By Shaena J. Johnson
In a blatant attempt to increase marginalization and victimization of low-income and less fortunate Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims in Mississippi, elected officials, along with the Biloxi Office of Community Development proposed an ordinance that would further displace these victims from their homes. The proposed Ordinance to amend Section 23-11-17(b) of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Biloxi, MS, provided (1) FEMA trailers do not meet building code specifications – making them susceptible to destruction by hurricane force winds; and (2) there has been “ample time” for individuals displaced Hurricane Katrina to make arrangements for securing permanent housing. City of Biloxi officials thus demanded residents with FEMA trailers apply for a Temporary Use Permit (30 days), which would still require that they vacate their homes within 30 days.
What the Office of Community Development and other Biloxi elected officials failed to fully comprehend was that fact not all Biloxi residents have recovered fully from the disasters. Residents like Chuck Rodgers (see below) live in front of their houses to protect their property and rebuilding supplies, and to rekindle some sense of normality after the destruction of their way of life.
Jerry Creel, Director of the Office of Community Development, was in strong support of the ordinance, stating that the trailers “could become projectiles in hurricane-like situations.” He also asserted that the residents in the trailers are doing nothing to recover, and that nobody was being kicked out of their homes. Although Creel does make a valid point about the lack of safety that the FEMA trailers provide, his statements are specious. While it is true that trailers could become projectiles, the same is true for patio furniture, trees, automobiles, and even humans.
Trinh Le, Community Empowerment Coordinator of the Hope Community Development Agency, is the social justice activist and community leader of the movement that opposed this weak ordinance. She coordinated many civil and human rights advocates, including Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI), to speak out against the issue, raising awareness of the injustices against our constituents. Further, Le coordinated a press conference before the Biloxi City Council meeting to vote on the ordinance, inviting members of each organization to the June 16th meeting, and asking them to speak to the city council in opposition of the proposed ordinance.
Le’s endeavors were a success. After the press conference, LJI, along with other organizations spoke on behalf of the residents in FEMA trailers, asking the council to disregard the ordinance. There were so many supporters of the FEMA trailer residents, that there was only standing room left in the council chambers. The council voted 7-0 on the ordinance, amending it so that residents would have 6 months, instead of 30 days to find permanent housing. The council also stated that all families in FEMA trailers must have a Case Management Worker and sign up with the Office of Community Development (that venue should be changed because of the stated condescending view of these residents by the director).
While the Gulf Coast advocates were successful with this effort, it is also apparent there were unfair obstacles placed in the way of poor and often elderly residents in restoring their lives with dignity and respect. In this case, government officials played “fast and loose” with calendar scheduling to try and thwart the efforts of advocates working to support these residents. The Biloxi council placed the ordinance on the meeting agenda at the last minute, after weeks of rescheduling, and then moved the item last for hearing, notwithstanding the fact it was objectively the most important measure on the calendar. But justice was not delayed by obfuscation. Advocates stayed the course, for the entire meeting.
We have learned many lessons from the situation in Biloxi. People need to realize that no one entity can possible give anyone a timeline for full recovery from a disaster. We cannot tell a family that their home will be taken away from them, unless we have a plausible solution or alternative. Revolving deadlines and eviction notices do nothing but hurt the families involved. Instead of “barking out orders,” organizations and companies must provide solutions and alternatives, before notifying a family of eviction or relocation.