22 September 2008

Proposed federal rule poses dangerous threat to reproductive rights of low-income women and women of color

The September 25 deadline for public comment on a proposed HHS rule that would allow healthcare providers and pharmacists to liken birth control and other forms of contraception to abortion and would further undermine women's right to sexual and reproductive health and justice, is fast approaching. (See last Friday's New York Times op-ed by Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards.)

The impact of the ruling would be far-reaching--it would affect nearly 600,000 hospitals, clinics and other health care providers nationwide that rely on federal financing for services. But it would impact low-income women and women of color the most. As Bethany Sousa points out on RH Reality Check,

Low-income women and women of color who rely more on public programs will ultimately be hit the hardest. Significant percentages of Latinas, Asia Pacific Islanders and African-American women work in low-wage jobs that don't offer benefits and therefore, they lack health insurance of any kind. Public programs such as Medicaid and Title X fill that void by covering prenatal, pregnancy-related care and contraceptive services. The deeply flawed regulation fails to serve the needs of these patients by erecting new barriers to their obtaining reproductive healthcare. Read more...

We talked with Desiree Flores, Ms. Foundation Program Officer for Health, who oversees the foundation's reproductive justice and HIV/AIDS advocacy funding. She added that the proposed rule is particularly troubling for low-income women and women of color because so many already receive substandard care and are often discouraged from questioning their healthcare providers about any information--or lack of information--they share. It would erect even more barriers for our grantees and their constituents--women who confront issues of access and discrimination on a daily basis--and place an immeasurable burden on women already struggling to navigate the medical system and advocate for their rights.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, a current Ms. Foundation grantee, are submitting joint comments to the HHS, focusing primarily on the impact on low-income women and women of color. You can read these comments and contribute your own here.

Women's Leadership Critical in Building a Successful, Just Response to Economic Crisis

Last week, Ms. Foundation CEO and President Sara K. Gould again reiterated the importance of women's leadership in the face of the market crisis and its potentially devastating aftershocks for middle and working class America.

Her entire statement was published by the Miami Herald -- read it here on our blog.

Ms. Gould concluded by saying that, "Across the U.S., women are too well-acquainted with poverty and economic insecurity. Because they know these challenges personally, however, they are often best positioned to develop the most effective strategies to address them.

“Women must be better represented at policy tables; their perspectives and leadership are crucial to bring about long-term economic stability and well-being—for women, families and communities. So as we hold key members of the public and private sector accountable for our country’s worsening economic disaster, let’s turn to women driving change at local, state and national levels for economic-justice solutions.”

Ms. Foundation for Women grantees are already pioneering strategies for addressing poverty and economic hardship in their communities and promoting grassroots and national policy alternatives that would improve economic security for low-income women and families. Here are just a few examples of how women leaders are advancing innovative strategies and solutions:

  • In Rhode Island, Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) is tackling the mortgage crisis' effect on low-income women and women of color in Providence, promoting people-centered development in the face of gentrification and displacement, and advocating for women’s budget and tax justice.

  • The Multistate Working Families Consortium is a network of state coalitions working for policies that value families by enabling workers to balance their jobs with their responsibilities as parents and caregivers. They have set paid sick leave, job-protected and affordable family and medical leave for all workers, and the right of workers to have greater control of their schedules, as priorities for federal action in 2009. Just this past spring, their members helped pass paid leave legislation in New Jersey.

  • Avery Institute for Social Change promotes community-driven solutions for ending health disparities while stimulating a grassroots movement for national health care reform. They’re currently working to galvanize the women's healthcare movement to support universal healthcare so that no one is forced to choose between paying their rent or paying for their child's visit to the doctor.

  • Domestic Workers United, an organization of caregivers, nannies, housekeepers and other in-home workers, is advocating for the NY Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights. The legislation would establish fair labor standards for domestic workers in NY State, including a living wage, health care and basic benefits. It would guarantee domestic workers basic labor protections which they’re currently denied, address widespread issues of abuse and exploitation to which they’re often subject, and pave the way for true economic security for those entrusted with the security of their employers’ children, families and homes.

