Friday, October 27, 2006
Local Volunteer Speaks on Katrina Cleanup
Volunteers Came Through When Government Didn’t, Brown Says
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
For Jim Brown, his two stints as a volunteer in the effort to clean up New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina wound from Encinitas, where he lives, through Dallas and Crawford, Texas. Brown attended the 2005 Veterans for Peace (VFP) convention in Dallas and there met a woman the world would soon come to know: Cindy Sheehan. “She showed up and said, ‘I’m tired of talking, writing and sitting down,’” Brown recalled. “’I’m going to take that Bush guy face-to-face. I’m going to Crawford, Texas tomorrow. Is there anyone who wants to join me?’”
About 50 people from the VFP, including Brown, took her up on her suggestion. They joined about 50 other anti-war activists in Crawford — and were watched over by “200 policemen, Secret Service officers, and media,” Brown said. Told by the local police and sheriff’s deputies that they couldn’t be any closer to the Presidential compound than a ditch 200 feet away, Brown started asking the local authorities why not. “I asked, ‘Is that why you signed up to be a sheriff’s deputy, to ride heard on a bunch of old veterans in a ditch?’”
Sheehan’s installation on the outside of Bush’s ranch in Crawford, dubbed “Camp Casey” after her late son — whose death in combat in Iraq had been the impetus for Sheehan’s whole effort — grew until by the end of her two-month stay, “There was a huge amount of gear on three trucks, including wireless transmission for phones and computers, as well as a large supply of food, water and medical supplies,” Brown recalled. As Camp Casey wound down there was a major debate about what to do with all this stuff, almost all of which had been donated from across the country. At first the consensus was leaning towards sending it all to Washington, D.C., where Sheehan was planning to lead another camp-out action against the war. Then, at the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans — and the plans quickly changed.
“A lot of people there lived in New Orleans or on the Gulf Coast,” Brown recalled. “They said, ‘Cindy, you go to D.C. We have to go to New Orleans.” Going there wasn’t easy — Highway 10, the main thoroughfare in and out, was blocked, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had men with guns stationed on all the entrances to the city stating that no one would be allowed in or out. But the Veterans for Peace found a working entrance to the city — Pontchartrain Highway, ironically the circumference road around the lake whose flooding had created the waves that destroyed so much of New Orleans — and got past the FEMA guards because one of the VFP volunteers had a contractor’s license.
They showed up on the doorstep of Malik, an African-American activist and former Black Panther who headed up an organization called Common Ground. “We showed up on his doorstep with medical equipment, food and water,” Brown recalled. “It was all grass-roots organizations the first few days. The Red Cross and FEMA weren’t there.” Brown said that even the major TV networks were being kept outside the city for the first few days, but because they had all the high-tech communications equipment left over from Camp Casey, “We could get news out.” Filmmaker Michael Moore heard about the crisis and raised $1 million for the effort, and other donors started contributing as well.
Brown wasn’t part of the initial VFP crew of volunteers in New Orleans. He was sent for later, and for an interesting reason: he makes his living as a roofing contractor in Encinitas, and as part of his job he had taken a California-certified course on how to remove mold from a home. With many of the homes in New Orleans totally or partially flooded, so that even when the waters receded they were wet, mold was one of the biggest cleanup problems they faced — and one of the most serious health hazards. Among the things Brown had learned in that course was that about 10 percent of the population, mostly people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, get sick around mold — and 1 percent of the population gets so sick they fall over.
“VFP put the call out on the Internet, and thousands of people came forward and went to New Orleans to help,” Brown recalled. “They wondered who could tell them what to do, and one of them remembered hearing me speak in Crawford and remembered I was a mold guy. They paid my way down and I said, ‘I’m not going unless you show me everything.’” According to Brown, “In California your average mold-removal job has hundreds of mold spores in a house. Here you had hundreds of thousands, and occasionally even a million.”
Brown showed about an hour’s worth of slides from the times he spent in New Orleans — a stint in November 2005 and another in March 2006 — and much of his talk was about the wide gap between the enthusiasm of the volunteers and their lack of training and proper safety equipment. If you’re doing something as tricky and potentially hazardous as mold removal — not only to yourself but to everyone else around you — you’re supposed to be dressed in a full Haz-Mat suit and a respirator mask. Many of the volunteers — including Brown’s own son — didn’t realize the importance of proper protection and went to work in street clothes and either no protection at all or just a plain cotton mask, which doesn’t keep out bacteria or mold spores.
One family in particular, an African-American couple to whom Brown gave the pseudonym “Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Jones,” especially moved him. “This family’s house filled up with mold 10 feet high,” he recalled. “They had just paid off their mortgage and had a mortgage-burning party — and Katrina hit two days later and the insurance company did not pay them anything. If you didn’t have flood insurance, they didn’t pay you for the flood damage. If your roof came off, they wouldn’t fix it. If you think insurance will pay you off in a big disaster in southern California, you’ve got another think coming.”
Without any insurance money or other help, the Joneses determined to fix and clean their house themselves. “He didn’t have a pension or a savings account, just his home,” Brown recalled. “His wife said, ‘I’ve been to the hospital twice. It feels like there’s a hand in my chest,’ She’d had respiratory problems before and I couldn’t bear to see her suffer from the mold in the house.” Jones had tried to fix up the house as best he could and had had his wife stay in the cleanest room available in it — but she’d still got sicker and sicker, Brown explained.
