Summary of Katrina and Post-Katrina Human Rights Violations

Statement of Jeanne M. Woods, Henry F. Bonura Distinguished Professor of Law, Loyola University School of Law, New Orleans, LA, and Hope Lewis, Professor of Law and Faculty Director, Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, Northeastern University School of Law, Boston, MA, Prepared for the Hearings of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Dr. Arjun Sengupta, on the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina


We are writing to express our concern, as human rights advocates and scholars, about the extensive and alarming human rights implications of United States federal, state and local government policy and activities before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. The inadequate response of government officials at all levels reflects the impact of "globalization in miniature" on the poor and other vulnerable and subordinated groups. The panoply of human rights implicated in the aftermath of this disaster includes classic civil and political rights, as well as so-called "second generation" rights (e.g. the rights to food, housing and education, the right to work for a decent wage, and the right to enjoy the unique cultural legacy of the region.)

The United States of America, as a member of the United Nations; a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); and as a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), has a legal and moral obligation to address and correct the numerous human rights violations occurring in the Gulf Coast region and elsewhere in the country. In addition, the international community has elaborated the Pinheiro Principles on the Treatment of Internally-Displaced Persons, which should be a guide to the rights of the millions displaced by the hurricane.

The situation in the Gulf Coast of the United States is a telling illustration of the indivisibility and interdependence of economic, social, and cultural rights and civil and political rights. Poor people in the United States, as in other parts of the world, do not experience human rights violations in neatly divided categories. Their experience of poverty and the denial of other economic, social, and cultural rights is intimately related to race, class, age, and disability discrimination and other civil and political rights violations.

Violations of the Right to Life: Failures of Disaster Planning and Response Pre-disaster Planning

The federal government's pre-planning and post-disaster response was characterized by appalling indifference and incompetence, resulting in the deaths, injury, and misery of thousands of poor, working and middle class, and elderly in the region. According to one source, there was only one Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official in New Orleans on the day before the storm, Marty J. Bahamonde. However, according to the testimony of disgraced former director of FEMA, Michael D. Brown, there were a dozen agency employees in New Orleans in addition to an emergency response team. According to Bahamonde, senior FEMA officials told him that a FEMA medical team, 360,000 ready-to-eat meals, and fifteen water trucks, were all being sent before the storm hit.3 Instead, he found that the medical team did not arrive until the day after the storm, there were only 40,000 meals, and only five water trucks. Bahamonde also testified to Congress that he e-mailed FEMA headquarters about the failure of New Orleans levees on August 29th as the situation worsened, but U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claimed that he did not learn of the break until August 30th.5 On August 31, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown directly, stating: "I know you know, the situation is past critical... [h]otels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water." He received a response from Brown's aide hours later stating Brown needed to find a restaurant because "[i]t is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner."

Levee Security

A basic duty of government is the protection of life. Yet there is no commitment to fund the construction of a levee system that will fully protect the city of New Orleans. Budget cuts that deprived the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of scientific expertise, likely contributed to the levee failure. Further, the push to privatize government functions has exacerbated the problem. Among other things, duties previously handled by the Corps of Engineers (i.e. soil boring and testing) are now conducted by private contractors.

International oversight is needed to ensure that the United States government meets its obligation to provide a safe and secure environment for the people of the region.

Discrimination Based on Race and Class

Hurricane Katrina exposed the dirty little secret of poverty amidst plenty in America. The United States has the largest gap between rich and poor in the industrialized world, and that gap is growing. Media attention to the catastrophe also re-asserted the continuing legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, which is integrally linked with poverty.

Reports from poor and middle-class people who were trapped in overcrowded shelters, in their homes, nursing homes, or hospitals during the disaster, revealed extensive and pervasive incidents of racial and class discrimination. Many of those left behind were poor, African-American, elderly, or disabled. Little or no provision was made for the many people in the area who did not own cars. Many were herded into overcrowded "shelters" with no or inadequate provision for food, water, sanitation, security or medical assistance. Those who tried to obtain basic needs such as food or water from nearby stores were often identified as "looters" if they were Black, but as "victims" or "survivors" if they were not. Police and other security officials were accused of arbitrarily arresting persons of color.

We urge the United Nations to monitor closely the racial dynamics of the repopulation of the area. Before Katrina, New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, had a population of 475,000 that was approximately two-thirds African American. Current estimates indicate that the city will soon consist only of about 350,000 residents, only 35% to 40% of whom will be African American. A large segment of the Black population in New Orleans was living in neighborhoods that, according to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, "should not be rebuilt," while there is no proposal to abandon predominantly white neighborhoods that were similarly inundated. Prominent U.S. civil rights advocate Rev. Jesse Jackson responded by arguing that "displaced persons have a right to return home" and accused the housing secretary of promoting the gentrification of one of America's historic cities, rather than rebuilding appropriate low-cost housing. Some local officials publicly celebrated the displacement poor Blacks from public housing and schools.

Discrimination Based on Age and Disability

The aftermath of Katrina also revealed significant and continuing discrimination against the elderly and disabled. Federal, state, and local officials made little or no provision for the special needs of this population. Elderly and sick individuals, especially those in hospitals or nursing homes serving poor communities, were literally abandoned for days with no food, water, or the electric power necessary to keep respirators, surgical equipment, or dialysis machines running. Many of those unable to get out of their homes perished.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported that exacerbated medical conditions (i.e., heart problems, diabetes, kidney disease, etc.) accounted for many deaths or contributed to the number of drownings. In addition, the report highlighted that age was a key factor in the demographic attributes of those who died. Those who were elderly were often unable to travel without assistance and suffered from medical problems that increased the risk of drowning, suffocation, or heat exhaustion. About 60% of the identified deceased persons were sixty-one years of age or older. In St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, for example, the age and impaired health of the victims, rather than their location, was more pertinent to their inability to survive.

