Two weeks after the levees failed, President Bush stood in Jackson Square in New Orleans and promised "to rebuild the city and the region." At the time he said: "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." Last week President Bush visited New Orleans, noting the "incredible progress that's being made." He praised the funds given to the region, saying that "three years after the storm, we've helped deliver $126 billion of U.S. taxpayer money."
Progress has been made in the past three years, but much remains to be done and the funds are not getting there. Following Bush's speech at Jackson Barracks, Sen. Mary Landrieu released a statement saying too much of the money has been lost to red tape and government inefficiency. She stated:
The President rightfully recognized the significant commitment already shown by the federal government. But let no one suffer the illusion that $126 billion has gone straight to where it is needed and where it belongs. The Government Accountability Office has reported that only a fraction of this funding has been invested in our long-term recovery. Far too much has been lost to the inefficiency and red tape of FEMA and the federal bureaucracy, as well as the pockets of out-of-state FEMA contractors. There also remain bureaucratic challenges at the city and state level that our local leaders must continue working to resolve.
The lack of progress being made has been noted by may observers this week. The Jackson Free Press reports that "the failure that many say summarized the nation's immediate action pale in comparison to the long-standing, nagging failure of the government to clean the resulting mess." The paper went on to say:
A certain amount of unfairness is inherent in the patchwork of New Orleans's recovery. The levees that failed were guaranteed by the federal government. Nonetheless, for many homeowners, especially those in poorer parts of town, government grants-based on their home's pre-storm market value-have not been enough to pay for rebuilding.
Cash shortfalls are not the only obstacle to a more robust recovery. The city's economy has always been a smoke-and-mirrors affair, based on tourism. But the federal government, while conceding that its old levees were sub-standard, has not given the kind of "never again" assurances-backed up with real money-that might foster confidence in the region.
Just blocks from the historic Louisiana National Guard facility where Bush delivered his comments -- and stretching for miles in every direction -- large swaths of New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish remain a hodgepodge of restored houses and stores, rotting buildings and empty concrete slabs.
The region's health care, criminal justice and public education systems also continue to struggle through a long rebuilding process.
The bureaucracy didn't end with The Road Home program. Reuters Alertnet reports on the mental health impact of trying to rebuild:
The stress of crawling through Kafkaesque bureaucracy trying to sort out trailers to live in, new housing, or insurance claims has added an extra burden on Katrina survivors. New Orleans' survivors already suffered a higher mental health toll than many in natural disasters in which victims have reconciled themselves to inevitable acts of God.Many low-income residents and people of color are still unable to return to the city due to limited support. Mother Jones reports that "in the years after the storm, moving displaced low-income families back to New Orleans has become less and less realistic. Yes, 92 percent of hotels in New Orleans were open by mid-2007, but by June 2008, 40 percent of public schools remained closed. The number of public buses up and running is still nowhere near pre-Katrina levels."
In this case, residents were traumatised by the shock and insult of being abandoned during the storm, and the inhumanity and indignity of being sent across the country with no regard for their family or neighbourhood ties.
Life for millions of people in the Gulf Coast will never be the same again. Katrina not only changed the way the rest of the world views one of the richest countries on the planet, it changed the way storm survivors think about their government.
Three years on, New Orleans is still a city in recovery.
According to the UK Guardian, New Orleans' redevelopment has ignored the needs of what was one of the closest-knit black communities in America. The Guardian reports:
In August and September 2005, areas like the largely black Lower Ninth war, almost entirely invisible to the hordes of tourists who flock to New Orleans every year, attracted worldwide sympathy as the levees broke. Now they have been all but forgotten. While tourists long ago repopulated the French Quarter, 57% of New Orleans' black population - against 36% of whites - have yet to return to the city. Many never will. This is because since Katrina, developers have clubbed together with the authorities to complete New Orleans' makeover into a playground for wealthy tourists.Moreover, problems still plague New Orleans' infastructure as it attempts to prepare for future storms. As Facing South reported earlier this week, the Department of Defense plans on again investigating allegations that the Army Corps of Engineers let a contractor install faulty pumps after Hurricane Katrina despite a warning that they might fail. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently sent a letter to President Bush detailing that the previous investigation conducted by the Department of Defense into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' pumping installation and its contract with Moving Water Industries was "superficial and dismissive."
In the three years since, race and class stereotypes have paved the way for New Orleans' so-called "revitalization."
What's certain is that the longer the world looks away, the more likely it is that a Disneyfied "new" New Orleans will mean the loss of a city that boasts one of the most complex cultural heritages in the world.
Three years on from the storm, during an election year that has focused attention on a spectacular symbol of African American success, it seems that once again, no one is looking in the direction of a black America that has experienced only the rough end of the American dream.
The status of levee protection does not add much comfort to the city. The Associated Press reports that New Orleans will be protected by levees unable to protect against another storm like Katrina.
When and if the Army Corps of Engineers finishes US$14.8 billion in post-Katrina work, the city will have limited protection -- what are defined as 100-year levees. This does not mean they'd stand up to storms for a century. Under the 100-year standard, in fact, experts say that every house being rebuilt in New Orleans has a 26 per cent chance of being flooded again over a 30-year mortgage; and every child born in New Orleans would have nearly a 60 per cent chance of seeing a major flood in his or her life.Despite the problems that still face the city, many New Orleans residents are working to rebuild for the better. As Reuters reported, in the Lower 9th Ward, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association is working on a plan to attract businesses and residents based on sustainable development, including the use of renewable and energy efficient building practices.
At every step in the scramble to correct the engineering breakdowns of Katrina, independent experts have questioned the ability of the [Army Corps of Engineers], an agency that has accumulated ever more power over the fate of New Orleans, to do the right job.
"We have to give people a reason to come here," HCNA president Charles Allen told Reuters. "If we show them the neighborhood is alive and we are pursuing a path of sustainable development, that is a step in the right direction."