Democratic Underground

Katrina's Victims Deserve More

December 9, 2005
By Tommy Ates

"You can never return."

Sounds like a funeral eulogy, doesn't it?

Those are words many lower 9th Ward and New Orleans residents are being implicitly told by FEMA and Louisiana state and city authorities, in evacuee meetings in Atlanta, Houston, Birmingham and other cities around the affected areas of the Gulf coast.

For Katrina evacuees, the nightmare has shifted from the hurricane's aftermath to the government's neglect. Doubly so for hard-working citizens and homeowners who listened to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco in their calls for residents to return to the area. They listened to intently and believed in President Bush's message of hope and empowerment from New Orleans in the weeks after the storm.

Those evacuees, some poor, but mainly middle-class and black, trusted that the federal government would live up to its promise of repairing the levees (to Category 5 levels) and getting the infrastructure (lights, gas, and roads) back online. It is almost four months since the storm; the tragic stories have been off the news media's radar, and there has been no Hollywood ending. Just the old story of politics-as-usual served Southern-style: money is power, power is money, and without either you have none.

For these residents, it is their livelihood, homes, land their culture - at stake. In terms of sheer numbers, the Katrina evacuation from New Orleans was one of the largest resettlement events since black Northern migrations in the 1930s and '40s. And while they are desperately attempting to re-plant roots, the federal government has not yet decided the financial (and political cost) of keeping them there.

In the meantime, in the eyes of real estate developers and conservative interests, an abandoned lower 9th Ward and vicinity would be to New Orleans' benefit in terms of financial services (fewer lower-income residents), further relaxation of construction rules and regulations, and increased "comfort level" of visitors, introducing a "new and improved" New Orleans: a more "modern" attitude, a heightened "pleasure-land" for young adults and (possible) retirees, and a different demographic: going from 70% black to 70% white.

What a difference a storm makes.

One wonders if government critics, who cite how overwhelmed FEMA and Louisiana state authorities were after Katrina, have an answer as why so little has been done in the worst-affected areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. There are over 600,000 still in government-sponsored temporary housing (i.e., hotel rooms and mobile homes) in Mississippi, and temporary housing has yet to assigned to some residents, at least near where they once lived, instead of (in some cases) hundreds of miles away.

However, due to political pressure some government action is taking place. The Federal Housing Authority has decided to pay the mortgages of federally-insured Katrina-damaged homes for a year (instead of simply three months), affecting 20,000 homes. In addition, the National Flood Insurance Program, managed by FEMA, has borrowed $18.5 billion dollars to assist homeowners with damage claims due to flooding.

Government intervention will be needed for years to reestablish the economy and support existing infrastructure. This assistance is needed on top of the immediate aid to hold the middle-class and small-businesses in the affected areas.

From the residents who want to rebuild their lives, to the politicians who wish to stay in office, to the environmentalists encouraging "responsible" development: all believe they know what is best for the city of New Orleans and the region. But it's the federal government (starting with President Bush) who should take the reins.

After all, this larger-than-9/11-scale event was an "act of God." The Katrina recovery effort should be a pillar to Bush's promise of "compassionate conservatism" during the 2000 campaign.

So where is he?

Not only is Katrina a watershed for government action (or lack thereof), but, on a political level, the end of the 20th century Republican party and its continued "Southern Strategy." There is nothing like observing the real human experience of struggle and suffering to change one's priorities, especially when they are Americans.

There are no words. We help our own.

Tommy Ates is a syndicated columnist based in Cincinnati, Ohio. His articles have appeared in several publications, including the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Wichita Eagle, and the Macon Telegraph, among others.

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