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81 posts categorized "Hurricane Katrina"

May 20, 2008

Indian guest workers from Signal International strike in DC

Ruchira Paul reports that Indian guest workers are striking in New Orleans:

During our vacation a week ago, my daughter and I stopped by at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. The organization is an advocacy group for workers involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina. The vast rebuilding effort led the US government to permit recruitment of foreign laborers who were accorded "guest worker" status for the duration of their employment but apparently not the same rights and protection that are guaranteed to domestic workers under US labor laws. Lacking safeguards, the foreign workers are ripe targets for exploitation and abuse by contractors. 

The Louisiana guest workers group includes citizens of several countries. Among them are a few hundred welders and pipe-fitters from India, recruited by Signal International, a Marine & Fabrication Company, apparently with the lure of lucrative jobs and immigrant visas. The promise proved to be false and the Indian workers have done the unthinkable - they have launched a strike on foreign soil, demanding justice from the host nation and advocacy from their own embassy spokespersons.

Read the whole thing. Please circulate widely.

Twenty-four guest workers from Signal International have been on a hunger strike at the White House since May 14. Fifteen more hunger strikers will join them tomorrow and another fifteen will arrive on the 31st.

Various labor and civil rights organizations are supporting their campaign including D.C. Jobs with Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the AFL-CIO.

The workers are asking for the Indian government to press the United States for fair treatment. India has already pressed other countries to do right by Indian guest workers, including Malaysia and Bahrain:

"The Indian government needs to show the kind of courage with the US that it showed in labour talks with Malaysia and Bahrain," said Sony Sulekha, who is on hunger strike. "If we could sit down and talk with the US Congressmen, we believe our leaders can too."

"This hunger strike is a last resort," said Saket Soni, a worker's advocate who directs the New Orleans Workers' Centre for Racial Justice.

The workers are demanding that Indian parliamentarians press their US counterparts for a Congressional investigation into abuses in the US guest worker visa programme.

They also want the ministries of foreign affairs and overseas Indian affairs to press the US State Department to secure the workers' right to participate in a human trafficking investigation into Signal International and its American and Indian recruiters. [Hindustan Times]

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit on behalf of the Signal workers in March.

I reported on the plight of the Indian guest workers at Signal International last year. These skilled welders and pipe-fitters are being trafficked to the US under false pretenses. Fraudulent immigration brokers in the US and India promise them green cards and highly paid jobs. All of them go heavily into debt to come here. When they arrive, their wages turn out to be a fraction of what they were promised.

Worse still, they find out that their H-2B visas are only good for a short time. So, there's no way they can pay back the huge debts they've incurred. To make matters even worse, they are forced to live on company property with room and board subtracted from their wages. Many of these men have mortgaged everything they own to come here. Typically, they are in debt to loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest.

Desperation sets in.

I interviewed one Signal worker, a father of two, who attempted suicide because he was so overwhelmed by his situation. Guest workers at other plants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida have taken their own lives.

Because of their living situation and their immigration status, guest workers at Signal are under 24-7 control by management. They can be sent home at any time, for any reason. Immigration authorities consider H-2B workers to be a major flight risks under these circumstances.

So, immigration authorities tell management to forcibly detain any worker they are planning on firing and deporting.

When Signal wanted to send two guys back to India for "making trouble" in the camp (i.e. complaining about working and living conditions) they sent company guards to detain the guys in a trailer at gunpoint pending deportation.

No matter where you stand on immigration, it's clear that what's happening at Signal and in guest worker programs all over the country is wrong.

Legal workers are being systematically abused and exploited all over the country and US immigration and labor authorities are looking the other way.

September 22, 2007


Blackwater has been in the news again lately. Of course, they aren't getting kicked out of Iraq. Some Blackwater employees are being investigated for allegedly trafficking arms.  

Just the word "Blackwater" makes me feel slightly queasy.

The scariest people I've ever met were the Blackwater guys I found clustered around a van behind a New Orleans hotel shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

I saw a lot of disconcerting things during those two weeks, but the one experience that haunts me two years later was a five-minute conversation that crew.

We'd already encountered a few other Blackwater guys during our trip. One juiced up freak in mirrored sunglasses and a Blackwater bearclaw t-shirt actually lunged at our car when my colleague tried to take a picture of the hotel he was guarding. He didn't point his weapon or yell, or do anything a rational person in a defensive posture might have done. He just grunted really loudly and tried to stick his head in our window.