  • Childspace, based in Philadelphia, works to improve the quality of jobs for historically low-wage childcare workers, and thus improve the quality of care for the children they serve. Through advocacy programs spearheaded by childcare providers themselves, they are calling for low-income workers' access to health insurance, higher state subsidies to support professional development and facility-improvement, and better management of the Pennsylvania's childcare subsidy program.

Houma stories illuminate long-standing and urgent needs after Gustav and Ike

Unfortunately, what remains of media coverage of the most recent Gulf Coast storms, continues to focus on urban areas hit by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, with little attention paid to rural, low-lying coastal communities. Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, reminds us that more than two weeks out, Houma parishes in southern Louisiana continue to face the impact of both storms. Little known to the outside world, the destruction wrought by Gustav in Houma communities was compounded by massive flooding from Ike--reportedly worse for some than it had been due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. What's more, these storms came as people were still struggling to recover from Katrina and Rita. Brenda Robichaux shares an example of this below:
I would like to share with you a story of a wonderful family I had known for years but became close to following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They are an elderly couple who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and who live along Shrimpers Row. They had their home flooded by Hurricane Rita and now again by Hurricane Ike. I had visited with them recently when I brought a reporter from Time Magazine to interview them for a story on the Louisiana wetlands. During his interview they described their love for the land and the attachments they felt for their home and their culture. When asked about seeking Road Home funds to elevate their home, they mentioned that they felt sorry for the people in New Orleans who had lost everything and did not want to take any money that might be used to assist these families.

When they were later persuaded that they needed to file for these funds they did so and were scheduled to have their home elevated prior to the storm. However, the Road Home evaluation team found they had a faulty faucet attachment in their bathroom and denied them their funds until the problem was corrected. The elderly husband was unable to perform this task himself and the elevation of the home was cancelled.

Prior to Hurricane Gustave, they had placed all of their treasured possessions in their automobile and had evacuated the community. When they returned, they replaced everything in their home, only to be caught unprepared for the quick rising waters which occurred with Hurricane Ike. All of their precious possessions were devastated by the floodwaters which covered their home.

The amazing part of this story is the same thing we heard with flooding in New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, Plaquemines Parish, and elsewhere. When the floodwaters begin to rise, they sometimes come up so quickly that escaping them is impossible.

...It is difficult enough to meet the needs of our Tribal citizens and even more difficult to write about these experiences. Although it is difficult to write this daily blog, I will continue to do so as I realize how important it is to share our stories with you. When I first began writing about our plight, it was healing as it helped me to organize my thoughts and plan my future activities. At this point it has become more difficult as the stories that need to be told are painful to describe and difficult to express with a degree of accuracy to equal their emotional significance.

...I am extremely grateful to have a loyal and understanding family and friends who have stood with me throughout this ordeal and who realize that this is just the beginning of a lengthy and trying experience for us all.
Robichaux's blog remains one of the only sources of on-the-ground, up-to-date information about the urgent and long-standing needs of people in the Gulf Coast--particularly those whose priorities remain the most invisible: low-income people and people of color, in this case from primarily Indigenous, rural communities that bear the brunt of federal and state government failures to address key underlying issues like coastal erosion and poverty.

We will continue to share Brenda's stories and insight into the urgent and long-term needs of the Houma Nation--we hope that you will spread them far and wide as well.

Again, you can support the United Houma Nation and its Relief Center, which they were finally able to set up last week, through its web site. You can also make a gift to the Ms. Foundation for Women's Katrina Women's Response Fund, which provides immediate and long-term strategic grantmaking, communications, and capacity-building support to the United Houma Nation and other organizations and communities impacted by Gustav and Ike, as well as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Hurricanes Gustav and Ike Reveal Need for Continued Attention to Gulf Coast Communities"

The Ms. Foundation joins the Equity and Inclusion Campaign in calling on the federal government to confront poverty and inequity in Gulf Coast recovery. We recently signed onto their joint press statement, which highlights key issues laid bare by the most recent storms:

Re: Hurricanes Gustav and Ike Reveal Need for Continued Attention to Gulf Coast Communities

In the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, we, the undersigned Gulf Coast advocates and allies from the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, urge the federal government to renew its focus on building strong, resilient Gulf Coast communities. We are especially concerned about our region’s most vulnerable citizens who are the most impacted by the recent hurricanes as well as the unfinished recovery from the 2005 hurricanes.

