War for Human Rights Existed Before Katrina

By Colette Pichon Battle, Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation

As community groups, survivors, advocates and families prepare to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the region feels alive again – a stark contrast to what I returned home to in the wake of the storm in 2005.

It is hard to forget the sheer enormity of the damage. Entering any part of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina required survivors to find the courage to experience total destruction.

Gulf Coast Oil Clean Up

The right to livelihood and a healthy environment in the Gulf Coast were compounded by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. © Win McNamee/Getty Images

I call it an experience, because “experience” is not just what your eyes allow you to see, but includes what you smell, how odd things sound and what your soul feels.  As I drove through New Orleans, Chalmette, Slidell, Pearlington, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, Bayou La Batre, Coden – hoping to find something other than the stark commonality of death, I only experienced complete ruin.  Over and over, the entire region was described as a war zone. And it was hard for me to believe that anything good would ever live here again while experiencing all that surrounded me.

Media images confirmed that the Gulf Coast was indeed a war zone. But the war for human rights existed before the wrath of Katrina.  A war where income, race and gender acted as indicators of your allegiance, and one where (like most wars) there could be no true victor.  The aftermath of Katrina was the moment when the nation agreed, through collective shock and dismay, that there are simply some things that no one should have to endure. It was in that moment that my country acknowledged what many of us had known for some time – that all was not well in the Deep South.

Much of the devastation of Katrina is no longer visible. Today the debris is cleared, most buildings have been rebuilt and many of the people, once displaced, have returned to begin anew.  But the brutal truth, five years later, is that all is not well. Practices that hurt the most vulnerable; policies that benefit the most powerful; and, systems designed to generate inequality – have also been rebuilt. Amnesty released a revised version of a report yesterday called an “Un-Natural Disaster which specifically highlights these persisting human rights violations.

With the survivors from the Gulf Coast, the nation must now choose to experience the courage to dismantle the structural inequity that subsists at the core of this country’s socio-politico systems.

The US now stands where people of the Gulf Coast stood five years ago – in the ruins from a flood of hate caused by breaches of human dignity; our moral responsibilities drowning in tidal surges of individualism; and, our liberty being uprooted by the deadly winds of privatization.

As victims of a national hurricane of fear and hate, we must do more than contemplate a just and equitable recovery if we are to weather this storm. Reminded by the images of Katrina, we must open our eyes to the poverty, racism and political disenfranchisement that exists throughout this country.

The Katrina 5th Anniversary commemoration will honor all that we have lost as a region and all that we have yet to achieve as a nation. We offer our prayers, music, tears and stories with the hopes of inspiring those outside the Gulf Coast to have the courage to engage in the experience of fighting for a better nation.

Right now, you can help empower Hurricane Katrina survivors during this time of recovery by calling on Congress to establish an Advisory Council that gives communities of color and low-income communities a voice (and a vote) in Gulf Coast clean-up efforts.

Colette Pichon Battle, Esq., is Program Director at the Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation.

FEMA's Formaldehyde Trailers Are Back…

The New York Times reported yesterday that the formaldehyde-tainted trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to people who had lost their homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are getting a second life. This time around, the trailers are being used as housing for workers cleaning up the growing BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Many families displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were initially housed in 120,000 trailers issued by FEMA. As Amnesty reported in Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast, several residents soon began complaining about respiratory problems and burning eyes, noses and throats. The trailers were found to have had such high levels of formaldehyde that the government banned them from being used as long-term housing. But what was the government going to do with thousands of contaminated trailers that cost $130 million every year to maintain? Auction them off to the general public, of course.

The trailers—resold from $2,500 and up at auctions in 2006—were bought by individuals and companies, including contracting firms now involved in the oil spill cleanup. Although FEMA placed restrictions on the use of the trailers as housing and required that subsequent owners be informed that the trailers are not intended for housing, cleanup workers are reportedly living in the trailers unaware of the health risks they face. This disturbing news comes on the heels of reports that hundreds of complaints have already been filed by cleanup crew members with poison control centers after exposure not only to the oil, but to the fumes from the burning of the oil, and to the chemicals in the dispersants.

The individuals working tirelessly to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf have a right to housing that is safe and habitable, to protection from conditions that are hazardous to their health, and to complete and accurate information about the environment in which they are living and working. The oil spill already poses a threat to human rights particularly in those communities of the Gulf region that are still struggling to recover from severe hurricane damage, a threat that is now compounded by the resurrection of FEMA’s formaldehyde trailers. Surely the least we can do is protect the rights of those who are working to protect our own environmental human rights. A sign of how seriously the Government wants to avoid any more fallout from an already disastrous situation? By Thursday night Congress had already called for an official investigation into the use of the condemned trailers.

Human Rights Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill

We are deeply concerned about the impacts of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the human rights of affected people in the region. Beyond the immediate impacts of the explosion that resulted in a tragic loss of life, the spill also poses a threat to human rights particularly in those communities of the Gulf region that are still struggling to recover from severe hurricane damage and who rely, for example, on fisheries or tourism for their livelihoods.

As evidenced in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups and poor communities are often disproportionally impacted by crises, facing obstacles at every stage and lacking access to the resources and institutions that should protect them and aid in their recovery.

Among the human rights at stake are the rights to an adequate standard of living and to gain a living through work, which are threatened by potential damage to the environment, including on marine life, waterways and coastlines that are a source of livelihood for many in the affected Gulf areas. The rights of residents in affected areas to health and a healthy environment are also potentially at risk as a result of direct and indirect impacts of the spill on the environment, including possible impacts on air quality and the human food-chain.

Under international law, the U.S. government has a duty to protect human rights against abuse by business and should ensure that corporations and other business enterprises respect human rights. To that end, Amnesty International welcomes the investigations into the spill that have commenced.  We urge the U.S. government to be vigilant in ensuring that those affected by the oil spill are provided timely assistance, and to give particular attention to both the immediate impacts and the potential longer-term impacts of the oil drilling disaster on already vulnerable coastal communities.

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