‘Profit Motive’ Taints Katrina Recovery Efforts
By: George E. Curry
Originally posted 5/3/2006
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (NNPA) – When federal officials contacted Mayor George L. Grace of St. Gabriel, La. for help in setting up a morgue for those killed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he did not hesitate.
“At the time, we did not know how many victims of the hurricane there would actually be,” he recalls. “So we had to make a decision as to whether we would cooperate with accepting that gruesome responsibility. Of course, people are afraid of the unknown and there were a lot of people who did not want a morgue in St. Gabriel. But I thought that was the least that we could do.”
St. Gabriel, 13 miles south of Baton Rouge and 71 miles west of New Orleans, is a predominantly Black community that was incorporated as a town in 1994 and designated a city five years ago. It has a population of 6,052. After Hurricane Katrina, the tiny city became the focus of international attention.
“We got a lot of attention from the media worldwide,” Grace recounts. “They camped out at City Hall and the morgue complex 24 hours a day. It looked like we were invaded. But we did persevere, we did try to establish a dignified repository for those bodies.”
Grace told about his ordeal as part of a panel discussion at the annual convention of the National Conference of Black Mayors. The panel was on lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.
“The first lesson I learned from Katrina was the fact that this tragedy still had people interested in the profit motive,” Grace observed. “A contract was let to Halliburton to build a morgue, irrespective of the fact that most of the bodies at that time had been processed.”
The no-bid contract was let after the city had made available a 125,000-square foot building that it was leasing. Because most of the work had been completed and the death toll was lower than expected, Mayor Grace said there was no need to construct a new building. But that did not deter the Corps of Engineering.
“That morgue was built and $30 million was spent in another section of town,” Grace said. “By the time they finished with everything, it was just about over with. They occupied it for one month and now they are saying, ‘What are we going to do with a 200-square foot building with dormitories, kitchens, gymnasiums’ – all kinds of things in that empty building.”
And that wasn’t the only mistake.
“Secondly, they built it before they got a lease on the land,” Grace said. So the man who owned the land said, ‘It’s mine. You didn’t get a lease or anything like that.’ The federal government is coming in and saying,
‘We want to send our appraiser and appraise the land at the pre-Katrina value.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no.’ That’s a big dilemma.”
Grace was incredulous at a request made by the federal government.
“The next lesson I learned is the total arrogance of those who are in authority,”
Mayor Grace said. “While they were spending $30 million on that new morgue, they came back to me and asked if I would rebate whatever money they had paid me in rent. In other words, that was $1.2 million for the whole facility and they wanted me to give that back while they were spending $30 million on a new one.”
The mayor drew laughter when he said, “I learned from the National Conference of Black Mayors and other training that I got and I documented and formalized the arrangements that I made with the federal government. Consequently, I got my money.”
But Grace said it wasn’t all about money.
“I also learned about the insensitivity of the local governments surrounding New Orleans,” Grace said. “Those people were not refugees. They were not people from a Third World. But in various cities and parishes (counties) around New Orleans, these people were not welcome. They were welcome for a day or two, but when it came to any kind of long-term accommodations, they were not welcome.”
When Black mayors wanted to step in, they were rebuffed, Grace said.
“There are those of us who are mayors – Donaldsonville, St. Gabriel, White Castle – who said, ‘Yes, we’re willing to take them.’ But our governor whom we elected – without the Black vote, she would not have had a chance – gave the parish presidents the authority, under the Disaster Act, to say whether or not you could bring in trailers into any part of that parish, which meant this: I can say yes, I want to help these people, but the parish president said no and I could not let them come in.
“We had to go to court and when they saw that we were going to win, they acquiesced and started letting us bring in people. That let us know that the insensitivity was political socio-economic and racially-motivated.”
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is facing Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in a May 20 run-off, knows what it was like to have the support of corporate leaders four years ago, only to have those leaders donate more money to his two major challengers, both of whom are White, in the non-partisan general election leading up to the runoff.
“It took me four years go raise $1.3 million in my war chest,” he told the audience. “Within 90 days after this event, two candidates raised $4.5 million (combined). That’s the deal.”
He, too, noted the green lining created by Katrina.
“There is big money in disasters,” he stated. “Huge money. The president talks about spending $100 million. That’s true, but a lot of that was ungodly profits to some companies. Right after the storm. The Corps of Engineer and FEMA issued four, $400 million, no-bid contracts. Fluor; a subsidiary of Halliburton [Kellogg, Brown and Root] got one; Shaw got one, CH2Mhill.”
Nagin said even debris cleanup is big business, with contracts being let for $43 per cubic yard and contracted several levels below, with the actual workers earning only $7 per cubic yard.
The mayor of New Orleans learned of another priority population that he had ignored in the past.
“Another lesson learned is pets,” he said. “You need to pay attention to this issue. Pets were a huge deal in the disaster. Lots of people would not leave the city of New Orleans because of their pets – they are like their babies, they are their children. We have to incorporate a pet evaluation plan going forward.”
Nagin was roundly criticized for saying during a Martin Luther King Day speech this year that New Orleans should continue to be a “Chocolate City.” The mayor later softened his language, though it is clear that he has not changed his opinion.
“After the Chocolate City speech, I learned that when you make a statement – even though you feel the statement was accurate – you deal with it quickly,” he said. Nagin called in reporters the next day individually to clarify his comments.
“If I wouldn’t have done that, it would have been worse, if you can imagine that,” he said. “So, if you make a mistake or you offend some people, it’s very, very important in a crisis that you get on it quickly and you deal with it quickly.”
Nagin said he was caught off guard by how the national media operates.
“When national press shows up and the international press shows up, try to get a little team together quickly that can help you understand how to communicate, what are the key themes and to kind of keep you out of trouble,” he advised.
“I was mayor of New Orleans and I was accustomed to being very direct with the local press. Things that I got away with prior to Katrina, you can’t do it after Katrina. The audience changed and it changed so quickly that I didn’t fully appreciate the new arena I was involved in. Everything I say now is a national and international event.”