Katrina’s Forgotten Refugees

WHEN HURRICANE Katrina hit the Gulf Coast two years ago, 79-year-old Carrie Lewis had to flee her assisted-living home in New Orleans. Two years later, she’s still living in a trailer, 100 miles northwest of New Orleans.

“I want to go home,” Lewis told a reporter. “They don’t have places for old people in New Orleans yet. What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to die in a little trailer in the middle of a field somewhere.”

When Katrina hit, 65-year-old Phyllis Taylor also had to evacuate. But for Taylor, that meant leaving behind her downtown penthouse apartment for her 40,000-acre ranch in Foxworth, Miss.

Taylor is the richest woman in the second-poorest state in the country. She became chair and CEO of Taylor Energy company–the largest privately held oil and gas company on the Gulf of Mexico–after her oilman husband died in 2004. In 2007, Forbes magazine estimated her net worth at $1.6 billion.

After the storm, a window was broken in Taylor’s penthouse, and the air-conditioning was out. Carrie Lewis lost everything.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed to the world the reality of two Americas, standing side by side–one rich and one poor. Two years later, that harsh reality remains–but Katrina’s victims are gone from the media’s attention.

Carrie Lewis is like tens of thousands of people still living in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)–45,000 trailers in Louisiana, 20,000 in Mississippi, 17,000 in Texas and 400 in Alabama–because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Pamela Lomis lives in a FEMA trailer with her two children at the Sugar Hill trailer park, in the middle of the cane fields near Convent, La. Somewhere between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, she’s 20 miles from the nearest grocery store. There’s only one bus that goes there. It leaves at 9 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m.

“We just sit around here with life slipping by,” Lomis said. “We’re just on hold. Just waiting for something that never comes.”

With no homes to go back to–since no one put a priority on rebuilding the low-income housing that many of the poor and elderly once lived in–many are reaching the breaking point.

“I want out of this trailer, out of this place,” said Helen Felton, a resident of Renaissance Village trailer park. “But I get my little Social Security check. Do you know how far $660 goes?”

And the Katrina refugees can expect matters to get worse–people still living in trailers in 2008 will have to start paying rent to FEMA.

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IF THE trailers don’t kill them, that is. As if their living situation wasn’t bad enough, more and more trailer residents are reporting health problems as a result of formaldehyde poisoning.

In early August, 500 people in New Orleans filed a class-action lawsuit against trailer manufacturers, making the case that the 14 companies providing some 120,000 trailers for FEMA ignored regulations on formaldehyde levels, which is resulting in illnesses.

Formaldehyde, a chemical usually associated with embalming dead bodies, is widely used in pressed wood products, particleboard and plywood–which are typically part of FEMA trailers. High levels of formaldehyde are dangerous, causing respiratory diseases, bloody noses, burning eyes, headaches and insomnia–even low levels can cause respiratory problems and exacerbate already existing conditions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a human carcinogen.

Nancy and Michael Sonnier were glad to get their trailer just before Thanksgiving, after their home was destroyed in Hurricane Rita. When they told a FEMA representative about the fumes in their trailer, “One of them laughed out loud and said, ‘We hear that from all kinds of people. Just open your doors and windows,'” 63-year-old Nancy told Amanda Spake for her article “Running on Fumes,” in Louisiana’s Independent Weekly.

According to evidence introduced at a congressional hearing in mid-July, when trailer residents reported health problems from formaldehyde fumes in their homes to FEMA field workers, top FEMA officials did their best to sweep their complaints under the rug. The House Committee on Oversight and Government made public some of the more than 5,000 internal e-mails that revealed a pattern of cover-ups and denials–what Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called “an official policy of premeditated ignorance.”

One man, dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was forced to move into a motel after he couldn’t breathe because the formaldehyde had caused his lungs to swell. FEMA agreed to pay his motel bill–but only after a FEMA staff member wrote to superiors, “He said he had nowhere to go, and he was dying with cancer. He would not go back to the travel trailer as he had a violent reaction to the formaldehyde.”

Later, a FEMA attorney cut off the motel payment before it was set to end, suggesting the man try a charity.

“One of the things that we’re seeing is that there are more and more children who are having allergy problems and respiratory problems,” Lourna Bourg, executive director of the New Iberia, La.-based Southern Mutual Help Association, told Spake. “Because of the closeness and smallness of the FEMA trailers, there’s a number of people who just can’t tolerate the fumes. We even had one lady who was living in a shed to get out of it.”

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BUT WHILE some former residents are desperate for a safe place to live, people like Phyllis Taylor see dollar signs when they imagine the new New Orleans.

Last year, she told the Dallas Morning News, “We have an opportunity of a lifetime to build an urban Eden.” Earlier this year, she added, “Our challenge is the rebuilding of New Orleans, especially taking advantage of the opportunity to rebuild in a better way.”

A better way–meaning one that doesn’t include poor people.

Some people are profiting big-time from the Katrina disaster. The Bush administration saw the opportunities right away–and assigned billion-dollar contracts for cleaning up the Gulf Coast to corporate friends like Bechtel and Halliburton.

When it came to retrieving dead bodies, FEMA hired Kenyon International Emergency Services, a subsidiary of Service Corporation International, a Texas-based funeral services company run by Robert Waltrip, a close friend of the Bushes and major campaign donor, according to CorpWatch.

The federal government claims to have earmarked millions to rebuild the area, but there’s little proof of that on the ground. The federal government has supposedly promised more than $116 billion for rebuilding the devastated region. But according to a report from the Institute for Southern Studies, less than 42 percent of that money has actually been spent.

The report found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received $8.4 billion to restore needed storm defenses. But as of July, less than 20 percent of the money had been spent.

“Included in the oft-cited $116 billion spending figure is $3.5 billion in tax credits to jump-start business in Gulf Opportunity or ‘GO’ Zones across 91 parishes and counties in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi,” noted the Institute for Southern Studies’ Blueprint for Gulf Renewal Report.

“But many of the breaks have been of questionable benefit to Katrina survivors. Take for instance the $1 million deal to build 10 luxury condos next to the University of Alabama football stadium–four hours from the Gulf Coast.”

The federal government is failing New Orleans–and that means the workers who are rebuilding the city, too. During the initial cleanup, dangerous work was subcontracted to companies who regularly abused workers, failing to provide them protective gear and underpaying them afterward.

That’s if they paid them at all. Undocumented workers reported companies that called in Immigration and Customs Enforcement when workers tried to demand the wages they were owed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which spoke with more than 1,000 Gulf Coast workers, the majority didn’t receive overtime pay, despite the fact that many worked 80 to 100 hours per week.

While all these abuses were happening, the federal government looked the other way. Two years after Katrina, we are still seeing the divide between rich and poor exposed by Katrina–and it’s growing worse all the time.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.