From denouncing symbols of white supremacy that persist in New Orleans, to bringing a lawsuit against the Sewerage and Water Board, Antranette Scott is no stranger to speaking truth to power. In name of working for justice for the working class of New Orleans, Scott runs meetings, chants in marches, sells Workers’ Voice papers (which she also contributes articles to) and most recently, has been working to spread awareness of a pending Class-Action Lawsuit against the City’s Sewerage and Water Board, for negligence leading to the August flooding last year.
Among the worst areas affected were Mid-City and Central City; Mid-City is the neighborhood that Scott calls home. She lives in a double house; one with a long, steep staircase leading to the first floor. In the street, the floodwaters reached about four feet deep last summer. Inside, her home is cheerful, with turquoise walls and paintings by Scott’s roommate. Her dog Morrison, a friendly beagle missing one toenail from its former life, sat with us as she spoke with Big Easy about the class action lawsuit and holding our government accountable.
Can you give me a brief biography of yourself?
Antranette Marie Scott, from New Orleans, born and raised—actually born at Charity Hospital, lived in Hollygrove till I was ten, then moved to Metairie cause my mom and dad had job opportunities there. Katrina hit, I left town—
You were in New York, right?
Yeah, I was in NYC for three or four years, moved back at the end of 2008, and here I am.
So how long have you lived in Mid-City?
I’ve lived here going on four years with my roommate; it’s been awesome.
What was your experience of the Mid-City flooding? What happened?
I had work earlier that day, and I got off around 12:30 mid-day. It really didn’t look that bad outside, and I came home, took a nap and it was thundering and lightning, my roommate was home. The thunder and lightning woke me up. Two weeks prior, my car had flooded; we had had some flooding around July 22. But I caught it in time, I was able to dry-vac the car. So, I was worried about it flooding again—it was the same MO, flooding coming out of nowhere. I opened the front door, and the car was parked in front of the house, and the water was already past the door.
So I was hoping it would be the same, that I could dry-vac it out, but that was not the case, the water kept rising at a really fast pace. We were just watching it and next thing we knew, the whole neighborhood was flooded as far as the eye could see. It flooded between Jeff Davis and Carrolton and Jeff Davis and Broad, all flooded out, super high.
How high was the flood water?
I don’t know the measurement in feet, but it was up to the windshield, and I had a 2008 Toyota Matrix.
How long did it take the water to go down?
When it stopped raining it was still daytime. The water kept rising, and it didn’t start going down till 10:30, maybe 11 at night. So a good 4-5 hours, it was sitting there. By the time I went to bed it was going down, somewhat but it was still quite high.
Was your car covered by your insurance?
Yes, I had full coverage, and five months left, paying off the car, so it paid it off, but after that payment I got a little over two grand… it was definitely not enough for me to get a new car, not without getting a new note… I had this car for a little over five years, and I had plans for those funds once I had that car note off me.
So I decided would use the money to buy a nice bike, buy a couple months’ worth of bus passes and see what happens. Especially as the negligence of the Sewerage and Water Board came to light, I just thought ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I have to take on another five years worth of debt because of some mismanagement?’
Do you have a car now?
Have you contacted the Sewerage and Water Board since?
I found out that there was a way to make claims for damage and loss of property, so I went to the website, filled out the claims form, and sent it in certified mail. I never got the other half of my certified mail back, I called and talked to somebody who told me that ‘we’re reviewing claims and whatnot’, so I was like ‘ok,’ and I contacted them through the website, was told I would be contacted by a representative, never received a phone call, never received an email after that, so that’s about it.
So they have not gotten back to you at all?
No, not at all.
Do you know if other people on your block had their homes flooded?
Yeah, a ton. My two neighbors, they have a ground-floor level, that flooded. This house flooded, actually—there’s not people below but there’s a storage space, the landlord does contracting work and kept a lot of his materials down there… other neighbors, they run a business out of their home, they lost two cars and their workspace was flooded—I think they had 3 or 4 feet of water in there.
Can you tell me about this lawsuit and its evolution?
Well, the Peoples’ Assembly was saying ‘this is not right, we have to do something, let’s see if we can go around to the neighborhoods that were affected, and talk to people and see what was going on—did you lose property? Did you lose vehicles? Did you contact the S&WB? Did you get satisfaction from that?’ And people were like ‘No.’ And through our discussions at People’s Assembly, we decided to pursue it in court.
Our first round was connecting with the Loyola Law Center, and going up against the SWB, saying that we, citizens of New Orleans, need to be notified when pumps are not working, where they’re not working at. There needs to be some sort of outreach from the SWB to just have a transparent process. So we did that, and that was not for any monetary gain, this was just to say, ‘you need to inform the people of what’s going on.’ You know, we’re taxpayers, and this is inadequate service—you could at least tell us what’s happening.
And we went to court, and the SWB had their team of lawyers there. It was me, a church was another plaintiff, and two other families were plaintiffs. And the judge would just tiptoe around stuff… on our last court date, the judge was like ‘ok, I’ll make a decision, just not right now,’ and two weeks later sided with the SWB, that they have no obligation to inform the public when the pumps are not working.
That was about 8 months ago.
