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DEVELOPMENT-US: Katrina Survivors Demand Right of Return

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Sep 16 2005 (IPS) - On the morning after U.S. Pres. George W. Bush promised to carry out “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen”, a coalition of African American leaders laid out their vision of what needs to be done to restore the physical and human damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urged Pres. Bush and Congress to “set an inclusive and proactive agenda in addressing problems caused by Hurricane Katrina”.

The group said relief efforts should also take into consideration the growing poverty crisis in the Gulf region and other parts of the United States.

Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP president, said, “We want to make sure that going forward there are safeguards to assure that people displaced by Hurricane Katrina will be the first in line to get jobs rebuilding the affected areas.”

“In addition, we want Pres. Bush to see that there are safeguards to assure equity in the distribution of rebuilding funds and that minority contractors have a fair chance to be awarded some of the work that will be necessary to rebuild New Orleans and other affected communities.”

The coalition, which met at Howard University, issued a “Call to Action” that outlines steps and recommendations to achieve eight “critical” goals – an echo of the eight global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) being discussed this week at a United Nations Summit of world leaders, which was attended by Bush.

Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “The CBC is absolutely committed to the principles addressed in this call to action and we will work across party lines” to have them carried out. The action steps and recommendations proposed by the coalition include:

Ensure displaced families’ immediate and long-term right to return to the Gulf Coast region, and provide economic incentives for displaced families to return to the region.

Establish a 100-billion-dollar Family Reconstruction Fund (providing unemployment assistance, job training, school placement, finding separated children, etc), as well as a Gulf Coast Region Reconstruction Fund for rebuilding homes, businesses and universities.

Ensure that local residents have first choice at jobs and contracts in the rebuilding effort, by setting a 50 percent residency target for all contracts and a 40 percent minority vendor target for all reconstruction.

Provide physical and mental health assistance, order the admittance of minority community-based counselors in facilities with evacuees nationwide, and guarantee health benefits to all affected citizens for a period no less than 24 months.

Ensure displaced persons’ ability to vote in state and local elections, and freeze all foreclosure proceedings against property in affected areas for a minimum of 12 months.

Establish a diverse commission to monitor the equitable distribution of relief resources by FEMA and major relief agencies as well as the equitable reconstruction of the affected region.

And develop a comprehensive strategy to address the poverty crisis in the United States.

“Poverty is one of the most important moral issues facing our country and our generation,” said Allynn Lodge, co-executive director of Americans for Informed Democracy, at a recent event in New York on Hurricane Katrina and the MDGs.

“I think recent events show that no human being – anywhere – deserves to be without food, water, or dignity. We believe if Americans are informed of the issues, they’ll understand how critical it is for the U.S. to lead the way in ending poverty.”

The MDGs seek to achieve universal primary education and to halve AIDS and poverty by 2015. While their focus is mostly on developing countries, activists note that HIV/AIDS hits African American especially hard.

African Americans make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 40 percent of the AIDS cases diagnosed since the epidemic began. And African American women have HIV/AIDS rates 19 times the rates for white women.

Meanwhile, NAACP volunteers and staff have been delivering relief supplies to displaced persons in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The organisation has set up a command centre in Biloxi.

It is also working with several organisations, including the National Medical Association, the Black Psychiatrists Association, the American Psychiatrists Association and American Counseling Association, to help hurricane victims deal with the acute trauma and stress as a result of being displaced and losing friends and loved ones.

In his speech from New Orleans last night, Pres. Bush touched on some of the coalition’s proposals, but did not address many others. He said, however, that he would be open to ideas on what to do and how best to do it. But Ron Daniels, executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS, “Pres. Bush’s recognition that ‘racial discrimination’ played a role in the impoverished conditions that hampered so many black and poor people from evacuating prior to the onslaught of hurricane Katrina is too little too late.” “He should have publicly apologised for a lapse of leadership that caused grief, pain and death to so many people. The coalition of African American leaders is absolutely on target in demanding a ‘right of return’ for all residents and affirmative action programs and procedures to ensure that contracts, construction and the redevelopment of the area will be done in a fair and equitable manner,” Daniels said. “The last thing we need is the gentrification and Disneyfication of New Orleans.” On Sep. 8, Pres. Bush issued a proclamation suspending the minimum wage requirements for relief workers engaged in Katrina recovery operations.

But according to a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), said Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News, published by the Federation of American Scientists, “In order to do so, he relied upon a statutory authority that has been dormant for 30 years and that appears to be legally inoperative.”

“I find that the conditions caused by Hurricane Katrina constitute a ‘national emergency’ within the meaning of section 3147 of title 40, United States Code,” Bush declared on Sep. 8 as he removed the Davis Bacon Act wage supports for workers in Louisiana, and portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

But this emergency statute was one of numerous authorities that were rendered dormant by the National Emergencies Act of 1976, and that can only be activated by certain procedural formalities that were absent in this case,” Aftergood wrote.

He said, “The president must formally declare a national emergency under the National Emergencies Act, and he must specify which standby legal authorities he proposes to activate so as to permit congressional restraint of emergency powers.”

“Pres. Bush proceeded as if the National Emergencies Act did not exist,” he said.

Aftergood also noted that California Democrat Rep. George Miller and several dozen other members of Congress have introduced a bill to undo what the president has proposed. The measure would “reinstate the application of the wage requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act to Federal contracts in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina”.

*Corrects the last six paragraphs.

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