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.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

New technology demonstrates extreme lack of progress in Gulf Coast reconstruction

Technology has been a driving force as of late, to document a variety of things related to human rights from political violence in Kenya, to the oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States, caused flooding and widespread damage to the Gulf Coast. More than 1,800 people from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama died in the storm. Approximately 1,000,000 people were displaced from the Gulf Coast region.

Nearly five years later, in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast, there is a continued lack of access to housing and health care, and issues related to the criminal justice system persist. Amnesty International is committed to raising awareness about the slow progress in housing recovery, as well as the demolition of public housing, and the problems of blight and homelessness in the city of New Orleans. Recent estimates of homelessness in New Orleans have ranged from nearly 10,000 individuals and families to 12,000. If so many are still homeless, where are houses being rebuilt, and who can actually afford them?

Now, thanks to technology, you can track the progress of Gulf Coast reconstruction with the Google Earth layer created by Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights (SHR) Program. These geo-referenced photos highlight the extent of the destruction and the lack of progress in rebuilding in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can download the kml file of the lower Ninth Ward and use geo-visualization software, such as Google Earth, to see for yourself the full extent of the damage and the amount of work that remains to be done.

AI’s Rebuilding the Gulf project has been active in working to protect human rights in the Gulf Coast by focusing on promoting a broader range of human rights concerns that arise in disaster affected areas. Learn more about our work in the Gulf Coast and take action to reform federal disaster legislation to ensure that the human rights of those impacted by future disasters are protected.

 

 

Sung In Marshall contributed to this post.

All Rights for All People Kicks Off Today!

AGM_smToday, we’re gathering with human rights advocates from around the world in New Orleans to demand and fight for all human rights for all people!  While the challenges facing human rights activists are great, the energy and determination to meet them are even greater. We’ll be mobilizing with those assembling in New Orleans to attack injustice from Burkino Faso to Biloxi, and grow an even stronger human rights movement.

Already the word is getting out:  today we’ve seen a spike in coverage about our reporting on the human rights abuses of Hurricane Katrina victims.  New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has become synonymous with the marginalization of people living in poverty in the richest country in the world.  The U.S. government and Gulf Coast states have consistently violated the human rights of hurricane victims since Hurricane Katrina killed about 1,800 people.  Check out the buzz:

> Amnesty: US guilty of Katrina-related abuses (The Washington Post)

> Amnesty International: Hurricane Katrina Victims Had Human Rights Violated (The Huffington Post)

Science for Human Rights Program Unveils New Toy

AGM Countdown: In the run up to Amnesty International’s Annual General Meeting in New Orleans this weekend, the Science for Human Rights program will be posting a new blog entry every day this week. All of the projects presented this week—and many more—will be at display in New Orleans.

For this year’s Annual General Meeting, the Science for Human Rights Program (SHR) is unveiling a cool new toy. This new toy, which we’re calling the “SHR Explorer,” enables you to check out a selection of the satellite images we have acquired and analyzed over the years, and lets you really see the extent of human rights violations in all different parts of the world. By using the slider, you can really see the striking differences between before and after images taken of the same exact place.

Screenshot of the SHR Explore. Copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. CLICK IMAGE TO GO TO SITE

Screenshot of the SHR Explorer. Copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. CLICK IMAGE TO GO TO SITE

Images from Zimbabwe and Chad show the extent of housing demolitions in select areas of those countries. In both Porta Farm, Zimbabwe, and N’Djamena, Chad, housing demolitions have caused immeasurable pain and suffering to people who have been made homeless by their own government.

In Lebanon, Georgia and Nigeria, violence has caused widespread damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure. Satellite images of Beirut, Lebanon, appear to prove that Israeli forces used cluster bombs in civilian areas during the August 2006 conflict, and those of Tskhinvali, Georgia, show many missing rooftops as result of the war between Georgian and Russian forces in August 2008. In Nigeria (our most recent project) the images show how many structures in the city of Jos have been destroyed by fire during recent clashes in the region.

And in New Orleans, aerial photographs demonstrate the slow pace of reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The first aerial image shows the flood that happened right after Katrina hit, and the second image shows what the same area looks like 4 years later, in 2009.

The Explorer is really going to be a powerful new tool as we continue to document and monitor, and do advocacy and campaigning work on various human rights abuses all over the world.

Check it out today!

Not Pretty: New Orleans Still Devastated Almost 5 Years After Katrina!?

AGM Countdown: In the run up to Amnesty International’s Annual General Meeting in New Orleans this weekend, the Science for Human Rights program will be posting a new blog entry every day this week. All of the projects presented this week—and many more—will be at display in New Orleans.

