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
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
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
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.