Activist and educator Ajamu Baraka is executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 250 human rights and social justice organizations. A native of Chicago, he’s taught political science at several universities and been a guest lecturer at schools throughout the U.S. In ‘98, Baraka was honored by the international community as one of the 300 human rights defenders from around the world. He’s also on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
February 2008 Archives
GENEVA — United Nations experts weighed in Thursday on the debate over public housing in New Orleans, accusing the U.S. federal government and local authorities of forcing predominantly black residents into homelessness.
The experts said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local governments will violate the human rights of thousands of New Orleans residents by demolishing public housing units.
They said the majority of those affected are black and many were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The U.S. mission in Geneva declined to comment immediately.
The U.N. statement cited the start of demolition work on the St. Bernard public housing development in New Orleans, and said there were similar plans for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete developments.
The experts said these demolitions, combined with the spiraling costs for private housing and rental units, puts African-American communities badly hurt by Hurricane Katrina "in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness."
The U.N.-appointed experts called on the governments of the United States, Louisiana and New Orleans to halt demolitions of public housing and include current and former residents of the city in discussions to help them return to their homes.
The heated debate over public housing in New Orleans sparked several protests while the City Council finalized the demolitions, and caused a small riot at City Hall.
The United Nations has weighed in on the public housing debate in New Orleans, coming down squarely on the side of displaced residents.
Two independent experts, working with the U.N. Humans Rights Commission report that the demolition of public housing in the city is effectively denying the right of return to minorities.
”Whether or not the demolitions were intentionally discriminatory, ‘the lack of consultation with those affected and the disproportionate impact on poorer and predominantly African-American residents and former residents would result in the denial of internationally recognized human rights,”’ their report said.
Here’s a quick time line of events on FEMA’s toxic trailers and the consistent work by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR).
- Aug. 2005 – FEMA provides 120,000 trailers. About 40,000 are currently used by displaced Gulf Coast residents.
- March 2006 – FEMA recognizes the presence and danger of formaldehyde in its trailers, but does not notify the public.
- May 2006 – The Sierra Club, an environmental group, tests FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana and finds high levels of formaldehyde.
- Fall 2006 – FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency test these trailers for formaldehyde, and send the test results to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a partner agency of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Feb. 2007 – ATSDR reviews the test results and advises FEMA that formaldehyde levels in trailers "were below those expected to produce adverse health effects."
- July 19, 2007 – The US Congress Oversight & Reform Committee holds hearings to investigate FEMA’s failure to respond to complaints about formaldehyde in trailers.
- Dec. 21, 2007 - Jan. 13, 2008 – CDC tests over 500 FEMA trailers for formaldehyde.
- Feb. 1, 2008 – FEMA announces that it will close trailer parks and evict residents by June 1, 2008.
- Feb. 12, 2008 – CDC publicly announces that FEMA trailers have unsafe levels of formaldehyde, and urges the people living in FEMA trailers to move.
- Feb. 25-28, 2008 – CDC holds public meetings in Louisiana that provides about 10 minutes for a full question and answer session with people living in FEMA trailers and the public.
A look at the work by the federal health agency ATSDR in Louisiana communities prior to Hurricane Katrina
Mossville, LA - ATSDR has determined that African Americans living in Mossville, LA, which is located next to Lake Charles, have elevated levels of dioxin in their blood. Dioxin is a toxic group of the deadliest chemicals known to science, which cause cancer and other severe health problems. However, ATSDR failed to recommend any action to prevent ongoing exposures to the dioxins that are routinely released by several of the industrial facilities near the Mossville community.
Agriculture Street, New Orleans, LA - ATSDR supported EPA’s removal of heavily contaminated soil while residents of the Agriculture Street neighborhood in New Orleans remained in their homes. ATSDR summarily determined that the elevated concentrations of the numerous toxic chemicals and heavy metals below ground, and the potential adverse health effects of residents being exposed to unearthed toxins, did not warrant any protection such as relocating residents during EPA’s excavation work.
Gert Town, New Orleans, LA - ATSDR co-authored a health consultation report that failed to assess the health condition of Gert Town residents in New Orleans who live near the shuttered Thompson Hayward facility that once mixed and blended DDT and other harmful pesticides and herbicides. Instead, ATSDR confined its report to an analysis of a few yard samples collected by EPA, and concluded that a "thick grassy cover of their yards" would protect residents’ health.
New Orleans and Gulf Coast Residents Present Case of Ethnic Cleansing to U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Thursday, February 21, 2008 (Geneva, Switzerland) … Today representatives of the United States government will face questioning by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“CERD”) regarding housing assistance programs for predominantly African American displaced residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other governmental responses.
“The demolition of public housing, the growing number of homeless people, the utter failure of the Road Home Program, the complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government that abuses the human rights of mostly African American residents of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region,” said Monique Harden, a New Orleans resident and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm.
