Although attention has been drawn to this issue, four months later, the Crescent City remains at less than half strength. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, speaking at a rally organized to demand answers about the disbursement - or more appropriately, the lack thereof - of billions of dollars in federal aid that remains tied up by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, got it right when he declared, "I see the Saints are back, the basketball team is back, the white-top tablecloths are back and Mardi Gras is back. But 250,000 people are not."
Adding insult to what is already substantial injury, it was also reported this week that $854 million in foreign aid offered to the U.S. by other nations was so mishandled by the federal government that only a fraction of it has actually been used for aid and rebuilding:
Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil. Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross. The rest has been delayed by red tape and bureaucratic limits on how it can be spent.
In addition, valuable supplies and services - such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships - were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them. In some cases, supplies were wasted.
Worse still, a solution to the apparent impasse over re-opening New Orleans public housing - which is, by and large, safe enough for occupancy - remains in limbo. Surprisingly, while no one from the Louisiana Congressional delegation has taken the initiative, Representative Maxine Waters of California has sponsored H.R. 1277, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which declares a right of return for former public housing residents wishing to come back to the homes they left, and establishes a minimum of 3,000 units to be re-opened.
The bill has passed the House of Representatives and been referred to the Senate, but it appears that neither of Louisiana's two Senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, are working to advance the legislation. (As of April 29, 2007, neither Landrieu's website nor Vitter's lists Hurricane Katrina recovery as a major issue on which the Senators are active.) While it is likely that there are some who view the devastation wrought by Katrina as a chance to build a "better" New Orleans, and it is irrefutable that the housing projects in question were poor and crime-ridden, the fact remains that failure to rebuild or re-open sufficient housing will further displace thousands of people who have already been homeless for more than a year. As I wrote earlier:
HUD spokesman Jereon Brown may genuinely believe that "People deserve better than this," but when he says, "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools," he reveals an arrogance it is difficult to imagine being applied to more affluent elements of Louisiana society.
While there has been little public comment on the status of H.R. 1277, the group Color of Change recently distributed a letter stating its belief that the inaction of Landrieu and Vitter can be described thusly:
Race and class seem to explain Landrieu and Vitter's refusal to step up. Some have expressed a desire to see a "richer" and "Whiter" post-Katrina New Orleans, and many of them have a great deal of political influence. From what we can tell, Senator Vitter is playing to those interests by ignoring this legislation – but as a senator for all Louisiana residents, it's his responsibility to ensure that everyone who wants to come home can - not the just the wealthy, privileged, and White. Insiders tell us that Senator Landrieu is being cautious for the same reason: that she doesn't want to offend "moderate" supporters who have a similar vision for New Orleans.
I would be only too happy to report that the conclusions contained in the Color of Change letter are erroneous, and that there are perfectly good reasons why efforts to provide housing to the poorest and economically weakest residents of New Orleans are not being vigorously pursued. Unfortunately, neither Landrieu nor Vitter has made more than passing statements regarding the plight of the homeless New Orleans poor, and the continued and significant discrimination faced by black families seeking housing only make those conclusions more credible. Both senators ostensibly represent the whole of Louisiana, but keeping their most needful constituents from returning to their homes is social engineering at its worst, and little more than eugenics.