Copyrighted material


by Khalil Abdullah

on 1 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

(PNS) WASHINGTON -- Dawn Peterson, Miss Wheelchair Louisiana 2005, was paralyzed from the waist down by gunfire in a carjacking gone bad. Yet, armed with an education and ferocious perseverance, she continued to sustain herself as a paralegal, fully employable, she said, until Hurricane Katrina ripped the wheels off her life.

In speaking during a teleconference sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on August 22, Peterson rendered a dark portrait of what she faces as a disabled person in a job environment still devastated by the storm's aftermath. "Sometimes I wonder why I came back," she said of her return to New Orleans.

Peterson's job prospects have evaporated. "For me they're non-existing," she said. Even with two degrees and constant contact with several employment agencies, she conceded, "I have found it very difficult." Peterson also said, "People [are] still living in their cars." She asked listeners to imagine just how much more difficult it is for someone with disability to find housing.

As the look-backs at Katrina mount approaching the August 29 anniversary, there is concern that, for the poor in New Orleans, the structural disparities of life will remain in place, simply rebuilt into the Big Easy's political and economic landscape.

Wade Henderson, LCCR's executive director, said that though "poverty is not unique to New Orleans," Katrina showed how poverty can cut across racial, ethnic, and class lines. Henderson explained that though Katrina's physical manifestation was through "wind and water," at the heart of the tragedy was the failure of government at every level. According to Henderson, the LCCR, a coalition of close to 200 organizations, will press federal and state officials to redress the systemic issues that yielded a national catastrophe.

Todd Spriggins, an ex-Marine who had built a solid woodworking business before Katrina, has first-hand knowledge of how governmental policies can render even heroic efforts near worthless. He spoke of Katrina with intimacy. "She wiped out everything. I was left with five feet of water in my shop," he said. Spriggins evacuated to Houston with his family. "I'm going to start looking for a job," he told them, and was soon employed at a woodworking shop, rising quickly to foreman. He said he could have remained in Houston, but the lure to restart his own business in New Orleans, his hometown, was strong. He was unprepared for hurdles that the Small Business Administration placed before him.

Spriggins had to present his tax records to secure an SBA loan, but all his records had been destroyed. He eventually got them from the Internal Revenue Service. It took a month. The SBA wanted a copy of his company's lease agreement. To obtain that, he had to track down his shop's landlord, someone he has not seen since Katrina hit. He found a storage locker that his landlord used and posted signs to be contacted. Eventually, the SBA waived the requirement, but, again, time was lost. Spriggins met with the SBA appraisers. "They wanted to meet me by the shop to verify the losses." He drove in from Houston for the meeting and successfully completed the documentation. It was agreed that his equipment was damaged beyond use, but, as a consequence, he had no collateral for an SBA loan. Nor could the SBA take the equipment he needed to purchase as collateral. In sum, Spriggins said of the SBA, "There was no consideration for the disaster."

After six months of what was ultimately a frustrating encounter with federal bureaucracy, Spriggins borrowed money from friends and family and took on a partner. Crescent City Custom Cabinets is back in business but now has to deal with a different economic climate in New Orleans. It is difficult to bring aboard skilled staff, Spriggins said, because they can leave to service their own clients, building kitchen cabinets, closets and woodwork. There is more work because there is simply so much to rebuild. Even finding unskilled labor was trying. McDonald's was offering a "$5,000 signing bonus and $10 an hour" to new employees. Spriggins is even now competing against better financed businesses for unskilled labor. If he hires staff and trains them, they too, may leave to do freelance work. It is a reality he has come to terms with.

While Spriggins and other woodworkers are providing restorations to the city's housing stock, African American renters are still having difficulty simply finding lodging. For some, the stumbling block is melanin. While expressing a willingness to help returning evacuees, one post-Katrina on-line ad read: "We're not racists, but whites only," according to James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. Another ad, similarly charitable, exclaimed bluntly: "We'd like to house white children."

Perry's organization already was working on several large anti-discrimination cases before Katrina. The proliferation of the post Katrina on-line ads -- like mushrooms on the rotted wood of the city's housing profile -- adds to Perry's concerns. In addition, he said, "Resources have not been distributed equitably and the funds have not been released." Perry also explains a simple dynamic of racism in housing. Testers found that African American evacuees were treated far less favorably than their European American counterparts. For example, where a rental deposit may have been waived for the latter, it rarely was for an African American prospect.

LCCR's Henderson said Katrina's exposition of race, poverty, and class and how America deals with this intersection of issues will be a significant benchmark in the history of the country and how successful it will be in the future.

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Albion Monitor   August 24, 2006   (

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