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Meet The Refugees Fighting for the Future of New Orleans

More than a decade after Katrina, a proposed Entergy gas plant threatens New Orleans East and the community that rebuilt it despite a legacy of environmental racism.

On February 21st, two school buses pull up to the Pan American Life Center, where the New Orleans City Council Utilities Regulatory meeting is about to begin, carrying 100 New Orleans East residents. As the yellow doors swing open, they pour out onto the sidewalk wearing shirts that read “No Gas Plant.”

These community members are protesting a taxpayer-funded $210,000,000 Entergy Gas Plant slated to be built in the Michoud area of New Orleans East, just two miles from Village de l’Est, where many of their families live.

Entergy has proposed construction in a FEMA-designated high-risk flood-hazard area, meaning their plant could easily be incapacitated by a future storm. Of course, those living closest to the plant would be disproportionately impacted by the fallout if the structure were to flood or explode. Because of their proximity to the plant, New Orleans East residents’ opposition is really a fight for their survival. They fear economic and health ramifications that will last for generations to come if this plant is built. They don’t want their money to go towards a project that might poison their children, drive down their property values, or destroy the neighborhood they’ve fought so hard to preserve.

The crowd of protesters includes nuns, fishermen, artists, and activists. Most notably though, an overwhelming majority of those present are elderly Vietnamese refugees.

FEBRUARY 21ST, 2018. TWO NUNS FROM NEW ORLEANS EAST protest the proposed entergy gas plant.

After the Vietnam War, Archbishop Philip M. Hannan and the Catholic Church sponsored 2,100 Vietnamese refugees to settle an eastern part of New Orleans. The city’s Vietnamese population has since grown to approximately 15,000. But the growth of this community did not come without extreme hardships that extended long after fleeing war.

While many misattribute the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to weather, people in New Orleans know the real disaster that ravaged their city in August of 2005 was manmade. A perfect storm of systematic neglect, lack of infrastructure, and dismal response from the U.S. government. The lethal combination led not only to the destruction of bodies and land, but also the destruction of communities and culture. Many New Orleanians were not able to return to their city, while others faced a long (and still ongoing) road to recovery.

Many residents of New Orleans East were rebuilding their homes less than a year after the levees broke when they heard the news. The city’s post-Katrina plan for their neighborhood came down as harshly as waters did months before. The furthermost part of the East — the Michoud area — would become a landfill. It would serve as dumping grounds for wreckage left by Katrina.

February 25th, 2018. Teacher and community leader Margaret Nguyen at the 2018 Tet Festival, a three-day celebration of the Vietnamese New Year in New Orleans East.

Environmental groups joined thousands of Vietnamese refugees and other residents of the East in protesting this plan. Facing pressure from New Orleanians, the city ceased dumping debris there in August 2006. It was a massive victory for residents of the East, who went back to work rebuilding their homes over the next decade.

Like many of the city’s underserved neighborhoods, New Orleans East is often excluded from conversations on the issues that most affect it. So it was when they were not consulted on the post-Katrina landfill operation--and so it is with Entergy’s gas plant proposal.

At the City Council Utilities Regulatory meeting, security guards refuse to open the auditorium doors to anyone wearing a “No Gas Plant” t-shirt. They say over and over again that the room has reached capacity, yet continue to allow in men and women wearing suits. Between shouts of “suits out, people in!” folks stranded in the hallway begin an informal hearing of their own — sharing testimony in opposition of the plant. Voices include environmental activists, neighborhood association representatives, and the Academy-Award-nominated director of Gasland, Josh Fox.

February 21st, 2018. An attendee shows people waiting in the hallway photos of empty seats in the auditorium.

The lockout continues like this for nearly three hours. At 12:40 p.m., city council member Susan Guidry finally instructs security to open the doors. After standing all morning, elderly community members are happy to have the chance to sit down, and to have their voices heard.

“We fought for our existence after Hurricane Katrina. We fought the landfill. We’re going to fight this as well,” Minh Nguyen says in his testimony.

Born and raised in New Orleans East, Nguyen is also the Founder and Director of VAYLA, a community-based organization in the Village de l’Est neighborhood. Before taking his seat, Nguyen looks up at the council members and tells them, “this weekend, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish and Church is celebrating our Annual Lunar New Year's Festival. I hope that you will attend, and hope that our kids will be able to continue to attend in the future.”

February 25th, 2018. Children play at the 2018 Tet Festival, a three-day celebration of the Vietnamese New Year at New Orleans East's Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church.

Whether for or against the plant, every New Orleanian in the room has one thing in common: they want to stop the increasingly regular power outages that have been plaguing their city.

There are several New Orleans residents who speak in support of the plant, believing it to be the only way to keep the lights on. They see Entergy’s proposal as the only option because it has been promoted as such, without alternatives.

This is a concern for Monique Harden, the Assistant Director of Law and Policy at Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Harden testifies that the Utility Committee’s “actions appear predetermined and substantially unmoved by public input, modeling analysis, or reasonable and practice alternatives.” She raises concern that the current plan seems to be based on a prior agreement between Entergy and the utility advisors, which called for a 120-megawatt plant to be built on the Michoud site. This original deal was brokered before an integrated resource plan or gas plant application were put in place, and asked for zero community input.

Elizabeth Galante, a representative from solar energy provider PosiGen, alleges that “Entergy has controlled this process from the start.” She says that her firm “would have been thrilled to have any opportunity to bid on this thing,” but were not given the chance to. In her testimony, Galante adds that PosiGen’s plan would have lowered utility bills and created hundreds, if not thousands, of long-term jobs, as opposed to Entergy’s proposed 13 permanent positions.

March 3rd, 2018. No Gas Plant Rally at New Orleans City Hall.

New Orleanians from across the city express worry that their high Entergy bills will only increase over time, while the new plant will not ultimately fix the city’s outages. Reports find that New Orleans has one of the worst energy burdens for low-income and African American populations of any city in America. An increase would cause further economic stress to an already vulnerable population that often must choose between paying for groceries or electricity. Mrs. Tran, a resident of New Orleans East, testifies: “I’m not sure if we can bear another increase to our utility bills.”

Nearly 100 percent of the 2,000 outages in New Orleans last year were caused by distribution issues, such as failures of poles and wires. None of the city’s outages was due to a lack of energy-generation. At an evidentiary hearing in January, Entergy admitted that the gas plant will not resolve any distribution problems.

The evening of February 21st, City Council’s Utility Committee voted 4-1 in favor of the proposed Energy gas plant.

On March 8th, City Council will cast the final vote on this issue. Council members must work to resolve the energy problems facing New Orleans, but not at the expense of New Orleanians. Corporations, nonprofits, and individuals have testified on behalf of safer, more efficient, and less expensive options, if only City Council would consider them. Refugees in the East stand with concerned citizens across the city in asking their representatives: don’t the people of New Orleans deserve better?

February 21st, 2018. Resident of New Orleans East Mr. Mui holds up a No Gas Plant sign outside the City Council Utilities Regulatory meeting.

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