Friday, August 31, 2007

Katrina's victims still paying the price

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Today, many of its people are still suffering. They are the victims of government bureaucracy, racism, corruption and indifference. A report by the Institute for Southern Studies catalogues the shocking conditions faced by the poor of the city, who were overwhelmingly the hurricane’s victims.

On September 15, 2005, President Bush declared to the nation in a televised speech from New Orleans: “I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” Yet two years later, miles of the Gulf Coast are still devastated, and tens of thousands of Katrina victims remain in limbo. Many Gulf residents are running out of hope. The report shows how:

  • over 80,000 people are still living in “temporary” trailers, and 31,000 are still receiving federal housing assistance
  • Louisiana’s programme to assist homeowners has been crippled by delays and mismanagement, and it now faces a shortfall of as much as $5 billion
  • about half of those displaced by Katrina and Rita were renters, and rent costs have jumped as much as 70% across the Gulf Coast
  • of the more than 82,000 rental units destroyed by Katrina and Rita, only 33,000 are on track to be rebuilt
  • the federal and city authorities want to tear down four of the city’s largest public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income housing with less room for the poor
  • the Bush administration gave $24 million to support that city’s charter schools
    while failing to support traditional public schools
  • thousands of homeowners and businesses were denied insurance coverage after the storms, largely due to confusing rules about what should be covered
  • there are 100,000 fewer jobs available in New Orleans today than before the 2005 storms
  • recovery workers have faced abuse and fraud by their employers; the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance alone has recovered for employees over $1 million in stolen wages
  • African-American workers point to a pattern of exclusion from rebuilding jobs
  • the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent only 20% of the $8.4 billion allocated for New Orleans levee repair
  • recent analysis found that most city neighbourhoods today are as at as great a risk of destruction from flooding as they were pre-Katrina
  • testing has found dangerous levels of heavy metals and other contaminants in floodwater sediments, with lead readings in some spots two-thirds higher than levels deemed safe

The institute interviewed a wide range of community leaders and groups and concludes: “Gulf Coast leaders express outrage when Washington officials claim to have spent enormous sums of money on hurricane relief and recovery—over $116 billion, according to the Bush administration — when so little money has gotten to those most in need. The fact is, the $116 billion figure is misleading. Most of that was for emergency relief, with less than a third aimed at long-term rebuilding needs. Even worse, less than half of the long-term rebuilding money allocated has been spent.”

Katrina was a disaster waiting to happen. All the evidence suggests that the hurricane picked up power from seas that were warmer than usual as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, the federal emergency agency FEMA had been swallowed up by the Department of Homeland Security as the spurious “war on terror” - along with the invasion of Iraq - took precedence. A planning exercise conducted by FEMA in 2004 suggested that the region was woefully unprepared for a disaster that might cause significant loss of life, particularly if the levees failed in New Orleans. But its findings were ditched because budgets had been cut.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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