While the media has focused its coverage of the storms on metropolitan areas, recovery in seriously impacted rural areas, specifically the southern coastal parishes of Louisiana, will also require serious, sustained attention so that these communities may rebuild and the area’s natural barriers to storms may be restored. Families, who have lived safely for generations in southeastern coastal Louisiana, suffered from major devastation caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, as well as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Specifically, Terrebone and Lafourche parishes, where basic services such as power and clean water have been unavailable for more than two weeks, suffered a double blow from the two recent hurricanes. This destruction is invariably linked to the unnatural coastal landloss. Coastal Louisiana south of Houma, where Gustav made landfall, has been losing barrier islands and wetlands – its natural defenses from major storms – as consequences of the oil, gas and navigation industries. The area also lacks hurricane protection levee systems that protect residents in other parts of Louisiana. Despite this, coastal Louisiana provides a third of the nationʼs domestic energy supply. Also, Mississippi and Alabama’s barrier islands, which shelter fishing grounds and provide crucial storm protection and surge protection for coastal inhabitants, were severely eroded by Hurricane Katrina. We hope that the recent disaster motivates the government to reverse the Gulf Coast’s tragic story of coastal landloss and erosion.

While we commend government agencies for improving their readiness and for being in place to mitigate Gustav and Ike’s effects, we ask them to address the impact of evacuation and displacement on those still trying to return and fully recover from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and now Gustav and Ike. Many people are still suffering financial, physical and emotional stress from the 2005 hurricanes. Their homes have not been rebuilt, their incomes have diminished while their expenses have increased, and their communities are still in disrepair. Evacuation and displacement make these citizens vulnerable to the new hardships created by the recent hurricanes, and they need immediate, effective assistance. Wage workers, who have no income when they cannot work, are especially vulnerable. Additionally, those still experiencing emotional trauma from the tragedy and loss of previous hurricanes are forced to relive negative experiences as they are taken to shelters with inadequate capacity and care.

We appreciate the President's designation of Louisiana as a federal disaster area and FEMA's assistance to individuals who have been displaced by Gustav, but we ask that FEMA’s plan for assistance be redesigned to address its shortcomings. FEMA must provide compensations to those individuals who paid for hotel stays away from their homes and provide stipends for food and gasoline. Without recoupment of these extraordinary expenses, residents will not be able to afford rent, utilities and other basic expenses because they used these precious resources to fund their mandatory evacuations from their communities. Furthermore, without this incentive, we worry that our residents will not heed the call for mandatory evacuation in the future.

Additionally, we urge the federal government to take action in providing federal disaster designations to Mississippi so that individuals affected by Hurricane Gustav may receive adequate assistance and begin the process of recovery. More than two weeks after the storm, comprehensive assessments of coastal communities in Mississippi have not yet been completed, creating financial uncertainty and undue suffering. Storm surges and floods in both states resulted in displacement especially for those living in temporary shelter since the 2005 hurricanes.

The threat posed by major storms has always been a fact of life in our region. As our communities begin the long journey to recover from Hurricane Gustav, we also prepare for the possibility of another disaster during this very active hurricane season. We urge our government leaders and the nation to consider Hurricanes Gustav and Ike as reminders that resources and attention are still required to strengthen communities across the Gulf Coast region, a region rich in natural resources and an irreplaceable asset to our nation's economy, culture and history.

About the Equity and Inclusion Campaign:
The Equity and Inclusion Campaign is a policy advocacy and public messaging campaign advocating for fulfillment of the federal commitment to confront persistent poverty and inequity during the Gulf Coast recovery. The Campaign draws together grassroots leaders from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to influence Congress and the executive branch so that historically disenfranchised groups have the resources and authority necessary to improve their lives and rebuild their communities.

