On Patricia Jones’ wedding day, her father pulled her aside, holding her arm firmly and speaking so urgently that she stopped hugging her guests to listen closely.
“Buy a house as soon as you can,” he told her. “A house is your wealth, your future, for you, for your children, and for your grandchildren.”
Patricia and her husband eventually saved enough money to buy a house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2000, walking distance from her parents’ home, and began raising their family.
Jones grew up in the Lower Ninth, like her father and his father. In 1965, her grandfather lost everything when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans. Money to rebuild wasn’t given to African-Americans.
In August 2005, Jones and her family evacuated to Georgia in advance of Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane hit New Orleans and levees ruptured, she and her family followed TV coverage of the disaster. Jones froze when she saw her neighborhood flash onto the television screen. People were trapped on the roof of a two-story building, water lapping at the eaves. She knew that building.
“Oh my God! Our house is under water,” she cried.
Jones paced the room, trying to calm herself, trying to think. They had hurricane insurance on the house. It was going to be okay. It had to be.
A few weeks later at a meeting with State Farm insurance representatives, she began to understand that as horrific as the hurricane and floods were, the real disaster was still ahead.
“At the meeting, State Farm said they weren’t going to be covering our loss. It was a flood, they said, not a hurricane that destroyed our house. And we weren’t covered for a flood.
“My husband had to pull me out of that meeting room,” said Jones.
Tornadoes and hurricanes don’t discriminate. They tear through communities without rhyme or reason. Yet, in the aftermath, when recovery begins, the painful pattern of who is helped – and who is left behind – is undeniable.
Whether it’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Dolly in Texas in 2008, or the deadly Alabama tornadoes in 2011, blatant discrimination against low-income families, poor communities, people of color and those with little education or access to technology continues with shameful predictability.
The tornados that roared through Alabama on April 27, 2011, didn’t discriminate. They killed more than 250 people across the state and erased complete neighborhoods.
When one of the tornadoes hit tiny, rural Tishabee, the massive twister tore the roof and porch from Idell McShan’s pink trailer. Across the meadow from McShan, a mobile home was untouched. But, down the road, houses were crushed. One family’s daughter was killed.
Neighbors layered blue tarps across McShan’s torn roof. Then it rained. Water streamed between the sheets of plastic and into the trailer, soaking the walls and carpet.
McShan, 78, has lived in rural Alabama her entire life. Fifty years ago, she and her husband bought the acre of land she lives on in this mostly African-American community. The land and the pink trailer, now roofless, waterlogged and leaning, are all she owns.
McShan’s three young grandchildren live with her. They scrape by on her monthly $700 social security check, earned after decades of working in a poultry plant and a cardboard box factory.
A FEMA worker came to assess the damage to her trailer after the tornado.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” the federal employee agreed, walking around the trailer with a notepad and camera.
When Alabama was declared a disaster area, FEMA was authorized to pay homeowners up to $30,200 to repair their homes “to a safe and sanitary living condition.”
For a brief moment, Idell McShan allowed herself to hope.
But a year after the tornado, without a touch of resentment in her voice, McShan summons the same matter-of-fact tone she always uses to explain disappointments.
“I didn’t get a new place,” she said, her voice flat.
“You know I was hoping. I surely was hoping. They offered me a trailer, but I could only live in it a year, from April to April. And when the year was up, they would take it away and then I would have to find somewhere to go.
She paused. “Where would I go?
“So, I am glad I didn’t get it,” she said. “I thought I wanted it, I surely did.”
She was still holding onto a bit of hope the day the FEMA check arrived with money to restore her home.
“They sent me $900,” McShan said.
“I fixed up my old trailer. I put on a new top. Then my money ran out, and I didn’t get the inside fixed. Some of the walls have holes in them from the water. I need some paneling to cover those, sure do. It might be okay if I could get some paneling. I took up the carpet – it wouldn’t dry.
“You’ve got to do what you can do. I had to do what I could do,” she said. “It’s going to have to be okay.”
Rio Grande Valley, Texas
It’s not okay.
It takes a low-income neighborhood three times longer to recover from disaster than an affluent neighborhood, a full generation, some say, if ever. That is changing as communities share experiences, step up and speak out.
In the Texas Rio Grande Valley, the colonias are among the poorest communities in the country. The average household income is around $15,000.
Colonias are unincorporated subdivisions of simple homes built on former agricultural land, usually without the most basic infrastructure such as sewers or storm drainage. Many of the houses are patchworked together slowly by their owners as money and materials become available.
In 2008, when Hurricane Dolly hit south Texas, drenching the Rio Grande Valley, the water that flooded the colonias had nowhere to drain. Houses stood soaking in water for months. Mold grew, cockroaches flourished.
“When the mosquitoes came – and there was a huge infestation of mosquitoes -– they brought a lot of other health problems,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE).
“We were hit by one disaster, but there were so many other disasters that followed,” said Valdez-Cox. “FEMA was a disaster in itself.”
Like McShan in Alabama, struggling families in the Texas colonias held on to hope that they would receive enough federal emergency funds to fix their hurricane- and water-ravaged homes. In the end, they were denied assistance, with no explanation.
“You can’t deny someone funding just because you didn’t have your coffee in the morning,” said Valdez-Cox.
LUPE – founded in 1989 by farm labor activist César Chávez – filed a lawsuit against FEMA, requiring the agency to publicly disclose the standards it uses to decide who gets help and who is denied.
