Getting Home Before it’s Gone

Anita Johnson Oct 4, 2005

BAKER, Louisiana—A dozen miles north of Baton Rouge, in a rural Louisiana town called Baker, a new city is being erected for Katrina evacuees.

The structures are airless metal trailers, poorly suited for 90-degree heat. In less than two weeks, 600 of these containers will be standing in a big field. Rows of port-a-potties and showering facilities will complete the FEMA-funded trailer-home subdivision, swelling Baker’s pre-Katrina population of 13,500 by 2,000.

Baker’s trailer camp – and many others like it – are being developed by the Shaw Group, a Baton Rouge company that has received at least $200 million in FEMA funds for post-Katrina cleanup and reconstruction. The Shaw Group is a client of former FEMA director, now lobbyist and “disaster pimp” Joseph Allbaugh, who resigned in 2003 and arranged for the now-disgraced Michael Brown to become his replacement.

Shaw CEO Jim Bernhard, a close friend of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, recently stepped down from his post as the state’s Democratic Party chairman, allegedly to avoid the appearance of cronyism. The week before, after the Shaw Group announced it had secured two FEMA nobid contracts, its stock surged to a three-year high.

According to FEMA, some 300,000 displaced families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are in need of “temporary housing.” Those involved in the Baker project interpret “temporary” to mean anywhere from five months to five years. And as FEMA attempts to meet President Bush’s request to close most shelters by mid-October, small, white rural towns in Louisiana are reporting outbursts of NIMBY-ism.

The bigger picture, many community activists argue, is a resettlement policy that looks like selective depopulation. In New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast, predominantly poor communities and communities of color are being dispersed, as families are scattered across the country with one-way tickets and no way to get back home.

The LA Times reported that Latter & Blum, one of New Orleans’ largest real estate brokerages, was receiving 20 buy calls for every sell call. “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,” James Reiss, a wealthy Uptown scion and New Orleans Regional Authority chairman, told the Wall Street Journal.

Last week, in largely poor and Black neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, there was almost no government presence. Instead, relief and rebuilding was being administered by groups like Community Labor United, the Common Ground Collective and Food Not Bombs.

These efforts are likely to continue because FEMA and Red Cross shelters are under pressure to close. The Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson was recently cleared of displaced people so that a Disney on Ice “Finding Nemo” show could go on as planned.

Additional reporting done by Macho Cabrera Estévez. This article originally appeared on

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