Election 2008: Have New Orleans and the Gulf Coast been forgotten?

The Times-Picayune reports that through the six hours of presidential and vice presidential debates during the past month, New Orleans was mentioned only once. This one mention was made this past Wednesday night, in a quick reference by John McCain in support of charter schools. But as the Times-Picayune reports, the reference didn't relate directly to the hurricane recovery issues.

The silence around Gulf Coast recovery issues by both candidates has troubled Gulf Coast advocates, leaders, and policy-makers, who have been struggling to keep Gulf Coast recovery and the region on the national agenda. According to the Times-Picayune:

Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, a New Orleans-based advocacy group for continued national help with recovery efforts, expressed disappointment that only one reference -- in three presidential debates and one vice presidential one -- was made to a region still experiencing difficult rebuilding issues.

It's "rather sad considering the magnitude of our problems and federal dollars allocated," Milling said. State and regional leaders say follow-through in repairing and improving the federal levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina is essential to protecting the national investment in the area's shipping, oil and gas, and fishing industries as well as preserving the history and culture of south Louisiana.

As the Institute for Southern Studies has reported in our Gulf Coast recovery series, the Gulf Coast could take up to 10 years to fully rebuild, according to some estimates. Even though the Gulf Coast has come a long way since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, immense barriers remain to rebuilding and renewal in the region. For instance, federal, state and local leaders have put forward no policy to ensure adequate levels of affordable housing despite the crisis it represents for the region. And as we reported in our most recent report, Faith in the Gulf:

The pace of renewal has been greatly slowed by a lack of resources, especially from the federal government. As of August 2008, the federal government has allocated about $126 billion, of which just over $100 billion has been disbursed or made available to state governments-a considerable sum, but still short of the total needed to revive the storm-ravaged region.

What's more, the lion's share of federal spending since Katrina struck has been spent on emergency relief and response, not long-term rebuilding needs. According to an August 2007 analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, only about $35 billion of the $116 billion total appropriated by Washington had gone towards long-term rebuilding. Meanwhile, the federal funds that have been directed to long-term rebuilding have often failed to reach those in need. In the same study, the Institute also found that out of the $35 billion that had been earmarked for long-term rebuilding by the two-year mark, more than half had not been spent.

Three years later, the imbalance remains. As of August 2008, less than half of FEMA's $11 billion in Public Assistance funds allocated post-Katrina have been earmarked for long-term rebuilding needs. Of that, only 29 percent has been spent in Louisiana and Mississippi. City leaders in New Orleans now report that they have only $1.3 billion in federal funding available to cover the city's remaining rebuilding projects.

It appears Gulf Coast residents won't be giving up the fight just yet. Advocates continue to push to keep Gulf Coast rebuilding on the national radar and to assist Gulf Coast residents in mobilizing needed federal support.

"Tell everyone you know about what's happening down here," Pam Dashiell, a longtime leader in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward, told us in our latest report. "Don't let them ever forget."

And as Milling told the Times-Picayune, it will be important to keep members of Congress and the new presidential administration that takes office Jan. 20 aware of the continuing rebuilding needs and their importance to the nation.