The Katrina Factor

The Katrina Factor

There’s little evidence so far that Democrats will push for reconstruction in New Orleans.


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.

Another sign that Katrina is an ongoing disaster: Too often the only recourse for flood victims and activist groups is to go to court. In November a federal judge ordered the Bush Administration to continue to provide housing to evacuees, calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s notification system “Kafkaesque”–only the latest indication that Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff should be sent down the Rumsfeld road for his mishandling of Katrina.

Democratic leaders must now loudly make the case for post-Katrina reconstruction they didn’t make during the midterms. They should start by immediately launching an independent accounting of what went wrong with the Army Corps of Engineers’ levees. So far, we have had one investigation by the Corps itself, and several independent investigations that seriously challenge the Corps’s own reckoning. As founder Sandy Rosenthal has pointed out, the real danger is that the Corps’s faulty study will become the blueprint for repairs. A year ago, when Nevada’s Harry Reid was the Senate minority leader, he stated unequivocally that the Democratic Party supported Category 5 levee protection. “The President seems to have shelved his grand plans for reconstruction,” he said in November 2005. Now Reid is in a better place to roll out those plans himself.

As the new Congress presses for levee investigation and funding, it should also prioritize restoration of coastal Louisiana’s wetlands. Without the wetlands buffer, levees aren’t worth the dirt and concrete it takes to build them. An August study by a coalition of national and Louisiana environmental organizations, titled One Year After Katrina: Louisiana Still a Sitting Duck, calls on Congress to convene hearings immediately on the problem of the vanishing American coastline, and to complete all necessary wetlands projects within ten years. Coastline restoration could be partially funded by provisions in the Domenici-Landrieu revenue-sharing measure, which would provide a steady stream of dollars to Louisiana from Gulf oil drilling. (The Dems must insure that this bill is not, however, transformed into a ticket to expand drilling elsewhere.) In addition, the new majority must heed environmentalists’ calls to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, the ill-considered shipping channel that helped destroy wetlands and acts as a live wire for hurricane surges.

The new Congress should also take on the Stafford Act’s requirements that FEMA-sponsored housing be temporary. Such regulations don’t anticipate the massive, long-term displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens caused by disasters like Katrina. The National Urban League Policy Institute’s report Katrina: One Year Later spells out other needed reforms, including the rehabbing of FEMA, flood insurance overhaul and Army Corps reform. Meanwhile, the Children’s Defense Fund has proposed a Disaster Relief Medicaid bill to address the health needs of families after a disaster. This, too, should be a Democratic issue. Finally, the destruction of public housing in New Orleans must be immediately halted, until the quality of the current and proposed housing, and the effect on exiled New Orleans communities, can be fully considered.

More than anything, Democrats must set themselves apart by keeping their promises to Katrina survivors. At an August press conference in New Orleans, party leaders pledged that the first 100 hours of the new Congress would include bills to assist New Orleans by streamlining insurance, creating more affordable housing options and restoring the coast. But Pelosi’s recently released “New Direction for America” didn’t include one mention of post-Katrina needs. Such omissions offer cold comfort to New Orleanians who wonder if some leaders have stopped thinking of their home as an American city at all.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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