Katrina: Two tough years later

This is a piece by Dr. Mackie written in The Washington Afro-American, and posted here in its entirety.

One Love. One II.

Louisiana and the city of New Orleans are participating and rebounding in the most complex reconstruction effort in American history. As you know, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked unprecedented havoc upon South Louisiana in the fall of 2005, creating the first and third most expensive natural disasters in United States history. Presently, schools are reopening. Homes are being rebuilt. Life as we knew it is gradually returning. But this was an unprecedented catastrophe. Pushing the recovery forward will take an extraordinary effort and a commitment to do what it takes for the people of this state, especially the residents of New Orleans.

The Challenge

This unparalleled challenge from hurricanes Katrina and Rita impacted a Gulf Coast area of about 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Great Britain. The area flooded in New Orleans, when the federal levees failed, was about 140 square miles—an area equivalent to 7.5 times the size of Manhattan, N.Y. Louisiana bore the brunt of the destruction, losing over 1,500 lives with about 1.3 million people initially displaced, the greatest diaspora since the Dust Bowl. More than 200,000 homes were destroyed; 835 schools and more than 18,000 businesses impacted and about 179,000 jobs lost. Louisiana additionally sustained more than $100 billion in estimated property losses. Presently, there are still Louisiana residents, mostly from New Orleans, displaced in 5,500 cities in America.

If you were to visit New Orleans, you would think that Katrina had just made land as miles and miles of deserted neighborhoods stretched out before your eyes.

People often wonder why the Superdome and the New Orleans Saints were able to recover so quickly while the city and the people are still struggling. Well, just maybe it is because as of Aug. 1, 2007, over 60 percent of the Congress had still not visited New Orleans. As of Aug. 1, only 40 percent of the chairs of committees controlled by Democrats had visited New Orleans. As of Aug. 11, 304 representatives and 43 senators have yet to come to New Orleans. By the time presidential candidate Sen. Barak Obama made his initial visit to New Orleans on July 21, 2006, Paul Tagliabue, the then commissioner of the National Football League had visited the city, the Saints and the superdome seven times. Imagine this, Senator Barak actually beat Rep. Charles Rangel to the city, who still has not visited the city (See Time-Picayune 8/11/07: Reason for a Visit). In essence, New Orleans is a city that has been directed to build bricks without straw. Suicide rates are up, death rates are up, violent crime is up, depression is rampant and people are hurting while our government and America has turned their back on us.

As citizens of America, we just ask for our government to do for us what they are doing for other people in other countries, who never paid one tax dollar. In short, we would just our government to do for us equitably what they are doing for citizens in other states, like Mississippi. Despite the generosity of the American people, the state’s aid from Washington has been neither commensurate with its level of damages nor proportional with that of its neighbor, Mississippi. Louisiana had more than four times the damage of Mississippi, yet we’ve received less than twice the amount of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. If Louisiana had received the $22 billion in CDBG funding that is proportional to the amount Mississippi received more than 18 months ago, the status of our recovery would be very different—more affordable rental units would be on-line; more small businesses re-opened; more homes elevated; more infrastructure projects underway; we would not be discussing a shortfall in the Road Home program and more people would be home.

The Progress

While the past two years have been enormously difficult and, certainly, the level of progress is not where it should be, signs of improvements are all around us:

  • The Port of New Orleans is operating at full capacity
  • Louis Armstrong International Airport is back to 75 percent of its pre-Katrina flights.
  • Data from the U.S. Postal Service shows populations are slowly but steadily increasing in Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.
  • The number of FEMA trailers in Louisiana has declined from a high of 76,757 in July 2006 to 42,814 in August 2007
  • Tourism, Louisiana’s second largest industry pre-storm, continues to rebound.
  • The newly renovated Superdome opened in the fall of 2006 and ushered in a winning season for the Saints
  • Essence Festival returned to New Orleans this year for the first time since the storm, bringing about 200,000 visitors, and Jazz Fest entertained about 375,000, the highest attendance since 2003 Recovery programs designed by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and administered by state agency partners are taking hold. Among them:
  • More than 3,500 small business grants and loans have been given out
  • Over $600 million has been invested to rebuild thousands of rental properties
  • $200 million has been authorized to fund infrastructure projects that result from citizen driven rebuilding plans (i.e. Louisiana Speaks and Unified New Orleans Plan)
  • $2.8 billion has been distributed to assist 40,000 homeowners rebuild

Still, an arduous task lies before us. President Bush made the pledge in Jackson Square two years ago, and we’re asking him to see the job through. It’s two years later and we’re still making the case for aggressive action to rebuild South Louisiana and New Orleans. Beyond Louisiana’s cultural uniqueness, its coast produces riches that power and feed the nation. Louisiana is the nation’s Energy Coast, first in total crude oil production and second in total natural gas production. Louisiana fishers also help feed the nation, ranking first in harvest for blue crab, crawfish, oysters, shrimp and menhaden.

Isn’t that enough to convince the powers that be of the importance of this mission? The job in Louisiana and especially in New Orleans cannot be accomplished by well meaning volunteers from faith-based organizations, colleges and good hearted people. This is the biggest rebuilding effort since General Sherman rolled into Atlanta. This effort can only be accomplished by the centralized power of the government. We have committed $1.6 trillion over 10 years to rebuild Iraq. Where is the Marshall Plan or Iraq Plan for the Big Easy?

The Call

The people in Louisiana are working every day to put their lives back together. We are fighting for our souls—for the artistic freedom of Mardi Gras and jazz, the legacy of our forbears, the comfort of our closeknit communities. We are fighting for the promise inherent in the American dream— the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And like Patrick Henry we say, “Give us liberty or give us death.” And make no mistake, we are facing
death, help us convince Congress and the White House that we deserve life and liberty.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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