AP reported on Friday that President Bush intended to head back to the Gulf Coast this week and visit with survivors on the second anniversary Hurricane Katrina and the man-made disaster that followed. He will see what little progress has been made in some areas two years after his administration horrible bungled the disaster response and he made a commitment in a national speech from Jackson Square to "do whatever it takes" to rebuild and help families to return, confronting long standing issues poverty and race to really restore the region.
Fast forward two years and we hear a whole different story from the Bush administration.
When confronted with the failing Katrina recovery, President Bush and his various spokespeople continue to insist the federal government has done its job. The proof, they say, is "the big check" Washington has allegedly signed for the Gulf Coast, allegedly more than $114 billion.
Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and I just issued a report to get to the truth and weed our way through the White House talking point on Gulf Coast rebuilding and why alleged federal funds had not made a greater impact. You can read it as part of the report Blueprint for Gulf Renewal. We found less than $35 billion in federal funds actually available to rebuild the region. Most of the $114 billion Bush administration officials refer to was for the emergency response, not to help rebuild the region. Still the White house continues to mislead the public about our country's investment in rebuilding the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to avoid its obligations to aid in recovery and help families and communities rebuild.
The region suffered $150 billion in damages, more damage than the September 11th attacks, Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge Earthquake combined, and displaced over 400,000 people (the largest displacement in U.S. history) yet our federal government has relied on old systems and paradigms meant to repair damage from much smaller disasters.
Even more shocking: less than 42% of the money set aside for rebuilding has even been spent, much less gotten to those most in need. For example:
* Washington set aside $16.7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, one of the two biggest sources of rebuilding funds. But as of March 2007, only $1 billion -- just 6 percent -- had been spent, almost all of it in Mississippi. Following bad publicity, another $3.8 billion was spent between March and July -- but 70 percent of the funds remain unused.
* The other major pot of money for rebuilding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Public Assistance Program, received $8.2 billion. But only $3.4 billion was meant for non-emergency projects like fixing up schools and hospitals, and only a fraction has been spent.
* After the failure of federal levees flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received $8.4 billion to restore storm defenses. But as of July 2007, less than 20 percent of the funds have been spent, even as the Corps admits that levee repair won't be completed until as late as 2011.
Even the money allocated will likely come nowhere near the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. For example, the $3.4 billion FEMA has available to rebuild local public infrastructure would only cover about one-eighth of the damage suffered in Louisiana alone. But this money is spread across five states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas--and covers damage from three 2005 hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
The White House has not done enough to make sure the funds get to the places that need it quickly and efficiently, instead choosing to take a hands off attitude leaving itself in a position to point fingers at overwhelmed state and local officials who have had to deal with significant federal red tape while rebuilding their communities from the ground up without the logistical and operations help of their federal government.
The final result has been a slowed rebuilding, putting the burden on the storm's survivors to find a way to return, rebuild their homes and help support their neighbors in rebuilding their communities, largely without the help of federal funding. Civic groups like ACORN and churches across the region have been left with the job of rebuilding communities, filling in where their governments have left off. Their charitable good works are definitely something to behold but because the the historic scale of the destruction without meaningful partnerships with the federal government and those significant resources they will never be able to rebuild the entire region to its former size. The people of the Gulf Coast deserve enormous credit for all they have done to date to rebuild the region with so little assistance.
In New Orleans especially, schools remain closed, the healthcare system remains inaccessible, public infrastructure in shambles and affordable housing remains out of reach to most still displaced survivors. The flood protection system threatens even those with the courage to return. Without a renewed federal investment and partnership people will not be able to realize their human right to return home and participate in rebuilding their communities.
Much of this article is taken from the new report by the Institute for Southern Studies, RFK Center for Human Rights and other Gulf Coast advocates called, "Blueprint for Gulf Renewal," giving a voice to grassroots advocates calling for greater federal accountability in the Gulf Coast rebuilding process. The report is available here.