19 September 2008

Sara K. Gould on the Economic Crisis and Its Disproportionate Impact on Women and Families

Amidst the emphasis on solving the economic crisis facing Wall Street, the crisis crippling women and their families on Main Street continues unabated. Sara K. Gould, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, and an expert on women's economic development, warns that the plummeting U.S. economy will further threaten millions of women whose lives already hang in the balance.

"Even at the beginning of the economic downturn, more women than men, and more African Americans and Latinos than whites, were caught in the sub-prime mortgage trap," notes Ms. Gould. "Now that the crisis has escalated, we must expect that the negative repercussions for women -- especially women of color -- will escalate as well.

"Women across the U.S. are playing with the economic deck stacked against them. Taking into account longstanding pay inequities, insidious barriers to employment, record levels of inflation and ever-increasing childcare expenses, women and their families are struggling to keep up and get by. For women who confront the additional barriers of race and class, the obstacles are much greater and the economic straits even worse."

Ms. Gould foresees that the current instability roiling Wall Street's markets will lead to an increasingly dire economic situation for women. "This is especially true," she states, "for low-income women, women of color, single mothers and others who have long experienced the disproportionate impact of flawed economic policies."

Women faced challenges to their economic security before the recent turmoil in the stock markets.

  • The gender-wage ratio has not improved significantly for nearly two decades. Women are still paid only 77.8 cents for every dollar a man makes for full-time work. The disparity is even greater for women of color: African-American women make 63 cents and Latinas make only 52 cents for every dollar of white male earnings. [1] [2]

  • Women comprise the majority of low-wage workers: Women accounted for 68.4% of minimum-wage and below-minimum-wage workers in 2007. [3]

  • Most poor Americans are women and children, with women comprising a full 39%, children, 35%; and men, 26%. [4]

  • Accounting for 37% of families in poverty, the poverty rate for single female-headed households is higher than any other demographic group. [5]

The current economic downturn will impact low-income women and their families the hardest, and drive even more into poverty.

  • Already, the sub-prime mortgage crisis is taking a higher toll on women -- especially women of color. 32% of women borrowers hold sub-prime mortgages vs. 24% of men; and African American and Latino homeowners were 30% more likely to have received sub-prime loans. [6] [7]

  • Poverty rates increase during economic downturns. With the increasing costs of even basic necessities of food, transportation and energy, the number of poor families is growing. [8]

  • Once a family has fallen into it, poverty is difficult to escape. An estimated 60% of families that are in the bottom fifth of income remain there a decade later. [9]

"Across the U.S., women are too well-acquainted with poverty and economic insecurity. Because they know these challenges personally, however, " Ms. Gould points out, "they are often best positioned to develop the most effective strategies to address them.

"Women must be better represented at policy tables; their perspectives and leadership are crucial to bring about long-term economic stability and well-being -- for women, families and communities. So as we hold key members of the public and private sector accountable for our country's worsening economic disaster, let's turn to women driving change at local, state and national levels for economic-justice solutions."

About Sara K. Gould:
Ms. Gould is a national authority on women's economic development and economic security, and a groundbreaking innovator in philanthropy. Ms. Gould was named to the NonProfit Times 2008 Top 50 Power and Influence List for her visionary leadership in advancing women's economic security, in particular her founding of the Collaborative Fund for Women's Economic Development, a pioneering grant-making initiative which leveraged over $10 million in the field of women's microenterprise development in the United States.

  1. "The Gender Wage Gap: 2007," [pdf] Institute for Women's Policy Research. August 2008.

  2. "Data Tables on the Economic Status of Women of Color in the United States: Key Data Points," [pdf] Women's Data Center, Institute for Women's Policy Research. May 20, 2008.

  3. "Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers: 2007," [pdf] Bureau of Labor Statistics. March 24, 2008.

