The week is drawing to a close, and with it coverage of the two-year anniversary of Katrina. The media coverage and political pronouncements have put the Gulf Coast crisis back on the national radar.

But after the politicians leave and the TV crews head home, thousands of families in Louisiana and Mississippi -- and those still displaced around the country -- will still be struggling to survive. And our nation will still have an obligation to rebuild the Gulf Coast (maybe smarter and better this time) and bring its people home.

The following is a piece that appeared this week in The Hill, the online magazine of Congress, about the importance of living up to our promises:


Institute for Southern Studies
August 29, 2007

This week, a parade of politicians will visit the Gulf Coast, voicing concern for the region devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita two years ago. If they venture beyond the usual drive-by photo-ops, they'll discover a region still reeling in crisis - and desperately looking to the nation for help.

As we document in our recent report, "Blueprint for Gulf Renewal: The Katrina Crisis and a Community Agenda for Action, thousands of Gulf Coast" residents are still in limbo or sliding backwards. Over 60,000 people are still in "temporary" FEMA trailers because programs to help homeowners and renters haven't come through. From New Orleans to Biloxi, Miss., one sees miles of shuttered schools, hospitals and businesses. Suicides and homelessness are skyrocketing. Since Katrina, the death rate has risen 47% in New Orleans alone.

When confronted with the failing Katrina recovery, President Bush insists the federal government has done its job. The proof, he says, is "the big check" Washington has allegedly signed for the Gulf Coast, allegedly more than $116 billion.
But looking at the devastation still around them, Gulf residents are left wondering whether the check bounced.

"$116 billion is not a useful number," says Stanley Czerwinski of the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm. For starters, most federal money - about two-thirds - was quickly spent for emergency needs like debris removal and Coast Guard rescue.

That has left little money for long-term rebuilding projects: our best estimate based on agency data is that only $35 billion has been appropriated for such rebuilding, a fraction of the figure cited by the White House.

Even more shocking: more than half of the money set aside for rebuilding hasn't even been spent, much less gotten to those most in need. For example:

* Washington set aside $16.7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, one of the two biggest sources of rebuilding funds. But as of March 2007, only $1 billion - just 6 percent - had been spent, almost all of it in Mississippi. Following bad publicity, another $3.8 billion was spent between March and July - but 70 percent of the funds remain unused.

* The other major pot of money for rebuilding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Public Assistance Program, received $8.2 billion. But only $3.4 billion was meant for non-emergency projects like fixing up schools and hospitals, and only a fraction has been spent.

* After the failure of federal levees flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received $8.4 billion to restore storm defenses. But as of July 2007, less than 20 percent of the funds have been spent, even as the Corps admits that levee repair won't be completed until as late as 2011.

Even the money allocated will likely come nowhere near the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. For example, the $3.4 billion FEMA has available to rebuild local public infrastructure would only cover about one-eighth of the damage suffered in Louisiana alone. But this money is spread across five states - Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas - and covers damage from three 2005 hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

This spring, Congress and the President belatedly removed some barriers to Gulf spending, like waiving a rule that local governments have to match 25% of project costs before getting federal aid (Bush waived the rule entirely for New York after 9/11, but not for the cash-strapped Gulf Coast until this May).

But overall the White House is still pushing a policy of "trickle-down" recovery, like the $3.5 billion in tax breaks for business in Gulf Opportunity or "GO" Zones. Many of the breaks have been of questionable benefit to Katrina survivors, such as the $1 million deal to build 10 luxury condos next to the University of Alabama football stadium-four hours from the Gulf Coast.

Standing in New Orleans on September 15, 2005, President Bush promised that Washington would "do what it takes, and stay as long as it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Congressional leaders have echoed the sentiment.

But for the people of the Gulf Coast, the last two years have been marked by broken promises and failed leadership, and Washington's support has come too little, too late and hasn't gotten to those most in need. Or as Tanya Harris, a community activist in New Orleans says when asked about the $116 billion, "Where did it go? Tell me. Where did it go?"