Gulf Coast Anniversary and Update

Three years ago, on August 24th, a tropical depression became a storm in the Atlantic ocean. Meteorologists named it Katrina. It would become the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. When it made landfall for a second time in Louisiana on August 29th (after pummeling Florida), it was the third-strongest recorded hurricane to reach the United States, and became one of our five deadliest. It laid waste to large swaths of both Louisiana and Mississippi.

Natural disasters cause wide-spread misery by definition, but the tragedy following hurricanes Katrina and Rita was largely human-caused, and revealed the devastating impact of systemic racism and classism. The levees protecting New Orleans had already been flagged as dangerously unsafe, yet these warnings were ignored. The flooding from broken levees caused more deaths than the storm itself.

Before Katrina’s arrival, evacuation plans relied on individuals to make their own way out of the hurricane’s path, ignoring the fact that many did not have access to private transportation. Fleets of buses lay unused, and then submerged. And in the hours and days following Katrina, our government failed to respond to the disaster. The lack of clean water, food, and shelter, and the violence that ensued from this chaos, claimed many more lives.

The media showed us images of white Americans and told us they were “searching for food.” The same media showed us images of black Americans doing the same thing and told us they were “looting.” We saw members of communities that were less hard hit forcibly preventing desperate people from entering their towns. For almost two days, American citizens were referred to as “refugees” in their own country. And in the analysis afterwards, it was starkly clear that the areas most affected corresponded to neighborhoods that were predominantly poor and of color.

Three years later, the misery wreaked by Katrina and Rita continues, as government bureaucracy and apathy slow the rebuilding process. Casinos and luxury hotels were rebuilt relatively quickly, but much of the old neighborhoods where the tourists seldom venture are still waiting. The Gulf Coast disaster is at least as much human-created as it was “natural.”

President William G. Sinkford’s 2005 response

UUA interview with Derrick Evans on the recovery

Make a contribution to the UU Gulf Coast Relief Fund.

And lastly, on this third anniversary we announce UU Gulf Coast Updates, a joint project of the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU), the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Click here to view the inaugural issue.
And click here to subscribe to future updates.

Gulf Coast Guest Workers Launch Hunger Strike for Justice

“Instead of punishing the criminals, they see us as criminals and set immigration after us. While they are trying to send us back, we are standing here on hunger strike until the real criminals are brought to justice.” –Guest Worker on Hunger Strike

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people, left without jobs or homes, were forced to leave the Gulf Coast and begin new lives elsewhere. Over the next two and a half years, the government and its agencies proved ineffective at revitalizing Gulf Coast communities. The massive displacement which had initially been viewed as temporary gradually assumed the aspect of a permanent “Katrina/Rita diaspora.”

Meanwhile, Signal International, a company with shipyards in hurricane-affected coastal areas of Texas and Mississippi, claimed that it could find no willing or able workers to hire. While the government continued to fail to bring Gulf Coast residents home and back to work, the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved Signal to bring in guest workers from other countries. In late 2006, Signal hired a labor recruiting firm called “Global Resources” to find workers in India.

Global Resources recruiters promised 550 Indian workers that they would receive permanent jobs with Signal International, green cards, and eventually the right to bring their families to America, in exchange for $20,000. For many of the men who accepted the offer, $20,000 represented their entire life savings. Some men borrowed money, and others sold their homes for a chance at U.S. citizenship. But when the workers arrived in the United States, they found that they had been lied to.

Instead of receiving a path to citizenship, the workers from India were given H2B guest worker visas–permission to work in the U.S. for ten months, with the possibility of renewal controlled by their employer, Signal International. The workers were forced to live on company property, paying $1,050 a month to share a room with 23 other men. Signal tried to make about 30 welders who had been promised wages of $18.50 per hour sign papers to cut their salaries to $13.50/hr. Because the welders’ permission to work in the U.S. was tied to Signal by their H2B visa, which does not permit guest workers to change employers, the threat of deportation hung over their heads if they did not comply.

