In September 2005 electoral threats blossomed throughout post-flood New Orleans, painted on abandoned refrigerators and scrawled across boarded windows. Among the most prominent was the line that appeared on a New Orleans grocery store, right by the location where rescuers dropped off survivors from the Lower Ninth Ward. “Next time we are to vote for somebody who cares,” it read.
More than a year later, we now enjoy the full opportunity to see if that somebody might be a Democrat. Yet early signs are not promising. During the first national campaign since Katrina, few speeches made by candidates of either party addressed the ongoing struggles of evacuees and the perilous condition of an American city, or the critical issues of race, poverty and the environment that were so horrifically illustrated when the dirty water started rising. Yes, a handful of midterm campaigners did remind voters about just what happened in New Orleans, among them Keith Ellison, elected to the House from Minnesota’s Fifth District, who promised that the country will no longer tolerate “victims of natural disasters being left on the rooftops to rot.” Ron Dellums, the mayor-elect of Oakland, told a meeting of African-American journalists that “Katrina was a metaphor for everything wrong in urban America.” But most seemed to follow the script that Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, laid out in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Katrina didn’t show up in ads, he acknowledged, but it came up in conversations on the campaign trail. It’s as if this year, Katrina was the subliminal issue. Either that, or it served mainly as cement shoes for the President. “It’s about Katrina; it’s about the conduct of the war…. This Administration is marked by gross incompetence,” said new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her postelection wrap-up chat with The NewsHour‘s Margaret Warner.
For New Orleans, the most dangerous outcome of the midterms would be if voters receive the message that Katrina was a terrible thing, a Republican blunder, but it’s now over. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mental health infrastructure in New Orleans remains shattered, depression is a local epidemic and the suicide rate has officially tripled. Incredibly, some residents of public housing are still unable to enter their own homes, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development moves to demolish more than 5,000 public housing units. Unchecked insurance costs are preventing others from selling, buying or repairing property. Federal dollars are flowing to corporate bailouts and disaster profiteers, not to affected citizens, revealed an August analysis by CorpWatch, a San Francisco-based organization that previously investigated profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Stafford Act and other federal regulations are resulting in inhumane living conditions in evacuee shelter parks, including the notorious “Renaissance Village” in the town of Baker, near Baton Rouge, where entertainer Rosie O’Donnell spent the past year battling red tape just to establish a community center for the park’s thousands of inhabitants. “Even in prisons, they have running tracks,” O’Donnell told Nightline.