New Orleans Katrina is now more than seventeen years ago. That’s a long time, New Orleans should be way over the storm by now. Unfortunately, people are still trying to get home. Others are still in the half-life of rebuilding from paycheck to paycheck. The Lower 9th Ward, home of low-and-moderate, working Black families in 2005, is still a long way from recovery.
Even after all of this time, shoes are still dropping. Saying, “I told you so”, brings no comfort, even if answers finally come to some nagging questions. Some years past in 2011, I wrote a book about Katrina, one of a shelf of volumes on the storm, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster. One of the lessons I pulled from the torturous rebuilding process, such as it was, maintained that it would have been the better course for the Democratic governor at that time, Kathleen Blanco, to push the money out as soon as the state received it, rather than stretching out the already dilatory process created by Congressional delays. I argued that Louisiana should have stiffed up against potential charges of corruption or leakage in order to get the money out, the building done, and people home. The endless process of the Road Home program kept people away from home.
Now a report by the Times-Picayune Advocate, WWL-TV, and ProPublica, confirms that in terms of disaster relief the negotiations with Congress led to a one-off series of standards for distributing recovery money unlike anything FEMA had applied before or that Congress had mandated in appropriations previously. Standards in fact that have also never been applied subsequently over the last seventeen years. Rather than distributing what was needed to rebuild the homes, the relief was calculated on home and property values at the time of the storm. The Congressional rationale focused on Louisiana’s reputation for corruption, but the facts of the matter were racist and classist, penalizing low-and-moderate income neighborhoods, that were largely Black, compared to white, middle-class and wealthier areas where the home values were higher. This formula also ignored the reality that communities like the lower 9th ward took the brunt of the storm, its levee breaches, and flooding, making the rebuilding more extensive and of course more expensive. Many of these homes also had inadequate home and flooding insurance, but even if that had such coverage, it would have been deducted from the grant from Road Home. A chart in the papers comparing a middle-income Black area to a white area, found 31% of the replacement cost uncovered by any source in the Black area and only 15% in the white neighborhood. Needless to say, the richer families also had more resources to fill the gap, while many lower income families are still piecing it together.
With control in the House of Representatives changing now one of the topics the conservatives want to investigate is graft in the pandemic recovery money to business and families. Reportedly, the numbers are in the billions. For my part, I’ll applaud Biden for having learned the lesson of Katrina. Better to duck the brickbats later and keep people on their feet and put them back in their homes as fast as possible, than dilly-dally around and worsen the tragedy.
Learn the lessons from Katrina; get the money out the door ASAP, and let the rough edge drag.