At Peoples’ Assembly, we wanted to have a kind of Class-Action Lawsuit, where people could be made whole. So we were looking for lawyers who would take the case, people we could trust. We also looked for lawyers who were knowledgeable about getting compensation from the city, not having a predatory aspect. In some Class Action lawsuits, the lawyers run away with the bulk of the money. Malcom Suber found someone that he had some confidence in, and we started the process. Right now the judge is deciding if our case meets the nine requirements for Class-Action lawsuits.
How has your experience been with the outreach and canvassing aspect of the case?
It’s been pretty good, in the sense that people are upset. Whenever we go to any of the neighborhoods that were affected, usually the People’s Assembly is the only organization that has gone out there asking them about the damages that they incurred. The working-class citizens of New Orleans need to be made whole and I think just talking with people is another strike against the SWB, on top of the billing issues, on top of the increase in SW payments, it’s just another thing that the SWB has done, and people are upset. And rightfully so.
Do everyone’s damages have to be the same in the case?
No, they do not. People lost vehicles, people lost property, people lost time from work. A lot of folks that I’ve talked to have had a kind of PTSD, as far as Katrina goes. This is the same kind of circumstance, where water is just coming from nowhere, and nobody knows what’s going on… then you turn on the TV and the SWB is like- ‘Everything’s running at full capacity, we’re all fine!’
So it’s just like having that unknown element, and believing or wanting to believe that your city officials actually have your best interest at heart, and that may not be the case.
Do you see this as an environmental justice issue, considering that Central City was heavily affected, and has been less gentrified than the rest of the city?
It definitely is an environmental justice issue, cause when we think of not only the areas that were most deeply impacted, we also have to think about what’s floating around in that water in the first place. We know about what’s going on in Gordon Plaza, and there are no borders as far as toxins in air, soil, water. And we’re being constantly bombarded with this level of carelessness, especially Black working-class people, [we see] how the environments that we live in are seen as not being worth anything.
What is the ideal outcome of this lawsuit in your mind? What are you suing for this time around, and what is it that you’d like to see?
On whole, I think people just need to be compensated for the things that they lost. I look at me, and fortunately, I work relatively close to where I live. That’s not the case for a lot of people who lost vehicles in this flooding event. To be actually heard by our City Council, our SWB, our public works, period… Saying ‘hey, we’re worth giving a damn about.’
For me personally, it’s also about accountability. If these public works are not for us, then I don’t know who they’re for. We cannot have a society where basic needs are ignored. For this city to run, we need at least a working sewage and water system. There’s no getting around that.
I also feel that we cannot reward city and public officials who constantly leave us hanging. When I think about my own job, I work in banking, and if I were to misplace someone’s deposit, I’d be fired (laughs). And if the sum was large enough, I’d be in jail.
So here we have millions of dollars, not just in this instance, but since Katrina, where hundreds of millions have been pumped into the SWB, and… where is the money going? And when you have officials who work there lie to the public, resign and get six-figure pensions… where’s the consequence? Where’s the accountability?
Is the Sewerage and Water Board protected from payouts, as HANO and the School Board are?
I know that there have been multiple government entities who have been sued by multiple citizens’ groups, companies, and have not seen any sort of payout. I think the city has, somewhere in its charter, protections from payouts. I personally don’t think that’s right, I don’t see how that benefits anyone. When you can continually be charged and found guilty of negligence, and not face any consequences, I feel that’s directly against the citizenry of the city. I don’t know who is benefiting from that—it’s obviously not us (laughs). And when I say us, I am talking about every individual that used this utility. Especially families and small business owners. If this system is not built to work for us, then I don’t know what it’s here for.
For you personally, what would the ideal outcome be?
The ideal outcome would be that there would be a committee of folks who have no monetary gain or connection with the SWB to have an oversight capacity, where they’re not just reporting to a couple of City Council members and the mayor, but they have to be held accountable to the community that they serve. I would like to see regular updates about what’s happening at the SWB, where those monies are being sent. I would like to see the first thing that the SWB does when they are found negligent, is not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent people from getting whole. Don’t hire a team of assessors to say ’these claims can’t be true,’ hire a team to say ‘yes, these damages did occur, and how can we get people paid? How can we make whole?’
What motivates you to keep up with your activism, and do this kind of work?
I believe that every person is innately valuable. I believe that we do not operate in isolation on any level. And if we do not have a society that cares and uplifts one another, then we’re doing something wrong, if we are not working towards a future where everyone has a foundation of being housed, of being fed, of being taken care of—mentally, physically, if we are not laying that groundwork, then I think the future is so, so bleak. And I have to do whatever I can as an individual to stop that.
So that keeps me going to meetings, that keeps me fighting to the fight, that keeps my heart open, my ears open and my mouth open (laughs).
How does this flooding issue, the mismanagement of the SWB relate to New Orleans’ future and living with climate change?
If we can’t get it right, then we’re not gonna be here. In the city that has been named ‘the most popular tourist destination in the world’, this year, and I’m sure for many years to come… there is value here. And there is value here because of working-class people. There is value here because of the people who live here. And if we can’t make a way for people who live here to enjoy this, to be able to give of themselves and their creativity, their ingenuity, their musicality, you know, the culture of New Orleans, I think, the world would be a worse-off place. And we have to hold our government, whether it be local, state, federal, accountable. Because they do indeed work for us. We do not work for them. And that means making sure that we have environments that we can thrive in.
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you liked this piece, you should check out Jesse’s other work here.