Wednesday, September 21, 2005

KENNER, LOUISIANA, is a mostly white suburb in mostly white Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans. The Redwood Park Apartments in Kenner is a low-income development funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; its residents are mostly immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other third-world countries. The apartment complex was seriously damaged by Katrina; many of the apartments are totally unfit for human habitation. The residents want to get out, but there is nowhere for them to go, because neither local nor federal officials will lift a finger to find them shelter. They say they have not been able to find anyplace for the residents to go -- and yet, somehow, suitable shelter has been found for out-of-state contractors, for part of the Missouri National Guard, and for state police officers from New Jersey.

Katrina damaged many of the 504 red brick apartments, which house 1,500 to 1,800 people. The average rent is $350 a month. Roofs were torn off, windows were smashed and 30-year-old trees were ripped from the ground, leaving debris strewn over the lawns and courtyard of the complex. Flood waters, which residents said rose to about two feet, left behind black mold.

Three weeks later, the complex is still without electricity and potable water. But many residents have been forced to stay put because they say they have nowhere else to go, and neither local nor federal authorities have come up with an offer of shelter.

"It's simply atrocious that our own government has denied these people the basic necessities of life. These are forgotten people. Their lives are all blown apart," Kenner Police Chief Nick Congemi said.

Added Councilman Michael McMyne, whose district includes the Redwood complex: "It's going to take somebody to die, then maybe somebody will give them help."

In a phone call Monday, McMyne pleaded with Kenner Mayor Phillip Capitano to allow temporary shelters for Redwood residents to be set up in local gyms and schools.

"We are doing everything that is possible," Capitano could be heard telling McMyne.

McMyne accused the mayor of not caring about the Redwood residents because they were poor and few of them voted in local elections.

"The problem is, these people are not important to him," McMyne said. "In a community like this, if we don't open our arms, we are telling these people we don't want them here. We are telling [them] you don't matter enough for us to get you out of this situation."

The mayor did not return several phone calls from The Times.

Residents said that personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had come to the Redwood to survey the damage, take photographs and notes and ask questions. But no help has arrived.

"They have promised this and promised that, but nothing has materialized, " said Jorge Picado, Redwood's maintenance supervisor, adding that "people are pouring in right now. I don't know what we're going to do. They have no place else to go."

Congemi, the police chief, said shelters had been found in Kenner for out-of-town contractors, members of the Missouri National Guard and state police officers from New Jersey, "and yet they are telling these people that they don't have anything for them. I think they don't want these people here."

Via Jeanne at Body and Soul. Jeanne draws our attention to another LAT article, which reports the efforts of black Republican ministers to get Pres. Bush to take advantage of the opportunity to woo African-Americans with a strong response to the needs of poor blacks in hurricane-ravaged areas.

Conservatives in black communities are hopeful and skeptical at the same time. There's a basic trust problem here, built through a history of neglect: Is Bush equal to the task of overcoming that?

Interviews with key black pastors who had built alliances with Bush revealed a continued reluctance to fully trust that the administration would follow through on new promises to look at race and poverty and to ensure that black residents and minority-owned firms benefited from the rebuilding. But they all expressed hope that Bush was sincere.

The Rev. Bill Owens of Memphis, president of the Coalition for African American Pastors and a supporter of other Bush initiatives, applauded the president's speech, saying his new tone could be redemptive after two weeks of a troubling White House response. But his praise was cautious.

"I think he now has a golden opportunity to show that he does in his heart care for the African American community," Owens said. "With what he does from here on, he will be judged."

Vivian Berryhill of Mississippi, president of the National Coalition of Pastor's Spouses and one of Bush's most vocal black supporters last year, praised the president's new words and promises. But she acknowledged that feelings were raw.

"The president can't make a 20-minute speech and think it's all over," she said. "If Republicans ever hope to appeal to African American voters, they need to come out publicly and support the citizens of America who have a great need."

Even an outspoken member of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus said the Katrina reconstruction outlined last week by Bush could present a history-changing opportunity — if the president and the Republicans in charge of Congress followed through.

"I did not expect [Bush] to be so strong" in addressing race, poverty and the federal commitment to rebuild in the gulf, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). While cautioning that "rhetoric is one thing and action is another," Cummings wondered whether Katrina's aftermath has been "a life-altering event for the president, making him more compassionate and more empathetic."

Jeanne nails it: "Depressing stuff. You can't have a war on poverty when you're still waging war on the poor."

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