As part of its ratification of the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United States government must periodically report on its compliance with the human rights treaty. Today, U.S. governmental representatives will be in Geneva, Switzerland to present their report to CERD that responds to a list of questions of concern to the committee. Among these questions is what the U.S. government has done “to assist those displaced by Hurricane Katrina – most of whom are African American residents – to return to their homes, where feasible, or have access to adequate and affordable housing in the place of habitual residence.” (See Question No. 23, Questions Put by the Special Rapporteur in Connection Periodic Reports of the United States of America, with the Consideration of the Combined 4th, 5th and 6th Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 72nd Session, Feb. 18 – Mar. 7, 2008, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/docs/ 72LOI_USA.pdf.
Prior to the US government’s report, groups from New Orleans have traveled to Geneva, where they briefed CERD members on governmental responses to Hurricane Katrina that are racially discriminatory. Their briefing documents, also known as shadow reports, are available on the official United Nations CERD website and attached to this news release: (1) AEHR, Racial Discrimination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; (2) Critical Resistance, Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina, and (3) ACLU, Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice.
ACLU - Race & Ethnicity in America
Critical Resistance - Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina
In a recent Color of Law commentary, I discussed a shadow report by the over 250-member US Human Rights Network (USHRN), which claims that America is failing to comply with its obligations under the Race Convention. The shadow report was a response to an April 2007 report submitted by the U.S. government on its compliance with ICERD, a report that all signatory nations are required to submit every two years. The U.S. report angered the human rights community, and according to critics it represented a whitewashing of America’s racial problems.
“Our analysis reveals that the Bush Administration is utterly out of touch with the reality of racial discrimination in America,” said Ajamu Baraka, the Executive Director of the USHRN. “From failing to address the chronic persistence of structural racism to even acknowledging the disparate racial impact on people of color of Hurricane Katrina, the State Department reports reads like a fantasy; unfortunately a fantasy that is to often experienced as a nightmare for Americans of color,” Baraka added.
FEMA is stepping up plans to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of their government-issue trailers because of high levels of formaldehyde. Some questions and answers about the situation.
- How many trailers are involved?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says 25,162 trailers are still occupied in Louisiana, 10,362 in Mississippi. The trailers were made by several companies. Some were made specially for FEMA.
- Why are so many people still in trailers 2 1/2 years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, and wiped out coastal counties in Mississippi. While Mississippi’s recovery has been more robust, red tape and underestimates of the cost of rebuilding in Louisiana have kept thousands from returning to their homes. Rental housing in many areas is scarce or expensive. For many people, the trailers have been the only option.
- What’s the health risk?
Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been linked to cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the test results can’t be used to draw any conclusions about other mobile homes.
- When did occupants first report health problems?
In 2006, some trailer occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds. Other have reported difficulty breathing. Lawyers for hundreds of storm victims charge trailer makers produced inferior products in a rush to fill FEMA’s demand for thousands of units. Several consolidated cases against trailer makers are before a U.S. District Court judge in New Orleans.
- Why did it take so long to act?
Documents released last July after being subpoenaed by a congressional committee indicated FEMA lawyers discouraged officials from pursuing reports the trailers had dangerous levels of formaldehyde. At the time, Democrats and Republicans criticized FEMA for its limited inspections or tests of trailers whose occupants reported various respiratory problems. CDC testing began in December.
- How rapidly are people being moved from trailers?
FEMA says 800 to 1,000 households move out, on average, per week. FEMA’s new plan, announced Thursday, does not provide a timeline for getting everyone out of the trailers though it hopes to have the task done by summer. The elderly, infirm, families with children and people with respiratory ailments are expected to get priority.
- What’s FEMA’s process?
FEMA is trying to move trailer residents to apartments or other housing, including hotels, motels and small post-storm houses called "Katrina cottages." It’s a multitiered process, like so many other recovery programs, and it is unclear how soon residents will be able to move. Priority will go to those who have health problems or are at risk, such as the elderly, households with young children and people with respiratory ailments.
- I live in a FEMA trailer. What are my options?
FEMA staff is available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381 or 1-800-621-3362.
CDC specialists will respond to health concerns at 1-800-232-4636.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After downplaying the risks for months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it will rush to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of roughly 35,000 government-issued trailers because tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency hopes to get everyone out and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.
"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fumes from 519 tested trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.
The findings stirred worry and anger across the Gulf Coast, where FEMA is already a dirty word and housing has been scarce since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005.
"Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am. They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems," said Lynette Hooks, 48. She said that since she began living in her trailer outside her damaged New Orleans home in October 2006, she has suffered headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.
The CDC findings could also have disturbing implications for the safety of other trailers and mobile homes across the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Capitol Hill on Thursday. But the CDC study did not look beyond the FEMA housing.
Paulison vowed that the agency will never again use the flimsy, cramped travel trailers to shelter victims of disasters. Mobile homes are generally roomier than trailers and considered less susceptible to buildups of fumes.
FEMA will press ahead with plans to supply leftover, never-used mobile homes from the twin disasters to victims of last week’s tornadoes in the South, Paulison said. But the mobile homes will be opened up, aired out and tested first, he said.
The formaldehyde levels in some trailers were found to be high enough to cause breathing problems in children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory trouble, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said. About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, she said.