Mind you, he wasn't holding a position in an emergency. We were driving in broad daylight through downtown New Orleans with a bunch of other traffic (military and civilian).

The Blackwater dude was acting as a glorified rent-a-cop on the sidewalk, about two blocks from the main media staging area for New Orleans, which was already amply secured by US military and law enforcement.

What I didn't realize at the time was that these Blackwater guys thought of themselves as frontline soldiers in a literal war zone, ready to use deadly force at the slightest provocation. That was an unfounded estimate, in the middle of the day in downtown New Orleans several days after the city had been secured by the legitimate authorities.

We certainly weren't seeing that level of aggression or anxiety from the 82nd Airborne or the NOLA police, or the National Guard, or anyone else in the vicinity.

The real public servants greeted journalists warmly and told us proudly about all the things they were doing to help.

Some bored guys from the 82nd Airborne even agreed to watch our car for us for a few minutes when we got out to photograph the abandoned convention center.  A Louisiana sheriff offered us a ride when we really needed one. A California fire chief approached us on the Interstate and proudly gave us a grand tour of his department's joint recovery operations with US soldiers.

In retrospect, it seems like the Blackwater guys were inhabiting their own violent fantasy world. A more cynical person would say they were looking for an excuse to hurt someone.

A couple days after our initial encounter with the lunger, I set out to talk to some Blackwater guys in person. This was the last picture I snapped before I found them.

When I looked in their eyes, I felt something entirely new to me--a basic mammalian sense of dread. It was as if some part of my brainstem came alive and said: "These people are predators. They would kill you."

These mercenaries were nothing like the lunger. In fact, they weren't overtly threatening, or outwardly aggressive. Actually, some of them were friendly in their own twitchy dead-eyed way.

One guy lit up when I mentioned I was from Brooklyn.

His buddies wanted to know what kind of weapon I was carrying, as if this were standard bar chitchat.

I tried to interview them, but I couldn't get anything more than vague allusions to Iraq. One silent guy seemed to be getting more and more agitated as I asked questions of his friends. I figured it was a good time to go.

As soon as I got out of sight and back to the rental car, I started shivering and didn't stop for almost an hour.

In retrospect, I realize that I only dared to approach these guys because of a naive faith that I was an unarmed US journalist in the USA.

I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a society where these guys were around every corner, unbound by the rule of law.

July 29, 2007

Just deserts for Louisiana attorney general

Finally, some good news...

John Protevi reports that the Louisiana Attorney General who pursued baseless charges of mercy killing by medics after Katrina is now in hot water for giving lucrative consulting gigs to some of his more eccentric and disreputable buddies.

AG Charles Foi is also facing a civil suit from one of the doctors whom he tried to railroad on baseless charges of mercy killing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Suffice it to say that he's not in very good shape for the upcoming election.

May 25, 2007

Barbour's post-Katrina "miracle"

Lights Out, originally uploaded by brandonj74.

Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis shine a hard light on Katrina recovery in Mississippi:

Today, Hancock County and the rest of coastal Mississippi are 21 months into a recovery that has garnered Gov. Haley Barbour lavish praise. Governing magazine named Barbour its 2006 Public Official of the Year largely due to his supposed post-Katrina leadership and savvy, including his skill in convincing federal lawmakers to channel billions of relief dollars to the Magnolia State. As Billy Hewes III, a Republican official from Gulfport, said: "He is to Katrina what Rudy Giuliani was to 9/11." Outsiders might be surprised to learn then, that despite the plaudits, and despite the fact that Barbour's GOP connections seem to have won him a disproportionate share of relief money from Washington, post-Katrina recovery in some of the hardest-hit areas of the Mississippi coast is moving as fast as molasses in winter. [Salon]

We learn that almost two years after the storm, residents of Hancock County, still aren't getting their mail because their post office still hasn't been rebuilt. Nor, for that matter, has any other major public building in the county.

Pretty shabby, when you consider how much more generous the Bush administration has been towards Barbour's Republican MS than it has been to Blanco's Democratic LA.

Read Kromm and Sturgis to learn why Barbour is being hailed as reconstruction hero while alligators are still prowling the ruins of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

May 07, 2007

Engineering expert: NOLA levee repairs flawed

On a recent fact-finding tour, civil engineering expert Bob Bea observed serious flaws in the repairs on New Orleans' levees:

The most troubling, Dr. Bea said, was erosion on a levee by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a navigation canal that helped channel water into New Orleans during the storm.

