Chronically Displaced in NOLA

Four years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the disaster continues.

Fatima Shaik

On May 13, Jalinh Vasquez holds her sister Jayshel Barthelemy in the FEMA trailer park where they live in Port Sulphur, La. (Photo by: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On July 26, about 50 peo­ple lined up to tes­ti­fy before a Unit­ed Nations advi­so­ry com­mit­tee in the cafe­te­ria of McDonogh 42, a New Orleans ele­men­tary school. Though there had been only a small notice in the New Orleans Times-Picayune call­ing for pub­lic input, about 300 Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na sur­vivors turned up to tell the UN-HABI­TAT advi­sors about the dif­fi­cul­ties they still face return­ing to their ances­tral homes even four years after the disaster. 

Like Harlem before gentrification, the downtown communities with abandoned properties and empty lots will soon be ripe for developers—if they take an interest.

Accord­ing to the Greater New Orleans Com­mu­ni­ty Data Cen­ter (GNOCDC), about a quar­ter of the city’s pre-Kat­ri­na pop­u­la­tion – more than 175,000 peo­ple – has not returned.

Though many of their neigh­bors have giv­en up and left town, the group gath­ered at McDonogh wants to remain in New Orleans because their fam­i­lies have lived here, as one per­son says, since before the Unit­ed States.”

Over the course of three hours, the com­mit­tee heard speak­ers rang­ing from rental prop­er­ty own­ers unable to access fed­er­al funds allo­cat­ed for repairs to the work­ing poor who can’t afford the high­er cost of the city’s hous­ing. This cross sec­tion is typ­i­cal of the 7th Ward where the meet­ing took place, a two-square-mile Afro-Cre­ole neigh­bor­hood where peo­ple of dif­fer­ent incomes and eth­nic­i­ties have his­tor­i­cal­ly lived as neighbors. 

Those who came to the hear­ing hope the U.S. gov­ern­ment will respond to U.N. pres­sure and rec­og­nize their right to return. They want Kat­ri­na sur­vivors to be defined as inter­nal­ly dis­placed per­sons (IDPs), a term used by the U.N. and rec­og­nized by the U.S. gov­ern­ment and oth­er nations. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Eco­nom­ic and Social Rights Ini­tia­tive, a non­prof­it, label­ing the hur­ri­cane sur­vivors as IDPs would then give them access to right to return” laws that man­date the pro­vi­sion of ade­quate hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, health, food and work. 

The many obsta­cles to reset­tle­ment have rout­ed the poor and mid­dle class from the city’s land, while more than 65,000 res­i­dences in Orleans Parish remain unin­hab­it­ed, accord­ing to the GNOCDC. Blight­ed prop­er­ties and those with unpaid tax­es are now being tak­en over by the city, cre­at­ing a no-win sit­u­a­tion for the gov­ern­ment and the aver­age neigh­bor­hood cit­i­zen. Like Harlem before gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the down­town com­mu­ni­ties with aban­doned prop­er­ties and emp­ty lots will soon be ripe for devel­op­ers – if they take an inter­est. With­out a buy­er, the prop­er­ties may lie fal­low for years.

Own­ers are pressed to raise rents due to the ris­ing cost of insur­ance, tax­es and city ser­vices, not to men­tion repairs. Rents are now 40 per­cent high­er than pre-Kat­ri­na lev­els, accord­ing to a June 2009 report by the GNOCDC. As a result, low-income ten­ant sub­si­dies are more nec­es­sary than ever. The Bureau of Gov­ern­men­tal Research, a New Orleans non­prof­it, pre­dicts that sub­si­dized hous­ing will rise to 25 per­cent of all New Orleans hous­ing in 2012, up from 10 per­cent of pre-Kat­ri­na hous­ing stock. The ques­tions res­i­dents ask is: Who will be sub­si­dized most in post-Kat­ri­na New Orleans – the devel­op­ers, the needy or the mid­dle class?

With the help of fed­er­al dol­lars, builders are begin­ning mas­sive new projects. On A.P. Tureaud Avenue, with­in walk­ing dis­tance of McDonogh, fresh­ly built hous­es tow­er over their old­er neigh­bors. The St. Bernard Projects, the largest pub­lic-hous­ing com­plex in the city, was torn down to make room for large devel­op­ments. Some of the speak­ers at the UN-HABI­TAT meet­ing spoke of a con­spir­a­cy against the poor.

Cana­di­an Leilani Farha, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.N. advi­so­ry com­mit­tee, told the group the issues were too com­plex to be solved overnight and that the vis­it­ing com­mit­tee will give its find­ings to UN-HABI­TAT, which will for­ward them to the U.S. fed­er­al government. 

One audi­ence mem­ber tes­ti­fied that she needs imme­di­ate help. She came back to New Orleans to take care of her dis­abled par­ents, and now works as a truck dri­ver. She detailed sex­u­al harass­ment at work and domes­tic abuse in one of the places she lived after Kat­ri­na. I want to die. Every­body is depressed,” she told the com­mit­tee. What do you do? Where do you go? Do you kill yourself?” 

A few peo­ple called back, No. Don’t do it.” The rest sat silent. 

Fati­ma Shaik is the author of five books set in Louisiana and a for­mer reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her most recent book is the short sto­ry col­lec­tion What Went Miss­ing and What Got Found (August 2015), a love let­ter to the enter­tain­ing, unpre­dictable and flawed char­ac­ters who pop­u­lat­ed New Orleans before Hur­ri­cane Katrina.
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