NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. government and Gulf Coast states have consistently violated the human rights of hurricane victims since Hurricane Katrina killed about 1,800 people and caused widespread devastation after striking in August 2005, Amnesty International said Friday.
The report, entitled "Un-Natural Disaster," said the treatment of hurricane victims and government actions in housing, health care and policing have prevented poor minority communities from rebuilding and returning to their homes on the Gulf Coast.
In sum, government actions have amounted to human rights violations and "as a result, the demographics of the region are being permanently altered," the report said.
Amnesty took particular aim at New Orleans, where public housing was bulldozed, hospitals have been slow to reopen and the criminal justice system has been plagued by police brutality, lengthy pretrial detentions and an underfunded indigent defense system.
"You have the demolition of most of the public housing units in New Orleans without a one-for-one replacement as well as a lack of rebuilding affordable rental housing," said Justin Mazzola, an Amnesty researcher. "Orleans Parish Prison is now the largest mental health psych facility in the city of New Orleans."
Moira Mack, a White House spokeswoman, said the Obama administration had cut through the red tape that delayed assistance and improved coordination among agencies that often failed to collaborate in the years after the storms. She said the administration's actions freed $2.4 billion in rebuilding money that had stalled for years.
Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bobby Jindal's Louisiana Recovery Authority, said Louisiana had worked "diligently since the hurricanes to rebuild housing, restore critical infrastructure – including schools and health care facilities – and protect our citizens from future harm."
New Orleans' former public housing was being replaced with new mixed-income communities, she said. She said $1.2 billion has been set aside for rental housing.
Staff for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not return a message seeking comment.
The human rights group also said that in Mississippi, public housing and affordable housing was lacking and that the state rebuilding program did an injustice by not paying for wind damage, leaving many homes in poor shape.
The group also criticized a plan by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to use $600 million in federal recovery money for a port in Gulfport. The governor says the money can be used for the port, but Democrats in Congress have said the money was meant to rebuild housing.
"I think Amnesty International has missed some details here," said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour. "Or shaded them to their advantage."
For example, he said there was more public housing on the Gulf Coast than before Katrina. He added that Mississippi decided to help those who had their homes destroyed by storm surge on the coast rather than homes damaged by wind far inland.
Civil rights advocates, though, saw Amnesty's report as accurate.
"A good part of the beginning of the human rights violations took place on TV screens," said Monique Harden, co-director of the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. "It's no longer on TV, but those human rights violations have moved into other areas around housing and racial equality, and our government has been called out."
Amnesty urged Congress to amend the nation's main disaster response legislation, the Stafford Act, to guarantee the humane and fair treatment of all disaster victims, as stipulated by the United Nation's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The U.S. has endorsed the principles.
The agreement calls for the humanitarian treatment of people uprooted because of war or a natural disaster. The principles say governments need to allow victims to "return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes" or "resettle voluntarily in another part of the country."
It says governments have the duty to help victims recover their property and possessions they left behind or which were taken from them. Also, governments should make sure victims are compensated for property or possessions they have lost, the principles say.
The agreement also says uprooted people should be allowed full participation in the planning and management of their return or resettlement.
Stephens, the spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said Louisiana officials have lobbied Congress to make the Stafford Act "less bureaucratic and problematic" and make it easier for disaster victims to return home.
"Right now, under the (U.S.) law, nobody has the right to recover," Harden said.