  4. "Living in Poverty: Vulnerable Women and Children," Headwaters Group for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. July 2008. p. IV

  5. "Living in Poverty: Vulnerable Women and Children," Headwaters Group for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. July 2008. p. IV. Based on the "Current Population Survey, 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplement," U.S. Census Bureau.

  6. "Women are Prime Targets for Subprime Lending: Women are Disproportionately Represented in High-Coast Mortage Market," [pdf] Consumer Federation of America. December 2006.

  7. "Unfair Lending: The Effect of Race and Ethnicity on the Price of Subprime Mortgages," [pdf] Center for Responsible Lending. May 31, 2006. p.3.

  8. "Living in Poverty: Vulnerable Women and Children," Headwaters Group for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. July 2008. p. IV

  9. The State of Working America, [pdf] Economic Policy Institute. August 2008. p. 4.

15 September 2008

Sara K. Gould Recognized as Nonprofit Leader and Innovator

We are pleased to announce that Ms. Foundation for Women President and CEO Sara K. Gould has been named to the 2008 NonProfit Times Power and Influence Top 50 List [pdf].

The list recognizes nonprofit leaders for creating innovative strategies to advance the work of their organizations and positively impacting the entire philanthropic sector with their groundbreaking ideas.

Ms. Gould was recognized for her visionary leadership in the area of women’s economic security, in particular for her founding of the Collaborative Fund for Women's Economic Development, a pioneering grantmaking model which leveraged over $10 million in the field of women’s microenterprise development in the United States.

Ms. Gould shares the honor with a number of well-recognized nonprofit executives, including Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, and Sterling Speirn, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, who are at the forefront of tackling the nation's most pressing concerns.

The Ms. Foundation, under Ms. Gould's leadership, continues to pioneer new strategies to guarantee economic justice and security for women, families and communities. In today’s unraveling economy -- from rising healthcare and childcare costs to the mortgage crisis and record inflation -- women's perspectives are especially crucial. Women of color and low-income women, among those who experience economic insecurity most acutely, are best positioned to understand the urgent priorities of their communities and propose practical, community-based policy solutions to meet their needs. The Ms. Foundation promotes women's full participation at policymaking tables and leads the way in building women’s collective power and creating critical connections across race, class and gender to realize a just and inclusive democracy for all.

11 September 2008

Gustav Media Blackout Continues; Underlying Causes Exacerbate Destruction of Houma Communities

The virtual media blackout continues with regard to the disaster wrought by Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast. Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, whose initial blog entries during and after the storm were shared on the Ms. Foundation blog, had this to say:
It [is] obvious that the local and national media do not consider us worth covering. Once again the United Houma Nation and its tribal citizens have been ignored and our People have been left to fend for themselves in the face of this overwhelming catastrophe.
Robichaux continues to share first-hand accounts of her efforts to reach her communities and understand the devastation they face -- not once forgetting the underlying causes:
Friday morning was the first day that I was allowed access to Isle de Jean Charles. A first responder brought me pictures the night before, but I had not yet seen the Island personally. So my husband Mike, my 11 year old daughter Felicite and I, wearing our rubber boots, headed to Isle de Jean Charles, one of the hardest hit communities. Island Road, the highway that leads to the settlement, lay covered with dead trout, drum and red fish. We parked our truck at the beginning of the Island and walked several miles to the end. The pictures did not prepare me for what I was about to see. We witnessed homes off their foundations that had floated on levees and piles of rubble that were once homes. After years of coastal erosion and without a good protection levee this community was very fragile. Hurricane Gustav showed no mercy. I became very angry that something had not been done sooner to protect the barrier islands that would have given my community a fighting chance. I remember stories told to me of how there were acres of land on which children played baseball, and pastures where horses roamed. To see the state of the Island now was overwhelming.
As Robichaux points out, years of coastal erosion have left Indigenous communities along the Gulf extremely vulnerable to storms. Government inaction is largely to blame. The Institute for Southern Studies writes,
While there are a number of public efforts underway to restore degraded coastal lands and thus better protect Louisiana's residents from storms, none of them comes close to the minimum estimate of $14 billion needed for truly sustainable restoration. If the federal government does not take action soon, the problem will only grow much worse -- and Louisiana's wetlands are already disappearing at the fastest clip in the nation, with up to 40 square miles lost each year.
Years, centuries really, of discrimination and economic injustice, have certainly played a role, too. Last week, after visiting the destruction of Indigenous communities on one end of Isle de Jean Charles, Robichaux visited a camp, or resort, at the other end. She soon realized that its buildings hadn't sustained nearly as much damage as the more humble homes of her fellow Houma:
As we approached the end of Island, we saw a stark contrast as camps owned [by] non residents were often left totally intact, without any visual signs of damage. We met one of the camp owners on his was out who exclaimed that although the hurricane was bad he thought it was going to be a lot worse. He must have repeated those thoughts a half dozen times. I could not believe what he was telling me. NOT THAT BAD…COULD HAVE BEEN A LOT WORSE…FOR WHOM? Surely not the residents of the Island! As we continued to walk the next camp owners spoke from the balcony of his perfectly intact camp and expressed with pride how his camp has withstood the last three hurricanes without any damage because it is built with 32,000 wood screws. Our people can’t afford HOMES built with 32,000 wood screws. So we are left with homes totally destroyed and may have to consider relocating, leaving the land we love while non residents with resources can build CAMPS that will sustain hurricanes force winds and coastal erosion. Why hasn’t something been done sooner to protect our community? Is it because the Island is a poor Indian community so it doesn’t matter what happens to us?
Please visit the United Houma Nation website, whose United Houma Nation Relief Fund is a current grantee of the Ms. Foundation's Katrina Women's Response Fund, for additional eyewitness reports and photos.