With the AGM being in New Orleans this year, and as we are fast approaching the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, Amnesty International is committed to raising awareness about the slow progress in housing recovery, as well as the demolition of public housing, and the problems of blight and homelessness in the city of New Orleans. Recent estimates of homelessness in New Orleans have ranged from nearly 10,000 individuals and families to as many as 12,000.

AI has been active in working to protect human rights in the Gulf Coast as the region rebuilds after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Initially focused on the right to housing, AI’s Rebuilding the Gulf project now focuses on promoting a broader range of human rights concerns that arise in disaster affected areas.

In an effort to raise the visibility of the human rights conditions in the region, Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights Program has created a visual representation of the level of destruction and lack of reconstruction using aerial images taken of the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina, and also by analyzing postal information by Census Block, again before and after Katrina hit. This information plainly shows how many people left the area and have not been able to return (or at least aren’t receiving mail any more) as well as the amount of infrastructure that was damaged, and as of 2009 when the aerial image was taken, hadn’t been repaired.

New Orleans postal data

Click image to see full visual

In addition to this visual representation, AI is creating a Google Earth Layer, implanting photos taken on a GPS camera from a recent AI mission to region, including stops in Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans. These geo-referenced photos, along with some additional images, show the level of devastation that STILL exists to this day, as well as simultaneously demonstrating the lack of progress of reconstruction that has occurred, in particular to, the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. This GE layer will be uploaded to our website soon.

Although it has been almost five years since Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, much still remains to be done to rebuild the Gulf Coast. AI believes that the best and most effective way to secure and rebuild lives is by respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of those affected.

If you happen to be in New Orleans this weekend, please check out this project, and many other Science for Human Rights projects at AIUSA’s AGM.

Last Call for New Orleans: Bring people together and save

All Rights for All People human rights conference in New Orleans

All Rights for All People human rights conference in New Orleans

Online registration for the All Rights for All People conference has been extended until April 2nd!

That means there are only a few more days left to reserve your spot with us in New Orleans. To achieve the goal of all rights for all people, we need everyone to contribute. We want to bring as many people together as we can in New Orleans April 9-11th to share ideas, inspire and support each other, organize communities, and speak out on behalf of those who cannot.

Here are some ways you can help us make this possible and save big in the process:

You won’t want to miss out on all the cool opportunities to connect with human rights supporters from around the world and participate in critical human rights discussions, including:

  • Confronting the cycle of poverty – exposing slums, maternal mortality and corporate accountability
  • Assessing the human rights situation in New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina
  • Simulating crisis response strategies for the upcoming elections in Myanmar (Burma)
  • Lobbying 101 and legislative tactics for connecting with elected officials
  • Engaging the media to cover social issues and best practices for communicating your message
  • Exploring a multimedia art fair on human rights

And don’t forget a special celebrity guest will be joining us in New Orleans!

After you register, share the news on Facebook and post on Twitter using the hashtag #agm10.

Learn the newest and best strategies for human rights advocacy and mobilization from people who live the movement every day. There’s no better place than New Orleans to get inspired for helping all people achieve all rights!

My Name Is Khan and I'm Not a Terrorist

UPDATE: Shiv Sena, a political organization with waning popularity, has been actively campaigning against this film.  Given the recent history of Shiv Sena, one can only assume that this movie has been targeted because the lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim and he is portraying a Muslim who has suffered discrimination.  Today, there has been a noticeable increase in security in Mumbai, but no plans to cancel screenings.  On the contrary, it seems as though this controversy has caused an upsurge in excitement over the movie.

A blog about human rights is not normally a place to read about upcoming movies, but you all should have a look at the Bollywood movie “My Name Is Khan” scheduled for release tonight (2/12/2010).  The movie is about a Muslim man (played by mega Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan) who grew up in a Muslim neighborhood (but secular family) in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), immigrates to America and falls in love with the person who becomes his wife (played by another mega Bollywood superstar Kajol). Oh, here’s the trailer:

So the wrinkle is that Shah Rukh Khan’s character has Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism) and so has trouble fitting in.  Despite that, things were going really swimmingly until 9/11 results in he and his family being targeted repeatedly because of their Muslim faith.  There is discrimination and racial profiling complicated by Khan’s Asperger’s Syndrome.  The seminal moment comes when Khan is in secondary screening at the airport and he says “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist.”

Of course, this being a Bollywood movie, there will still be some uniquely Bollywood touches like Khan somehow ending up in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the over the top romantic element.  But, unfortunately, there are no song and dance routines which often substitutes for quality acting in many of Bollywood’s output.  Despite that, those interested in how foreigners view the United States after 9/11 albeit in a rather un-nuanced way, cannot go wrong with this movie.  It also shows quite graphically how it feels to be discriminated against in your adopted country.