Gerberding said the tests could not draw a direct link between formaldehyde levels and the wide range of ailments reported by trailer occupants. But the CDC urged people to move out as quickly as possible.
As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
But as recently as last spring, a FEMA spokesman said the agency said no reason to question the safety of its trailers. Just last month, congressional investigators accused FEMA of suppressing and manipulating scientific research to play down the danger — an accusation the agency denied.
"I don’t understand why FEMA bought trailers in the first place that were dangerous," said Henry Alexander, 60, who has been living in a trailer since February 2006. "You would hope they would test them for formaldehyde before. I’m very angry that another agency had to step forward and say they were a health risk."
Chertoff said at a Senate committee hearing that the government has trying since last summer to prod people to move out of the trailers, but it has been difficult to get them to do so because the housing shortage means they might have to move far away, and because they are being allowed to live in the trailers rent-free.
Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one point, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.
Paulison had no estimate of how much it would cost to put people in hotels, apartments and other housing.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fumes can cause burning of the eyes and nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest.
The CDC examined only FEMA housing and cannot draw any conclusions about the safety of prefab homes elsewhere, Gerberding said. But "I think we’re going to learn a lot more in the next year or two," she said after a news conference at FEMA offices in New Orleans.
"It seems like I have had more respiratory problems since I have been in the trailer," Roger Sheldon, 60, said in Pascagoula, Miss. But he was not ready to blame formaldehyde "You know you can walk into any new trailer, or house for that matter, and things like new carpet can cause irritation."
"To be honest, I’m thankful to the government," he added. "I don’t like the trailer, but it beats the alternative for now."
With housing still in short supply — 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, the pace of rebuilding has been slow, and rents are out of reach for many — Ernest Penns of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward said he, too, was grateful for his trailer: "I got nowhere else to go."
The Coalition to Stop the Demolitions stands in condemnation of the New Orleans City Council and Mayor C. Ray Nagin for their decision on Friday, February 1st to issue demolition permits for the St. Bernard housing project. This decision was a blatant betrayal of the very provisos mandated by the December 20th City Council Resolution and December 21st Mayoral letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In an effort to justify their support for the 7-0 vote on December 20th, the Mayor and City Council issued statements promising to hold HUD accountable to producing clear, financially guaranteed redevelopment plans and greater local representation in its decision making processes before the issuance of new permits. Given that their own conditions have not been met, it is now fully apparent that their true aim was merely to provide the appearance of being democratic and locally supported despite rapidly advancing the demolitions. Further, the invocation of “public habitation” laws to criminalize the homeless demonstrates that the Mayor and the City Council have no intention to humanely address the affordable housing crisis plaguing the city.
The Coalition to Stop the Demolitions salutes former South Carolina Senator John Edwards for making the ongoing agony of the peoples of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region a central focus of his Presidential campaign.
Senator Edwards was the first Presidential candidate to take a principled position in favor of Senate Bill 1668 and took the strongest position on the sub-prime mortgage crisis which is devastating countless families in our city and region. For this we again applaud him.
The Coalition is disappointed that the clearest and most consistent voice addressing our basic concerns in the Presidential race to date is choosing to end his campaign at this time. Given the overall failure of the debates thus far to critically address substantive issues – such as the equitable reconstruction of the Gulf Coast; the right of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) to return home with dignity and justice in a manner that is in keeping with internationally agreed upon standards; the right of IDP’s to vote in their home states; a critical need for affordable housing; a living wage and the right to unionize; and the end to the unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; just to name a few – we are concerned that the items that desperately need to be addressed during this election cycle will be sacrificed to political symbolism and posturing that will only aggravate the suffering of working class New Orleanians and millions throughout the US.
The community of advocates who protested at Senator Vitter’s home this past Friday represents a diverse group of New Orleans residents and members of the Gulf Coast community who are determined to have our voices heard on the great need for access to sustainable affordable housing options. We are far from "fringe" (a characterization attributed to the group by the Senator).
Senator Vitter continues to obstruct the passage of SB 1668. This legislation includes affordable housing solutions that would ensure that all former residents of New Orleans can return to their homes. Obviously, this is not Senator Vitter’s desire. Over 4,500 units for working poor, elderly, disabled and underemployed families in New Orleans are now callously scheduled to be destroyed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) without any guarantee of one for one replacement and through his stubborn failure to support SB 1668, Senator Vitter refuses to intervene in this tragedy of injustice while at the same time, blocking additional funds that the bill would make available to the area.
We want to remind the Senator that the men, women, and children forced to live on the streets in part from the failed policies he has created and implemented, face a much greater "threat" to their personal safety than any protest at his home creates for him or his family. The safety and basic human rights of public housing residents, renters, and the homeless displaced by the flood must be respected with equal measure as those of the Senator.
We continue to call on Senator Vitter to cease his inhumane and partisan opposition to SB 1668, and to respect the voices of those directly impacted by these polices to implement the solutions they desire and need. We are further resolved to meet with the Senator per his invitation on the basis of mutual dignity and respect at any mutually agreeable time in the month of February.
Coalition to Stop the Demolitions
Friday, February 1, 2008