A Warning Letter to Harvey and Irma Survivors from Katrina Survivors

Sep 17, 2017 by

Insist on telling your own story.

The Texas National Guard and Houston Fire Department respond to Hurricane Harvey.
Photo Credit: Flickr/The National Guard

Dear Fellow Hurricane Survivors:

Our hearts go out to you as you return to try to repair your homes and lives. Based on our experience, here are a few things you should watch out for as you start rebuilding your communities.

1. Rents are going to skyrocket and waves of evictions are likely. With so many houses damaged and so many highly paid contractors coming into your region whose companies will pay anything to house them, some landlords are going to start evicting people to make way for higher paying occupants. Work with local organizations to enact a moratorium on evictions and a freeze on rents to allow working and low-income people a place to stay.

2. Rip-off contractors and vulture businesses are probably already on the scene. Don’t give money to anyone unless you know and trust them and do not pay for everything in advance!

3. Take pictures of everything that was damaged and hold onto all receipts for all your disaster expenses. Get a special binder and keep all your papers in it. Sadly, the process of getting assistance is going to last for years for many people and you will need to prove what damage your home sustained.

4. After a disaster, there is an outpouring of compassion, support and solidarity. Take what you need for your community. But realize the window of compassion and support shuts much more quickly than it should. Then people will start blaming the victims.

5. Insist on transparency, accountability and participation in all public and private funding sources for disaster relief. The government is yours and ours. We need them in times of disaster, but they can also be the biggest obstacle to a just recovery. Demand they tell the public what is going on and consult with all parts of the communities, not just the rich and well-connected usual suspects. Same problems arise when dealing with the private relief organizations, from the biggest private disaster relief organization to many other smaller groups.

6. Insist on telling your own story. Your truth is a jewel that shines brightest in your own hands. If you are going to work with journalists or others make sure the real truth is told, not just the sensational or heart-rending stories of poor powerless victims. You may have been victimized by the hurricane, but you are a powerful survivor.

7. Unless you are rich enough to try to go it alone, you have to join together with others to make your voice heard. Many voices together are loud enough to force those in power to listen. Groups of people are far more effective than individual voices. Join neighborhood organizations, church organizations and community organizations, and work with others.

8. Work in statewide coalitions. Statewide coalitions are very important because many disaster relief decisions are made on the state level. You have to be able to influence those decisions.

9. Identify members of Congress you can work with. Many decisions are being made on the federal level. You have to make sure your voice is heard. After Katrina, the best voice for poor people in New Orleans was Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California—she was a terrific advocate for and with us.

10. Prioritize the voices of women. Men push to the front when the cameras are on and the resources are being handed out. But in the long run, it is usually the women who are the most reliable family anchors.

11. Don’t allow those in power to forget about those whose voices are never heard. People in nursing homes, in hospitals, the elderly, the disabled, children, the working poor, renters, people of color, immigrants and prisoners. There is no need to be a voice for the voiceless, because all of these people have voices, they are just not listened to. Help lift their voices and stories up because the voices of business and industry and people with money and connections will do just fine. It is our other sisters and brothers who are always pushed to the back of the line. Stand with them as they struggle to reclaim their rightful place. (And don’t forget about the animals: pets, wildlife and livestock are a part of your community, and they need help, too.)

12. Realize you have the right to return to your community and to be made whole. Protect your human rights and the human rights of others.

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, and a member of the legal collective of School of Americas Watch. He can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

We welcome your comments!