Gulf Watch: Join the Human Levee for Human Rights in New Orleans

by Jeffrey Buchanan
Guest Contributor

Hundreds will rally this Saturday morning in New Orleans for human rights and fair flood protection by doing something their government officials have failed to do: building a levee along the Orleans Parish side of the Monticello Canal. Instead of concrete, this levee will be made out of interlocking protesters demanding residents' right to equitable flood protection.

As they were being evacuated, New Orleans' citizens trusted their government to help them eventually return home and to protect their rights. Still, over and over during the recovery, officials at various levels of government have sided against repairing homes, against rebuilding necessary infrastructure and against restoring lives.

Recovery officials have neglected their obligation to break down the barriers that keep displaced people from returning home. The fear of another flood and inadequate flood protection in their neighborhoods has kept many people from returning to New Orleans. Nearly two years after the breakdown of New Orleans' flood control system, the government still has not done its job to create an equitable and adequate flood control system.

Now the Chicago Tribune reports that as the Army Corps of Engineers are making their work plans for New Orleans flood protection public, African-American working-class neighborhoods will still carry the majority of the risk in the event of a new storm. According to the Tribune,

...[W]hat work has been completed so far benefits some of the city's wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods more than its poorer and mostly black areas, according to an extensive set of flood-prediction maps released last month by the Army Corps."

Even before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans flood protection system did not protect every neighborhood equally. The Monticello Canal stands as a glaring example.

Despite the levee and floodwall reaching 8 to 12 feet high along the Jefferson Parish side of the Monticello Canal, there is virtually no flood protection on the Orleans Parish side. This leaves Carrollton-Hollygrove residents vulnerable to flooding in the event of a storm. Additionally, more water is pumped into the Monticello Canal by the city canal drainage system than is pumped out, pushing flood waters into these unprotected New Orleans neighborhoods.

"This neighborhood has always flooded during heavy rains," said longtime Carrollton-Hollygrove resident and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now member Joe Sherman. "Our community is left vulnerable while the state, the Corps of Engineers and the Water and Sewerage Board keep pointing fingers at each other."

At 10 a.m. Saturday, protesters including ACORN members, their neighbors and supporters from the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights -- including Robert F. Kennedy's daughter Kerry Kennedy, Huffington Post contributor and noted rights advocate -- will protest this injustice by forming a human levee across the unprotected portion of the Monticello Canal.

During the neighborhood-based recovery planning process of the Unified New Orleans Plan, residents placed equitable flood protection for Carrollton-Hollygrove as a top priority. When the final plan was released, it was only a mid-term priority, not to be addressed for five years or more.

Despite warnings from noted hurricane experts like Dr. Ivor van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center as well as residents, the Sewerage and Water Board has stated publicly it has no current plans to protect the neighborhood.

"The risks increase for these residents because there is protection on one side, and no protection on the other," Stephen Bradberry, Louisiana ACORN head organizer and 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award winner, recently told "How can you say the community is not at risk when you have protected one half and not the other? This is unacceptable."

While many of New Orleans' displaced residents want to return to their homes, they fear the risks of the city's inadequate response to creating equitable flood protection. This lack of respect for the rights of residents highlights the city's attitude towards those returning to low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Orleans Parish residents will continue to demand immediate action to increase flood protection.

"The internally displaced persons of Orleans Parish have the right under international law to demand that the United States government protect them from ongoing threats by building the necessary levees and flood walls to protect their communities from future hurricanes and floods," said Kerry Kennedy, founder of the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. "All U.S. citizens have a responsibility -- even an obligation -- to demand action that will ensure protection to all our sisters and brothers in New Orleans without regard to race, creed, economic status, or community."

If you're in the New Orleans area, we invite you to join the Human Levee for Human Rights at 10 a.m. this Saturday, July 28, between Claiborne Avenue and Airline Highway along the Monticello Canal. If you have questions, please call Ben Turner with ACORN at 504-943-0044 ext.162. Jeffrey Buchanan is the information officer with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.