Lack of Democratic Accountability/Rights of Internally-Displaced Persons:

The right to choose governmental representatives and to participate in important official decisions affecting human lives are well-recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR), the ICESCR and CEDAW.

The enormous population shifts created by the aftermath of Katrina threatens to disenfranchise tens of thousands of evacuees, many of whom lack the resources to return. Commissions of private citizens have been set up by local and state officials and tasked to develop plans for the future of the region, with no accountability to the electorate. Thus, the debate over such vital issues as the size of the city, whether to rebuild in certain areas, and how to spend federal funds, is largely confined to business elites.

Although elections throughout Louisiana have been postponed, consensus has not been reached on how to conduct them without disenfranchising residents - especially the poor. There are more than 299,000 registered voters in Orleans Parish alone who have been displaced by Katrina.

Efforts to hold citywide elections in New Orleans were hindered when state officials were denied access to federal records that disclosed where displaced voters now live. While FEMA claims that the records are protected by federal privacy laws, the government has an obligation to guarantee the right to political participation.

In addition, international monitoring is needed of any de jure or de facto changes in voting rights resulting from Hurricane Katrina. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Orleans Parish is required to submit any voting changes in election laws to a pre-clearance review of any changes to ensure that they do not diminish minority voting representation.

Democratic accountability has also been undermined by the suspension of federal contracting rules for the clean-up and rebuilding of areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina, an effort that will cost well over $100 billion. A no-bid contracting process that comprises millions of dollars is ripe for abuse, cronyism, and corruption also undermines the right to work for a decent wage and other rights of access to economic justice.

Impact of Privatization of Public Resources on Education

There is a danger that this disaster will be used to further undermine the right to free public education in Louisiana. Approximately 372,000 children were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. One method now being promoted to address the educational needs of displaced school-aged children is the use of vouchers for religious and private schools. Such voucher systems threaten to divert badly needed public funds from school systems already in crisis, relegating many poor children, particularly children of color, to a dying system.

The Bush administration proposed spending $488 million on religious and private school vouchers. Under this program, public schools would be ineligible to receive the proposed voucher funds. A key concern is that such a program would allow federal dollars to go to schools that are not accountable under prohibitions on discrimination in hiring and other civil-rights laws.

Violations of the Rights of Workers: Waivers of Labor Laws

Days after the disaster, U.S. President Bush issued a Proclamation suspending the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. The Act sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts, requiring employers to pay the prevailing or average wage in the region. Bush argued that suspending employer pay requirements would give businesses greater flexibility to rebuild and recover following the hurricane. However, this action was rescinded after provoking outrage from advocates of workers' rights. International monitoring of labor standards is necessary to protect the rights of workers to a living wage and safe working conditions as rebuilding efforts continue.

Rights against racial, gender, and disability discrimination against workers are also in jeopardy. The U.S. Department of Labor has waived the requirement that a company hired by the government with more than fifty employees for a contract greater than $50,000 must develop an affirmative action plan. A memorandum detailing of this plan was issued on September 9th. All new federal contractors would no longer be obligated to create a plan to hire minorities, women, Vietnam veterans, and disabled people on Katrina-related projects. The suspension would last for three months with the possibility of extension. The DOL website states that the goal of the wavier is to "reduce the burden of paperwork on government contractors and so encourage more companies to jump into assisting with rebuilding from the storm damage."

Violations of the Right to Housing/Shelter

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced 1.5 million residents of the Gulf Coast region and destroyed hundreds of thousands of housing units. Yet the federal response has been slow, confused, and inadequate. There is a real danger that the people housed in shelters will join the already growing homeless population. There is increasing concern about mismanagement, cronyism and corruption preventing evacuees from being adequately housed. One report indicated that more than 9,000 mobile homes and campers that are meant for persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina are parked and unused at government staging areas. In addition, while many mobile homes go unused, others are being used to house persons other than evacuees.

Louisiana has a "gouging" statute that prevents retailers from drastically increasing prices during a state of emergency. However, according to the Attorney General's office, the statute does not address rents and home sales. Reports now indicate that astronomical prices are now being charged for homes and rental apartments in areas relatively less affected by the flooding, thereby pricing poor, working-class, and even middle-class returning residents out of the market. On Thursday, Oct. 20, Gov. Blanco of Louisiana lifted an emergency ban on property owners' ability to evict tenants who have been unable to return to their homes.

Although displaced families were promised stipends from FEMA to cover three months of rental expenses, these stipends were often inadequate to cover high rental and utility costs. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many evacuees no longer have jobs.

Treatment of Undocumented and Migrant Workers

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that 24,000 lawful permanent residents, 72,000 legal temporary residents, and an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 undocumented immigrants have been affected by Katrina. Beyond facing the problems as victims of disaster, these immigrants must deal with issues relating to loss of identification, immigration papers, and barriers that render many non-citizens ineligible for federal assistance. Undocumented immigrants are not barred from receiving short-term, in-kind disaster assistance and in the aftermath of Katrina, both White House off ... (document is truncated. We would appreciate it if someone would send a full version to our contact e-mail address.)