New Orleans Stragglers, Paranoid for a Reason

Writer Jimi Izrael offers an essay explaining why he thinks thousands of storm victims in New Orleans are unwilling to leave their homes. For many of the stragglers, he says, their homes are the only things they own — and they don't trust the government to let them keep it.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

For the last week authorities in New Orleans have cajoled, commanded and threatened the city's remaining residents to get them to evacuate with only partial success. Relief officials seem bewildered by people who refuse to leave homes that are storm-damaged, without power and in many cases surrounded by several feet of reeking toxic floodwaters. But writer Jimi Izrael thinks they have a good reason to hang on.

JIMI IZRAEL:

Even with dead bodies floating by, chemicals in the water and being asked really, really nicely by the authorities, there were still thousands of people in New Orleans who didn't want to leave. They've been called do-or-die residents, hell-or-high-water holdouts or just plain nuts. Maybe those that remain behind figure it's better to bottom out in the comfort of your own home than to be displaced to a town where there's no guarantee you'll do a lot better. Some say they wanted to protect their houses from looters and maybe the government.

According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, nearly 47 percent of the homes in the region are owner occupied, and it wouldn't surprise me if those were the folks that made up most of the stragglers. Some of the homeowners, particularly the black ones, may not trust the government to protect their rights. With the recent headlines about eminent domain coupled with de facto martial law, I don't blame them for staying put. They have no reason to believe that the same government that took five days to fish them out from this disaster will reinstate their land rights quickly or fairly.

America has a history of forced location and gentrification that isn't lost on black folk. Those people could leave homes today, only to return to find the government has given their property to opportunistic developers tomorrow. Paranoid? Maybe but with good reason. There's a chance, however remote, that the hurricane washed away any reliable records of mortgages, deeds and property titles. I think there is legitimate fear among the black population that the only thing they may own outright will be taken from them. Had the mayor found a way to deal with this fear early on, I think he would have found the residents more cooperative while evacuating.

It's easy to look at the holdouts as crazy, but, frankly, if my house were the only thing I had left in this world, you'd have to zap me with a TASER to get me out. Sadly, it may have come to that.

BRAND: Jimi Izrael is a columnist for AOL BlackVoices.

Complete coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath is at our Web site, npr.org.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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