Living in the Superdome
Five years ago, Black residents of New Orleans died from the ravages of a natural disaster and the disregard by a callous federal government; now a man-made disaster, the BP oil spill is in full force; what’s next?
By Yussuf J. Simmonds,
Dr. Firpo Carr
After the Hurricane disaster had killed over 1000 Black residents in New Orleans and displaced thousands more on August 29, 2005, noted film maker, Spike Lee did a documentary, “When the Levees Broke” to record what had taken place, and what could have been prevented. Now five years later on August 23 and 24, Lee is doing a follow-up titled “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
Tavis Smiley did a PBS Special, “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long” premiered July 21. “We see two sides of the city: the tourist areas that have been redeveloped with federal funds, and the devastated neighborhoods where everyday people have taken it upon themselves to get their homes rebuilt, their schools reopened, and their lives back,” Smiley stated. The footage used was from Smiley’s travels back to New Orleans over the past 5 years, revisiting and tracking families that have been devastated by the tragedy. “It’s a pretty amazing look at the city, the residents and these people who are trying to exercise there right to return, rebuild and revitalize their homeland,” Smiley said.
Soledad O’Brien is documenting Hurricane Katrina’s five-year anniversary with “New Orleans Rising.” She returned to the Crescent City for an in-depth look at the historically Black neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. O’Brien spoke with neighborhood residents, like actor Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), whom she calls the “accidental developer” about their plight in rebuilding their neighborhood and their city. In focusing on Pontchartrain Park, O’Brien said, “We were interested in Pontchatrain Park because it allowed us to examine the racial politics of the neighborhood which was created in the 1950s as segregation’s answer to White neighborhoods. We also wanted to dip into the question about race, which people in New Orleans will tell you is always percolating under the surface.” It was a metaphor for all the neighborhoods.
Called Black America’s agent provocateur, Lee found that even though there have been political changes and a Super Bowl-winning team, the region is still reeling from the catastrophe, in addition to the man-made tragedy–the BP oil spill–which makes the Exxon Valdez oil spill look like a minor leak. Not one to be shy or to shy away from controversy, Lee, with trademark humor and wit, touched on the federal government’s role thus far relative to the promises that were made by the previous administration immediately after the disaster.
In an interview, Lee said that all the work he has seen done in the area of housing in the Lower Ninth Ward has been done by private groups: Brad Pitt’s group, “Make It Right,” “You got Common Ground” and “Lower Ninth Ward NENA.” They are not the federal government, not the state government, nor the local government. He emphasized, “I don’t know what they (government) are doing. I don’t think there is any great urgency to get Black people back into New Orleans.”
The National Bar Association recently met in New Orleans and issued the following report titled, “Five Years of Commitment: Providing Legal Assistance in the Gulf Post Katrina.” The report details the organization’s commitment to low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected in both Louisiana and Mississippi following the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
A portion of the report stated that there are still significant barriers to affordable and fair housing opportunities that continue to exist, requiring both transactional and litigation assistance. A number of issues identified require particularly urgent and focused attention which local civil rights and legal services attorneys emphasized presently overwhelm their current capacity to address.
“The Lawyers’ Committee remains committed to fighting for racial justice and ongoing recovery efforts,” the executive director reported. “In addition to addressing issues of adequate housing, ongoing efforts, as detailed in the report, include collaborative title clearing for homeowners and nonprofits, organizational capacity and nonprofit restructuring, affordable housing development, community land trusts, port expansion and much more.”
There have also been reports of criminal negligence on the part of those in authority. Just after the hurricane, there were investigations of the responses from federal, state and local governments, resulting in the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown, and of New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Eddie Compass. Several police officers have since been charged.
Referred to as “Katrina’s Killer Kops,” the Sentinel obtained a special report from one of the officers who have since retired but is facing trial: Sgt. Gerard Dugué, who claims that he is innocent. Though no date has been set as of this writing; indications are that the federal trial of those dubbed “Katrina’s Killer Kops” will soon be underway.
Officers from the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have confessed to committing murder upon unarmed Black residents crossing the Danziger Bridge as these attempted to flee the wrath of Hurricane Katrina some five years ago. Among indicted officers is retired NOPD police supervisor Sgt. Gerard Dugué, who was assigned to investigate the killings. Though he has been accused of participating in a cover-up, having been formally charged with “obstruction of justice,” he denies all charges.
According to the Associated Press (AP), “The indictment charges Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon with deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a weapon during the commission of a crime.” The AP further reports: “Sgt. Arthur Kaufman and retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped investigate the shootings, were charged with participating in a cover-up to make it appear the shootings were justified.”
In a Sentinel exclusive, family members spoke with the present reporter. They claim that, not only was Dugué nowhere near the bridge at the time, but also that when he investigated the incidents some two months after the tragic events occurred, he simply wrote what the officers reported to him.
“He had to rely on these secondhand interviews,” says younger brother Edward Dugué of New Orleans. “As it turned out, the information was false. The officers lied to him. That’s what got me upset.” Libby Dugué, the youngest of eleven Dugué children, describes her brother’s work ethic: “He was an excellent officer with a stellar record of over 33 years of police service. He had an outstanding reputation for fighting against injustices. That’s why they selected him to investigate in the first place. And now they’ve indicted him! It’s incomprehensible.”
Wayne Dugué, another younger brother states that he was “pissed” when he heard of the indictment. “How in the hell can he cover up something that he knew nothing about? He got the news like everybody else and simply documented the stories he was given. It’s a sad situation. It makes you wonder what the hell the government is thinking.” As the case is litigated and related stories develop, the Sentinel will keep its readers informed.
The city is affectionately known by several names: ‘The Big Easy’, the Boot, and the Who Dat Nation; they are all endearing terms to New Orleans, a city of pride, rich heritage, resilience and all that jazz. The city has had to represent those characteristics through slavery, civil rights fast-forwarding to Hurricane Katrina and most recently through the very challenging BP Oil Spill; the latter two both history making catastrophes.
The 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States is August 29. Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005. When the Hurricane reached New Orleans as a Category 5, although the Hurricane was well in land, the ultimate destruction was caused by one word, “levees”.
Throughout the area, levees and flood walls failed or were breached in more than 50 locations flooding 80% of the city with waters reaching as high as 10ft, for days. Total property damage was estimated at $81 billion. Thousands of lives were lost physically, mentally and financially.
Coverage on television of Hurricane Katrina will be massive from now until August 29. You will see different angles ands spins recounting the Hurricane, FEMA’s blunders, recovery and the heart of New Orleans, the people. But there won’t be any New Orleans or Katrina fatigue.