When meeting with community leaders and grassroots activists in New Orleans, you hear several themes again and again:
-- Things aren't getting better. There's nothing wrong with the media focusing on success stories, but to relate those pieces without acknowledging the fact that for tens of thousands of people life is "standing still," is, as one put it, "irresponsible."
-- Nobody knows what's happening with the rebuilding process. The various commissions and task forces devoted to reconstruction are secretive, and driven by "a small coterie of self-interested developers," says one long-time community organizer. Community input is not only absent, it's "actively discouraged."
-- We have yet to hear a kind word about FEMA or the Red Cross.
-- For people here, to see the "Katrina issue" falling off the national radar -- in the media, and in Washington politics -- seems "criminal." Most have despaired of any meaningful policy response. As one told us, "we have no illusions we're going to win on the important issues. All we can do is delay the bad."
-- The prevailing mood that "we can't count anyone to look out for us" has led those who are able to take matters into their own hands, like the Common Ground Clinic's impressive series of free medical clinics and food distribution centers. (More later on this impressive operation.)
That's the view from the ground. Compare how New Orleans residents view the situation, to what President Bush promised in his declaration from the city on September 15, 2005:
Tonight so many victims of the hurricane and the flood are far from home and friends and familiar things. You need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you're not alone. To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country. To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country. And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.
[T]he federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast cities, so they can rebuild in a sensible, well-planned way. Federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems. Our goal is to get the work done quickly. And taxpayers expect this work to be done honestly and wisely -- so we'll have a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures.
When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.
The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be very proud of.
Now Republicans are claiming "limiting federal spending on hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast" as one of their key legislative accomplishments. The chasm between national promises and local reality seems to be growing daily.