Post-Katrina, New Orleans received the headlines. The government response was a glaring example of the heartlessness and incompetence of the Bush administration, and the neglect and devastation of the city remains a powerful symbol of US racism. In struggles around issues such as health care, education, policing, environmental devastation, voting rights and more, New Orleans is on the front lines.
However, although New Orleans has received some long-deserved attention for its crises, Mississippi — by many measures the most impoverished state in the US — received the brunt of the damage from the hurricane. In three hardest hit coastal counties, 64,000 homes were destroyed and more than 70,000 received damage. Many of the poorest residents still have received no federal assistance, and tens of thousands remain spread across the US.
For those who have not returned to their homes, reports Monique Harden of the Gulf Coast organization Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, “displaced residents are subjected to a complex and historic interplay of race, class, and the lack of access to housing, healthcare, education, and economic opportunities.” In Gulf Coast cities, immigrants and other people of color have been for the most part left out of reconstruction funding, and for communities most affected by the storm, rebuilding seems to not be on the government agenda. Schools, health care, and criminal justice systems are in crisis.
“We had our ninth ward in East Biloxi,” Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights explains, referring to the poor, mostly African American and Vietnamese coastal community that was leveled by Katrina. “The government has been slow to clean up, slow to provide resources, slow to respond. Even now, people have yet to receive aid. Not only is there widespread poverty, there is widespread displacement.”
“There’s no rebuilding being done except for casinos and condos,” Vicky Cintra of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) adds.
MIRA, which has been advocating for immigrant’s rights in Mississippi since 2000, quickly emerged post-Katrina as one of the only voices advocating for immigrants. Since Katrina, MIRA has helped workers recover over $1 million dollars in unpaid wages. “We’re fighting contractors who feel that, because they are dealing with immigrants, they don’t have to pay them, they don’t have to respect worker’s comp laws, or health and safety rules, or any guidelines of ethical behavior,” Cintra asserts.
Both Hill and Cintra complain that poor people have been left out of the planning process, pointing out that post-storm planning happened for the most part without the input of poor residents, and has focused on building luxury housing and helping to rebuild and expand casinos. “They had it decided and were just waiting for Katrina,” Cintra asserts. “It could have been anything. They were going to get rid of poor people and people of color. They had plans ready.”
Cintra tells me that in areas like East Biloxi, former neighborhoods are overgrown and empty. “At first, you think its undeveloped land,” she tells me. “But when you walk through the new underbrush you see the foundations of homes and realize this used to be a populated area. This is where people’s lives used to be.”
The struggle for justice for poor people in Mississippi didn’t begin with Katrina, and advocates and activists see no end in sight. “Before Katrina, people were victims of poverty. We still have the same problems now, but with displacement added.” Hill says, adding, “This is our work in 2007. We are part of the resistance movement.”