Photo: Gustav Damage, 9/5/08
Credit: United Houma Nation

04 September 2008

Gustav Devastates Native American Communities: A First-Hand Account

The extent of Hurricane Gustav's damage is still largely unknown, in part because the media and officials seem to be downplaying its impact. The messages we're getting from the media--if any--are that state and federal officials finally got it right and the Gulf Coast dodged a Katrina-sized bullet. But while New Orleans may have been generally spared, we're hearing from our grantee partners that rural, low-lying coastal areas in the direct path of the storm were most certainly not.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, tells it best in her own words. Founder of the United Houma Nation Relief Fund, a grantee of the Ms. Foundation's Katrina Women's Response Fund, she stayed in her community during Gustav. She has been trying to survey the destruction and the pressing needs of the Houma since it hit. There are more than 17,000 Houma living in different communities throughout Southeastern Louisiana. The highest concentration of Houma live in Terrebone and Lafourche, two of the bayou parishes that were expected to be hardest hit.

Brenda has been posting messages to the Nation's website as frequently as possible, which we share below. Her powerful first-hand experience and analysis of the situation demonstrates how painfully this crisis will exacerbate the already pressing needs of the Houma--many of whom were still struggling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, not to mention centuries of entrenched discrimination and inequality.

Today, Brenda told us that many roads are still impassible, water mains are broken, power is out, but that they're still trying their best to prepare for peoples' immediate needs when they start coming back tomorrow.


About 20 of my family and friends has chosen to ride out Hurricane Gustav with us at our home in Raceland. Our home is on a high ridge right across from Bayou Lafourche. Last night was a relatively calm night with little wind and rain. But that soon changed. We lost electricity at 6:05 AM and are using batteries and a generator to stay in touch with what is happening throughout our communities. The wind has picked up considerably here to about 85 MPH. Some of us are sitting on the back porch watching in amazement how huge oak trees can bend and not break while magnolia tree branches fall. Others are glued to the TV listening intently for word of where Gustav is headed and the impact he is having. The latest update is my worst fear for the Houma People as it is learned that he is approaching the bayous in Terrebonne and Lafourche parish. I feel we have done our best to make sure everyone has evacuated safely. The rest is out of our hands.

