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Latinos in New Orleans Suburb Feel Slighted

Times Staff Writer

Local officials and residents of this New Orleans suburb voiced outrage Monday over what they said was the deliberate neglect of inhabitants of a housing complex that was predominantly home to Latinos.

The Redwood Park Apartments, a privately owned project subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is home to one of the largest concentrations of Latinos in Kenner, a largely white community of 70,000 about 12 miles west of New Orleans in Jefferson Parish. Most of the complex’s residents hail from Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other Latin American countries. But immigrants from other nations, such as India, Vietnam and Korea, are also part of the mix, Redwood managers said.

Katrina damaged many of the 504 red brick apartments, which house 1,500 to 1,800 people. The average rent is $350 a month. Roofs were torn off, windows were smashed and 30-year-old trees were ripped from the ground, leaving debris strewn over the lawns and courtyard of the complex. Flood waters, which residents said rose to about two feet, left behind black mold.

Three weeks later, the complex is still without electricity and potable water. But many residents have been forced to stay put because they say they have nowhere else to go, and neither local nor federal authorities have come up with an offer of shelter.

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“It’s simply atrocious that our own government has denied these people the basic necessities of life. These are forgotten people. Their lives are all blown apart,” Kenner Police Chief Nick Congemi said.

Added Councilman Michael McMyne, whose district includes the Redwood complex: “It’s going to take somebody to die, then maybe somebody will give them help.”

In a phone call Monday, McMyne pleaded with Kenner Mayor Phillip Capitano to allow temporary shelters for Redwood residents to be set up in local gyms and schools.

“We are doing everything that is possible,” Capitano could be heard telling McMyne.

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McMyne accused the mayor of not caring about the Redwood residents because they were poor and few of them voted in local elections.

“The problem is, these people are not important to him,” McMyne said. “In a community like this, if we don’t open our arms, we are telling these people we don’t want them here. We are telling [them] you don’t matter enough for us to get you out of this situation.”

The mayor did not return several phone calls from The Times.

Residents said that personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had come to the Redwood to survey the damage, take photographs and notes and ask questions. But no help has arrived.

“They have promised this and promised that, but nothing has materialized, " said Jorge Picado, Redwood’s maintenance supervisor, adding that “people are pouring in right now. I don’t know what we’re going to do. They have no place else to go.”

Congemi, the police chief, said shelters had been found in Kenner for out-of-town contractors, members of the Missouri National Guard and state police officers from New Jersey, “and yet they are telling these people that they don’t have anything for them. I think they don’t want these people here.”

According to the 2000 census, Kenner’s population was 12.5% Latino.

Kelly Hudson, a spokesman for FEMA who monitors developments in Jefferson Parish, said the agency was aware of the situation at the Redwood complex but could do little until it had identified available apartments buildings, hotels and motels where people could be housed, and vacant land where mobile homes could be placed."The FEMA shelter is not here in mass numbers yet,” Hudson said, adding that until FEMA housing was identified it would be up to the city to provide residents with shelter.

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Hudson said that “part of the problem with the Hispanic community is that if you are illegal, you cannot apply for housing.”

She said adults could apply by using the Social Security number of their U.S.-born children. Others would have to rely on assistance from private organizations.

But Scarlett Alaniz-Diaz, the Latino community liaison for Kenner, said she believed that the majority of the residents who had returned to Redwood after Katrina were legal U.S. residents.

“The illegal people knew that if they remained, the police could come and get them,” Alaniz-Diaz said.

Wearing blue and white cloth gloves, Milton Villalta shifted through soggy linen, photographs and documents to see what he could salvage from his second-floor unit, where the ceiling exposed a mass of hanging pink insulation foam, wooden strips and peeling plaster. All of the furniture, kitchen appliances and electronics were destroyed. Black mildew carpeted the walls.

“We are trying to save whatever we can here,” said Villalta, 41, a painter and drywall installer, as he retrieved a stack of records, part of his prized collection of some 300 albums from the 1970s and 1980s. “They want us to leave the apartments, but where are we going to go?”

Suresh Mavadia, 38, a native of India and Redwood resident for 12 years, said he was particularly concerned about conditions at the complex because he was expecting his new wife to join him in the U.S. for the first time next month.

His apartment was spared substantial damage, but without electricity, and with falling debris and trash from other homes, it was difficult to live there.

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“There are too many mosquitoes and it’s dirty,” said Mavadia, a taxi driver, adding, “We need a shelter.”

On Monday, some residents milled around in the garbage-strewn courtyard at the complex where Red Cross relief workers offered water and hot meals, and police officers delivered additional supplies. Others sat listlessly in the sun on the front steps of their washed-out homes.

Oscar Berrios, 69, a native of Honduras and a Vietnam veteran, lay slumped in a hamper under the stairwell of this second-floor apartment. Part of the roof had caved in and water from a storm last Friday had again drenched the interior.

Berrios, whose legs were swollen from diabetes and head bandaged from a fall, now sleeps in a blue Dodge van parked in front of his apartment block.

“I got no place to go. Got to stay here,” said Berrios, who has been depending on the goodwill of his downstairs neighbor Sandra Castillo, 50, to cook and care for him.

Honduran-born David Medina, who has lived at Redwood for eight years, said he felt prejudice against Latinos had played a role in the failure to provide this complex’s residents with a temporary home.

“They give to the black people, but they don’t give us nothing. We lost everything, man. Got nothing,” said Medina, 43, a carpenter, who said he was now forced to sleep outside.

Added Danelia Zapata, whose Redwood home of 22 years was ruined: “We don’t want a million dollars. We don’t want money. We just want a place to live.”

Times photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.


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