The Creole connection: New Orleans, Haiti, and catastrophe

By Beverly Bell, published on Other Worlds Are Possible, August 28, 2012

As a native and resident of New Orleans who has spent three decades in and out of Haiti, and as director of an organization with offices in both places, this has been a harrowing week. The two locales sit squarely in Hurricane Isaac’s path. We don’t know yet how New Orleans will weather the giant storm. The official death toll in Haiti was 24, but many more will surely die from secondary effects of cholera or, for those who have lost their slim margins of sustenance, hunger.

As has been the case since Haiti’s earthquake on January 12, 2010, those left homeless and living in displaced persons’ camps, roughly 390,000, have suffered most. Thousands of fragile shelters of plastic or nylon were damaged or destroyed by Isaac - a Haitian right-to-housing coalition estimates 45-50% in the cross-section of camps they have visited. (A new campaign launched by Haitians and their international allies, Under Tents, is calling on the Haitian and U.S. governments to provide permanent, quality housing for this forgotten population).

Except in scale, the damage, neglect, and subsequent disaster capitalism that each place experienced during their last major crisis mirrored the other.

Exactly seven years ago today, New Orleans was spared Hurricane Katrina, which dodged the city at the last minute. However, 53 levees broken in its wake caused the epic flood that in turn ravaged lives and neighborhoods. Now, to an uninformed eye, the Big Easy looks fully recovered. New, high-end restaurants and shops are packed, houses are being flipped in a booming real estate market, and the town is being labeled a ‘boutique city.’ Yet many who were forced out after the food have not yet been able to return, lacking assistance for rebuilding and resettling. The African-American population has shrunk by 118,500 since the flood.

In Haiti, the 7.0 earthquake two and a half years ago left hundreds of thousands dead and 1.9 million homeless. Today, many parts of impacted towns have been cleared of rubble, and in Port-au-Prince new supermarkets and restaurant cater to the small elite and the growing development class. But for most of the destitute survivors, almost nothing has changed. Little of the highly touted billions in foreign aid, and no discernable Haitian governmental assistance, benefit them. Almost unimaginably, most are far poorer than they were before.

New Orleans and Haiti were profoundly connected long before their dual disasters. Nowhere else in the US has a longer, deeper relationship with Haiti than New Orleans. Their histories crisscross: Both suffered colonization and enslavement by the Spanish and French. Louisiana even came to be part of the US because of Haiti: France sold the Louisiana Territory - approximately one-third of the current US land mass - to the US in 1803 to recoup some of the financial losses it incurred while trying to defeat the Haitian revolution. (France also wanted to create a “maritime rival,” as Napoleon called it, to England[i]). Blacks, mulattoes, and whites, free and enslaved, moved back and forth between the two places so much that, by 1809, one in two of New Orleans’ inhabitants was from Haiti.[ii] Today, the populations share gene pools and names via the same French, Spanish, and African ancestors.

They have similar cultures, with connections between the music, the living French language and slightly overlapping Creole ones, Carnival and parading (rara, musical troupes in Haitian streets, and the uniquely New Orleans street traditions of second lines and Mardi Gras Indians), Creole food and Creole architecture, and the religion spelled Vodou in Haiti and Voodoo in New Orleans. Both are rich in laid-back and highly interactive communities, and keeping them strong is what underlies a lot of the traditions, like courtyard- and stoop-sitting, ‘speaking to’ your neighbor, and communal street reveling.

What kept many alive after the flood and earthquake, and is keeping them alive today, is a culture and economy of solidarity, or mutual aid. Solidarity is a strategy through which on-the-margins communities and their individual members can survive, and through which relationships, loyalty, and tradition thrive. In both places, community members came forward as first and second responders. They saved people from roofs and waters in New Orleans, and from buildings and rubble in Haiti. Neighbor and stranger alike compiled what food they had or scrounged it from abandoned stores - what outsiders often referred to as ‘looting’ - to distribute to the hungry. They shared water, shelter, money, and emotional support with loved ones and those they’d never seen before. People who had lodging took in abandoned children, elders, injured and ill, whole families, and animals.

Beyond spontaneous gestures, grassroots and other non-profit groups led solidarity-based relief efforts. In New Orleans, they set up clinics in living rooms, organized systems to track down neighbors relocated around the nation, created free restaurants in yards and internet centers in gutted buildings, collected tools that were free for the borrowing, converted churches to shelters, drew in volunteers from around the country to help with clean-up, etc. In Haiti, community groups provided refuge, medical care, leisure activities, security, and support for much-needed agricultural production. They offered community mental health support, trauma recovery, and education or recreation for children, since no schools were functioning.