“FEMA has a secret rule that only effects poor people,” said Jerome Wesevich, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “After Hurricane Dolly, FEMA applied that secret rule over 10,000 times to poor colonia residents.
“If, in FEMA’s subjective judgment, your home was in crummy condition prior to the disaster, it doesn’t matter how much the storm damages your home, the government won’t help you,” said Wesevich. “It disproportionately affects poor people, denying families any help after disasters.
“How is it fair that only rich people can get their house repaired after a disaster?” he asked.
LUPE won the first round of the lawsuit, but the federal agency has appealed, and the case will likely wind through the legal system for years to come.
There are other battles. Activists in south Texas are heading into the next round: making sure that when long-awaited Community Development Block Grant money, awarded after Hurricane Dolly, finally reaches them, jobs rebuilding the housing in the communities will go to the people who live there.
About $122 million has been reserved for colonia housing programs, with another $65 million for infrastructure, such as drainage.
Unfailingly, the smell of government money brings big-time contractors from out of state swooping in to grab up contracts for work – then they bring in their own teams.
Local communities and workers are left without jobs and without the economic boost the money is intended to bring. This time, in the colonias, mere hope is replaced by determination.
Families are organizing to make sure they are not left out. They fill the room at state and regional government smeetings to give a face and voice to the need, and they demand to be included in the recovery.
“We’re not just talking about the hope of jobs, but about the expectation,” said Armando Garza, development director for Proyecto Azteca, which helps families build quality homes and strong communities.
“It’s very powerful when families who are often voiceless have a voice of their own, when they can advocate on their own behalf,” said Garza.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Lower Ninth Ward, framed by the Mississippi River and Industrial Canal, was home to generations of families. The neighborhood once boasted one of the highest rates of African-American home ownership in the country. When the canal levee was breached, water covered the neighborhood.
The whiter, wealthier neighborhoods of New Orleans have bounced back, businesses are open, new hotels are filled with tourists and conventions. But the low-income, Lower Ninth Ward remains a ghost town.
Only 25 percent of the population has returned. When Patricia Jones and her husband bought their house before Hurricane Katrina, 14,000 people lived in the community. Today, about 3,500 people live there.
Families have moved to places with jobs, schools and normal services like grocery stores. Others have gone to live with their children; some of the older folks have passed away.
As in the colonias, the hurricane and flooding were only the beginning of the disasters dealt the community. Government agencies and government officials turned their backs; banks preyed on frightened and vulnerable families.
City leaders talked about replacing a low-income neighborhood devastated by flooding with a golf course.
“I’ll bet every nickel that the same stories are repeated across the country,” said Flozell Daniels, Jr., president and chief executive of the Foundation for Louisiana. “The question that endures is how we give people equal opportunity to have equal progress in the recovery.”
In the Lower Ninth Ward, just as in the colonias, families are fighting back.
“It took 10 months for us to get running water in the Lower Ninth. We couldn’t get a commitment, they were trying to discourage us from rebuilding,” said Jones, who returned to her community six months after Hurricane Katrina.
“It felt like déjà vu. It felt like the stories my dad had told me about my grandfather,that the whites were given opportunities and the blacks were not.”
“I was angry. I didn’t want anyone to dictate to me that my wealth was not going to be passed on to my children,” said Jones, now executive director of Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA).
“There were elderly people in the neighborhood who lost everything they had. They were overwhelmed with the paperwork. You had to go online and register – they don’t have a Yahoo account, they don’t have email. What were they supposed to do?
The elderly people can’t get a 30-year mortgage. They have no choices, their wealth has been pulled away from them, and they are not being made whole.
“I felt a conviction that we needed to help people. I had worked as a paralegal in a law firm; I am familiar with paperwork,” she said. “That’s how NENA got started.”
Families in the Lower Ninth felt the full force of predatory bankers long before the rest of the country as banks foreclosed on destroyed homes or swooped in and took insurance money meant for rebuilding.
“You were still obligated to rebuild, but the bank had your money, you didn’t,” said Jones.
Then came Road Home, a Louisiana state program designed to provide funds to families to rebuild their homes – unless the family lived in a poor neighborhood. The program discriminated against thousands of African-American families in low-income communities.
Grants for home repair were based on the pre-storm market value of the homes rather than the actual cost to repair the house.
In a widely reported example, a woman living in a poor neighborhood received a $1,400 grant. If she had been living in the same home, with the same damage, in a wealthier part of town, she would have received $150,000, using the state’s calculations.
“It’s ridiculous. Home Depot doesn’t say, ‘Oh, you live in the Lower Ninth, we will give you a 40 percent discount,’” said Jones. “Home repairs cost the same in every neighborhood.”
A settlement was reached last July with Road Home, but, in many cases, the damage was done and families gave up hope of returning home.
“It’s like you are constantly holding your breath, with a knot in your chest, just trying to function. We need to keep watching and staying alert,” said Jones.
The Lower Ninth recently received $40 million to repave streets and repair sewer connections. A new neighborhood fire station will be built soon. The next hurdle is to get a high school, and then a grocery store.
“I envision that our community will be thriving in 20 years, in a generation.
“The glue here is our fight to keep what we earned and what we bought years ago,” said Jones. “Even if you don’t value my wealth – I do. What I have is mine, and you are not going to take it.”