Years Of Katrina
By Bill Quigley
28 August, 2007
One. Build and rebuild
When disaster hits and life
is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your own. Isolation after
a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression. Family, community,
church, work associations are all important – get them up and
working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we
need communities to do it. Prize women – they are the first line
of community builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight,
but women will help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families
Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People and politicians
and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if our communities
are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one group
is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is
high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources
of individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than
Your community must be ready
to re-settle your property as soon as possible and care for those most
in need. Prioritize help for the elderly, the sick, children and women,
especially the poor. The prime cure for helplessness is taking control
over your own life and joining others to fight for justice.
Groups and people will want
to treat you like a victim – say you are traumatized and incapable
of making basic decisions about yourself. They will tell you they know
best and act like they know best. Tell them to get lost.
Three. Tell your
Sharing our stories, successes
and failures, is a way to connect and educate ourselves. Connecting
with others nationally and internationally who have been through disasters
is the very best thing that you can do. Disasters and the corporations
that cause them and profit from them do not respect national boundaries.
Look for global justice connections. Learn from those who have been
through this before. They will tell you - do not let anyone say who
you are or what is best for your community – say it yourself.
Those in power will blame
circumstances outside their control for what happened and inevitably
they will blame the victims of the disaster. Those in power will tell
the people’s story in ways that makes the powerful look good.
If others do not tell the truth – you do it and get your stories
out. Real allies help lift up the voices of the people.
Four. Value every
single human life equally.
Every religion and human
rights recognizes that every single person is entitled to human dignity.
There are no forms to fill
out, no criteria to meet. Every single person no matter their race or
gender or economic situation has equal value. Every person has the right
to participate in the response to the disaster equally. Every single
person and family has the right to repair and rebuild and participate
in the decisions being made.
The exact opposite occurs
after a disaster. The people with economic and political power get together
and decide what has to happen. They also decide which people are “worthy”
of getting help first. They consider poor working people disposable
and movable. Since this is an emergency, they say there is not time
to allow regular people to participate in the decisions. If every single
person is not treated equally before the disaster hits, they certainly
should not expect to be treated fairly after.
wait for a leader – become one.
Resist the tendency to think
someone else is going to come save you. There is no leader out there.
We must each become leaders and followers in order to bring about the
change that is needed. Each of us is challenged to get beyond our pre-disaster
comfort zone. New leadership is essential to avoid just repeating the
mistakes that contributed to the disaster.
Those who work for human development instead of real estate development
will be repeatedly criticized as “obstructionist” by those
who do not value every life equally. Be prepared for these criticisms.
That is what they said about Mandela, Gandhi, ML King. Good company.
Six. Prepare for
a Love-Hate Relationship with the Government.
After disaster, only the
government has the resources to help fix major problems for the social
good. We must hold them accountable and demand that the public sector
mobilize and assist in an equitable way.
At the same time, we cannot
wait for the government. Nor can we necessarily listen to the government.
After a disaster, the government will immediately be manipulated by
those in power. We must both critique the government and build our own
alternative community supports.
Seven. Government will help businesses first and second and
third, and if there is anything left, maybe fourth.
Who is in charge of government
before the disaster? Governments will look to privatize the public sector
– housing, health, education, transportation, every system after
a disaster. That was what they wanted before the disaster, so the disaster
offers them an opportunity to move their plans into action.
Corporations see disasters
as opportunities. They look for valuable land that poor people were
living on before the disaster. They decide that there is a better economic
use for that land. Then they will push the government to come up with
some excuse to take the land for other uses.
You will quickly see that those with power and money before the disaster
end up with more power and more money after the disaster. You will see
that 98% of the money distributed in a disaster ends up enriching corporations.
Our most colorful example is the blue tarps that the government put
on the roofs of houses after Katrina. The main contractor, Shaw Group,
got $175 a square to put on the tarps. The subcontracted the work out
to another corporation for $75 a square. The second corporation subcontracted
the work out to a third corporation for $30 a square. Who in turn subcontracted
it out again to guys who did the work for $2 a square. Two dollars a
square for the actual worker is less than 2 percent of what the government
paid out – guess who got the money.
Wonder why the Gulf Coast
is not fixed up yet? This is not an accident. It is not that the system
isn’t working. It is working for the benefit of those who create
and fund and manipulate it. Read Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE:
The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It spells it out in detail.
If government works primarily
for corporations before the disaster, after the disaster it will be
a hyper corporate-friendly environment.
reveal the structural injustices in our communities in race, gender
and class and are thus learning and action opportunities.
Wonder about the role of
race, class and gender in society? Watch what happens when disaster
strikes. Who is left behind during the disaster? Who is left behind
in the repair and rebuilding and planning and decision-making? Disasters
There is tremendous educational
opportunity to look at what really matters in our society after a disaster.
The curtains are pulled back. The bandages are ripped off. Our histories
of injustice are laid bare for all to see. International human rights
create great opportunities to reframe the justice discussion.
But just looking is insufficient.
Join in solidarity with the same folks who are left out. If a disaster
can be an opportunity for those interested in unjust economic advantage,
why cannot we change the pattern and make it an opportunity to redistribute
justice in our communities and right the wrongs that created what all
can now see?
Nine. A justice-based reconstruction will not be funded.
Money will flow. Charities,
churches and governments will send money for charitable help. If your
community is trying to create a more just community than the one destroyed
by the disaster, there will not be funding for that. If you are trying
to make the community fairer for and with the poor, the elderly, and
those who lived in unjust circumstances before the disaster –
get ready to raise your own funds for your organization. Funding for
charity will come, but funding for justice will not.
We must insist on some transparency
and accountability from the non-profits and foundations and others who
have raised and spent billions in the names of those in distress. They
cannot be allowed to operate like multi-national corporations –
they must open their books and involve people in their decision-making.
Solidarity not charity is
one of the great demands to come out of Katrina from the Common Ground
collective. Another is “Nothing about us without us is for us”
from Peoples Hurricane Relief.
After Katrina, it again became clear that decades of oil development
has literally destroyed the natural protections around the gulf coast.
Yet the disaster actually enriched the oil companies who helped cause
it, creating their biggest year of profit in some time. Yet, do you
hear the voices of those calling out for the oil corporations to be
held accountable for what they have caused? Those voices are small and
unfunded. But they, like so many others calling for justice, are out
there and will one day be heard.
Ten. Love is the
answer – justice work is a commitment for the long haul.
When disaster hits, there is a natural urge to work around the clock
to try to set things right. After a few weeks or months, it will become
clear that is not sustainable. Working 24 hours a day is going to make
you as crazy as the government. No one likes a crank – even if
they are working for justice.
Building communities of resistance
and working for human development is long-term work. Love is a tremendous
source of energy. But we have to love ourselves as well so we can keep
living this resistance with others. We have and will continue to make
mistakes. We have to get back up, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves
and others, and get back to working in community to create a more just
It is important to laugh
too. Remember that last job held by the guy in charge of disasters for
the entire US government was as head of an association of dancing horses!
We can’t make this stuff up.
We have to love and laugh
along with our tears and rage and keep learning new lessons.
a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
He can be reached at Quigley@loyno.edu
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