Breaches in that 13-mile levee devastated communities in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, and the rapid reconstruction of the barrier was hailed as one of the corps’ most significant rebuilding achievements in the months after the storm.

But Dr. Bea, an author of a blistering 2006 report on the levee failures paid for by the National Science Foundation, said erosion furrows, or rills, suggest that “the risks are still high.” Heavy storms, he said, may cause “tear-on-the-dotted-line levees.” [NYT]

After being informed of the safety concerns raised by Bea and other independent experts, Sen. Mary Landrieu sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers asking whether the repairs were sufficient to protect the levee system.

The Corps stands by its work.

National Geographic sponsored Bea's tour as part of its ongoing coverage of levee-related issues.

April 22, 2007

Corps rebuilding floodwall weaker than pre-Katrina

Harry Shearer points to some disquieting news out of New Orleans: According to the Times Picayune, The Army Corps of Engineers is restoring the 17th Street Canal floodwall with steel pilings 13 feet shorter than the originals.

Read the whole Picayune article, it's some great science journalism.

The Corps insists that the shorter pilings pose no threat to the public because concurrent adjustments are being made elsewhere in the system to keep the water level from rising as high as it did in 2005.

However, professor Bob Bea of UC Berkeley, the marine engineer who lead the NSF's post-Katrina flooding investigation, remains skeptical. He worries that the shorter pilings could be the "fatal flaw" that dooms the flood control system. (Bea was interviewed extensively for Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke.)

Bea and other experts are calling on the Corps to submit to more outside scrutiny and independent review of their flood-control strategy.

April 13, 2007

Danziger bridge shooting case

NPR has the latest on the case against the NOPD officers accused of shooting unarmed black men on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. According to the article, prosecutors made a major tactical blunder when the promised three officers immunity for grand jury testimony only to indict them afterwards.

Do prosecutors go back on promises of immunity regularly?

It's not certain that a judge and jury will get to decide who was guilty and who was innocent on the Danziger Bridge that morning. Legal experts say prosecutors have already made a serious misstep. They offered immunity to three of the officers to testify before the grand jury, then turned around and got indictments against them.

Defense attorneys argued strenuously that immunized testimony cannot be used to incriminate a defendant. Last week, a judge gave the lawyers for the police a tactical victory and let them review the entire grand jury testimony.

Loyola professor Ciolino says that's invaluable for the defense. Prosecution of the Danziger Bridge case has, so far, provided him several "teachable moments." [NPR]

The defense attorneys for the officers are claiming that the prosecution used the grand jury testimony against their clients, and a judge gave them the right to review the grand jury testimony to search for evidence that officers' immunized testimony was used against them. However, news reports seem to be talking about the alleged misuse of testimony as if it were an established fact. Am I missing something? 

March 31, 2007

4000 excess deaths in Katrina period

Fascinating post by Robert Lindsay.

March 06, 2007

Gingrich blames "lack of citizenship" for Katrina deaths

The CPAC conference proclaims itself the "intellectual cornerstone of our modern conservative movement."

Here's what Newt Gingrich self-proclaimed student of history told CPAC about Hurricane Katrina.

How can you have the mess we have in New Orleans, and not have had deep investigations of the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane. [Audio]

Facing South takes Newt to task for his racist revisionism and sets the record straight.

December 02, 2006

Insurance firm to cancel all commerical policies in NOLA

Scout Prime of First Draft has some very bad news about New Orleans:

St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc., Louisiana's largest commercial insurance provider, plans to cancel all its commercial property policies in the New Orleans area next year, sparking fears that other insurers will follow and slow the region's economic recovery.

The carrier's sudden decision not to renew any polices for businesses in Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard or eastern St. Tammany parishes. Some firms in other parts of South Louisiana, including St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes, may also have a harder time getting insurance with St. Paul Travelers.

The company claims that it is pulling out because of the sorry state of the levees of New Orleans. (Not an implausible rationale, given the state of the levees.) However, cynics note that the pullout follows on the heels of a court decision giving flood insurance policy owners the right to seek flood-related damages through other kinds of policies. The company insists that the pullout has nothing to do with the recent legal clarification of policy-holders' rights.

Analysts worry that other insurance companies will follow St. Paul's lead and pull out of New Orleans.

This is a very serious situation. If businesses can't get insurance, many will close, or never reopen. If businesses close, New Orleans will lose jobs, goods and services, and tax revenues.

A commercial insurance coverage crisis could doom the reconstruction effort in New Orleans.