Gulf Watch: N.Y. Times wrong about New Orleans being 'left behind'

By Dr. Lance Hill
Guest Contributor

Adam Nossiter, writing for the New York Times, makes the startling claim that since displaced black voters failed to vote in large numbers in the city-wide election last fall, "the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over." Nossiter would have us believe that the black Diaspora of more than 250,000 is now a permanent fact of life. There is, of course, no research indicating a relationship between absentee voting and the rate of return. Indeed, Nossiter does not cite a single demographer or social scientist nor a single study that supports his assertion that "thousands of former New Orleanians" made the decision to forsake their former homes in the last year. Proof for his claims amounts to a handful of his own interviews with a few displaced residents. The dangerous implication of Nossiter's commentary is that we need not provide housing, healthcare, education, or employment in New Orleans for the displaced since they have already decided not to return. The same thinking in the first months after Katrina caused state officials to drastically underestimate the number of returning students in January of 2006, a tragic mistake that led to the virtual collapse of public education for the city's poor for 18 months.

Contrary evidence abounds that thousands of people will return in the next few years -- with greater needs than ever before. Indeed, 32,000 students are currently enrolled in public schools in New Orleans -- approximately half the pre-Katrina number, and school officials say students are returning since September at the rate of nearly 1,000 a month. Business reports in the Times-Picayune indicate that newly-built apartments are leased as fast as they come on line in New Orleans East. In the the next five years, $869 million dollars will be invested in 45,000 units of affordable housing, which will become a magnet for the thousands of displaced citizens living on federal Section 8 housing vouchers in cities like Houston that have virtually no subsidized housing available. Eighty-five percent of flood-damaged homeowners have elected to keep their properties rather than sell to the state in the Road Home program, opting to eventually resettle in their homes or sell to new residents. Many have justifiably postponed their plans to return given that flood protection constructed since Katrina has followed the color line -- protecting predominantly white neighborhoods while leaving black neighborhoods susceptible to flooding until levees are finished in 2011.

Voting patterns, especially in the unprecedented forced evacuation of 450,000 people, are not a reliable indicator of displaced people's plans. Low voter turn-out for displaced blacks reflects frustration with complex absentee ballot requirements and the burden of driving hundred of miles to cast a single vote. That disaffected voters feel frustrated and angry after two years of trying to return to their families and protect their electoral gains does not mean they will not return; only that they will return frustrated and angry.

Lance Hill is the executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University.