NOTE:I stumbled upon this article I saved from eight years ago. As I am working on the Changed Waters exhibition I thought this still has merit was worthy of repeating and applying as we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Rita...
KAT RPT: the ten most important lessons learned - two years of katrina
The Ten Most Important Lessons Learned
- Two Years of Katrina
By Bill Quigley
One. Build and rebuild community.
When disaster hits and life is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your
own. Isolation after a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression.
Family, community, church, work associations are all important – get them up
and working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we need
communities to do it. Prize women – they are the first line of community
builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight, but women will
help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families and communities.
Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People
and politicians and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if
our communities are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one
group is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is
high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources of
individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than people alone.
Your community must be ready to re-settle your property as soon as possible
and care for those most in need. Prioritize help for the elderly, the sick,
children and women, especially the poor. The prime cure for helplessness is
taking control over your own life and joining others to fight for justice.
Groups and people will want to treat you like a victim – say you
are traumatized and incapable of making basic decisions about yourself. They
will tell you they know best and act like they know best. Tell them to get
Three. Tell your own story.
Sharing our stories, successes and failures, is a way to connect
and educate ourselves. Connecting with others nationally and internationally
who have been through disasters is the very best thing that you can do.
Disasters and the corporations that cause them and profit from them do not respect
national boundaries. Look for global justice connections. Learn from those
who have been through this before. They will tell you - do not let anyone say
who you are or what is best for your community – say it yourself.
Those in power will blame circumstances outside their control for what
happened and inevitably they will blame the victims of the disaster. Those in
power will tell the people’s story in ways that makes the powerful look good. If
others do not tell the truth – you do it and get your stories out. Real
allies help lift up the voices of the people.
Four. Value every single human life equally.
Every religion and human rights recognizes that every single person is
entitled to human dignity. There are no forms to fill out, no criteria to meet.
Every single person no matter their race or gender or economic situation has
equal value. Every person has the right to participate in the response to the
disaster equally. Every single person and family has the right to repair and
rebuild and participate in the decisions being made.
The exact opposite occurs after a disaster. The people with
economic and political power get together and decide what has to happen. They
also decide which people are “worthy” of getting help first. They consider
poor working people disposable and movable. Since this is an emergency, they say
there is not time to allow regular people to participate in the decisions.
If every single person is not treated equally before the disaster hits, they
certainly should not expect to be treated fairly after.
Five. Don’t wait for a leader – become one.
Resist the tendency to think someone else is going to come save
you. There is no leader out there. We must each become leaders and followers
in order to bring about the change that is needed. Each of us is challenged
to get beyond our pre-disaster comfort zone. New leadership is essential to
avoid just repeating the mistakes that contributed to the disaster.
Those who work for human development instead of real estate
development will be repeatedly criticized as “obstructionist” by those who do not
value every life equally. Be prepared for these criticisms. That is what
they said about Mandela, Gandhi, ML King. Good company.
Six. Prepare for a Love-Hate Relationship with the Government.
After disaster, only the government has the resources to help fix major
problems for the social good. We must hold them accountable and demand that the
public sector mobilize and assist in an equitable way.
At the same time, we cannot wait for the government. Nor can we necessarily
listen to the government. After a disaster, the government will immediately be
manipulated by those in power. We must both critique the government and
build our own alternative community supports.
Seven. Government will help businesses first and second and third, and if
there is anything left, maybe fourth.
Who is in charge of government before the disaster? Governments will look
to privatize the public sector – housing, health, education, transportation,
every system after a disaster. That was what they wanted before the disaster,
so the disaster offers them an opportunity to move their plans into action.
Corporations see disasters as opportunities. They look for valuable land
that poor people were living on before the disaster. They decide that there is a
better economic use for that land. Then they will push the government to
come up with some excuse to take the land for other uses.
You will quickly see that those with power and money before the disaster end
up with more power and more money after the disaster. You will see that 98%
of the money distributed in a disaster ends up enriching corporations. Our
most colorful example is the blue tarps that the government put on the roofs of
houses after Katrina. The main contractor, Shaw Group, got $175 a square to
put on the tarps. They subcontracted the work out to another corporation for
$75 a square. The second corporation subcontracted the work out to a third
corporation for $30 a square. Who in turn subcontracted it out again to guys
who did the work for $2 a square. Two dollars a square for the actual worker is
less than 2 percent of what the government paid out – guess who got the
Wonder why the Gulf Coast is not fixed up yet? This is not an accident. It
is not that the system isn’t working. It is working for the benefit of those
who create and fund and manipulate it. Read Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE:
The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It spells it out in detail.
If government works primarily for corporations before the disaster, after
the disaster it will be a hyper corporate-friendly environment.
Eight. Disasters reveal the structural injustices in our communities in
race, gender and class and are thus learning and action opportunities.
Wonder about the role of race, class and gender in society?
Watch what happens when disaster strikes. Who is left behind during the
disaster? Who is left behind in the repair and rebuilding and planning and
decision-making? Disasters illuminate injustices.
There is tremendous educational opportunity to look at what
really matters in our society after a disaster. The curtains are pulled back.
The bandages are ripped off. Our histories of injustice are laid bare for all to
see. International human rights create great opportunities to reframe the
But just looking is insufficient. Join in solidarity with the
same folks who are left out. If a disaster can be an opportunity for those
interested in unjust economic advantage, why cannot we change the pattern and
make it an opportunity to redistribute justice in our communities and right the
wrongs that created what all can now see?
Nine. A justice-based reconstruction will not be funded.
Money will flow. Charities, churches and governments will send
money for charitable help. If your community is trying to create a more just
community than the one destroyed by the disaster, there will not be funding
for that. If you are trying to make the community fairer for and with the poor,
the elderly, and those who lived in unjust circumstances before the disaster –
get ready to raise your own funds for your organization. Funding for
charity will come, but funding for justice will not.
We must insist on some transparency and accountability from the
non-profits and foundations and others who have raised and spent billions in
the names of those in distress. They cannot be allowed to operate like
multi-national corporations – they must open their books and involve people in their
Solidarity not charity is one of the great demands to come out of Katrina
from the Common Ground collective. Another is “Nothing about us without us is
for us” from Peoples Hurricane Relief.
After Katrina, it again became clear that decades of oil
development has literally destroyed the natural protections around the gulf coast.
Yet the disaster actually enriched the oil companies who helped cause it,
creating their biggest year of profit in some time. Yet, do you hear the voices of
those calling out for the oil corporations to be held accountable for what
they have caused? Those voices are small and unfunded. But they, like so many
others calling for justice, are out there and will one day be heard.
Ten. Love is the answer – justice work is a commitment for the long haul.
When disaster hits, there is a natural urge to work around the
clock to try to set things right. After a few weeks or months, it will become
clear that is not sustainable. Working 24 hours a day is going to make you as
crazy as the government. No one likes a crank – even if they are working for
Building communities of resistance and working for human
development is long-term work. Love is a tremendous source of energy. But we have to
love ourselves as well so we can keep living this resistance with others. We
have and will continue to make mistakes. We have to get back up, dust
ourselves off, forgive ourselves and others, and get back to working in community to
create a more just world.
It is important to laugh too. Remember that last job held by
the guy in charge of disasters for the entire US government was as head of an
association of dancing horses! We can’t make this stuff up.
We have to love and laugh along with our tears and rage and keep learning
Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New
Orleans. He can be reached at Quigley@loyno.edu