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A New Orleans journal.

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT when Jorge and I landed in New Orleans. The airport, vivid in my imagination from Spike Lee's film and other first-hand accounts by aid workers, was deserted at nine on a Friday night. From the moment we stepped outside the airport doors and found that we could not rent a car, to nearly a week later, lost and exhausted on the freeways as we straggled out of the city to our predawn departure flight--we were sucked into what felt like a maelstrom of troubles in the Big Easy.


We'd gone there, my colleague Jorge Rivas and I, to report and photograph this issue's cover story about the struggle to rebuild and return. The first few nights, in bitingly cold late November weather, we had no hot water in our FEMA trailer. A tiny contraption that's supposed to house a family of four, the trailer could barely fit the two of us and our equipment. Faced with the choice of a bunk squeezed next to a bathroom that smelled of the waste tank beneath, or the "master bedroom" at the other end a few feet away, we doubled up on the bed with all our blankets. The metal box, which smelled of formaldehyde, grew increasingly frigid as the night went on.

Later, we would meet families that had been living in their trailers for more than a year. In fact, you were lucky if you could get a trailer because there were no apartments left in the city to rent at an affordable rate, hardly any of the Road Home grants had been given out for residents to fix their gutted houses in the Ninth and Seventh Wards, and nearly all of the public housing had been locked up for demolition. More than 200,000 Black residents were still displaced.

RosAna Cruz, an organizer with the Worker Justice Center, took us on a drive one morning through parts of New Orleans and Metairie. She pointed out the Midtown Hotel, which had at one point housed 200 guestworkers. They'd been forced to pay between $2000 to $5000 to recruiters and employers, and were then housed in the hotel's ballroom at a cost of $50 a week and $8 a plate of food. The night security guard's day job was as an ICE agent.

To get H2B visas for the workers, employers are supposed to show that they can't find local people to hire. Yet the unemployment rate for Blacks was up to 10 percent in New Orleans, and as high as 20 to 30 percent among evacuees, according to the Worker Justice Center.

"I think typically we see an almost segregated approach to the fight back. The right to return is an African American concern, and labor issues are seen as an immigration issue," Rosana remarked. "And the fact is, both of those are tied to each other. People are locked out of work or locked into work."

Nearly two years since Katrina, practically everything has gone wrong in the government response, from rescue to rebuilding. It's hard to deny the failure of political will and public solutions to the poverty exposed by the storm. On the other hand, conservative and neoliberal experiments to re-make the city into a playground for the upper class have succeeded swimmingly, so far.

"You name it, it's still Katrina all the time here. Every day people wake up and fight the same issues coming out of the storm. As long as that happens, we can be hopeful that we end up ahead," Wade Rathke of ACORN told us. "But right now, we're still trying to stay in the game."

To watch the short video we produced, visit

Tram Nguyen

Executive Editor
COPYRIGHT 2007 Color Lines Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Nguyen, Tram
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:May 1, 2007
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