Hurricane Katrina and Rita left Plaquemine and St. Bernard Parishes with barely a home left standing or livable. It has been a challenge to assist our People in these communities when there is nothing left to start with. Some are still living in FEMA trailers, with family and friends and a few are finally returning to a home. Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes have been on the road to recovery for the past 3 years with lives just getting back to normal. My fear for the past three years has been “What if Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes suffered total devastation as Plaquemine and St. Bernard Parishes? These are the communities with the highest concentration of Houma People. How would we recover knowing the challenges we still face in Plaquemine and St. Bernard?" I am paralyzed in fear that this is what is happening. The great people of the Houma Nation that I am so honored to represent, who have faced many challenges over the years are about to face one of our greatest challenges.

As I sit and write the winds are blowing and Gustav is approaching. I pray for protection, strength and courage to face what lies ahead.


Hurricane Gustav has come and gone but his impact remains...to what extent is still uncertain. Our home has a minimal amount of damages with lots of down trees. The Old Store which served as the center of our relief services in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also suffered wind damage. My concern is to be able to repair the damages as soon as possible so that we may begin to provide relief services in the building. We are without electricity and have very limited cell phone services but do have internet and e-mail. There is a TV being run by a generator with rabbit ears wrapped in foil but can only catch one channel.

Although Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Terrebonne Parish, most coverage is about New Orleans again. We are very limited in the amount of accurate information on the damages to our tribal communities which is quite frustrating. We made an attempt to gain access to our communities to access the damages but were turned away by road blocks. Power lines are still down making the highways impassable. We receive calls from tribal citizens who evacuated the area seeking information on when they can return and the extent of the damages. We have nothing to share at this time. The unknown is agonizing.


Although we were turned away by road blocks as we tried to gain access into Terrebonne Parish, waiting and wondering was no longer an option. Determined, eight of us decided to venture "down the bayou" in order to see if we could get through to our communities in Lower Lafourche Parish. We made it through two road blocks by showing my dad Whitney's driver's license providing proof that he lived in the community. Many stops were made along the way assessing the damages to our People's home and property and then calling the homeowner with the news. Power lines and trees are down, but most homes are still in tact with wind damage, no flooding. My dad offered praise and glory to the creator as he realized his fishing boat was spared any damage. Although a fellow tribal citizen and friend's boat didn't do as well and has some cabin damage. Our last stop was the Old Indian Settlement School which serves as the UHN tribal center. It too has roof damage but remains in tact. The little building in the front built by volunteers in which we hope to house our future radio station didn't do so well and has extensive roof damage. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that although there is wind damage, homes are left standing and can be rebuilt.

The next stop on our journey was to try to gain access to Grand Bois. We attempted to travel a wooded highway known as the Houma shortcut. After going approximately 10 miles around trees that lined the highway, one huge tree blocked the entire highway and forced us to turn around. So the damages to this community remains unknown to us.

We then made another attempt to gain access into Terrebonne Parish as we learned that Tier 2 people were being allowed into the parish. We made it through two road blocks and headed "down the bayou" to Dulac. Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav was not as kind to this community. We traveled down the bayou on Grand Cailou Road and then made an attempt to head back up the bayou on Shrimpers Row but the road was impassable due to flooding, downed power lines and trees. With the smell of marsh water in the air, we traveled through water knee high in order to access the flood damages. Some homes were flooded the extent depending on the elevation of the home with the lower level homes receiving the most damage. The extensive damages to this community were mostly caused by wind. We witnessed everything from minor wind damage to total loss of use, with most homes in need of major repairs.

It is unknown when the People from this community will be allowed back home. The unavailability of re-entry causes a financial burden which has great cause for concern. It can be compared to an unplanned vacation with lodging, gas and eating expenses.

With extensive power lines and trees down, throughout our communities, it will be quite some time before electricity is restored. It's heartbreaking to see the Houma Nation community going through this again just three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Today, we plan to journey to St. Bernard parish to access Hurricane Gustav's impact on this community.

These images were taken as we assessed the impact of Hurricane Gustav on the Dulac community.

