It has been reported that the city of Paterson, N.J., specifically its First Ward, was hit the hardest by Irene. One could assert that the parallels between this story and the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe are frightening, to say the least.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving in its trail floods, destroyed property, displaced residents and over 1,800 dead bodies.
The area that was hit the worse by this calamity was the city of New Orleans and the surrounding communities. The New Orleans area had a death toll of 1,577 people. However, according to Wikipedia, 135 people still remain missing in Louisiana, and many of the deaths are indirect. Thus, it is virtually impossible to determine the cause of some of the deaths.
Katrina left thousands of people without homes. When the storm first hit, over 26,000 people were evacuated into the Louisiana Superdome, where the city government provided them with food and water for several days as the storm touched down. Several thousand others had to be relocated out of state.
The storm surge also devastated the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, making Katrina the most destructive, costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, as well as the deadliest hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. Government sources say the total damage from Katrina is estimated at $81.2 billion, nearly double the cost of the previous most expensive storm, Hurricane Andrew.
The property and economic damage in New Orleans caused by the storm had lingering affects. Many residents, including those who traveled to New Orleans, still say that the damage is not fully repaired. To this very day, there are still hundreds of homeless and displaced residents who were Hurricane Katrina victims.
The federal government’s handling of the crisis drew intense national criticism for what many residents and human rights organizations felt was its apparent indifference to the plight of the area’s hurricane victims.
The Bush administration was accused of being too slow in responding and sending federal aid to the residents of New Orleans, who are predominantly Black and poor. However, it was reported that the wealthier white residents of the town and surrounding areas were responded to almost immediately during and after the hurricane.
The Bush administration strongly denied charges that it offered aid to victims based on race and class. However, denial of such claims did very little to alleviate the suspicions of critics and human rights organizations. The situation sparked a national debate concerning race, class and survival in America-and how the federal government responds to catastrophes.
On Aug. 29-ironically, the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast-Hurricane Irene devastated the Eastern Seaboard. This storm resulted in the loss of six lives and, similar to the aforementioned calamity, left floods and caused the destruction of many properties.
Paterson, N.J., was hit particularly hard by Irene. Residents, rescuers and city officials have reported that during and after the hurricane, the First Ward was almost completely under water.
The Amsterdam News traveled around the city’s First Ward, with a relief team coordinated by People Organized Working for Empowerment and the Rebuilding of our communities (POWER).
The members of POWER visited every section of the First Ward handing out food, water and other supplies.
When we first arrived on Sept. 4 at East Side High School, one of the city’s designated shelters and the preplanned location for a visit by President Barack Obama, who was touring the area that same day to assess the hurricane’s damage, we spoke to Bilal Hakeem, the executive director of POWER.
Hakeem told the Amsterdam News, “This is our Hurricane Katrina,” charging that the government’s attitude toward the flood victims, who were primarily Black, Latino and poor white, was identical to the attitude held towards New Orleans residents after Katrina.
Hakeem claimed that the state and federal governments were slow to help Paterson, and that it wasn’t until the city’s business district began to be damaged by the flooding that they decided to act.
Most of the residents we spoke to expressed displeasure at the city and state governments’ handling of the crisis. Several First Ward residents sharply criticized Mayor Jeffrey Jones and ward representative and City Council President Anthony Davis for being “slow-responding” and offering “non-engagement.”
A woman told the Amsterdam News on the condition of anonymity, “Mayor Jones was more concerned with making photo ops with the president than he was about tending to the needs of his own residents,” asserting that he and others intentionally kept the president from visiting the First Ward, where flood victims still remained.
On that particular day, Jones was a part of Obama’s entourage as he toured the Paterson area.
The woman was not the only one to raise such a concern about the mayor. Hakeem criticized the mayor for being indifferent to the plight of the flood victims. He alleged that he had to “force the mayor to call the EPA” to assess the toxicity of the ward and that he didn’t know where to send FEMA.
Hakeem also noted how Obama was seen on television that same day visiting the surrounding wealthier, white towns and individually greeting residents who were affected by flooding, but did not do the same while visiting Paterson. He accused the mayor of having something to do with this.
Jones denied such claims in a phone interview with the Amsterdam News. “Mr. Hakeem can’t force me to do anything. FEMA rescuers were already on the ground. I don’t know where any of these accusations are coming from,” he said.
When asked if he had anything to do with the president not visiting with First Ward victims, he responded by making clear that he did not have control over the president’s schedule, and that he was “only a passenger” on the tour.
City Council President Anthony Davis also denied charges that he was unconcerned about his constituency, mentioning that he “took off a day from work to ensure that people were being tended to.” He further added that he wasn’t as concerned about seeing the president as he was about making sure that people were being fed and tended to.
Another issue that concerned activists and residents was Gov. Chris Christie opening the Pompton Lakes Dam floodgates just nine hours prior to the hurricane touching down.
This concern was raised because, according to Hakeem and others, “although during storms the Passaic River that flows through Paterson floods certain areas of the city, the opening of the Pompton Lakes Dam has caused it to flood more than usual, especially during Irene.”
It was reported that, for the past six to seven years, during storms, the draining of the dam alleviates flooding of the surrounding rich and white neighborhoods that it provides water for. This, in turn, has resulted in the flooding of Paterson.
The Amsterdam News contacted Christie’s office and spoke with Sean Connor, the governor’s deputy press secretary. When asked how the governor’s administration felt about the charges that the governor draining the dam was racially or class-motivated, Connor responded by saying that they were “false, outlandish and crazy.”
Jones also denied these claims, while Davis denied that it was racially motivated but stated that he did believe it was certainly class-motivated, pointing out how the dam has been drained since it was built, acknowledging the surrounding communities it served were wealthier. The councilman said he’s always had a problem with the water from the dam coming down into Paterson, where there are a lot of poor and working-class people.
Aton Edwards, the executive director of the International Preparedness Network, stated that Hurricane Irene should be a wake-up call for African-Americans and poor people who he feels rely too much on the federal government.
Analyzing the situation while in Paterson, Edwards acknowledged that it’s almost identical to Hurricane Katrina. “It’s horrific. I don’t have any words. I can’t imagine that something like this is being unnoticed by the federal government.”
He mentioned how the government wouldn’t “respond to Park Avenue being flooded as it has to Paterson,” adding how race and class will always be a factor in times of catastrophe.
Edwards warned African-Americans, saying, “You better wake up and recognize that there is no government for you. You’d better learn how to be self-sufficient. We cannot develop ourselves because we rely on a system that uses race and class as a filter.”