Monday, September 8, 2008

Displaced Poor Still Arriving in New Orleans as Saints Go Marching In

This blog is cross-posted at Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at

Tears dripped down her face as she searched for her missing suitcase in the busy New Orleans bus station. "It had my ID, my children's birth certificates, my money and my credit cards," she softly cried. It was Sunday morning, one week after she was bused out of New Orleans to a military base in Arkansas. She was supposed to be at work. Her three children needed her. But she needed that suitcase.

A single, older woman, clinging to her heavy bag and a single crutch, sighed as she got off the bus from Kentucky. A little boy with a Lightning McQueen backpack, almost bigger than he was, gave a tiny fist bump to the first person he saw. A middle-aged woman sat in a plastic chair, eyes closed, head in her hands, slowly rocking.

Outside, black- and gold-attired fans of the New Orleans Saints were drinking and barbecuing, preparing for the noon game. Their smoke drifted over the bus station and mixed with the exhaust from dozens of big buses and the contents of dozens of port-o-lets.

Over a thousand people are expected to be bused home to New Orleans sometime on Sunday. They are the last of around 30,000 people evacuated by the government to hundreds of shelters across the country.

Though 26 percent of Louisiana was reported on Sunday to still be without power, people were more than ready to come home.

The bus station was full of dark blue-uniformed police, camouflaged National Guard soldiers, Health Department workers in sky blue shirts, red-shirted Catholic Charities and Red Cross personnel, lime green day-glo-jacketed volunteers from the local Medicaid office, and many others.

One local judge observed after days at the bus station, "It is unbelievable just how many disabled and elderly people actually live in our community. They just keep getting off these buses with their wheelchairs, their canes and crutches. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. Many must usually be housebound, because we rarely see them."

A disabled older woman trudged along with a cane and a garbage bag of belongings as a volunteer pushed the wheelchair of her full-grown, absolutely silent son. "Next time," she said, "we're just going to have to ride it out at home. This was too much."

An old man angrily spurned the offer of ready-to-eat meals from a volunteer. "I need money. Can you help me with that? No? I didn't think so! I spent all my money on this and I'm about to get put out of my house!"

A University of New Orleans professor is collecting information from returning evacuees and will release a study soon. Reports from the New Orleans Worker Justice Center for Racial Justice point out that 1,500 people were housed in an abandoned Sam's Club warehouse that was not set up for habitation. "Mothers have been forced to bathe babies in portable toilets parked outside while diabetics are receiving food that puts them at risk." The Worker Center also published a state policy memo that sent people who evacuated on their own to one type of shelter and people who used public transportation to another type entirely. Another 1,200 were housed in an old Wal-Mart in Bastrop with insufficient toilets and had no shower facilities for at least three days. Others complained that shelter officials rationed everything, even tampons, telling evacuees to come back later when they needed another one.

Another problem were the arrests of evacuees after local officials on their own decided to run unauthorized background checks on each person. Arrests were reported in Atlanta, Bastrop, Chicago, Knoxville, Louisville, Marshall, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Shreveport. Many arrests were for outstanding warrants. The problem is that the New Orleans warrant system is widely criticized as unreliable.

Officials in New Orleans told The Associated Press they had no knowledge of the background checks. Those wishing to use the city's assisted evacuation system had been assured they would not be pressed for identification in order to board buses out of town. The evacuation is seen as key to saving lives and maintaining order during and after a hurricane.

"The problem is there have been massive holes in the warrant system in New Orleans for years," said New Orleans civil rights attorney Mary Howell. "Sometimes the warrants have been thrown out but are still in the system; some people don't know they have warrants out for them." What's worse, Howell said, is that such arrests will have a chilling effect on getting people to evacuate in the future.

At noon, the Saints kicked off in the Superdome. A few blocks away, publicly contracted buses continued to return with hundreds of passengers: the elderly, the disabled, children and those too poor to evacuate on their own, who had not been home in a week. The teary-eyed woman continued the search for her missing suitcase.

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