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News :: Human Rights
Grassroots relief work shows up gov’t negligence
06 Sep 2005
With a Labor Day visit to the devastated Gulf States region, President George W. Bush today tried to convey optimism and a sense of turning the corner as he defended his administration's failure to rescue tens of thousands of poor, mostly Black, residents of New Orleans and other Louisiana and Mississippi areas.
Grassroots relief work shows up gov’t negligence

By John Catalinotto

Published Sep 6, 2005 12:20 AM
Sept. 5—With a Labor Day visit to the devastated Gulf States region, President George W. Bush today tried to convey optimism and a sense of turning the corner as he defended his administration's failure to rescue tens of thousands of poor, mostly Black, residents of New Orleans and other Louisiana and Mississippi areas.

Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials toured the area. They had spent the first five days of the crisis doing next to nothing to help. Now they were trying for photo-ops to cover up their criminal inaction.

None was talking about the new threats of infectious diseases beginning to appear among the 1.5 million people who have left the destroyed area but are still not receiving adequate medical care.

Bush's bubbling words clashed with the latest estimates of expected body counts from administration and local officials. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt estimated up to 10,000 bodies would be found in the wreckage. Hundreds more have died in and around Biloxi, Miss.

New Orleans' breached levee at 17th Street was reported to be"almost repaired," but officials were talking of needing nine months to make the city habitable.

Anticipating Bush's visit, the editors of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans wrote an open letter attacking the federal agencies responsible for disaster relief:

"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame."

The large concentrations of people who had been in the Superdome and the Convention Center have finally been evacuated. The Bush administration, however, is concentrating the power of the state not on mobilizing emergency rescue and medical teams, doctors, nurses and nutritionists to help people but on occupying New Orleans with some 40,000 police, National Guard and active-duty troops. It's what his administration does worldwide.

The best news came from the actions of progressive and neighborhood organizations, mostly in the African-American communities, who were taking action to provide assistance where they saw the government's actions inadequate at best, cruel and destructive at worst.

1.5 million displaced persons

Some 1.5 million people have left their homes on the Gulf Coast to relocate to 20 states, most of them going to other parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and to Texas. Some of the biggest concentrations are in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capital, where at least 100,000 displaced people and rescue workers have gathered, and in Houston, the largest city in the region, where a reported 223,000 have been taken by bus.

The states involved have pledged to open local schools for the many displaced children, but local officials are already worrying about costs. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered emergency officials to airlift some of the people to other states willing to take them. And Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden has asked the U.S. Congress for financial help, saying the local government won't be able to pay the higher bills.

A threat still exists that could have been handled with rapid medical care."Officials at the Centers for Disease Control said some of the refugees have contracted a bacterial disease called vibrio vulnificus," reported the Sept. 5 Los Angeles Times."It may have been picked up by people with open wounds who were forced to wade through badly polluted waters for long periods of time."

While vibrio vulnificus is supposed to be less dangerous than the bacterium that causes cholera, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain among healthy people. It is generally not life-threatening and can be cured with antibiotics. For those who have other illnesses or weakened immune systems, however, it is very dangerous.

The additional crime here is that Washington has refused to accept or even acknowledge the Cuban government's offer Sept. 2 to supply 1,100 doctors. These doctors have experience working in difficult conditions similar to those along the devastated Gulf Coast—which few U.S. doctors have. They were ready to arrive on Saturday, each fully equipped with 53 pounds of medication for immediate use.

Grassroots initiatives

The grassroots support has been quicker and often better organized than the Red Cross's, not to speak of FEMA's. Gloria Rubac of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty told Workers World that there has been an outpouring of support from the Houston population, especially from the Black community."There is a real connection between Houston, especially the Frenchtown neighborhood, and southern Louisiana, for both Black and white people, through language and culture," she said. "There are many volunteers, so many that the Red Cross has been turning them away."

Rubac said that SHAPE, which stands for Self-Help for African People through Education and has been a center of political activity in the Black community since 1969, has been"a center of organization" in Houston."Other groups bring in all sorts of aid to the SHAPE Community Center, where it is sorted for babies, adults, whatever. These are contributions from poor working class people in Houston contributing what they can. People with homes are taking families into their home.

"SHAPE has also been keeping track of who comes in from Louisiana and connecting people with others they know. The Red Cross wasn't doing this until Sept. 5, so the community group did," Rubac said.

"We heard that someone in New Orleans commandeered a bus and filled it with people trying to evacuate the city. It ran out of gas and got stuck. At the same time, the New Black Panther Party of Houston took three buses intending to pick people up from New Orleans. They wound up rescuing those from the bus that was stuck and taking them to Bossier City, La., near Shreveport."

In another development, the anti-war movement is helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina. A delegation from Camp Casey in Crawford, Tex.—named after a GI killed in Iraq—set up camp in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, to help the people forced to flee the Gulf Coast. The"White Rose” bus of the Veterans for Peace, Chapter 116, set up Camp Casey Covington, which is now providing food and medical support at the Covington Pine View Middle School on 28th Street.

The Camp Casey group has already made deliveries of water to the Red Cross and has been providing communications via its satellite connection. An e-mail from Dennis Kyne says they set up a distribution line that delivered tons of food and supplies in the first two days. Other Veterans for Peace groups are sending truckloads of goods into the area. The only way to reach Camp Casey Covington right now is through Gordon Soderberg at his e-mail address: gordonsoderberg (at)

Expanding the struggle

Along with bringing direct relief, progressive organizations have expanded the struggle to demand more aid from the government. A Camp Casey in downtown Detroit gave the microphone to someone who had just come from New Orleans to stay with family members. When the group then joined the Labor Day parade, the hurricane survivor carried a sign calling for Cuban doctors to be allowed to help the displaced Gulf Coast population, reports Cheryl LaBash."We hung a banner between street light poles that said, 'Bush Lies—New Orleans Dies—Money for Our Cities, Not for War.'"

A number of organizations have called for coordinated national demonstrations on Sept. 12, preferably at federal buildings, to demand:

* Immediate relief—food, medicine, water, clothing and emergency shelter for the people of the region.

* Extended unemployment benefits for all who have lost jobs, and a massive jobs and housing program for the near future.

* Money for hurricane relief, not war!

* End the military occupation of New Orleans! People trying to feed their families are not looters!

* An independent international investigation of the criminal negligence that caused this disaster.

Initiating endorsers include the Million Worker March Movement; Troops Out Now Coalition; Saladin Muhammed, Black Workers For Justice; Harlem Tenants Council; Chris Silvera, Chair, Teamsters National Black Caucus; Malik Rahim, Greencross, New Orleans; International Action Center; Cuba Solidarity New York; Rev. Lucius Walker, Pastors for Peace; Rev. Luis Barrios, Iglesia San Romero de Las Américas; and local leaders and activists from around the country. Protests are already planned in all the large cities and over 100 areas of the U.S.

-- 30 --

Union labor donated
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