--Brenda Dardar Robichaux, Principal Chief, United Houma Nation

Top photo: Back of Dulac Community Center, 9/3/2008
Credit: Brenda Dardar Robichaux, United Houma Nation

Bottom photo: Brenda Dardar Robichaux, August 2006
Credit: Leslie Parr

02 September 2008

Gustav Action Alert: Call on FEMA to Aid Evacuees Upon Return

An urgent call from our colleagues at the Louisiana Justice Institute:


Eariler today, the FEMA Director announced the federal government would not be providing financial assistance to Gulf Coast Gustav evacuees, but instead would rely upon NGOs such as the Red Cross to provide food, shelter, and 'comfort.' Folks, the bottom line is that nearly 2 million of our friends, family, and neighbors "voluntarily" evacuated the Gulf Coast region, and they cannot possibly return in one, two, or even three days. Leaving New Orleans for me was a 10.5 hour nightmare and, no doubt, trying to re-occupy cities from Lake Charles through New Orleans, and South Louisiana will take time, and money. 'Comfort' ain't 'Cash' and hotels require dollars, not prayers for payment!

Please call and write to Senator Landrieu and Senator Vitter, Governor Jindal, and Mayor Nagin and demand (1) they provide an orderly process to for return of all residents to the greater New Orleans area, and the entire Gulf Coast region, and (2) they force FEMA to provide cash compensation to evacuees in order to defray the cost for this extraordinary effort.

Senator Landrieu: 202.224.5824
Senator Vitter: 202.224.4623
Governor Jindal: 225.342.7015
Mayor Nagin: 504.658.4000

Tracie L. Washington, Esq.
Louisiana Justice Institute

See blog posting below and stay tuned for updates about the Ms. Foundation's Katrina Women's Response Fund grantees in the wake of Gustav.

Gulf Coast Emergency: Low-income Women of Color Most Impacted; FEMA Disappoints Again

Since it first seemed that another hurricane was headed towards New Orleans on the third anniversary of Katrina, the Ms. Foundation has been actively in touch with our Katrina Women's Response Fund grantees, many of them community-based organizations located in and around the city. Most of them are now in Birmingham, AL or Austin, TX. Others such as Brenda Dardar Robichaux of the United Houma Nation Relief Fund just outside of New Orleans judged it okay to stay put. Robichaux was particularly worried about Houma tribal members in Lafourche and Terrebonne, in the direct path of the storm. Initial reports show that while great flooding was expected, these communities mostly experienced strong winds. But we may not know for days.

While it is an enormous relief that Gustav ended up causing less damage than anticipated, we remain worried about the impact of yet another displacement on low-income women and women of color and their families. Particularly those for whom even a few days away from a low-wage job with no benefits or paid leave could be devastating, further exacerbating the ongoing paycheck-to-paycheck crisis they found themselves in only last week. Or those who are further victimized by the criminalization of young people of color, especially in the days when curfews and "law and order" reign.

We saw that women, low-income people and people of color were disproportionately impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the three-years-and-counting aftermath. We are sure that they are most affected now--hurricane or tropical storm.

We must continue to hold federal and local agencies accountable and ensure that the rights and needs of women and their families are protected and met. Apparently, FEMA has said it will offer no financial assistance to those who "voluntarily" evacuated, leaving this to the Red Cross and other "do-gooder" organizations. FEMA was quick to boast of its lessons learned and preparedness in anticipation of another and perhaps greater hurricane, but it now appears it will again fall far short.

We will share more information as it becomes available and have provided a list of initial resources and reports below. Most importantly, we'll continue to be in touch with our grantees over the upcoming days and weeks about how best to support them in their right to return to the Gulf Coast and recover from yet another storm.

Thank you so much,

Sangeeta Budhiraja
Program Officer
Katrina Women's Response Fund

Initial resources and reports:

"Evacuation of Gulf Coast Not Good Enough," US Human Rights Network (PDF)
Gulf Coast Human Rights Watch, US Human Rights Network
Katrina Information Network
"Three Years After Katrina, New Orleans Levee System Still Vulnerable," Democracy Now!
"Gustave is Coming," Bill Quigley, Counterpunch

Image: National Hurricane Center Gustav Graphics Archive.