Dear Fellow Hurricane Survivors:
Our hearts go out to you as you try to return to and fix your homes and lives. Based on my experience, here are a few things you should watch out for as you rebuild 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, 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 to come home and have 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 you.
4. Take what you need for your community. Right after a disaster there is an outpouring of compassion, support and solidarity.But realize the window of compassion and support shuts much quicker 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 our 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 this 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. Neighborhood organizations, church organizations, community organizations, join 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 who 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! Now well known nationally as Superwoman, she was terrific advocate for and with us.
10. Prioritize the voices of women. Men push to the front when the cameras are on and when 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 the people whose voices are never heard. People in nursing homes, people 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 these people have voices, they are just not listened to. Help lift their voices and their 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.
12. Consider the experiences of other disaster survivors. After Katrina a group of us went to India to connect with our sisters and brothers who survived a much more devastating tsunami. We met and formulated a list of Lessons Learned. The end of an article I wrote about this experience concluded with these thoughts.
Right, not charity is our common demand. Human rights, not bureaucratic eligibility criteria, must be the foundation for relief, recovery and rebuilding. People have human rights to food and shelter and the opportunity and assistance necessary to live a life of dignity. The government must respect and implement human rights. The degradations and delays and disrespect of eligibility applications for basic human necessities must cease. Human rights must be our shared basis for going forward. Internationally, if the bottom of the North can link up with the bottom of the South, human rights will be our shared language.
The final and best piece of advice I received was from T. Peter, head of the Kerala Fish Workers Association. Their organization has struggled with elected officials, private companies, and the caste system in all phases of life. He leaned over, his dark face split by a broad smile, and told me what we in the U.S. should be doing to bring about justice for our gulf coast: ‘Less meeting, more fighting!’ And so we will.
Realize that you have human rights to return to your community and to be made whole. Protect your human rights and the human rights of others.