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.