As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Has Obama's Post-Katrina Gulf Coast Recovery Plan Been Sufficient?

As we live through another anniversary of the man-made disaster on the Gulf Coast and the shocking lack of a federal response that caused thousands to die needlessly, thoughts turn again to whether anybody remembers New Orleans and its environs, and whether the proper resources are being deployed to rehabilitate the region. If you listen to the President, of course, his Administration is doing a heckuva job down there. Lots of cabinet members have visited the region, to be followed by the President later this year. The White House has untangled some bureaucracy to allow for more federal assistance to reach the Gulf Coast, and the stimulus has enhanced recovery efforts. And even some local Republicans have praised his approach, particularly the renewed sense of confidence in FEMA.

But that's the White House's spin. And not everyone agrees with it. The Institute for Southern Studies has reported on coalition groups blasting the Army Corps of Engineers for their slow response to restoring the natural barriers - wetlands, marshes, and barrier islands - that could help prevent future hurricanes. New Orleans resident Harry Shearer has more on that. To their credit, the White House has created a federal task force to speed up coastal restoration projects. But on other issues, the ISS has given the Administration low marks.

The Institute of Southern Studies recently released a report that assesses how Washington has handled the storm's aftermath. The ISS asked 50 community leaders to grade the Obama administration's Katrina recovery efforts: Obama got a D+, and Bush was given a D-. If graded on an E for effort curve, Bush probably would have gotten the edge given his authorization of millions in Gulf Opportunity tax credits and bonds, and an extension of time under which developers could use them.

Meanwhile, Obama has done little in seven months beyond distributing $50 million in housing vouchers. Unfortunately, families either won't be able to use them because there aren't enough houses built yet, or the vouchers will be of little use because they only cover a fraction of rents, which have risen substantially since Katrina. He's also instituted a plan to sell FEMA mobile units to families for $1 or $5, but many of those trailers are toxic from formaldehyde leaks.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) did little for recovery and reinvestment in the Gulf Coast area that needed it the most. Since calculations were made based off current population numbers -- many displaced people throughout the country are still waiting to return -- fewer ARRA dollars reached these congressional districts. ARRA's tax credit exchange program, which cashes in states' low income housing tax credits, also excluded the Go Zone tax credits, leaving over 17,000 housing units hanging in the balance.

The Lower Ninth Ward, already struggling prior to the flood, has been particularly slow to return to stability. Only 20% of its residents have returned full-time, and the area has lagged far behind the tourist spots and the Garden District.

The neglect of the Gulf both during and after the storm will not get turned around quickly or easily. I'm tempted to cut the White House a little slack on this one. But on the current trajectory, New Orleans is looking more and more in the post-Katrina period like a restored home for the rich and connected, and a nightmare for the voiceless. And given the moral outrage that the response to the storm correctly engendered, that is unacceptable. We have an obligation to those who were left to rot in the fetid waters, not just to give them a return to the same inequality, but a chance at a better life. Should Obama visit the city before the year ends, he shouldn't go to Bourbon Street, but the Lower Ninth, and he should not just tell them what he will do, but back it up.

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