Tuesday, August 7, 2007

"Come to me and I will give you rest."

That's a quote from the Book of Matthew--and one that's emblazoned on a set of sturdy blue teacups perched on the kitchen table of Vicky Cintra's boxy FEMA trailer. Vicky works for MIRA (Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance) and we're here in her home to talk with her about the housing situation Gulfport, and how low-income residents have been all but erased from the picture of "recovery" that the local government is painting.

On our way into Vicky's trailer, Anchanese Levison of MWCHR--who will be interviewing Vicky as part of her radio documentary project--points out that on either side of the mobile home park where Vicky lives, there is construction: on one side, they are building high-end condos; on the other, a new parking lot for the airport, which is only a stone's throw away. The land left in the middle, where Vicky's trailer and a few dozen like it (many of them FEMA owned) sit, is all that's left of the wetlands that used to play a vital role in the ecology of this particular area. As a result, flooding in the trailer park is a constant threat. “It rains just a little bit one day and we have huge puddles for a week," Vicky herself offered up later on.. "The water has no place to go.”

But water and its ravages are something Vicky has had to get used to since Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm itself flooded her former home with 8 feet of water; after evacuating to Miami, Vicky moved back to the region in the fall of 2005 to begin work with MIRA and in December of that year took up occupan
cy, along with her husband, in the trailer in which we're now all sitting.

And in some ways, that is when the real trouble began. "After the first rainstorm in December of 2005 there was more water inside the trailer than outside, "Vicky says. "Water was just pourin
g in kitchen window. The whole trailer was totally flooded. Then the black mold developed."

That was more than 18 months ago. Despite the fact that Vicky has called FEMA religiously over the course of the intervening period, it was just weeks ago that they finally showed up to "fix" the leak in the kitchen window that caused all the damage. And as we are sitting there, we get the chance to witness firsthand the quality of FEMA's work: as clouds burst overhead, a slow but steady trickle of water begins to seep through the window casing, gradually flooding Vicky's countertop with rainwater.

“I used to think a four letter word that started with “F” was something else," Vicky says. "But not since Katrina.”

And still, in many ways, Vicky is among the lucky in this region. She has a place to live; she's been able to come back home. So many others like her, she points out, have been given neither opportunity. To demonstrate for us how fully low-income folks and people of color have been left out of the planning process, Vicky pulls out a 2005 publication from Governor Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. "I was at this meeting," Vicky, who is Latina, tells us, pointing to pictures in the publication of a largely white gathering. "And I promise you, I was the blackest person in the room. So I stood up and asked", 'Where are the black people? Where is the Vietnamese community? Why aren't all the people who are going to be displaced by all these casinos and condos you're building here at this meeting, too?" No one, she says, could give her an answer.

“I don’t see an emphasis on bringing low-income folks back," she tells us with conviction. "I just don’t see it.” Not that that's stopped her from fighting to make sure their voices are heard. As a staff member at MIRA she is working every day, in coalition with MWCHR and other organizations, to make sure that the needs of immigrant and low-income communities get their place at the table, too. And as much as anything, she wants people outside of the Gulf Coast to understand how desperate the situation remains, to this day, for the survivors of Katrina.

“The thing that hurts me the most is to hear that people outside of this area think that everything is back to normal," Vicky remarks, clearly emotional. "It’s what the mainstream media promotes, and what people in power who want to cover things up promote. But people need to know that things down here remain horrible. Working conditions are horrible. And living conditions are horrible at best.

“I want to appeal to the hearts of people to remember that ... [we] are human beings. And [we] have just as much a right to live in decent, safe conditions as anyone else.”

Matthew couldn't have said it better himself.

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