious debate and
discussion and may never re-open again. Right now,
free public healthcare is being provided by volunteers
at grassroots free clinics like Common Ground – a
wonderful and much needed effort but not a substitute
for public healthcare.
The jails and prisons are full and staying full.
Despite orders to release prisoners, state and local
corrections officials are not releasing them unless
someone can transport them out of town. Lawyers have
to file lawsuits to force authorities to release
people from prison who have already served all of
their sentences! Judges are setting $100,000 bonds
for people who steal beer out of a vacant house, while
landlords break the law with impunity. People
arrested before and after the hurricane have not even
been formally charged by the prosecutor. Because the
evidence room is under water, part of the police force
is discredited, and witnesses are scattered around the
country, everyone knows few will ever see a trial, yet
timid judges are reluctant to follow the constitution
and laws and release them on reasonable bond.
People are making serious money in this hurricane but
not the working and poor people who built and
maintained New Orleans. President Bush lifted the
requirement that jobs re-building the Gulf Coast pay a
living wage. The Small Business Administration has
received 1.6 million disaster loan applications and
has approved 9 in Louisiana. A US Senator reported
that maintenance workers at the Superdome are being
replaced by out of town workers who will work for less
money and no benefits. He also reported that
seventy-five Louisiana electricians at the Naval Air
Station are being replaced by workers from Kellogg
Brown and Root – a subsidiary of Halliburton
Take it to the courts, you say? The Louisiana
Supreme Court has been closed since the hurricane and
is not due to re-open until at least October 25, 2005.
While Texas and Mississippi have enacted special
rules to allow out of state lawyers to come and help
people out, the Louisiana Supreme court has not.
Nearly every person victimized by the hurricane has a
price-gouging story. Yet, the Louisiana Attorney
General has filed exactly one suit for price-gouging –
against a campground. Likewise, the US attorney has
prosecuted 3 people for wrongfully seeking $2000 FEMA
No schools. No low-income apartments. No jobs. No
healthcare. No justice.
A final example? You can fly on a plane into New
Orleans, but you cannot take a bus. Greyhound does
not service New Orleans at this time.
You saw the people who were left behind last time.
The same people are being left behind all over again.
You raised hell about the people left behind last
time. Please do it again.