We’re Still Here Ya Bastards

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City

by Roberta Brandes Gratz

Nation Books (2014)

Book Review

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards is a remarkable account of how a loose knit network of citizens groups and organizations fought FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), city hall and the state of Louisiana to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP Oil Spill (2010). The grassroots rebuilding effort happened despite a federal/state/city conspiracy to use the storm (and flood) to rid New Orleans of black residents.

Prior to Katrina and the levee failure that flooded 80% of the city,* New Orleans was 67% black. Initially 250,000 of New Orleans 485,000 residents were forced to relocate to other cities and states. Thanks to grassroots efforts, by 2015 81% had returned – despite the best efforts of officials in charge of the recovery effort.

Specific examples of FEMA/city policies to discourage black evacuees from returning:

  • Unlike other areas, (mainly black) Lower Ninth War residents were forced to wait four months before they were allowed to return to their flooded properties.**
  • Homes in low income areas, in many cases, were red-tagged for demolition without notifying owners.
  • All New Orleans public housing was demolished, even though only one public housing building was slightly damaged, and FEMA funds were fraudulently funneled to private developers to build market rate housing.
  • Despite being returned to full function by volunteers, Charity Hospital was closed, with FEMA funds being channeled to build a new hospital serving private patients.
  • All New Orleans teachers were fired (in violation of the union contract) to enable the replacement of the Black middle class who previously ran the city schools with a white out-of-state corporate elite and publicly funded, privately run charter schools.
  • “Predatory demolition,” in which many poor residents were deliberately misinformed they had to demolish their homes due to “black mold.”
  • Systematic refusal of FEMA, insurance companies and Road Home*** to pay homeless residents enough to rebuild their homes.

The coming together of local and out-of-state volunteers and wealthy benefactors to assist New Orleans residents to rebuild and/or rehabilitate their homes is incredibly inspiring. The best known benefactor was actor Brad Pitt, who funded the construction of 150 sustainable, solar-power homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.


*Contrary to mainstream media reports, Katrina was a man-made disaster stemming from flawed construction (by the Army Corps of Engineers) of the city’s levees. Katrina was only a category 3 hurricane – not a category 4-5 as was widely reported.

**Despite its working class character, 60% of Lower Ninth residents were homeowners, the highest proportion in the city.

***Road Home is a federally funded disaster relief program administered by Louisiana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crumbling of America

Crumbling America

Directed by Henry Schipper (2009)

Film Review

This is a compelling, though somewhat melodramatic, documentary about crumbling US infrastructure – especially its bridges, roads, levees, dams, water delivery systems, sewage systems, and power grid. The US presently spends less on infrastructure (2% of GDP) than the developing countries China (9%) and India (8%). The percentage of GDP Americans spend on infrastructure has declined from 12% in 1960.

Most bridges, superhighways and water and sewage pipes are designed to last 50 years, and many are approaching or have exceeded their expected lifespan. There are no programs to repair vital levees along the Mississippi River and in California. A 6.9 earthquake would totally destroy San Francisco’s earthwork levees, contaminating all southern California’s drinking water, as well as destroying acres of prime agricultural land.

Shoddy maintenance of urban water and sewage systems leads to hundreds of thousands of leaks per year, especially in eastern rust belt cities. While parts of the national electrical grid are subject to ever more frequent and lengthy power failures due to poor maintenance and obsolete switches, sensors, data systems and transformers and rotting utility poles.

Reaching the Wrong Conclusion

Despite the wealth of data they present, I strongly disagree with the filmmakers’ conclusion: that taxpayers need to front up with trillions of dollars to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. I strongly believe this massive decay presents a unique opportunity to replace 100-year-old technologies with cheaper, more efficient, people-friendly 21st century technology.

For example, I totally disagree with their assertion that the electrical grid was “the greatest infrastructure achievement of the 20th century.”  Besides being one of the most inefficient infrastructure projects ever invented (according to the EPA the US power system loses approximately 67% of the power it creates), the grid was never intended to serve the public – it was intended to increase the sale of electricity and electrical products, as well as consolidating the control of production and distribution in the hands of Wall Street corporations (see Reclain the Commons: Take Back the Grid). The renewable energy revolution, which enables households and neighborhood to produce their own solar energy, also allows ordinary people to control its destruction.

Likewise our totally gridlocked super highways don’t need to be rebuilt – they need to be replaced with cheaper and more efficient and climate-friendly high speed and computer trains and buses.

While inefficient and unhealthy (adding chlorine to our water creates a variety of dangerous chlorinated organic compounds) water delivery and sewage systems need to be replaced with more modern technologies that allow us to recycle our water instead of pouring it down the drain.