When some of the workers tried to organize for better wages and living conditions in the spring of 2007, armed guards raided the workers’ bunk-rooms at 3:00 AM and detained six of the organizers with the intention of deporting them. The workers made contact with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), who called in Hindi-speaking organizer Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The workers began to organize under the aegis of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. (Saket Soni, pictured with workers & allies, left).

On March 6, 2008, after having reported themselves to the Department of Justice as victims of trafficking and demanding federal prosecution of Signal International, nearly 100 of the guest workers employed in Signal’s Pascagoula, MS, shipyard walked off the job, leaving their hard hats at Signal’s gate.

The workers launched a “Journey of Justice,” traveling, largely on foot, from New Orleans to D.C., traveling through key sites of the civil rights struggle. In May, the workers–now turned activists inspired by both the Indian Ghandi and the American King–arrived in D.C. Yesterday morning, the workers assembled in front of the White House with allies from SAALT, AAJC, UFCW, ARW, and more, and launched a hunger strike with the message: “The US needs a just immigration system that does not link the US economy to exploitable foreign workers while displacing poor and working-class American workers.”

“Our fore-father, Mahatma Ghandi, did a hunger strike against the odds, to make the impossible, possible,” one worker said through an interpreter. “And that is what we are following today.”

Through the hunger strike, the guest workers hope to pressure Congress to hold hearings on Signal International and other Gulf Coast companies’ use of the federal Guest Worker program as a legally sanctioned vehicle for exploitation.

How you can help:

Where to learn more:

Happy Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday! Let’s Make Some Noise About Gulf Coast Recovery

This year, Mardi Gras coincides with “Super Tuesday,” the day when the greatest number of states hold primary elections. This chance concurrence is a good opportunity to reflect on how the discussion about Gulf Coast rebuilding has unfolded in the presidental race so far–oh wait, that’s right: it hasn’t. Instead, Gulf Coast recovery has been conspicuously absent in campaign discussions and debates, in spite of the enormous need still present in the Gulf. For example, rent costs in the region have jumped 70%, less than 28% of the region’s former 82,000 rental units are on track to be rebuilt, and homelessness is escalating.

Last week several groups, including the Katrina Information Network, worked to bump a question about Gulf Coast rebuilding up in an online vote which determined the questions asked at California’s presidential debates. In spite of pushing the question to the number 1 position for the Democratic debate and number 3 for the Republican event, not a single question about hurricane recovery was asked during the debates. Writers at the Times Picayune speculate that the voted-upon question was omitted because it was too “wonkish”—for those of you living outside DC, that means too policy-related and esoteric. Similarly, in President Bush’s State of the Union address last week, Gulf Coast rebuilding was glossed over with three sentences of rosy words.

We owe it to those in the Gulf to make rebuilding a bigger topic during the remainder of the campaign season. Rather than deploring the Bush administration’s failures in handling the disaster, candidates should be acknowledging Congress’s continued failure to fix the situation, and out-lining the steps that they will take for Gulf Coast recovery during their presidency. Debate moderaters and journalists should be pushing candidates to explain their strategies to rebuild.

Part of what we can do in the election season is educate the candidates about what issues are important to us and what issues we want them to be addressing. It’s up to us to be accountable to Gulf Coast communities and keep hammering away until this issue gets addressed.

If a candidate visits your town, ask him or her a non-wonky question about their plans for how to rebuild the Gulf in a way that serves the needs of renters and low-income families. If you happen to know a journalist–or, better yet, to be a journalist–in the position of interviewing a canidate, ask them to question the candidate about rebuilding. If you take part in an online or telephone survey about what issues matter to you this campaign season, check the box for Gulf Coast recovery–and if there isn’t a box, write it in, or ask the survey-maker why it’s missing. Ask your friends if they’ve noticed the campaigns’ silence around rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

It is up to us to show the candidates that we think Gulf Coast recovery is important; otherwise, it will continue to be a non-issue during the campaigns, lessening the likelihood that positive change will occur during the next administration. So let’s make a commitment to challenge our candidates and those who control the media to make rebuilding part of the conversation! Happy Mardi Gras, all.