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Hurricane Katrina Anniversary: Wealth Played Role in Recovery Efforts

This weekend will mark the fifth anniversary of the touchdown of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, and the subsequent man-made failure of the levees in New Orleans, leading to mass flooding and thousands of dead. It was called a national shame at the time, and the wound to government trust lingers. With the 5-year milestone, many in the media are turning their attention back to New Orleans for the first time in a while, to assess the recovery efforts. And we’re seeing that your level of recovery often depended on your level of income:

The massive government effort to repair the damage from Hurricane Katrina is fostering a stark divide as the state governments in Louisiana and Mississippi structured the rebuilding programs in ways that often offered the most help to the most affluent residents.

The result, advocates say, has been an uneven recovery, with whites and middle-class people more likely than blacks and low-income people to have rebuilt their lives in the five years since the horrific storm.

“The recovery is really the tale of two recoveries,” said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “For people who were well off before the storm, they are more likely to be back in their homes, back in their jobs and to have access to good health care. For those who were poor or struggling to get by before the storm, the opposite is true.”

I do recommend Spike Lee’s two-part HBO documentary, which touches on this. There, you see public housing projects in New Orleans torn down despite having no flood damage. You see Charity Hospital, one of the largest in the country and servicing the poor, unopened, while a new sprawling medical campus that would cater to a higher-class clientele gets planned. You see the racial and ethnic makeup of the population, and particularly the socioeconomic makeup, change. And you see a Republican Governor in Mississippi get much more attention and funding at the outset of the recovery, with the Bush Administration in office, than a Democratic Governor in Louisiana.

That said, there are bright spots, particularly Brad Pitt’s home-building project. But the disparities exist, as they have always existed. And, the money was available to reduce those disparities.

More than a quarter of the $20 billion in Housing and Urban Development relief funds that were earmarked for Gulf Coast states after Hurricane Katrina remains unspent five years after the storm, a fact noticed by at least one congressional leader who’s eager to spend it elsewhere.

(Sen. Tom) Coburn suggested some of these funds could be used to help cover federal budget deficits and said that “serious questions need to be asked about whether this money was appropriately designated as emergency funding.”

Officials in Mississippi, however, said that the unspent money is earmarked for needed recovery projects and that they are moving as fast as federal red-tape, litigation and arbitration and other hurdles will allow.

I think you can call the recovery in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast uneven and unfinished. And driven, as ever, by money.

UPDATE: I think this tilt in recovery aid toward the wealthy can explain the PPP poll on Bush’s leadership during Katrina being better than Obama’s on the BP disaster. The survey polled Louisiana, where the majority of those left 1) got help, 2) were wealthy enough to get help and 3) generally support Republicans more than Democrats.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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