Remembering Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast Region

A good friend of mine was once a teacher in the New Orleans Public School system, he told me once that your average person could never imagine the amount of poverty that existed in New Orleans and how his students, most of them poor and black had to live. After days of watching the aftermath of hurricane Katrina unfold in our living rooms; watching the ineptness of our government’s inability to respond to help thousands of mostly, poor, black people, who could not leave New Orleans, I’d like to believe that everyone at least has some idea of the level of poverty that existed in New Orleans, before the hurricane, Katrina. In many ways Katrina did what many social workers, political activist and local leaders have been trying to do for years, put a face on race and poverty in this county and show the ever widening divisions between those that have and those that have not. Hurricane Katrina also showed children, families, and the elderly suffering because of decades of neglect and public policy that gave little thought to the poor.

Prior to Katrina nearly 50,000 poor people lived in areas of New Orleans where the poverty rate was over 40 percent. In New Orleans the poor black folks were clustered in extremely poor neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. These neighborhoods did not happen by accident they are the by product of decades of government policies that concentrated the poor, black people in public housing in the inner city. Federal tax dollars encouraged sprawl, neglected affordable housing for the poor thus cutting them from a decent housing, education and economic opportunities.

Katrina revealed to the America public, massive amounts of poverty in this country. Poverty fueled by public policy and urban sprawl which isolated inner city low income workers and people of color from jobs, public transportation, decent affordable housing, and educational opportunities. Katrina also showed the consequences of racial and economic inequality in the United States; massive amounts of people left behind to fend for themselves and most of them are black.

Policy Link, a national non profit research organization, has developed a ten point guide to rebuilding the Gulf Coast region. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to broaden the public debate about strategies to achieve a prosperous and fair economy, all of these organizations have come up with very similar strategies in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. I have tried to summarize some of their key points.

First, everyone who was evacuated from the region should be able to return. Governmental policies should require that local residents have preference for all jobs that are created during the reconstruction process. These residents also need to play a central role in rebuilding their communities. There should be focus on rebuilding the Gulf Coast so that all communities are mixed income this will help spread affordable housing across the region. There should also be a system in place to help families find housing in economically integrated neighborhoods.

Secondly, workers who rebuild need fair and decent wages, which will increase the wealth of residents and help lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, President suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, in areas affected by the flood. Davis-Bacon enacted in 1931, is also known as the prevailing wage law because it preserves the local area wages and labor standards for contractors working with the federal government. Davis-Bacon also ensured affirmative action in employment and guaranteed civil rights protection for minorities and women. Third, voices of the residents need to be heard throughout the rebuilding process. Every effort should be made to ensure that everyone, including those displaced can continue to engage in the voting process and vote in state and local elections. Residents of color, whether returning to the Gulf Coast or settling permanently in other regions, must continue to have representation that serves their interests and needs.

Fourth, there needs to be massive jobs and skills training to help people qualify for jobs that will become available during the reconstruction process. Helping people get the training they need will help people participate in the reconstruction process. Lastly, establish a reconstruction fund for rebuilding new homes, business, etc. Government officials need to communicate with representatives throughout the planning and rebuilding process. In short the Gulf Coast region must be rebuilt in a manner that will not repeat the mistakes of the past and create large pockets of concentrated poverty.

In the aftermath of Katrina it is clear that the response by the federal government to the Gulf Coast region was a disaster in itself and overshadowed the hurricane. Dr. Robert Bullard has published a Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans  his plan is based on his observations made since the storm destroyed the region.