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Katrina’s New Underclass

There is an ongoing national emergency that demands our immediate attention.

In the absence of decisive Executive action, an under-funded FEMA made its own executive decision to shelter hundreds of thousands of survivors in hotels, paying in some cases rates in excess of $400 per night, resulting in a windfall for hotel chains during their slow season, but depleting FEMA’s budget. Now, with summer business coming, the hotels want the survivors out and FEMA is evicting tens of thousands of families from temporary housing.

As a result of the President’s failure to act, Secretary Chertoff’s failure to act, and the failure of Congress to act, it appears we are about to see a new underclass of “Katrina Homeless” in America, even as Halliburton and other contractors take fifty per cent off the top of their sweetheart, no-bid Katrina contracts before subcontracting the work out at rock bottom rates.

Given the vast amounts of money that has gone “missing”-billions of dollars-from this Administration’s Iraq misadventure, it is scandalous that we won’t provide housing to the survivors.

What Katrina survivors facing homelessness need is enough assistance to rebuild their lives. Why did we offer a Victims Compensation Fund to 9/11 families but not to Katrina survivors? And why hasn’t the Congress moved swiftly to pass or at least held hearings on HR 4197, the Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act of 2005?

What left so many at the mercy of Katrina was poverty. In the greater New Orleans area, 65,000 minority residents lived in poverty before Katrina, compared with 85,000 whites. Thus, contrary to the stereotyping, poverty is not specific to race, even though Orleans Parish, which was 67% black, was hardest hit by the flooding.

The poor, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, these were the people who could not obey the mandatory evacuation order. If we wish to see that there is never another disaster like Katrina, we need to take urgent action to deal with poverty in this country. And here, I would suggest that the Congress hold hearings on House Concurrent Resolution 234, Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s Poverty Bill.

Evacuation plans failed these people, as did the National Response Plan. We need a new National Response Plan.

Rather than attempting to defend the indefensible, Secretary Chertoff needs to resign and allow this Administration the opportunity to get this straight-for the sake of the innocent people of the Gulf States and New Orleans.

We need a National Response Plan that is sensitive to poverty and ethnicity. It is unconscionable that DHS would have a partnership with Operation Blessing, but not with a single black organization.

Poverty cuts across ethnic divisions, but there is another side to this story. In the testimony at our hearings and in my report, there is a very clear pattern. In numerous instances, whites were evacuated before blacks while blacks were detained or turned back, as happened on the bridge to Gretna. The media stereotyped blacks as “looters” and whites as “takers” and fueled fears of blacks that led to the “invasion” of New Orleans, shockingly by hired mercenaries.

Shoot-to-kill orders were issued in a city whose police have a history of abuse, and who will spare no excuse to jail young black men for petty offenses.

Another area completely untouched by the Congress is the toxic aftermath of Katrina. Decades of pollution has made the sediment layer at the bottom of the Gulf and other water bodies highly toxic.

Hurricane Katrina lifted this sediment sludge out of the water and spread it across all the affected regions of the Gulf. Not since Hurricane Betsy in 1965 has this happened on such a scale. As a result, arsenic and other highly dangerous chemicals are present at levels sufficient that much of the Gulf Coast could be declared a Superfund site. But the EPA is sitting on its hands, and will not act unless Congress instructs it to initiate a clean-up process necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of the Gulf Coast. I have introduced legislation to accomplish this, and I wish the Congress would consider it for the health and safety of our fellow Americans.

There is much more to discuss. We have between 60,000 to 70,000 survivors in metro Atlanta right now, and the needs are tremendous.
But let me conclude by saying that what we are left with is the fact that while the hurricane washed its “toxic gumbo” ashore, it also stripped away the veil that often hides issues of poverty and persistent racism in America. We can choose to ignore these issues and hope they go away, but we know they won’t.

Alternately, we can rise to the challenge and work together to tackle these very difficult problems head on. The choice is ours.

 

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