Four Years Later, Displaced New Orleans Residents Long for Home as Governments Turn Their Back

Photo by Jaisal Noor.  Harold Toussaint, a Katrina survivor, performs spoken word at a Aug. 29 event in lower Manhattan.

This story was written by Alex Kane, and reported by Alex Kane and Jaisal Noor.  

Nelson Penoliver knew something was wrong when he looked outside his second floor apartment in New Orleans' Eighth Ward in late August 2005 and saw the flood waters that Hurricane Katrina had brought to his city.

Penoliver spent the next two days waiting out the storm in his apartment before being rescued by the military.  After several days in New Orleans' Superdome, he was instructed to get on a bus to a nearby airport and “get on a plane, wherever it lands, it lands,” Penoliver said.

He wound up in New York.  With no family in the area and only a few friends, the New York Solidarity Coalition for Katrina/Rita Survivors provided Penoliver with a much-needed support network of other people who were also forced to relocate after Hurricane Katrina.

Over fifty people joined Penoliver and other hurricane survivors this past Saturday in lower Manhattan to commemorate the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Sponsored by the coalition, events included spoken word poetry, food and drink and a live trombone performance.

More than one million Gulf Coast residents have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina alone. Around 200 storm survivors are now living throughout the five boroughs, according to Johnnie Stevens, a founding member of the coalition.

Nearly everyone present—from storm survivors to volunteers—had a story to share about the storm, ranging from accounts of survival to anecdotes about the devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina.

For some survivors, like Otta Hawn, it is still too difficult to speak about the storm's impact. She said she cried all day Saturday in anticipation of the afternoon event.

While some displaced New Orleans residents have found a home away from home in New York, others still wish to return to the Big Easy.

New York “is my home for now,” said Jennifer Jones, who is currently living in Harlem. “But New Orleans is home, with a capital H-O-M-E, exclamation point. It’s in my heart, and that’s where, God willing, I want to go back.”

The New York Solidarity Coalition for Katrina/Rita Survivors was founded in September 2005 to bring storm victims together to advocate for their right to return to New Orleans. The coalition is also calling for economic stability and adequate housing for storm survivors and a more transparent and inclusive rebuilding process.

But even if residents who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina are able to fulfill their wish of returning to New Orleans, they would be coming home to a dramatically different city.

In a pre-taped speech shown at the event, Bill Quigley, a leading figure in the fight to preserve public housing in New Orleans, laid out the reasons why, in his words, “injustice still reigns on the Gulf Coast.” Quigley, who was recently named the Legal Director for the Center for Consitutional Rights, went through a litany of problems that New Orleans faces, including a failed levee system and the absence of renters' rights.

Quigley warned that New Orleans' levee system still does not adequately protect the city.

"There is no report by the federal government which says the city is safer than before Katrina," he said.

Quigley noted that no renters—who made up 60 percent of New Orleans' residents before the storm—have received any federal housing assistance from the $10 billion set aside for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He also highlighted the onslaught of privatization that has hit the city, resulting in the demolition of thousands of public housing units.

For residents who do return, the racial make-up of the city has been radically altered as well.

According to the Rebuilding Lives Coalition, less than than half of the low-income black residents who once lived in New Orleans have returned. In the Lower Ninth Ward, which was among the worst-affected areas, less than 20 percent of residents have come back.

Some participants at the event said they have not seen palpable change from
the Obama administration.

“With FEMA, nothing has changed, with HUD, nothing has changed, with the Army Corps., nothing has changed,” Stevens said.

Last March, when Penoliver returned home to New Orleans for a visit, he found his old neighborhood in the Eighth Ward largely unchanged.

“The town center was still messed up, mildew still on the wall, the water lines still on the houses after four years,” he said.

Last weekend, in his weekly address to the nation, President Obama pledged to continue to work on rebuilding New Orleans and said he would visit the Gulf Coast by the end of the year.

“As we rebuild and recover, we must also learn the lessons of Katrina, so that our nation is more protected and resilient in the face of disaster,” Obama said. “That means continuing to rebuild hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls around New Orleans, and working to strengthen the wetlands and barrier islands that are the Gulf Coast’s first line of defense.”

Brenda Stokley, a well-known New York activist and one of the co-founders of the coalition, remains skeptical of the Obama administration.

“Unfortunately, Obama hasn’t really stepped up to the plate to rectify the situation at all,” she said.

The lack of government action, along with the drawn-out rebuilding process, has changed the way many survivors who are involved with the coalition view issues of social justice, says Jones, who plans to go to Pittsburg to protest the G20 Summit in late September.

"After going through Katrina I've realized that everybody else's problems are my problems, too,” Jones said.

Karen Yi also contributed to this report.

Check out more Indypendent coverage of New York related Hurricane Katrina stories:

New York Students Help Rebuild New Orleans by Isabelle Jagninski

A Pledge to Aid New Orleans by Jeffrey Buchanan

NYC Grassroots Gets the Aid Out by Damali Abrams