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In a Brooklyn Church, Grief and Defiance of Katrina Survivors Still Palpable

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Author's Note: This story was first published in the New York Amsterdam News, a few days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, on August 29, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged her house in Mobile, Alabama, Joetta Rogers wandered alone with a cane for seven hours and boarded a Greyhound bus with a dollar and 55 cents in her pocket for 32 hours to get to New York City, not knowing exactly where to go.

A year later, on Monday night at Hanson Place Central Methodist Church, in Brooklyn, Rogers, 54, said she still did not have a permanent place, moving from one house to another since October, and has not received any financial assistance from the government.  

“I have been depressed for many reasons: losing my house and staying at Salvation Army for days without any help. The thing that really angers me the most, though, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been ignoring me for 18 months now,” Rogers said.

With her one hand shaking as she held a copy of her speech written in a yellow sheet of paper, and a cane in the other, she also expressed defiance before hundreds of people – mostly activists, religious and political leaders, and other Katrina survivors – who attended the town-hall meeting to commemorate the first year anniversary of the Gulf Coast tragedy.

“Now I’m really mad – and I’m ready to fight. Why would I go back to another emotional drama that FEMA has put me through just to get rental assistance? If I’m qualified for getting rental money, why don’t they (FEMA officials) just hand it to my landlord, instead of asking me to do a lot of paperwork.” 

In the last six months, Rogers said that she worked for Brooklyn-based Family Dynamics. Because she “didn’t have enough computer skills” and that she was “too emotional and sensitive,” however, she got laid off. “There were so many resentments against me. They don’t understand that I am a Katrina survivor,” she said, stressing the trauma that she has gone through.

Jeffrey Volk, a New York resident who was stranded in New Orleans when the levees broke, blamed the Bush administration of massive negligence for his struggles.

“I was there when it happened, dropping my daughter off to college. We were tired, hungry and sweating. When we asked several government officials for help, I was told to call (202) 456-1414 – the White House. That day I tried to call the president’s house five times, but no one responded. There was no food, no water. Where were they?” he said.

Volk, who claimed to have supported and donated thousands of money to Republicans in the past, described Katrina rescue operations the “most disgraceful thing that I haven’t seen in the United States.  

“If you were poor, if you were from Louisiana, and if you were calling the White House, don’t expect to get anything. What happened in Katrina, 9/11, and the war in Iraq are unacceptable,” Volk said, adding that he will never donate to Republicans and government agencies anymore.

‘Compensate Katrina survivors, like 9/11 families’

For Kevin Powell, author and activist, Katrina is far from over as he seeks compensation for survivors and pushes for more “progressive officials in local, federal and state governments.”

“If we have given something for the 9/11 families, we should do and give something, too, for Katrina survivors,” he told the Amsterdam News in a phone interview. “They deserve their civil rights, in terms of housing, medical care, employment and financial support.”

Powell said that in present-day New Orleans, surviving families have been threatened of losing their property if they won’t return. “But that’s insane. How can they go back when the place isn’t livable?”

When asked who ordered the survivors to go back to their respective homes, Powell said: “People in New Orleans have been talking about it. Call the office of Mayor Roy Nagin; they know more about it.”

Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York’s Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), was concerned about the alleged vanishing of public school system in New Orleans.

“Guess what? Maybe you don’t get this: The school system in New Orleans has been privatized. The government doesn’t care to rebuild the schools, allowing private-owned institutions and companies to hire teachers and establish their businesses out there,” she said. “This is a miserable failure in a national scale. The whole world saw what we have been living in for years.”

Lewis said that since the levees broke and inundated New Orleans, the 9,000 members of ACORN – which operated in Louisiana for 36 years – have been scattered around the country. Out of that figure, she said, they have only communicated with 4,000 members.

“Our members were the ones you saw on television. Our members were the ones you saw being pushed back. Our members were among who suffered. Hurricane Katrina changed this country forever,” she said. “There still no government assistance. Folks help each other. Anyone talking about support from FEMA is a lie. Don’t believe the hype.”