Gulf Coast Katrina Survivors Fighting for Aid – and Respect
By: Herb Boyd
NNPA Special Contributor
Originally posted 8/29/2006
BILOXI, Miss. (NNPA) —A year after Hurricane Katrina ripped through here the damage everywhere is evident, and to drive along U.S. Highway 90 is to witness almost unrelieved devastation.
While most of the major casinos along the beachfront are once again functioning, only the battered frames or the foundations remain of the majority of nearby homes.
But, remarkably, there are a few determined, enterprising homeowners who have not waited on insurance payments or federal allocations to rebuild their homes.
“I used all of my own money to rebuild my house,” said Minnie Miller, whose small house was virtually inundated by 17 feet of flood water.
“I spent more than $50,000 to do it, and I didn’t get a dime from insurance companies or the federal government.”
Bruce Gordon, president and CEO of the NAACP, Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, a humanitarian and relief agency, and actor/activist Danny Glover were among a delegation of visitors who were astonished by what they heard. Gordon asked Miller, whose husband died just before Katrina struck, if all the work had been completed.
“Just about,” she replied, “but I’ve still got a little more work to do.”
J.D. Wilson, lives a few doors from Miller, and has almost finished restoring his damaged home.
“And I could not have done it without benefits from the Isle of Capri casino where I work in security,” he said. “In fact, the company gave all the employees $2,000 to help them get back on their feet.”
Wilson, who is White, said that if his home hadn’t been elevated on a three foot foundation the damage would have been worse.
“It took us several days to get back to the house after Katrina had passed, which was better than most folks around here.”
Most of Wilson and Miller’s neighbors receive some sort of welfare relief, Social Security, or live on fixed incomes, so it may take these other residents a while before they are able to return to their homes and repair them. One resident stood on her porch with her children displaying documents showing where she had been refused insurance claims of wind damage to her home.
“They told me that the damage to my home was the result of water surge, and I didn’t have flood insurance,” she said, requesting that her name not be used. The denial she faced from her insurance company is but one of thousands in the region.
These complaints and others were registered by residents later in the day at a town meeting conducted by Oxfam and the NAACP. Gordon, Offenheinser, Glover, and Barbara Arnwine, executive director, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formed a panel that fielded a number of questions from local residents who wanted to know when the federal government was going to allocate the funds that had been promised? What was meant by affordable housing? And what legal rights did they possess?
To open the discussion, moderator George E. Curry, editor-in-chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, asked the panelists the reason why Mississippi and other regions of the Gulf Coast, except for New Orleans, had been ignored by the mainstream media.
“First of all, the media goes where the sound bites are, and there was clearly more drama in New Orleans where the levees broke. But it can’t be merely a matter of focusing on where the money goes,” NAACP President Bruce Gordon said. He stressed that Biloxi “will continue to come back until all the homes are rebuilt.”
Offenheiser and Arnwine agreed with Gordon, adding that racial inequality was also a factor when trying to get the attention of the media. While getting notice from the media is important, she felt that providing people with legal assistance was even more vital. “That’s why we’ve been holding legal disaster workshops, which is one way to fight back,” she said.
She also noted that she and a team of attorneys had sued FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) and was calling for investigation of state regulated insurance companies.
“The mainstream media always arrives in two phases,” Offenheiser explained.
“First there’s the sprint phase when the story first breaks. Then there’s the marathon phase, which requires a strong public voice to keep the issue alive.”
When it comes to the media and other issues, Glover said there were short and long term goals.
“We must use this disaster as a catalyst to build the kind of community we desire,” he asserted. “And we have to be there when the decisions are made.”
During the question-and-answer session, residents voiced a number of concerns, but none more persistent than representatives of the Latino community, who argued that they, as immigrants, were neglected by the government as well as organizers of the Town Hall meeting (which was not exactly true, since there was at least two Hispanic panel members).
“What you have to understand is that the government has no immigration policy,” said Offenheiser, responding to the assertion that immigrants are human beings, too. He explained how the government, in effect, had used the lack of a policy to fuel dissent among immigrants and poor Americans.
“We end up fighting among ourselves, when we should be united.”
The collaboration between Oxfam and the NAACP is a good example of that unity, and to gather a notion of their working relationship and their separate reports go to www. Oxfamamerica.org and www.naacpms.org
Offenheiser, in his closing remarks, summarized the forum when he noted that “It’s about building back better…Our work in the wake of Katrina’s destruction has proven that this approach (showing people how to use their own creativity and knowledge) is the key to recovery no matter where we work; local voices must drive recovery.”