Three long years of neglect

August 29, 2008

Alden Eagle describes the situation on the ground in New Orleans three years after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

THERE WAS one good thing about George W. Bush's recent visit to New Orleans--if he comes back, it won't be as president. He'll be an ordinary tourist, although the only ordinary tourist whose negligence led to the near-destruction of a U.S. city.

Bush wisely limited his August 20 visit to the Jackson Barracks outside New Orleans, where he could brag about his "accomplishments" three years after Hurricane Katrina without having to face a public much less optimistic about the city's future.

Bush told a handpicked audience that "hope is coming back" to New Orleans. New Orleans has never been short on hope, but the federal government's efforts to help the city recover have been completely inadequate.

Overall, New Orleans remains at under 75 percent of its pre-Katrina population, and the rate of growth has slowed. In other words, thousands of people are still displaced by Katrina three years later--and have given up their dreams of returning to the city they called home.

New Orleans has a homeless population of more than 12,000--twice what it was before the storm. This would be a crisis in any city, but it is particularly dire since social services were gutted by the Katrina disaster.

Aftermath of the flooding in the New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward
Aftermath of the flooding in the New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward (Erik Wallenberg | SW)

As of this spring, 17,000 residents of the greater New Orleans area were still stuck in FEMA trailers, long known to be unsafe due to toxic levels of formaldehyde. FEMA has been trying to remove these trailers, but thousands of people who live in them, still awaiting federal grants to rebuild, have no other options.

Even though Bush touted the federal money spent on the Gulf Coast region since Katrina, evidence of underfunding is obvious throughout the city.

For example, the Road Home project, a federally funded program to provide money for homeowners to rebuild, has consistently shortchanged Katrina victims. A recent study shows that more than 80 percent of Road Home applicants in New Orleans received less money than they needed to rebuild.

The average shortfall of grants on the Gulf Coast is $35,000, but in New Orleans, where the money is most needed, the average shortfall is over $50,000. These gaps disproportionately affect African American and elderly homeowners, who are often in the worst-hit areas of the city and had less insurance.

Renters are faring no better. A program meant to assist small renters restore more than 10,000 rental units has successfully completed a grand total of 82 units. In fact, the program mandates that owners of rental units pay for repairs themselves and apply for federal reimbursement. In the current credit crunch, securing private financing for repairs can be impossible, and so this program meant to restore affordable housing has been a failure.

Due to the dire shortage of apartments and other units, rents have gone up an average of 46 percent since 2005.

This crisis has been made that much worse by the needless closing of the city's public housing. The city's four largest public housing developments, most of which escaped the Katrina disaster with minor damage and could be reopened with modest renovations, are being bulldozed and will be replaced with mixed-income housing.

New Orleans plans to rebuild only a fraction of its pre-storm public housing units, just when the need for affordable housing is greatest.

PERHAPS WORST of all is the fact that when improvements to local hurricane protection infrastructure are complete, New Orleans will still be at serious risk for a repeat of Katrina.

The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to finish in 2011 what the White House misleadingly calls "100-year protection." One hundred-year protection doesn't mean that New Orleans will be safe for 100 years, but that the new levee system is rated to protect against storms only up to a certain level of severity--Katrina-level hurricanes which are given a 1 percent chance of striking each hurricane season. Put another way, children born today in New Orleans face a better than even chance that they will see a Katrina disaster in their lifetimes.

In other words, even the devastation of Katrina hasn't convinced the federal government that New Orleans is worth protecting.

On the other hand, the Bush administration and local government have used Katrina as an excuse to pass laws they long wanted, but had been unable to cram down our throats until they could be repackaged as "disaster relief."

The most brazen of these is Bush's push for expanded offshore oil drilling. Somehow, we are supposed to feel safer that Louisiana's meager share of offshore oil revenues will go toward hurricane protection. But oil drilling and exploration makes the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to a big storm.

The oil industry in Louisiana is a bigger factor than any other in the destruction of wetlands along the Gulf Coast--every 38 minutes, Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field in coastal wetlands.

Besides being a unique and vital ecosystem, these wetlands play a significant role in protecting low-lying areas from exactly the sort of storm surge that followed Katrina. Wetlands absorb the force of the storm surge and can serve as a barrier to dangerous flooding more effectively than the levee system. That is, they could if they weren't being destroyed so quickly.

In his remarks at Jackson Barracks, Bush had one last gift for New Orleans. He agreed to a state request that Louisiana be given 30 years to repay the federal government $1.8 billion--the local share for levee improvement.

Considering that this is less than what the U.S. government spends in one week causing death and destruction in Iraq, this "gift" of an extended payment plan feels like extortion by a bookie. And in a sense, that's exactly what it is. The inadequate levee system is an elaborate bet, played with the lives of Gulf Coast residents at stake and paid for by Louisiana taxpayers, despite New Orleans' national significance as a coastal city and port.

New Orleans has come a long way since the floodwaters receded. It is a testament to the commitment and struggle of working people that so many people who lost everything have returned to rebuild.

But no amount of upbeat words from Bush can change the fact that Katrina exposed the twisted priorities of our system. Three years later, those who lost the most in the storm continue to lose ground in their struggle to rebuild. Any accomplishments that George Bush and Louisiana politicians brag about came about despite their efforts, not because of them.

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