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Christmas in New Orleans

Santa Drove a Bulldozer

by SCOTT BOEHM

A thunderstorm engulfed the city this Christmas Eve morning, an apt–if ominous–metaphor for the city,s reconstruction nearly four months after Katrina came to town. A ghostly atmosphere haunts New Orleans, making Christmas seem more like Halloween gone wrong, than a celebration of brotherhood. Rubbish piles line abandoned city streets, hollowed out buildings resemble images of post-WWII Europe and military police patrol in the same Humvees that characterize the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Indeed, popular T-shirts sold on Bourbon Street call New Orleans "Baghdad on the Bayou."

Compounding the fact that hundreds of thousands of people remain scattered across the country and separated from each other without the ability to return home for Christmas, Greg Meffert, the city,s chief technology officer, announced on Friday that 2,500 homes have been scheduled to be demolished immediately. The majority of the homes to be bulldozed during this holiday season are located in the Lower 9th Ward, the part of the city most affected by Katrina when the levees of the Industrial Canal suddenly exploded, flooding the economically poor, black neighborhood.

Claiming that he has not heard of any complaints about these plans, which are to be put into effect immediately, Meffert fails to consider that displaced residents have not been informed of the crucial change in the status of their "red-tagged" homes. The Shaw Group of Baton Rouge, which won a no-bid contract from the government to oversee inspections of homes affected by the hurricanes, uses a color-coded system to tag homes for insurance and rebuilding purposes. Before the city had clearly stated to residents that red tags signified severe damage to a home"in lieu of yellow tags that indicate less serious damage. But now"without informing residents of the change"those red-tagged homes may be demolished before the ball drops in Times Square.

While FEMA possesses a database of contact information for most, if not all, New Orleans evacuees, no effort has been taken to inform affected residents that their homes are about to be demolished. If they were contacted, complaints would certainly be voiced, which appears to be what Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the city council, FEMA and Shaw Group want to avoid. Like Santa,s annual secret night run, this drastic and immutable move has been carried out under the cover of backroom maneuvering, rather than with transparency and accountability to the community. The result is that public opinion and the voice of citizens already traumatized by the hurricanes and the current diaspora are about to lose the most powerful symbol of their connection to this crumbling city without notice or recourse to stop the powerful Grinches running the city,s reconstruction.

Perhaps Scrooge is a more appropriate comparison. As the poor of New Orleans face an uncertain future struggling to survive this Christmas without basic services, companies like Shaw Group are profiteering off this disaster, much like Halliburton in Iraq. As executives bring in a new year that promises record profits, they fail to demonstrate the most fundamental regard for human rights while carrying out their work. While the decision to change the status of red-tagged homes may have come from a city council determined to suppress attempts of community members to have a voice in how New Orleans is reconstructed, responsibility for what increasingly looks like the covert ethnic cleansing of the city also lies in the hands of companies and individuals carrying out such plans. The defense of "I was only following orders" should not stand here, anymore than it did at Nuremburg.

As cities across the country celebrate Christmas, Kwanza and Hanukah more crimes against humanity have been scheduled for New Orleans. Happy holidays, indeed.

SCOTT BOEHM is working on his Ph. D. in Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He can be reached at: sboehm@ucsd.edu