An Unhappy Anniversary
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Today, the costs of Hurricane Katrina are still staggering. But even more staggering has been the slow pace of recovery on the Gulf Coast. No one was happy with the federal government's initial response to the hurricane. Eighty percent of the American public think the federal government's response could have been "much better," and in September President Bush stated, " This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina."
But at Katrina's one-year anniversary, it is clear that the nation is still waiting for the help Bush promised. Sunday, as part of the White House's " public relations blitz," Bush trumpeted in his weekly radio address that the federal government has " committed $110 billion to the recovery effort."
But those billions of dollars have yet "to translate into billions in building." Perhaps most disappointingly, Bush has forgotten about his promise to the nation to confront poverty " with bold action."
As Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes, "The mood in Washington continues to be one of not-so-benign neglect of the problems of the poor." Lessons haven't been learned, and time has run out for excuses. (The Progress Report has compiled a comprehensive timeline of the past year's events and American Progress has developed a list of actions America needs to ensure preparedness and recovery capacity for natural disasters.)
Skyrocketing housing costs: In his Sept. 15 speech, Bush stated that his administration " will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives" and promised to "get the work done quickly." But one year after the storm, repopulation in New Orleans has slowed to a trickle, leaving the city with well under half its prestorm population of 460,000." Lacking the resources to return to the city are many African-Americans who formed the "working-class backbone" of the city. The Houston Chronicle notes, " Vast sections of New Orleans are still devoid of life, populated by endless rows of broken, empty houses waving "for sale" signs like flags of surrender."
By tomorrow, many New Orleans property owners may lose their former homes. The one-year anniversary of Katrina is the deadline when property owners "must have gutted the buildings or shown some signs they intend to rebuild when they can. If they don't, the city can take it as a given they do not intend to return." The average selling price for homes in areas that weren't affected by flooding has risen 25 percent. Rental rates have risen 40 percent, disproportionately affecting black and low-income families. In Biloxi, Miss., 70 percent of renters affected by the storm are black, according to an NAACP study, and another report by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights noted that almost " 100 percent of public housing families in New Orleans are African-American." Approximately 112,000 low-income homes were damaged, but only a fraction of federal housing assistance has been earmarked for rental units.
Slow economic recovery: More than 81,000 regional businesses were impacted by the storm, resulting in the loss of 450,000 jobs. In advance of his two-day trip to the region, Bush over the weekend touted the government's $110 billion commitment to Katrina recovery, noting the administration is " playing a vital role" in the Gulf Coast's reconstruction. But in reality, just $44 billion has been spent and a new ABC News poll finds that 60 percent of Americans believe the recovery money has so far been "mostly wasted."
Approximately 60 percent of the businesses in New Orleans have still not reopened. According to a report by the Democratic members of the House Small Business Committee, " 80 percent of small businesses on the Gulf Coast have not yet received loans promised by the federal government." Some business owners have had to wait as long as 100 days for a decision on a loan application. "These long delays have not only caused many viable small businesses to fail that would have otherwise survived, but has contributed to the slow recovery of the local economy," noted the report.
A 'nonfunctioning city': A White House " Fact Sheet" released in advance of Katrina's one-year anniversary notes that FEMA has provided $5.6 billion to repair and replace damaged public infrastructure. But Gulf Coast Recovery coordinator Donald E. Powell has admitted that nearly a third of the trash in New Orleans has yet to be picked up. Sixty percent of New Orleans homes still lack electricity and just 66 percent of public schools have reopened. Only 17 percent of the city's buses are operational, causing severe problems for the many residents who don't own cars -- "a major factor in the government's failure to evacuate residents before the storm." "Look at what we're getting in terms of services," said Janet Howard of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonprofit group in New Orleans. " It's basically a nonfunctioning city." Crime has risen again in New Orleans -- the homicide rate is nearly 10 times the national average -- but only seven of 13 courtrooms have reopened and judges have a backlog of nearly 7,000 cases. A recent report by the Department of Justice found that in New Orleans, "justice is simply unavailable." But where the federal, state, and local governments have been absent, citizen activism has surged in the wake of the storm, " chipping away at some of this city's unhealthy institutions." Many schools -- formerly in " the control of a corrupt district office" -- are now being managed by parents and community activists as charter schools, and newcomers are pushing for reform and tighter ethics in the city council.
Poverty forgotten: One of the president's boldest promises after Hurricane Katrina was his promise to fight poverty nationwide: "As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality." But as soon as Katrina disappeared from the headlines, " poverty and antipoverty policy disappeared once again from the public agenda." Most recently, the Senate voted down a minimum wage increase because the conservative leadership, in a political ploy, tied it to a cut in inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates. The federal minimum wage hasn't been raised since 1996 and eight million Americans continue to live on $5.15 an hour. Since Bush took office, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 5.4 million and an additional 1.4 million children fell into poverty between 2000 and 2004. The poverty rates for African-Americans and Hispanics ( 23 percent) continues to be far higher than the poverty rate for whites (8.6 percent). While Bush did follow through on his promise to create Gulf Opportunity Zones -- tax incentives for regional business development -- Alter notes that they have become "mostly an opportunity for Southern companies owned by GOP campaign contributors to make some money in New Orleans." To date, Congress has taken no action on Bush's call for Worker Recovery Accounts, which would provide $5,000 for evacuees seeking education and job training, or on the Urban Homesteading Act, which would provide free building sites via a lottery to low-income evacuees.
More ailments, less medical care: Health care is an increasing problem in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals estimated that " New Orleans has lost half of its physicians and suffers from a shortage of 1,000 nurses." Forty-four percent of adult caregivers now lack health coverage and "34 percent of children in FEMA-subsidized communities have at least one chronic health condition that requires treatment, but half of the affected children no longer have a medical provider." Even though the population of New Orleans is at less than half of its pre-storm population, the suicide rate has tripled and there is no capacity to deal with mental health and substance abuse problems. The people of New Orleans are also suffering from a lack of hospitals and the inability to receive immediate care from emergency rooms.
Federal waste and mismanagement: The federal mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has permanently damaged Bush's approval rating. White House counselor Dan Bartlett recently said, "It was a setback at the time, but it was recoverable and has been." But the American public disagrees. Bush's approval rating before Katrina was at 60 percent. Immediately after the hurricane hit, it fell to 52 percent and in mid-Sept. 2005, it dropped to 49 percent. It is now at just 36 percent. Sixty-six percent of the American public (and 84 percent of New Orleans residents) rate the government's recovery efforts negatively, according to a recent ABC News poll. A June Government Accountability Office report found that between $600 million and $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars has been wasted on " improper and potentially fraudulent individual assistance payments." Payments went to Katrina evacuees to pay for items such as Dom Perignon champagne, New Orleans Saints season tickets and adult-oriented entertainment. A recent report by the House Committee on Government Reform found that 19 Katrina contracts -- worth $8.75 billion -- " experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending or mismanagement."
Levees not ready: Yesterday, Powell said, "I believe that the levees are ready for hurricane season. ... The levees are back to where they were pre-Katrina, and they're on their way to being the best, better and stronger then they have ever been." But Powell's upbeat rhetoric contradicts assessments by the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, who recently expressed skepticism that the New Orleans levees could withstand a hurricane with a heavy storm surge this year. In order for the levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and for residents of New Orleans to finally feel safe, another $30 billion will need to be spent. Unfortunately, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune notes, the federal government's "commitment to the long-term protection of South Louisiana is still uncomfortably murky.