Friday, August 04, 2006

United Nations Reports What Thousands of Disaster Volunteers, Workers, and Survivors Have, And Been Ignored

U.N. panel: U.S. must protect blacks, poor in disasters

"GENEVA, Switzerland (AP) -- The United States must better protect poor people and African-Americans in natural disasters to avoid problems like those after Hurricane Katrina, a U.N. human rights panel said Friday.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee said poor and black Americans were "disadvantaged" after Katrina, and the United States should work harder to ensure that their rights "are fully taken into consideration in the reconstruction plans with regard to access to housing, education and health care.

The United States said federal and Louisiana state authorities were examining many of the issues raised by the committee.

In New Orleans, activists praised the U.N. report at a news conference in the predominantly black Gert Town neighborhood, which remains heavily damaged by the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.

Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, urged the United Nations to examine the treatment of black and poor Gulf Coast residents and said the committee's findings were important to recovery efforts in the region.

"It's a wake-up call, and it's also a call for change in the way the United States government has been handling this recovery," Harden said.

She and other advocates said former residents continue to fight for a chance to return to the city, where housing shortages have kept away many lower-income people.

"The United States has to do something more than just show itself once and while," said Ronald Chisom of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond."

Harden said that although the committee has little power to force the U.S. government to make changes, such reports can improve human rights by influencing U.S. decision-makers.

"We believe having the U.N. on our side will have a tremendous effect on turning the U.S. government around," she said.

'No one was entirely prepared '
The U.N. panel said it wants to be informed of the results of inquiries into the alleged failure to evacuate inmates from a prison, and into allegations that authorities did not allow New Orleans residents to cross a bridge into Gretna, Louisiana.

It offered no further specifics about problems it found with the Katrina response, or possible solutions.

"I think the president and everyone in the United States said that Katrina was something that no one was entirely prepared for, and it did raise huge challenges for the United States," said Robert Harris, of the office of the Legal Adviser of the U.S. State Department. "We're looking at a large list of lessons from Katrina and trying to make sure that the next time, God forbid, something like that happens we are better prepared."

The panel of 18 independent experts, which reviews the practices of the 156 countries that have ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said it was concerned about information that blacks and poor people "were disadvantaged by the rescue and evacuation plans implemented when Hurricane Katrina hit."

The horror of Katrina and Rita only grows. The bureaucratic "barriers" from achieving relief remain nothing short of despicable. FEMA recently began an eviction process that will swell to over 150,000 displaced residents from hotel rooms they were "allowed" to stay-in. It took court interventions to extend the planned stay. 1,800 homes were offered to survivors, but every effort was made to block access to them.

I'm a psychologist and volunteer in disaster mental health relief. In September of 2005, I worked with over 20,000 survivors of Katrina in a town 60-miles north of New Orleans. While there, I drove through Hurricane Rita to reach a colleague in Greenville, Mississippi. He wanted to convert a 225,000 square foot facility into residences for the survivors, and my help in developing a community-based recovery program. However, he's never been able to get a relief contract, although billions of dollars are available.

400,000 American citizens have no homes to return to; mud and oil saturate the remnants of all they once owned. They have no records, tax documents, bank statements, clothes, pictures, appliances, tools, etc. What's more, tens of thousands of survivors have roamed the northeastern area above New Orleans and southeastern region of Mississippi without housing since the disaster struck nearly one year ago. 60,000 thousand trailers sit without occupancy, as no one takes lead, eliminates barriers, and moves people into them. Hurricane season is here. What are hundreds of thousands of completely displaced people supposed to do when their country abandons them?

In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed while 38 New York City residents watched and did nothing to save her. Social psychologists have used this horrible scenario as a metaphor for passive crowd behavior, i.e., the amazing situation where people won't act when something awful is happening to fellow human beings nearby.

American citizens on America's soil are in desperate need, and the response is media/political avoidance and denial. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the man-made levee failures may become American society's version of Kitty Genovese.

Thousands of Americans volunteered and/or worked in NOLA and the gulf coast. While their voices have called out to America in innumberable blogs and Op-Ed articles, they are all but ignored by politicians, the media, the "stakeholders," the rich, and the government. A small sample of the matrix of available portals are noted here. We should not tolerate Katrina and Rita becoming America's holocaust by proxy and nothing short of bold-faced immorality.