By William Fisher
Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans faced a ‘town hall’ meeting of several hundred displaced constituents – but had few answers to questioners seething with anger, frustration, confusion and hopelessness.
The questioners, evacuees who were approximately 75 per cent African-Americans, had been urged by Nagin to return to New Orleans from distant but temporary locations where they were trying to put their shattered lives back together. They had been promised trailers, electricity, running water, and help finding jobs.
But the stories they told Nagin and his top lieutenants revealed that they were deeply mired in government red tape, misinformation, no information and an apparent lack of interest. Their seething disapproval of every level of government was palpable.
Many told stories of spending days on the phone trying to reach relief local, state and federal agencies, often only to find that their phone numbers “were no longer in service”.
Others were told to go to centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), only to find that many of these centers had closed.
One woman, who had traveled to New Orleans from Atlanta, told of being approved for – but yet receiving -- a reconstruction loan from the Small Business Administration and, a day later, being notified by FEMA that she was no longer entitled to food stamps or to her temporary housing stipend.
Another told the mayor she had been making her mortgage payments regularly despite being unable to live in her ruined home, to which the mayor replied, “I understand most local lenders have declared a moratorium on timely payments.”
An elderly woman was trying to reclaim the body of her husband, who died in the flood, but was refused by the central morgue because DNA testing had not begun because the contract with the laboratory has not yet been finalized.
A man who owns a tree care business complained that contractors had been brought in from other states to do the work he had been carrying out for the city for the past 20 years. He said he had never heard from FEMA, despite its pledge to favor local firms.
Several speakers told the mayor they had been advised that their temporary housing was to be discontinued, and that they had 48 hours to find other places to stay.
Others complained that after being urged to return, there were no schools for their children to attend.
Still others told of having to sleep in their trucks or on a floor, living out of a car and waiting for the help that was promised but has not yet arrived.
Said one woman whose import business was wiped out by the storm, along with her home in New Orleans East: "You come to these FEMA centers, you sit all day, You get no answers to your questions. They're evasive. You're constantly 'pending.' What are you going to be doing, 'pending' for the rest of your life? I've lost everything."
With no place to live in New Orleans, many spoke of frequent long drives to obtain help from FEMA. Agency officials, backed by armed guards, refused to allow a reporter into the agency’s giant interviewing room, where long tables lined with seated aid seekers had been set up.
Mayor Nagin listened intently to every questioner. He answered some in vague generalities. He referred others to his staff and promised that they would quickly take the appropriate action to bring them relief. He is currently conducting other ‘town hall’ meetings in other cities where displaced New Orleanians are now living, and continues to urge them to return.
Many of the citizens attending the New Orleans town hall meeting were residents of the lower 9th ward, the poorest part of the city, and the hardest hit by the hurricane.
Meanwhile, Katrina has been gradually but steadily disappearing from prominent coverage in newspapers and on television. With President Bush no longer visiting the stricken areas, the media has apparently moved on.
In an interview, Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance said, “With all of the coverage that this disaster received and with it having damaged the Bush administration's credibility so severely, it is amazing that these people have been so quickly forgotten by our government and that the administration has so blithely moved on to other things like immigration reform, as if the Gulf Coast was even stable, much less repaired.”
He added, “What this problem needs is some sustained attention by the executive branch. The President needs to pay more attention to the Gulf and less to giving his second term an ‘extreme makeover’. If people thought he was doing something to make the lives of average Americans better in the first place, he probably wouldn't need an extreme makeover!”
There are also indications that a proposed congressional investigation into government responses to the disaster could itself become bogged down in jurisdictional wrangles and partisan infighting.
From the very beginning of the post-Katrina disaster, Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landreau has adopted an aggressive posture in urging congress to appropriate massive sums for relief and reconstruction. But her in-your-face style has reportedly alienated some of her colleagues.
In contrast, Senators from Mississippi – parts of which were also devastated by the hurricane -- have been working more quietly behind the scenes to steer resources to their constituents.
But some Louisiana officials suggest that party politics is playing a role in the provision of resources. They point out that their state has a Democratic Governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and that New Orleans is a Democratic stronghold. Mississippi is heavily Republican. Its governor, Haley Barbour, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and has close ties to the Bush Administration.
Documentation released yesterday by Governor Blanco reveals the total chaos that existed between local, state and federal authorities in the days before, during and after the hurricane hit. They suggest that federal authorities were trying to shift the blame toward the Governor while, in fact, no one was in charge.
A FEMA spokesman said last week that the agency was working as fast as it could to aid the thousands still destitute from the storm.
"I don't know if you understand the magnitude of this disaster," said the
spokesman, James McIntyre. "Almost 1.5 million people have registered for
assistance, and we're working to help them all."
Mr. McIntyre continued: "We're working as fast as we possibly can to meet their
needs, and help them receive assistance for damages from these disasters."
Another FEMA official, the manager of an assistance center in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, said the mental anguish of many of his clients was now
"As people come in, they become desperate," said the official. "They're coming back, thinking they can live in their dwelling. And then all of a sudden, there's nothing."
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left more than 281,000 Louisiana residents -- 14 percent of the workers in the state – jobless. That created as massive run of unemployment filings that threatens to bankrupt the state's unemployment trust fund.
In the first seven weeks after Katrina struck, Louisiana residents filed 281,745 hurricane-related claims for unemployment benefits, more than the 193,000 claims filed in all of 2004, according to figures released by the state Department of Labor. The number of filings is 13 times what is normal for a seven-week period.