By Bruce Alpert
Bush administration denies racism in Katrina response
NO. activists express concerns to U.N.
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Monday conceded mistakes in the government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina but disputed allegations by some organizations that the response reflected governmental racism.
The defense was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which said it would review allegations from about 142 nongovernmental organizations that also allege human rights violations by the U.S. government on issues ranging from the detention of “enemy combatants” to administering policies that are unfair to black citizens, including its implementation of the death penalty and general prison conditions.
Among those attending the Human Rights Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, were three New Orleans residents who expressed hope that the panel will confront their concerns about the government’s Katrina response in a report due at the end of the month.
“In the Gulf Coast, we are facing a variety of racist governmental actions that are denying our basic human rights,” said the Rev. Lois Dejean, 70, of New Orleans in a statement prepared for delivery at a Geneva news conference. “Our government built a substandard flood-control system that caused 80 percent of the predominantly African-American city of New Orleans to flood… Before Katrina occurred, our government knew that the majority of African-Americans and the poor would not be able to evacuate because they don’t have vehicles or the money to pay for a hotel room.”
Ensuring civil rights
In a statement to the U.N. committee, the Bush administration said it has taken aggressive steps to ensure that all groups were treated fairly in terms of housing, education and job opportunities in Katrina’s aftermath.
“President Bush has acknowledged the magnitude of destruction resulting from Hurricane Katrina strained and initially overwhelmed federal, state and local capabilities as never before during a domestic incident within our country,” according to the statement by the U.S. State Department. “Valuable lessons are learned from all disaster responses and certainly from one of Hurricane Katrina’s magnitude.”
The statement said the United States aggressively took steps to prevent discrimination in Katrina’s aftermath, including the creation of “Operation Home Sweet Home” to “expose and eliminate” housing discrimination in hurricane—devastated communities as well as areas where displaced residents went after the storm. It also said the Justice Department will review a report by Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti as soon as it is completed to determine whether New Orleans residents seeking to escape the city during Katrina by crossing the Crescent City Connection on foot into Gretna were blocked by law enforcement officers in violation of federal nondiscrimination statutes.
Nathalie Walker, a co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, said she doesn’t think the Human Rights Committee will buy the Bush administration’s explanation. Though it is true, she said, that both black and white residents suffered from an inadequate government response to Katrina, black people “disproportionately” suffered because of the failure of the city, state and federal governments to help those without cars evacuate the city before the storm hit Aug. 29.
The Bush administration said prestorm evacuations are primarily a state and city responsibility.
Monique Harden, another co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, also attended the Geneva meetings and urged the Human Rights Committee members to take a look for themselves at the slow recovery in New Orleans.
“Nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina, our predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods look like the hurricane passed yesterday,” she said.
In its response the Bush administration said it has committed unprecedented resources, more than $100 billion, for hurricane recovery efforts across the Golf Coast.