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The reality exposed by two hurricanes
Poor get left behind

By Alan Maass | September 30, 2005 | Page 1

HURRICANE RITA caused less devastation than was feared as it bore down on the Texas coast last week. But the same warped priorities and disdain for the poor that caused untold thousands of deaths following Hurricane Katrina were obvious once again.

After a last-minute shift in direction, Rita struck hardest at the border of Texas and Louisiana, one of the most lightly populated parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Galveston-Houston area 60 miles southwest--with its large population and crucial petrochemical industry facilities--escaped a direct hit.

But to the east, Rita caused more levee breaches in New Orleans, still evacuated from the Katrina catastrophe. The city's poorest neighborhoods were again inundated, with water rising quickly to the level of first-floor windows. "We're back to where we started as far as the cleanup goes," said a state emergency official.

Unknown is the damage that Rita will do away from the coast. As a hurricane, it was classified as slightly less powerful than Katrina, but once it moved onshore, it lost speed and dropped huge amounts of rain on eastern Texas and western Louisiana--prompting fears of record inland flooding. Much of the rainwater will pour into the Mississippi as well, and drain into the Gulf of Mexico, aggravating the problem of toxic spills in the polluted region around New Orleans, as well as the Gulf itself.

Federal officials bragged that their efforts successfully evacuated several million people from Houston and other cities in Rita's path. But like Katrina, the poor were left behind.

Wilma Skinner of Houston told a reporter that she telephoned city offices for help in evacuating, but "[n]o one answers. Everyone just says, 'Get out, get out.' I've got no way of getting out. And now I've got no money."

Thomas Visor was left waiting in a check-cashing store with more than 100 other people--all of them Black or Hispanic, according to a reporter--as the storm approached. "All the banks are closed and I just got off work," Visor said. "This is crazy. How are you supposed to evacuate a hurricane if you don't have money? Answer me that?"

The same Associated Press report described an immigrant woman and her young daughter left terrorized on a Houston sidewalk, surrounded by plastic bags full of clothes and blankets. "I'd like to go, but nobody come get me," the woman said in broken English.

Even for those who could leave, the trip out of town was chaos. Judie Anderson said she had traveled just 45 miles in 12 hours. "This is the worst planning I've ever seen," she told a reporter. "They say, 'We've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina.' Well, you couldn't prove it by me."

Among those who bore the brunt of another displacement were evacuees from New Orleans. "In Deer Park, a working-class suburb of refineries south of Houston, Stacy and Troy Curtis, waited for help outside the police station," Associated Press reported. "Less than three weeks ago, the couple left New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

"With no vehicle, and little money, they tried to get their lives together while staying at a hotel in Deer Park. Stacy Curtis, a nursing assistant in New Orleans, had a job interview scheduled for Thursday. But most businesses had shut down because the neighborhood will likely flood if the hurricane hits Galveston Bay. The streets were empty Thursday afternoon. We're stuck here,' Stacy Curtis said. 'Got no other place to go.'"

Though the second storm missed heavily populated areas, the two Gulf Coast hurricanes together have exposed the desperation of poverty in the richest country on earth.

After Katrina, people who were already suffering the worst conditions--some 300,000 in the region living in households where annual income was less than half of the poverty line--were driven into destitution. "They've become a new class of poor, one that makes the old class look well off by comparison," Isaac Shapiro, a research analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told a reporter. "They've not only lost their jobs and their homes; they're also isolated from family and friends, putting them at great risk for depression and substance abuse. When you have no assets to start out with and no savings to rely on, and then your income stream is disrupted, something that might have been poverty with extreme hardship shifts into desperation."

After dragging its feet to mount even an emergency relief effort in the opening days of the Katrina disaster, the Bush administration is now competing with Congress to devote huge sums to rebuilding New Orleans. But ask the victims of Katrina and now Rita whether they've seen anything concrete from Bush's big promises.

The federal government's conservative estimate is that more than 200,000 families in the region need housing for at least six months and probably longer. But officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admit that they can meet only a fraction of this need.

FEMA's plan is to build temporary housing in the same kind of huge trailer parks that some victims of last year's Hurricane Ivan along the Florida panhandle are still living in. But FEMA says that state and local officials aren't coming up with suitable sites, while local leaders charge that the Feds' plans for setting up and supplying the trailer parks are hopelessly inadequate. Meanwhile, builders of manufactured housing say that they will need months to fill the new orders from FEMA.

Housing advocates say the federal chaos is "a slow-motion replay of the bureaucratic divisions that crippled the emergency response for days after Katrina hit," according to the Washington Post.

One possible solution is languishing because of the Bush administration's refusal to take it up. Rental occupancy rates and rents are at historic lows, and 1.1 million units are available throughout the South for less than $700 a month on average, according to one housing economist.

Several congressional proposals would provide rental vouchers to evacuees, via the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the Bush administration has yet to give its approval--in part, commentators believe, because the White House recently proposed huge budget cuts for HUD, including the department's Section 8 housing voucher program for the poor.

The Bush administration isn't letting a humanitarian catastrophe get in the way of its warped priorities--helping the rich line their pockets, while poor and working people pay the price.

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