Class schisms revealed by Katrina

Conspiracy theories abound about the desire of the white elite to rid New Orleans of its poor black underclass. Some of the quotes in the following article illustrate that growing divide. And then there are the remarks by the former First Lady, Barbara Bush, insensitive to say the least but perhaps more appropriately classified as bigoted. These comments display the same insensitivity that George Bush displayed on his first visit to the disaster area when he joked about his drunken days in N'Awlins. Like mother, like son?

New Orleans' great migration
Many residents displaced by storm may never return to the Big Easy

Sheldon Alberts, with files from Richard Foot
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

ALONG INTERSTATE 10 - It has become a modern-day Trail of Tears.

All along the 560-kilometre ribbon of concrete running west from New Orleans to Houston, thousands of cars and trucks carrying the Big Easy's displaced masses exit Interstate 10 looking for a place to stay.

Inevitably, they are turned away and sent further down the road because every hotel room is full.

Some of the displaced are white, headed for the homes of family members in other states.

But most are African American and poor, flooded out of black neighbourhoods like the Iberville Projects, the Ninth Ward and Algiers on New Orleans' west bank.

"We are going to Texas," said Vanessa Butler, 29, who was stopped at an I-10 gasoline station in Henderson, 160 kilometres west of New Orleans.

"We don't have no money, no nothing. We are all going to the welfare office and going to try to get some assistance. We'll go to the shelter and try to get some help."

Beyond the sheer destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the storm has triggered a racial exodus of proportions not seen in the U.S. south since the Great Migration pushed hundreds of thousands of blacks north in search of jobs between 1910 and 1930.

Others have compared the solemn procession to the forced migration in the 19th century of Cherokee Indians from their ancestral homes east of the Mississippi River north and west to Oklahoma.

It was called the Trail of Tears.

Many families are packed six to a car, their trunks weighed down by whatever worldly possession they could squeeze in during the mad rush to leave New Orleans.

Others crowd the cabs of pickup trucks, with children riding in the open-air box.

"We don't know where we are going. We are just getting out of Dodge," said Keisha Albert, 33. She and 25 other African-Americans were aboard a charter bus headed west, with no particular destination and no plans to return home.

More than two-thirds of New Orleans' 480,000 residents are African Americans. About 35 per cent of those live below the poverty line, according to census statistics.

Whether the flight of New Orleans' black poor is permanent or temporary will not be known for months.

But unlike suburban residents who have property and homes -- albeit damaged -- to return to, most of New Orleans' poor live in rental accommodations. There has already been speculation that entire neighbourhoods of inner-city housing will be bulldozed in the rush to rebuild the city.

There have also been wild conspiracy theories since Katrina struck. Rumours swirled amid the squalour of New Orleans' emergency shelters last week that the city's levees had been breached deliberately to flood African-American communities and force blacks out of the city.

"We are here watching what happens to poor people in America," said Geraldine Levy, who was headed down I-10 to destinations unknown after enduring hellish conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center.

"I feel it is all a big coverup. They want to take this city back from the blacks. They have perpetuated the lie of us as dangerous people."

Though the idea of a hurricane conspiracy is absurd, it is not difficult to find white residents of New Orleans who lack sympathy for the city's exiled low-income blacks.

"These people who live in poverty get real comfortable. These people really have an opportunity to change their whole lives," says Finis Shellnutt, a real estate broker who lives in the city's French Quarter.

"They can stay in Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or Chicago, wherever they are, get a new home, get a new job, new schools. It's all productive," Mr. Shellnutt said. "They have nothing to come back here for."

Asked about the future of black housing projects, Shellnutt replied: "They will tear these houses down."

Johnette Roy, 39, said the removal of poor New Orleanians is "probably a good thing" for the city even if "other cities might not like it."

Jay Corensweet, 47, a white New Orleanian, said he does not blame African-Americans for feeling angry about the way they have been treated since Katrina struck, and for the cavalier attitude toward their plight expressed by some white residents.

"I don't see history looking kindly on the evacuation. They did take a lot of poor people and locked them in the Superdome and then shipped them out of town," said Mr. Corensweet. "I think someone will spin that to be an attempt to reduce the poverty level of the city."

Former first lady Barbara Bush, on a visit this week to an emergency shelter at Houston's Astrodome, also raised eyebrows when she suggested that New Orleans' evacuees will be better off away from the city.

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas," said Mrs. Bush. "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Those kinds of comments confirm long-held suspicions among many blacks that white New Orleans would just as soon see many of them gone, believing that crime rates would drop and real estate prices increase.

"This hurricane was the opportunity to do Louisiana a favour of getting rid of everyone they don't want -- the non-wanted people," said Terry Snider, 45, a black resident of the French Quarter.

Of the neighbouring Iberville Projects, one of the most dangerous parts of the city, Mr. Snider said: "They are going to bulldoze it. They are going to tear everything down."

Down the I-10 in Houston, many African-Americans who made the long journey are already trying to put down roots.

"We don't know what is going to happen to us," said Sade Johnson, who is being sheltered in the Astrodome. "But we are going to be walking the streets of Houston (this week) looking for a job."

James Brundy, another New Orleans evacuee, said he and his family planned to move to Dallas. "Life will never be the same in New Orleans again. A lot of people were scared by that storm," Mr. Brundy said.

"They are never going back."

Hurricane Katrina

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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