The catastrophes stripped naked the trappings of difference between the richest and poorest countries in the hemisphere. New Orleans and Haiti are two predominantly Black, low-income areas where the ongoing devastation has been only partly about nature. It has also been about inequitable distribution of power and wealth, and the race- and class-biased policies that have left certain groups highly vulnerable. It has been about government neglect, beginning years in advance when the authorities failed to heed experts’ warnings about the disintegrating levees in New Orleans and the active fault systems under Haiti. The destruction has also been about corporate malfeasance and government disregard of it. Similar development models have been patterned on privatization and market-driven solutions, and have led to highly unequal redevelopment. Only some – generally lighter-skinned and wealthier citizens – have been able to return to their homes.

The relief responses reflected each other, too. In both places, we saw the opening of a collective heart, and we saw troubling exploitation. Both received mammoth attention which died out long before the problems were addressed. Volunteers and aid workers teemed in to offer some very sensitive and useful humanitarian assistance and community organizing support, as well as some very paternalistic and harmful charity. The emergency aid so publicized by the occupant of the White House of the time – Bush Junior during the flood and Obama during the earthquake - largely went missing. Both suffered a lack of aid accountability from government and agencies like the Red Cross.

As for disaster capitalism, Ambassador Merten’s February 1, 2010 cable to Washington said it all: “THE GOLD RUSH IS ON!” Plenty of the aid went not to desperate New Orleanians or Haitians but to profiteers. Some of the very same corporations operated in New Orleans and Haiti. They have also wrested financial and political gain from the countries hit by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and lots of other places. Reconstruction plans have been shaped more by developers and contractors than by those most directly impacted.

Both sites experienced media coverage hyping the image of Black savages gone wild with thievery and violence.[iii] Examining the press through the story of rape is instructive. In both places, tensions were high, effective policing was nonexistent, and most defensive resources that women may have previously had were unavailable. Thousands of survivors were crowded into shelters without adequate food, water, sanitation, or security. This was a perfect storm for gender-based violence.[iv] In New Orleans, instead of highlighting the causes or possible solutions, a slew of media outlets peddled stories told by police about babies being raped in the Superdome and a girl’s throat being slit in the Convention Center, all of which were subsequently proven false.[v] In Haiti, some media bordered on the salacious or suggested that rape was an essential expression of Haitian culture. A lot of the international coverage seemed to imply that the high incidence of rape was a mirror into the heart of darkness of a barbaric nation; articles referenced “gang-raping monsters” and “a culture where an offense so heinous as rape is so commonplace, and basically accepted as part of daily life.”

New Orleans and Haiti both experienced the colonial narrative that Black people must be saved. To give just a few naked examples: The father of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, came out of retirement a few months after the flood to address the public school system, with its overwhelmingly African-American teachers and student body. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Several years later, the influential think tank Heritage Foundation posted a news blog about the same topic in New Orleans; it said that “sometimes things get so bad that radical change can happen.” The trope was repeated in the same Heritage Foundation blog days after the earthquake. Entitled "Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S", it discussed the “opportunities to re-shape Haiti's long-dysfunctional government and economy…” We heard the same about Haiti from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon two months after the earthquake: “[W]hat we envision is a wholesale national renewal, a sweeping exercise in nation-building on a scale and scope not seen in generations.”

Residents of both places who were not connected to either wealth or the power elite immediately deployed to demand that they be part of the reconstruction planning, and that they benefit from it. They demanded that their voices be included in political decisions and that their needs be included in the budget. Grassroots advocacy focused on the UN-protected right of return, that is, the obligation of government to create the conditions so that displaced peoples can return home. Regardless, those most adversely impacted continue to be sidelined. And the grassroots continues to organize.

Despite all, New Orleans after the flood and Haiti after the earthquake serve as object lessons: except in cases of extreme, prolonged violence, the capacity of humanity to survive, create positive change, sustain culture, and even hold joy is without limit. No matter the external circumstances, it’s unsinkable, like a cork that won’t stay underwater.

Still, the tolls from the last major catastrophes have been great on both peoples, as they will be again once Isaac has finished its destruction. A New Orleanian in the aftermath of the flooding expressed what I’ve heard from many Haitians, especially those left to languish in displaced persons’ camps: “I’m tired of being resilient.”

(If you want to help with a solution for the hundreds of Haitian families who find themselves homeless again after this week’s hurricane, please join the Under Tents campaign. Haitians and international allies are urging the Haitian government and international community to create quality housing for the nearly 400,000 left homeless since the earthquake. Sign your support to the campaign here, and learn more about it on the campaign webpage.)

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance and is working on the forthcoming book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinatesOther Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haitihere.

Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.