NYTimes Editorial on NOWCRJ and unfair Gustav evacuation

21 09 2008

‘Never Again,’ Again

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/opinion/21sun2.html

Hurricane Gustav gave the state of Louisiana a test for which it had three years to prepare. There were thousands of poor, sick, disabled and elderly people who could not get out on their own. They needed to be rescued with dispatch, and sheltered in safety and dignity.

One simple test. The state flunked.

Three years to the week after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Louisiana executed a fundamentally unfair evacuation plan and did it badly. It relied on dividing the population into separate streams: People with their own cars were directed to shelters run by parishes, churches and the Red Cross. People with medical problems not requiring hospitalization were taken to special shelters. Sex offenders had a shelter to themselves.

All those without a car or a ride were taken on state buses to four state-run warehouses. It was in these shelters, including two abandoned stores, a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club, that thousands of working-poor New Orleanians got a sickening reminder of Katrina.

Evacuees said they had had no idea where they were going; bus drivers would not tell them. When they arrived, there were not enough portable toilets, and no showers. For five days there was no way to bathe, except with bottled water in filthy outdoor toilets. Privacy in the vast open space — 1,000 people to a warehouse, shoulder-to-shoulder on cots — was nonexistent. The mood among evacuees was grim, surrounded as they were by police officers and the National Guard, with no visitors or reporters allowed.

“We didn’t want to evacuate into a prison,” Lethia Brooks told the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization that accompanied the evacuees, inspected the shelters and collected hundreds of stories into a report sharply critical of the state’s response.

Gustav ended up being no Katrina, and the week of suffering was not as severe as the deathly mayhem of three years ago. But residents had every right to expect far better treatment than they received. After a week of indignities in crowded, unsanitary shelters, many returned home with their fragile finances in turmoil. They had been forced to buy extra basics while out of their homes, and September rent was due.

The secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Social Services, which was responsible for the shelters, resigned after this scandal and one involving problems with food stamp distribution.

Now, many poor residents are vowing “never again,” as in, “Never again will we get on the bus to be warehoused. We’ll ride out the next storm.” In New Orleans, disaster is never far away, and government incompetence cannot be allowed to undermine a swift, sure evacuation. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration should move quickly on a better plan that does not expose the poor to differential, substandard treatment.

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NYTimes Editorial on NOWCRJ and Gustav

8 09 2008

No Shelter from the Storm

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/opinion/07sun2.html

When a disaster hits, saving lives comes before anything else, even when those lives don’t have the right immigration papers. That is why the Department of Homeland Security called off its agents when Hurricane Gustav bore down on New Orleans. Just days after staging the biggest workplace raid ever, not far away in Mississippi, the agency promised there would be no raids or checkpoints to slow the evacuation of the Gulf Coast.

The decision was practical and humane, but it was not enough to persuade many immigrant workers to accept help in evacuating. They feared that immigration agents would arrest them at Red Cross shelters.

Staff members at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization of black and Latino laborers created after Hurricane Katrina, said they pleaded in vain for written assurances from the Red Cross that undocumented immigrants would be safe in its shelters.

The Red Cross has a long-standing policy of impartiality; it never asks evacuees about their legal status. But the workers’ center wanted something more reassuring. It asked the Red Cross to state in writing that its volunteers would be educated about the open-door policy, and that immigration agents would not be allowed to enter shelters for raids or investigations.

With the storm rolling ever closer, and the authorities ordering people to flee, no letter came. The Red Cross issued a general restatement of its impartiality policy — after the hurricane passed.

The Red Cross argues, rightly, that it cannot keep law-enforcement officials from doing their jobs if they have legal warrants. But it does have an internal policy stating that officials without warrants are not allowed into its shelters. The workers’ center says that a simple public statement of that policy would have been enough to persuade its members to get on the bus. Instead, with mere hours to spare, more than a thousand people decided they could not take the chance of being picked up. Though short on money and access to cars, they cobbled together their own evacuations.

This storm, thankfully, did far less damage than Katrina. But other storms still loom, and thousands of scattered workers are still lying low. And the federal government and the Red Cross still lack what should be an ironclad public policy: that during all phases of a disaster, from evacuation to shelter to return, victims without papers need never be afraid of accepting life-saving help.