10/04/2007 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans: Trailer Trapped

The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on Mississippi and Louisiana was marked by the expected media flurry of solemn tributes, reminiscing, recriminations and painful expositions of "where are we now?" It was in this last category where we were treated to the now familiar images of the lower 9th ward and other neighborhoods, once centers of New Orleans poverty, now just long stretches of the broken houses and abandoned streets. What we're programmed to say in response to all of this is something on the order of "it looks just like it did a week after Hurricane Katrina hit and the city was flooded." Of course it does.

And anybody who has focused on that disaster knows by now that the levees were, long before the storm, deemed too flawed to protect a city perpetually flirting with fate as it sank over the decades to 7 feet below sea level. (If it keeps on going like this, exacerbated by global warming induced rising oceans, perhaps we'll have to put a bubble over the city and rename it New Atlantis). Anyway, all of this just leads to more clichés about how we really, really need to fix our "crumbling infrastructure." But at a price tag of over $2.5 trillion to actually repair or replace the nation's levees, bridges, tunnels, power grids and so on, it is highly unlikely that this will be a project undertaken any time soon.

So, now what? We still have no clue as to what actually will become of New Orleans and the people, especially the poor, who once lived in its inner city. What's worse is that once the obligatory anniversary chest-beating is over, neither the mainstream media nor the federal government (not to mention the general public), seems all that interested in the issue.

Dare I say that it almost seems like the country has developed some kind of disaster anniversary fetish which, on some level, has the disquieting consequence of trivializing and marginalizing what happened to New Orleans and, for that matter, the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks? Think about the highly abbreviated attention span now devoted to both anniversaries. And think about how politicized the World Trade Center disaster remembrance has become, essentially now having devolved into political squabbles over who would speak at the "anniversary event" and why Ground Zero is still a hole in the ground.

But back to New Orleans where, by any account, the status of everything from housing and local economic indicators to health care and schools reveals, in essence, a badly stalled recovery process that has been a textbook case of bureaucratic morass. No matter what happens, however, there are certain realities that must be faced in thinking about the future of the region. While some 250 miles of floodwall and levees have been repaired, there is so much work still to be done that the Army Corps of Engineers says the job won't be completed until 2011. But even when it's finished -- and assuming the repairs are effective -- protection will only be provided against a category three force storm, not the more devastating category four or five hurricane that can never be ruled out in the Gulf.

Still, for most citizens, whether natives of or newcomers to the mystique and charm of the Crescent City, the idea of living anywhere else is almost unthinkable. Don't try to analyze this; it's just the way it is. And it's not just New Orleans. Many of the residents struggling to rebuild lives and communities throughout the 100,000 square mile impact zone of Katrina share a genuinely held desire to see their neighborhoods reincarnated, as if time could be turned back to August 28, 2005, a day before the killer storm made landfall.

But how can we even talk about rebuilding neighborhoods that will remain highly vulnerable to the next massive hurricane? And how do you design new health care or educational systems if you don't know how many citizens will return to face persistent risk and an uncertain future?

These challenges are, unsurprisingly, particularly acute for families with the fewest resources. As of this month, FEMA estimates that nearly 40,000 displaced households are still being sheltered in temporary trailers, many of which are placed on or near damaged or destroyed homes where access to basic services remain extremely limited. And thousands of families in Louisiana and Mississippi still live in government-subsidized congregate trailer parks. These are highly congested clusters of tiny travel trailers far from massively damaged communities, like the infamous New Orleans lower 9th Ward, where evidence of concerted efforts to rebuild is essentially non-existent.

And, it should be noted, it is in these trailer parks where astounding rates of depression, anxiety and hopelessness among as many as 10,000 children and their families are found. In studies conducted by researchers from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the Children's Health Fund, nearly half of the parents report serious signs of emotional and behavioral distress and, increasingly, families are reporting deepening anxiety about unsafe conditions in the trailer parks. Furthermore, health and mental health care services are not sufficiently available, employment opportunities are hard to come by, and the conditions in these barren parks, surrounded by chain link fences and guarded by private security forces, resemble third world refugee camps. Basically, it's bureaucratic mess and a smoldering humanitarian crisis.

What worries the pediatricians and mental health professionals providing services in the Gulf is that every day of delay in returning these families to a semblance of normal home and community life threatens the health, mental health and well-being of thousands of children who remain warehoused in those awful trailer parks, aka the poorest of the poor.

It should be recognized, though, that there is some progress being made. Local authorities are making efforts to "place" the families and eventually close down the trailer parks. And highly innovative private sector efforts, like the Global Green initiative supported by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, will create housing for many families, but not at the scale or speed needed right now. There are simply too many kids with immediate needs who just can't wait for the levees to be completely repaired, for the communities of the lower 9th -- and the rest of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf coast -- to be rebuilt, for the economy to return and for enough good schools to be developed.

But there may be a workable solution for the families who remain trailer trapped, namely a national relocation and resettlement program. If every state in the union took responsibility for settling an average of 150 families, the trailer parks could be rapidly closed. True, families would need subsidies to pay for moving and resettlement costs and employment assistance. But unless officials can guarantee the rapid relocation of families to normal conditions -- including schools, clinics and employment -- in their original communities, the costs of a well-designed national relocation plan may be far less than the price to be paid by the further traumatizing of children and families now condemned to what for many seems like an interminable post-Katrina limbo.