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Can’t Just Wash It Away

I spent some time going through a lot of Katrina videos for today, but this one, set to the haunting voice of Aaron Neville, broke me down into tears and brought back all that anger and frustration and sadness from last year. 

The issues of poverty and race relations and governmental ineptitude and personal responsibility and accountability are no closer to being solved today than they were then…but sometimes you need to remind yourself why it is so important that we keep on trying to make things better anyway.

Scout Prime has also posted her follow-up interview with Miss Regina, one of the owners of the home I talked about in yesterday's post.  Two other YouTubes that deal primarily with New Orleans are here and here — both are worth a watch as well.  The second is a bit lengthy, but it has some photos taken by a local resident that really capture a lot of the devastation all over the area.

I also found a good video montage from the Gulfport/Biloxi, Mississippi area.  The person who put the YouTube together got shots of the area prior to the storm, and then shows some of the same oceanfront areas in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. 

The Biloxi area is rebuilding more quickly in some spots than a lot of the rest of the Gulf Coast — but, as with everything in life, you have to peek below the surface a bit to get a full view: (via WaPo)

But here, as elsewhere on the Mississippi coast, the hurricane recovery is proceeding on two tracks, and while the casinos and condo developers have gained momentum, many others feel stuck. A block away from the waterfront and its high-rise gambling resorts, in the neighborhoods where Katrina damaged about 6,000 homes and businesses, very little rebuilding has happened.

In the year since the hurricane pushed a wall of water more than 20 feet high through much of this city, only 122 permits for rebuilding homes have been issued, city officials said. Other cities face a similar dearth of home rebuilding. Thousands of former residents are still living in trailers.

Scores of restaurants and shops remain closed, too, and along the beach road the only way to tell what used to be there is by the dozens of pole signs that withstood the storm's ravages: a Denny's, a beachwear shop, an Outback Steakhouse and so on down the beach strip.

"The town that we knew doesn't exist anymore," said David Kopszywa, 42, an electrician who is living in a trailer where his 120-year-old wood-frame house in east Biloxi used to stand….

While Mississippi has earned praise for moving quickly to entice the casinos back — in Biloxi, the industry employed 15,000 before the storm — and for nearly completing its cleanup, well ahead of Louisiana, some have raised questions about the equity of its recovery.

Of the billions in federal housing aid available to the state, no grants have been committed to develop rental housing, said Amy Liu, a Brookings Institution researcher who has closely followed the rebuilding. About 34 percent of the homes that suffered major or severe damage in Mississippi were rental properties.

Even with money for homeowners coming, many residents who lived in the coastal areas have struggled to recover….

How do you decide what to do when no one wants to buy your flooded out wreck of a home, but moving away means leaving every memory behind along with everything you have worked a lifetime to build for yourself and your family? As with everything, having deep pockets helps. The casinos and resort companies have property to leverage elsewhere for financing to build along the Gulf Coast, but ordinary folks are barely making do from one end of shorefront to the other along the Gulf.

There is a big question as to how much of the Gulf Coast will ever come back…both in terms of economic growth and in population:

Tallies of electric bills and school enrollment figures show that less than half of New Orleans's pre-storm population of 455,000 has returned. The population of adjacent St. Bernard Parish has shrunk from 65,000 to less than 20,000. In small towns along the Mississippi Coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, fewer than 5 percent of destroyed homes are being rebuilt.

Exactly how long the damaged areas will take to recover — if they recover — has been a matter of intense speculation ever since the waters receded. But with each passing day, more of the displaced are buying houses or signing leases in faraway cities, and the weeds in the abandoned yards grow higher….

Money is one problem. The billions in federal relief funds for homeowners began to flow just a few weeks ago. Some insurance settlements have been contentious and slow. Some people have stayed away out of fear — no one knows what the next hurricane might do because the levees are not guaranteed to protect in a major hurricane. And as the economy has shriveled along with the population, jobs have disappeared. Employment in the sprawling New Orleans region has shrunk to 437,000 jobs, off about 30 percent from pre-storm levels, and within the city, the percentage is considerably higher. (emphasis mine)

Digby pointed out yesterday that pimping the victims has become a Bush Administration staple, so it isn't exactly a shocker that the FEMA checks would start flowing just in time for the Katrina anniversary or anything. (Nothing like the fear of some accountability from people speaking up on anniversary video, because lord knows congressional oversight on this has been tepid at best. Perhaps the fear of a Rita Cosby exploitation-a-thon was enough to kick FEMA into low gear for check distribution to the mouthiest of the bunch…so at least she's good for something other than following would-be-murder-confessors around.)

Here's a scary fact, though:  disaster planning across the US still has big gaps.  But the most honest bit of reporting that I found came in this article from the Australian Daily Telegraph:

The government response to the storm, and the heart-wrenching images of Americans stranded on rooftops while the waters around them rose, hammered Mr Bush's approval ratings – which had already started to slip in the face of concerns about the economy and the unpopular war in Iraq.

The president was especially criticised for staying on vacation on his ranch as the storm headed towards the coast and for going ahead with a California speech on the war on terrorism.

Mr Bush was to insist that the federal government has learned its lesson, and overhauled its emergency management plans, and played a role in rebuilding the New Orleans levee system that failed under Katrina's onslaught, and that the US Congress aims to spend $US110 billion on reconstruction.

But just $US44 billion ($58 billion) have been spent amid acrimonious finger-pointing between state and local governments and Washington….

The failed levee system has been repaired but not yet reinforced. And more than 80,000 families across Louisiana are still living in trailers that can only withstand light winds.  (emphasis mine)

Considering George Bush just left his second vacation of the month to head down to the Gulf Coast to pretend like he's been busy working on all our nation's issues this past year, perhaps he can take some time to explain to these Americans living in these flimsy trailers in the path of many more hurricanes to come why it is that FEMA just got around to cutting their promised aid checks a few short weeks ago.

And the real questions about wetlands and erosion and barrier islands overdevelopment and faulty levees and everything else that goes into a disaster of monumental proportions like this…well, they need some serious consideration.  By a lot more people than just folks who give a damn on the blogs.  We have to start making smarter decisions, or we'll keep ending up right back in this mess.  The next time, it might be another terrorist attack or an even more catastrophic natural disaster, and I'm telling you right now that I do not trust the Bush Administration to coordinate its way out of a paper bag.

Something you can do to help folks who are still struggling in the Gulf Coast?  Call your Representatives and Senators and demand some real accountability.  Now.

(And to all our readers in the path of Ernesto, or with friends and family there, we wish you safety.  To everyone in the Gulf Coast, nothing but joy from here on out, because you have more than earned it.  And to all of you who lost someone in Katrina, thre truly is nothing to so but to add our sorrow for your pain.)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com

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