Four Years after Katrina: Hope and Challenge on the Gulf Coast

By Jeffrey Buchanan 9-02-2009

This will be the first year congressional leaders and President Obama won't travel to the Gulf Coast to honor the anniversary of our nation's largest disaster. Hurricane Katrina caused more than 1,800 deaths, about $150 billion in damages, and displaced more than 1 million Americans from their homes. Four years and three hurricanes later, many communities along the Gulf Coast are still devastated.

If they did visit today, they certainly would find some progress. This administration has succeeded in clearing up bureaucratic squabbles stalling millions of dollars for projects, such as rebuilding Southern University in New Orleans. Yet if they visited places such as East Biloxi or the Lower Ninth Ward and met with the region's most vulnerable -- residents with disabilities, the poor, elderly, and minority and immigrant communities -- they would find that the federal government still has a long fight ahead to make good on promises to rebuild a stronger, safer, and more equitable Gulf Coast.

Thousands of residents still live in toxic government-issued trailers as they struggle to rebuild their homes. Affordable housing construction has ground to a halt with the crash of financial markets. Homelessness has doubled in New Orleans since 2005 to roughly 12,000. Health-care facilities, particularly in mental health where needs have skyrocketed, remain limited. Eighty percent of our nation's coastal erosion each year occurs along the Gulf of Mexico, destroying tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. When combined with climate change, the very existence of coastal communities and cultures that depend on the vitality of the bayous for their livelihood and flood protection are now at stake. Tens of thousands of internally displaced survivors lack the resources to return and reunite with family and many more are unable to access proper training and living-wage work to lift their families out of poverty. The result is a domestic human rights crisis.

These issues have implications beyond our borders. After the U.S. joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in April, the first report heard by the body castigated the U.S. for abuses that included discriminatory recovery policies and failing to provide displaced hurricane survivors with the resources they need to return and rebuild. The treatment of hurricane survivors continues to be a black mark on our nation's reputation and threatens to undermine America's ability to lead the world on human rights issues.

Without stepping foot on the ground and talking with survivors, it is difficult to fully grasp the enormity and diversity of the challenges still facing Gulf Coast families and the vital need for new solutions. Leaders in Washington could still learn from community leaders on the ground, who are working every day to restore their neighborhoods.

To fill the gaps left by the federal and local government response, heroic community and faith-based organizations, backed by thousands of volunteers, have responded to this crisis with innovative and cost effective programs to rebuild lives across Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. They have led some of the most successful efforts in the recovery to date but unfortunately often the lack of funding to grow their efforts in scale.

Looking to build on local successes and tackle recovery issues, diverse grassroots leaders from across the region, working with students, policy experts, and a bipartisan group of legislators -- including Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Rodney Alexander, Joseph Cao, Charlie Melancon, Gene Taylor, and Bennie Thompson -- developed the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. This legislation would create 100,000 green job and training opportunities for residents and displaced survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to rebuild and sustain their communities. The federal government would partner directly with local officials and nonprofits to address remaining challenges, such as infrastructure, affordable housing, and flood protection. It would focus on building resilience to climate change, mitigating the effects of future deadly storms, and confronting poverty.

This plan is supported by 250 community, faith, environmental, and human rights organizations along the Gulf Coast and across the nation, such as the NAACP, ACLU, National Council of Churches, Jewish Council on Public Affairs, NETWORK, Global Green, 1SKY, the Equity & Inclusion Campaign, Oxfam American, and Amnesty International USA. Last September, more than 100 Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, mainline Protestant, and Muslim leaders urged Congress and the next administration to support this innovative policy as a national moral priority.

More than 30 members of the U.S. House are now urging their colleagues on Capitol Hill and at the White House to remember the people of the Gulf Coast and our duty as Americans to ensure every community has a right to recovery with this legislation. As we approach the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there is no better way to utilize the lessons learned since 2005 and support our brothers and sisters along the Gulf Coast than by passing and funding the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.

Jeffrey Buchanan is the information officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a co-founder of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign. He is also a Taproots Fellow at the Center for Community Change and a contributor to the upcoming book Rebuild America: Solving the Economic Crisis through Civic Works.

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