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10 Important Lessons
Katrina, Two Years Later
by BILL QUIGLEY

One. Build and rebuild community.

When disaster hits and life is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your own. Isolation after a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression. Family, community, church, work associations are all important –get them up and working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we need communities to do it. Prize women –they are the first line of community builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight, but women will help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families and communities.

Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People and politicians and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if our communities are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one group is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources of individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than people alone.

Two. Self-reliance.

Your community must be ready to re-settle your property as soon as possible and care for those most in need. Prioritize help for the elderly, the sick, children and women, especially the poor. The prime cure for helplessness is taking control over your own life and joining others to fight for justice.

Groups and people will want to treat you like a victim –say you are traumatized and incapable of making basic decisions about yourself. They will tell you they know best and act like they know best. Tell them to get lost.

Three. Tell your own story.

Sharing our stories, successes and failures, is a way to connect and educate ourselves. Connecting with others nationally and internationally who have been through disasters is the very best thing that you can do. Disasters and the corporations that cause them and profit from them do not respect national boundaries. Look for global justice connections. Learn from those who have been through this before. They will tell you – do not let anyone say who you are or what is best for your community –say it yourself.

Those in power will blame circumstances outside their control for what happened and inevitably they will blame the victims of the disaster. Those in power will tell the people’s story in ways that makes the powerful look good. If others do not tell the truth –you do it and get your stories out. Real allies help lift up the voices of the people.

Four. Value every single human life equally.

Every religion and human rights recognizes that every single person is entitled to human dignity. There are no forms to fill out, no criteria to meet. Every single person no matter their race or gender or economic situation has equal value. Every person has the right to participate in the response to the disaster equally. Every single person and family has the right to repair and rebuild and participate in the decisions being made.

The exact opposite occurs after a disaster. The people with economic and political power get together and decide what has to happen. They also decide which people are "worthy" of getting help first. They consider poor working people disposable and movable. Since this is an emergency, they say there is not time to allow regular people to participate in the decisions. If every single person is not treated equally before the disaster hits, they certainly should not expect to be treated fairly after.

Five. Don’t wait for a leader –become one.

Resist the tendency to think someone else is going to come save you. There is no leader out there. We must each become leaders and followers in order to bring about the change that is needed. Each of us is challenged to get beyond our pre-disaster comfort zone. New leadership is essential to avoid just repeating the mistakes that contributed to the disaster.

Those who work for human development instead of real estate development will be repeatedly criticized as "obstructionist" by those who do not value every life equally. Be prepared for these criticisms. That is what they said about Mandela, Gandhi, ML King. Good company.

Six. Prepare for a Love-Hate Relationship with the Government.

After disaster, only the government has the resources to help fix major problems for the social good. We must hold them accountable and demand that the public sector mobilize and assist in an equitable way.

At the same time, we cannot wait for the government. Nor can we necessarily listen to the government. After a disaster, the government will immediately be manipulated by those in power. We must both critique the government and build our own alternative community supports.

Seven. Government will help businesses first and second and third, and if there is anything left, maybe fourth.

Who is in charge of government before the disaster? Governments will look to privatize the public sector –housing, health, education, transportation, every system after a disaster. That was what they wanted before the disaster, so the disaster offers them an opportunity to move their plans into action.

Corporations see disasters as opportunities. They look for valuable land that poor people were living on before the disaster. They decide that there is a better economic use for that land. Then they will push the government to come up with some excuse to take the land for other uses.

You will quickly see that those with power and money before the disaster end up with more power and more money after the disaster. You will see that 98% of the money distributed in a disaster ends up enriching corporations. Our most colorful example is the blue tarps that the government put on the roofs of houses after Katrina. The main contractor, Shaw Group, got $175 a square to put on the tarps. The subcontracted the work out to another corporation for $75 a square. The second corporation subcontracted the work out to a third corporation for $30 a square. Who in turn subcontracted it out again to guys who did the work for $2 a square. Two dollars a square for the actual worker is less than 2 percent of what the government paid out –guess who got the money.

Wonder why the Gulf Coast is not fixed up yet? This is not an accident. It is not that the system isn’t working. It is working for the benefit of those who create and fund and manipulate it. Read Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It spells it out in detail.

If government works primarily for corporations before the disaster, after the disaster it will be a hyper corporate-friendly environment.

Eight. Disasters reveal the structural injustices in our communities in race, gender and class and are thus learning and action opportunities.

Wonder about the role of race, class and gender in society? Watch what happens when disaster strikes. Who is left behind during the disaster? Who is left behind in the repair and rebuilding and planning and decision-making? Disasters illuminate injustices.

There is tremendous educational opportunity to look at what really matters in our society after a disaster. The curtains are pulled back. The bandages are ripped off. Our histories of injustice are laid bare for all to see. International human rights create great opportunities to reframe the justice discussion.

But just looking is insufficient. Join in solidarity with the same folks who are left out. If a disaster can be an opportunity for those interested in unjust economic advantage, why cannot we change the pattern and make it an opportunity to redistribute justice in our communities and right the wrongs that created what all can now see?

Nine. A justice-based reconstruction will not be funded.

Money will flow. Charities, churches and governments will send money for charitable help. If your community is trying to create a more just community than the one destroyed by the disaster, there will not be funding for that. If you are trying to make the community fairer for and with the poor, the elderly, and those who lived in unjust circumstances before the disaster –get ready to raise your own funds for your organization. Funding for charity will come, but funding for justice will not.

We must insist on some transparency and accountability from the non-profits and foundations and others who have raised and spent billions in the names of those in distress. They cannot be allowed to operate like multi-national corporations –they must open their books and involve people in their decision-making.

Solidarity not charity is one of the great demands to come out of Katrina from the Common Ground collective. Another is "Nothing about us without us is for us" from Peoples Hurricane Relief.

After Katrina, it again became clear that decades of oil development has literally destroyed the natural protections around the gulf coast. Yet the disaster actually enriched the oil companies who helped cause it, creating their biggest year of profit in some time. Yet, do you hear the voices of those calling out for the oil corporations to be held accountable for what they have caused? Those voices are small and unfunded. But they, like so many others calling for justice, are out there and will one day be hear.

Ten. Love is the answer –justice work is a commitment for the long haul.

When disaster hits, there is a natural urge to work around the clock to try to set things right. After a few weeks or months, it will become clear that is not sustainable. Working 24 hours a day is going to make you as crazy as the government. No one likes a crank –even if they are working for justice.

Building communities of resistance and working for human development is long-term work. Love is a tremendous source of energy. But we have to love ourselves as well so we can keep living this resistance with others. We have and will continue to make mistakes. We have to get back up, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves and others, and get back to working in community to create a more just world.

It is important to laugh too. Remember that last job held by the guy in charge of disasters for the entire US government was as head of an association of dancing horses! We can’t make this stuff up.

We have to love and laugh along with our tears and rage and keep learning new lessons.

BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu