The recent destruction of Hurricane Katrina immediately brought back many memories of a similar disaster that happened in eastern North Carolina, in September of 1999. Even now, as I write this article, Tropical Storm/Hurricane Ophelia is lingering off of our coast, as the recent realities of Katrina still permeate our nation.
When Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina, we had experienced two other hurricanes in three weeks. The ground was saturated, and like New Orleans, the town that I lived in Tarboro and the adjacent town of Princeville (the oldest town incorporated by freed slaves in the United States) were settled in a bowl type of geographical configuration. There was massive flooding, and like New Orleans, those who were affected the most, were the poor and the marginalized, which were mostly black and Hispanic.
There were many highlights that absorbed the traumatic blow such as the visits by Dick Gregory, Joe Madison (who kept our plight on the radio in DC for years!), then president, Bill Clinton, Tavis Smiley (who invited us as guests of his show while at BET), Jesse Jackson, Sr., Al Sharpton, Willie Gary, Mother Farrakhan, the Congressional Black Caucus, and many others who came to that rural community and provided the much needed support that we needed. There was loss of life, and the destruction was massive, however, what stands out the most, is not the destruction that happened by nature, but the socio-economic destruction and rape that occurred during the recovery process!
We were overwhelmed by the revelation of the fact that our neighboring city, Rocky Mount, NC, had released water from a reservoir (that protected the homes of the wealthy), and sent the water raging down stream to our town. Like New Orleans, in that town blacks inhabited the land nearest the river (since the end of slavery) and whites inhabited the more suitable land on higher ground. The floodwaters rose so quickly that many were wakened in the middle of the night, as the water level reached their bed mattresses! We too were cut off by highway and communication, and only the sounds of military helicopters could be heard for days bringing survivors to the makeshift shelter at a local high school.
Many chose to direct their immediate attentions to the personal needs of the survivors, however, I and a few others decided to monitor the recovery process, and plan for the future. My experience with FEMA was much different than the experiences that we have all heard under the administration of Mr. Brown. We, who were community leaders, had access to not only the FEMA workers, but those within the administration of Mr. James Lee Witt, such as Carlos Mitchell, who came to town and expedited a lot of the red tape for survivors. FEMA did their thing, and allowed us to do ours and the fears subsided greatly.
Yet, with the arrival of FEMA, also came the unscrupulous contractors to “aid” in the rebuilding of the 66 counties that were under water. One day, a pastor and I were making our daily rounds throughout the area, and we noticed repairs going on, nearly a month after the flood. We could not believe it. The license tags on all of the vehicles informed us that they were from Ohio and they were called the “Storm Troopers!” We stopped and asked what they were doing, and they informed us that they were repairing the home. I had a moisture reader with me, and the home that they were repairing had a moisture reading of almost 50%! This was a black neighborhood, and these white contractors had secured contracts from nearly all of the residents of the neighborhood with the promise of them being in their homes by Thanksgiving, for the sum of $25,000 per home (in NC, you do not have to be a general contractor for repairs under $30,000!). Many were members of my congregation, which added a double portion of anger, and the county building inspectors were alerted.
What happened next just floored me. The Edgecombe County building inspectors did not do anything when they came to investigate. Never mind the mold that would still be in these newly repaired homes that would surely cause or exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, as well as the bad construction that was being done. We appeared before the county commissioners to complain about the massive economic raping of our people, and we were told that we were trying to keep people from returning to their homes! We were summoned the next day to a meeting of the county manager and his “cabinet” only to be asked to let the issue die!
Months later, this same contractor was on the run, a fugitive from justice, as he had swindled over $500,000 from poor black survivors and had not completed the projects that he had started. I must tell you, that it was not a problem until he swindled local hardware businesses, which issued him a line of credit (they did not know him, they only had white skin color in common!), out of thousands and thousands of dollars!
Three weeks prior to the flood, our community development corporation had been incorporated. We knew that there was a dire need for housing, and now we were faced with a situation in which the housing was completely gone!
Yet, what we were about to learn was that while we were feeding and clothing, and providing worship services in the shelters, our future was already being planned by the powers that be! A moratorium was issued and homes could not be built until it was lifted. Thus a lawsuit was implemented to combat the attack. We learned that the moratorium was now about the rebuilding of homes, but the dispersion of black people from their familiar neighborhoods, which would affect the local politics! The decision was made concerning public housing, to rebuild one level scattered sites, as opposed to sites that would be heavily dense. I listened to Tavis Smiley this morning, who informed us that a Republican representative has already stated that the hurricane did what LA could not do, and that was to clean up the projects. My brothers and sisters, it is already beginning!
Further, much of the benefits that will be received by the federal government will be for homeowners or property owners. Thus, if you are a renter, there will be very little in the way of tangible benefits to get you on your feet. The destruction is not over. In fact, except by the grace of God, it is going to get worse. In this case, businesses were destroyed, which means that many of the jobs are also gone. Will the federal government take care of our people until the city is rebuilt, as we are taking care of the people in Iraq, as they recover from Sadaam’s regime? When they get their FEMA trailers, will their light bills and water bills be paid? Will they receive food vouchers for the next several years? Will they get what all other people receive when we go into other countries as the world’s moral (yeah right!) and political police?
When the federal government begins to buy the property of homeowners in the affected areas, these property owners will have to find or build new homes in selected areas. Because of hazard mitigation, they will NOT be able to rebuild on their home sites, and the land can NEVER be used for homes. They will be turned into parks, parking lots and open spaces. Thus, New Orleans will have a different make up after the recovery. This will change voting precincts, wards, and congressional districts, which is already being planned now I am sure.
During our ordeal, my aunt’s congressional seat (Congresswoman Eva Clayton) was up for re-election as well as most state seats. The elections were not postponed and we enlisted the assistance of the Justice department to insure that persons, who had been relocated to FEMA trailer sites, would have the opportunity to vote. The local boards of elections were forced to provide voting booths at the FEMA site and the congresswoman kept her seat.
I am writing this article to appeal to the religious leadership of these affected areas to monitor and control the recovery process. I understand that the focus now is on the survivors and the burial of the dead, and rightfully so. However, the focus must also be on the future of your communities, which is not being discussed after the water recedes by the powers that be, rather it is being discussed and implemented now.
Please know, that those who are already on the ground (such as the former FEMA director under Bush, turned lobbyist, Joe M. Allbaugh), are making deals for water filtration systems and literally everything that your communities will need to come back to fruition. It is estimated that the recovery could exceed 100 billion dollars, and know that unless we begin to strategize as they are doing, our community will not benefit from the rebuilding efforts, nor will we receive our share of those rebuilding dollars. Make no mistake about it; there is profit in destruction!
The blessed reality is that LA is home to the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. I say that this is a blessed reality because the Fellowship possesses the financial resources to effect how the changes will happen. I have watched this fellowship grow, as most young pastors have. I have been impressed with the execution of God’s vision by Bishop Paul Morton, as well as the intellectual prowess of Bishop J. Douglass Wiley. I have been impressed with their achievements in ministry, however, this tragedy will record for posterity their ability to immobilize and control the economics of the rebuilding process! The very power of God is going to be made manifest through this Fellowship, and through the Body of Christ, as it is cast into the awesome responsibility of protecting the marginalized and the poor, and insuring that our communities are not taken advantage of, and are rebuilt and strengthened even the more.
Like Paul, I will share with you that there is more that could be said, and perhaps I will have the opportunity to share it with the leaders that I have just spoken of. I pray God’s blessings upon the effected areas, and upon our community as we prepare for the arduous task of rebuilding…. Just know that as it relates to rebuilding, God’s words are indeed true, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit..” it will be done!
Rev. William H. Clayton II is the senior pastor of the St. James Baptist Church in Henderson, NC. He is a graduate of N.C. A&T State University and engaged in seminary at Virginia Union University and Shaw University. He may be reached at PastorWHClayton@aol.com.
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