Help finally arrived in the form of a FEMA trailer, Brown said. Mrs. Jones was able to move into one and live in a clean environment while her husband continued to work on their house and finally got it clean enough to live in. “I came back a few months later, the house was fully fixed up and she survived,” Brown said, “but she wouldn’t have if she’d had to continue staying in that house.” Brown said he expects many New Orleanians to have long-term health problems similar to those faced by the New York City cleanup crews sent into the World Trade Center site after 9/11, who also entered an environment full of toxins and weren’t given proper protective gear or even warned about the potential dangers.
Brown said that contrary to the popular belief elsewhere in the country, which was that the Black parts of New Orleans flooded while the white parts stayed dry, “Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water, and it wasn’t just the poor places. It was about half Black and half white. The difference was the whites had assets. They had money, they had other places to live, and they had cars. The only assets Black people had were the homes they owned, and 80 percent of them were renters and didn’t even have that. They have been parceled out all over America.”
Another common misconception about Katrina that Brown corrected was that it was not the Mississippi River that flooded New Orleans: it was Lake Pontchartrain, to the north of the city. “The Mississippi River levees did not break,” he said, “but New Orleans sits at the bottom of a natural bowl between Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi to the south. When it starts to fill up, the city’s canals are supposed to drain the water and dump it out into the river. What happened was the surge of water from the lake knocked out the canals.”
Among Brown’s grimmer recollections were passing auto dealers and seeing rows and rows of new cars, “all dingy because they all flooded.” He said he saw that not only on his first trip in November but again in March. He also saw garbage dumps with rows and rows of refrigerators awaiting disposal. Residents who’d had refrigerators, washers and dryers in their homes were told to take them to dumps because the flooding had made them nonfunctional and impossible to repair — and when the refrigerators were trucked to the dump sites they still had food in them. Workers had to be warned not to open the refrigerator doors because if they did, they’d be assaulted by the putrid smells of all that rotting food.
Brown’s slide show contained images that ranged from an otherwise intact home that had had a tree fall through its roof — a common sight in post-Katrina New Orleans — to the side of rock legend “Fats” Domino’s house, on which a fan with a spray can had painted a premature obituary. Domino was airlifted out of the region and survived, though the flooding of his home destroyed his three grand pianos and all the music awards he’d won over the years. Indeed, even the destruction wrought by Katrina showed the importance of music to New Orleanian culture; Brown said you could hardly pass a house that had flooded without seeing ruined pianos, guitars, string basses and other instruments — which, as an amateur bassist himself, hit Brown particularly hard.
According to Brown, none of the government agencies — federal, state or local — were any help. Virtually all the early cleanup and aid work was done by volunteers, mostly sent by churches all over the country — though Brown himself worked with Common Ground, which he described as “more rough-and-tumble” than the church groups. “I spent a lot of time setting up tool libraries and getting people the proper masks,” he said. “We have been trying to embarrass the government. Fortunately, it’s starting to happen.” He mentioned that 10,000 FEMA trailers sat unused in a lot in Arkansas during the entire crisis (they’re now being sent to Indian reservations), and that the entire contract for the trailers was given to a former Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealer who charged the government a $10,000 markup per trailer for units that ordinarily sold for $15,000 to $25,000.
“Half of the workers in New Orleans who are being paid to rebuild are Latinos, and half of them are undocumented,” Brown said. “One-fourth of them are Black and one-fourth are white. Roofing contractors came down hoping for a lot of contracts and couldn’t get them because people down there are always holding out for a cheaper deal. There were people charging $2 per square foot just to put blue tarpaulins over a roof — and that’s the going rate for actually rebuilding a roof. They would haul out trash for $2 per cubic yard and FEMA was paying $25 per cubic yard.”
One reason it was costing so much was the so-called “tiered contract system,” which the U.S. is also using in Iraq. The federal government would contract with a large company like Halliburton and that company would hire a subcontractor, who would hire another subcontractor, and frequently three or four companies would take their cut of the government money before any of it filtered down to the people who were actually doing the work. “The government spent a lot of money but probably wasted half of it,” Brown said. “They said they wanted to put in $110 million, but they only put in one-tenth of that, and half of that was flood insurance they’d have had to pay anyway.”
Asked what the future of New Orleans is likely to be, Brown said, “I think the cleanup is going to be a slow project. It’ll take 10 years but it will happen because they need that town. It’s 20 percent of the U.S. oil and gas industry and 20 percent of American trade. But if Black people don’t move back soon, it won’t be an African-American city anymore. It’ll be what Mayor Ray Nagin called a ‘chocolate city,’ half Black and half White. I’d like to see a Civilian Conservation Corps organized not only to clean up New Orleans but to train an entire generation of Americans to build things and work with their hands. Also, all the National Guard troops from Mississippi and Alabama who are in Iraq would rather be back home than doing nothing in Iraq and watching their mommas go down the river.”
One thing about Katrina that gives Brown hope for the future is the extent to which Katrina mocked the pretensions of the Right that “big government” is a mid-20th century anachronism, the “private sector” is always more efficient and “the market” can take care of everything. He talked to the people who came down as volunteers from church groups and said that, contrary to what one might think — that the speed with which the churches acted compared to the slowness and inefficiency of the government’s response might reinforce their pastors’ Right-wing political messages about “faith-based institutions” being superior to government — the volunteers’ view of the figurative and literal rot brought on by Right-wing neglect was moving them politically to the Left. “I think we’re training a whole generation of progressives there,” Brown said.