President Obama arrives in New Orleans today for his first visit to the Gulf Coast since he won the presidency. In a letter released to coincide with his visit, more than 50 leading religious leaders and faith-based groups call on the Obama administration to take action to address challenges in the region.

Faith and community leaders cite "significant gaps" towards meeting federal promises to Gulf Coast communities, and urge the president to focus on long-term hurricane recovery policy to tackle poverty, coastal erosion and climate change, according to the press statement.

As the Institute for Southern Studies' explored in our 2008 report "Faith in the Gulf" [pdf], following the failed federal response to the 2005 disaster, it was community, nonprofit and faith groups that mounted an unprecedented response that made them the go-to resource for tens of thousands of storm victims in the aftermath of the hurricanes.

The letter was organized by two such Louisiana-based interfaith coalitions -- All Congregations Together (ACT) and Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO). Mary Fontenot, executive director of the New Orleans chapter of ACT told Facing South that many faith and community leaders are very optimistic that Obama will hear their calls for action. ACT was one of the groups that helped to coordinate two of Obama's prior visits to storm-ravaged communities like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans following Katrina.

"When he was here last Obama made a commitment, a promise to us that he would be with us in rebuilding," Fontenot said. "We know he is sensitive to the needs we still face in the region, but we will hold him accountable to his promises and do our best to partner with him to make sure the region's needs are being met."

The letter also urges President Obama to look to a bipartisan bill, HR 2269, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, as a model for recovery policy. As Facing South reported, the legislation, inspired by New Deal public works projects, would create some 100,000 environmentally-sustainable jobs and training opportunities on the Gulf Coast that would allow residents and displaced people to rebuild critical infrastructure in their communities and restore natural coastal flood protection.

The full text of the letter reads:
Dear Mr. President:

We applaud your decision to travel to New Orleans to witness the state of recovery of the Gulf Coast. We also welcome the emphasis of this Administration on solving the bureaucratic struggles which hamper hurricane recovery funding from reaching the ground. Still, we are hopeful that after hearing from local leaders and hurricane survivors during your trip, you can return to Washington with a renewed understanding of the significant gaps that remain towards fulfilling the federal government's promises of rebuilding stronger, safer and more equitable Gulf Coast communities. Four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck and the levees were breached, the slow pace of recovery, persistent poverty, climate change and coastal land loss have created a moral crisis across the region that demands a powerful response from people of faith and our elected officials.

Our national response to these natural and man-made disasters has yet to protect the well-being of the Gulf Coast's most vulnerable people and places through long-term policies which restore the environment, rebuild lives and respect human rights.

As communities of faith, we are grounded in a shared tradition of justice and compassion and we are called upon to hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the moral standard of this tradition. As we look across America's Gulf Coast, we see:

  • Thousands living in toxic FEMA trailers as they struggle to rebuild their homes;
  • Tens of thousands of displaced survivors unable to return home with dignity and safety;
  • Homelessness and rental housing costs rising while affordable housing projects grind to a halt with the crash of financial markets;
  • Insufficient access to health care facilities, particularly in the areas of mental health where needs for these facilities and services have grown substantially for survivors; and
  • Many more unable to access proper training and living wage work to pay for life's necessities and find pathways out of poverty.
At the same time, Gulf Coast communities see deadlier storms, rising sea levels from climate change, and a majority of our nation's coastal erosion occurring each year along the Gulf of Mexico, further threatening the future of our communities.

This means that four years after our nation's largest disaster the survivors of these storms remain vulnerable; leaving a spiritual wound open across the region, one felt in God's creation and every community across this country. We must act now to target the challenges facing our most vulnerable communities; rebuilding more resilient and equitable neighborhoods, restoring God's creation and empowering our brothers and sisters to overcome the devastation and lift themselves from poverty.

While you visit New Orleans, faith communities across the country are engaging in an interfaith week of action "Fighting Poverty with Faith," October 14th-21st, 2009, in order to urge our elected officials to make poverty-reduction a key goal of the transition to a new green economy. Surely, no part of the country presents a greater need and opportunity for environmental restoration and economic revitalization than America's Gulf Coast.

Members of diverse faith communions have already responded generously to these disasters, volunteering thousands of hours to rebuild lives across Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and giving millions in charitable donations. Faith groups have formed powerful new partnerships with local community leaders, non-profits and other denominations, to lead some of the most successful efforts in the recovery.

We have learned that acts of faith and mercy alone, no matter how profound, cannot provide everything needed for a just recovery. Gulf Coast families deserve a federal government that recognizes their human rights and needs by partnering with them to rebuild and sustain their communities.

Billions in Congressionally appropriated funds remain un-obligated or unspent and could potentially be used to address unmet recovery needs in a pilot project for promoting innovative partnerships with local governments, faith-based and community organizations. A framework for accomplishing these goals already exists and continues to be embraced by a growing bi-partisan coalition of grassroots and elected leaders across the Gulf Coast. We urge your Administration and leaders in both parties of Congress to support policy based on the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (HR 2269) to:

  • Provide targeted training and hiring of residents and hurricane survivors for jobs;
  • Rebuild affordable housing and vital community infrastructure;
  • Restore natural flood protection, including barrier islands and wetlands;
  • Promote energy efficiency and resiliency to future disasters and climate change;
  • Make contracting and subcontracting opportunities accessible to local businesses; and
  • Work with community and faith-based non-profits and local governments to plan and implement recovery projects to target the needs and ensure the rights of vulnerable populations, especially women, residents with disabilities, low income, minority, and immigrant communities.
We look forward to working with your Administration to ensure just and sustainable recovery for all Gulf Coast communities.