Short Shrift for Hurricane Katrina Victims

September 8, 2007

Word came last week from the White House that President Bush plans to ask Congress in mid-September for up to $50 billion in additional funding for the Iraq war. This comes on top of about $460 billion in the fiscal 2008 defense budget and $147 billion in a pending supplemental bill to fund fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The revised supplements total about $200 billion: this means that the cost of the Iraq war now tops $3 billion a week. According to the Pentagon, the cost of the war in Iraq is now over $330 billion; the Afghanistan war has cost $78 billion.

Distress Flag, New Orleans

During the same week and on the same day that news of the supplemental war funding broke, President George W. Bush made his 15th visit to the Gulf Coast to mark the two-year anniversary of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history — Hurricane Katrina — which killed more than 1,600 people and devastated the Gulf’s infrastructure and built environment. About $114 billion has been spent in Katrina’s aftermath but most of it has been for disaster relief and not long-term recovery, or less than 20 percent of what has been spent or is projected to be spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re the most heavily armed country in the world, and yet we cannot protect our own.

President Bush at Jackson Square in New Orleans, Two Weeks After Hurricane KatrinaIf he was expecting a warm, enthusiastic welcome, President Bush was mistaken. There’s anger, skepticism and depression in the Katrina-ravaged areas, especially when Bush talks of the government’s “strong commitment” to the region. It’s felt that the administration’s response to the hurricane has been both inadequate and incompetent. In a Jackson Square speech two weeks after Katrina, Bush promised that the federal government would “do what it takes” to rebuild New Orleans. Hello, President Bush? It’s not done yet. We’re not sure how your platitudes last Wednesday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the beleaguered and impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, such as “remember that there’s always a more blessed day in the future,” are going to enhance your street cred.

Message on Canal Side of Levee in New Orleans, on Hurricane Katrina's Second Anniversary What planet is this man on? New Orleans’ suicide rate has skyrocketed, one-third of hospitals are still closed, crime rose, doctors didn’t return; in fact, lots of people never came back. They couldn’t afford to come back, especially when rents on the remaining buildings skyrocketed, or they sank into lassitude and depression where they were. Basic services like schools, public transportation, libraries and childcare are at only half their original levels. The city’s population is back to about 60 percent of pre-Katrina levels. While a few neighborhoods such as the untouched French Quarter thrive, abandoned houses and shuttered businesses aren’t hard to find. Many building projects have been delayed by soaring costs of construction and insurance, bureaucratic red tape and federal funding which has been slow to arrive. Sales tax revenue is almost normal, but other economic indicators — such as population, employment and housing supplies — are down. Most importantly, the levees aren’t ready for another storm, and won’t be until. . . 2011.

In his speech, Bush said that it was a “remarkable achievement” that 80 schools will open this fall in New Orleans. But a report the same day by the Southern Education Foundation said: “Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has the United States witnessed so many of its own students thrown out of school.” The Atlanta, Georgia-based foundation said that millions of dollars worth of school reconstruction projects remain unfunded, while thousands of Gulf Coast students are still displaced. According to its figures, only two percent of hurricane relief funding has gone to education, with 20,000 to 30,000 K-12 students not attending school at all in the 2005-2006 school year and up to 15,000 missed all of most school days during the 2006-2007 school year.

Bush also emphasized the point that he feels infrastructure repair and the rebuilding of homes are responsibilities shared with local officials or fall entirely within the purview of state and local governments. The Road Home program, a federally funded, Louisiana-administered program intended to help people rebuild their homes, is a particularly touchy subject in Louisiana. Out of 180,000 applicants, less than 40,000 Louisianians have received grants. And due to insurance shortfalls, federal, state and local government officials now say that there won’t be enough money to go around.

Harry M. Reid, Senate Majority LeaderSenate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV.), marked the Katrina anniversary by issuing a statement reading: “The Bush administration’s continuing efforts to hinder Gulf Coast recovery efforts are misguided. . .Rather than working to block an investigation into levee failures after Katrina and threatening to veto funding to both restore the Gulf Coast and strengthen Louisiana’s levees, President Bush should back up his words and photo ops with real action to help the people of the Gulf Coast.”

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Photo credit: Greg Peters and Jennifer Zdon/Times-Picayune

Copyright ©2007

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