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Three Years after Katrina: Building on Community Successes in the Gulf Coast

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Almost three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the breakdown of Louisiana's federally constructed levee system, the media, Congress, the White House, our Presidential candidates and even, surprisingly, the progressive community have for the most part moved on.

Fewer and fewer national media organizations regularly cover the region's recovery and wall-to-wall coverage of the DNC and RNC Conventions has kept media interest in the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to a bare minimum.

Though Congress passed appropriations this year to provide some funding for flood protection and housing for the chronically homeless, the 110th Congress was unable to address many of the critical environmental, community and human needs still stopping Gulf Coast families from realizing their human rights to return home, to participate in rebuilding their communities and to live with dignity and safety.

Reports indicate that the White House, for its part, fought to keep Gulf Coast needs out of supplemental appropriations bills, once again breaking the promises President George Bush made to the Gulf Coast and the nation in Jackson Square nearly three years ago, when he committed to "do what it takes, [and] stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

Neither Senator John McCain nor Senator Barack Obama spent Katrina's anniversary in the Gulf Coast. Neither campaign has even committed to attending the YouTube/Google Forum in New Orleans on September 18th to discuss the region's recovery, among other issues.

Instead of partnering with community leaders and taking on the region's recovery, many national progressive advocacy groups choose to co-opt the emotionally charged imagery of the devastation and the Bush administration's failed response, in order to repackage their pre-Katrina agendas. While issues like global warming and poverty played a role in the disaster and deserve attention, this approach disregards the fact that the disaster was not just a symptom of a larger national problem but a specific continuing crisis where vulnerable populations still suffer from political neglect and deserve targeted solutions.

Each has turned their backs on the opportunity to confront this American disaster, leaving Gulf Coast communities and residents to their own devices in recovery.

While national leaders have failed to meet expectations, local community and faith based organizers have thrived in providing services to those in need, leading some of the most successful recovery projects to date. ACORN New Orleans has gutted thousands of homes for working class, mostly African American families, protecting the frames of these homes from destructive mold and the possibility of having their properties seized or damaged by the city government. Groups like Moore Community House in Mississippi have trained hundreds of low income women for good paying jobs in the construction trades. Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church in East New Orleans helped bring back the majority of its parishioners, helping them to rebuild homes and restart businesses through their successful new Community Development Corporation. These groups have been aided by thousands and thousands of volunteers and the generosity of thousands and thousands of Americans who gave charitable donations in response to the 2005 hurricanes.

In the months after the disaster, many conservatives have pointed to the success of charities and community organizers as a reason to forgo government-led rebuilding efforts. But while these successes have been a bright spot for their communities, they have unfortunately often lacked in scale. With a disaster which caused more damage than our three previous largest disasters combined (Hurricane Andrew, the Santa Lomas Earthquake and the 9-11 attacks) destroying 300,000 homes, leaving $150 billion in damages and displacing tens of thousands of families, even a historic $4 billion in charitable donations and thousands of hours of from volunteers could only scratch the surface of community needs. Also much of these donations went to national relief organizations, some of whom served brilliantly; others like the Red Cross were reported to have squandered funds, where most of their funding went to immediate disaster response, things like food, short term housing, healthcare and giving cash to survivors for their immediate needs. A small minority of funds have focused on long term recovery efforts and funding local organizations. Also while community efforts have flourished at addressing certain needs they have not been able to significantly confront internal displacement of low income families, insufficient infrastructure and affordable housing, and coastal erosion, each of which would require a larger public investment.

Tens of thousands of families remain scattered across the country and lack the resources to return home to reunite with family. Schools still lay in shambles as parents fear not finding classroom space for their children. Cities still lack affordable housing as federal tax credits have not spurred development. Thousands find themselves without homes as they are forced to leave toxic FEMA trailers which emitted unsafe levels of formaldehyde, causing health concerns for which many do not have access to treatment. Public safety suffers as police stations and firehouses run out of FEMA trailers. Death rates spike as hospitals operate at limited capacity. Deficient levees and preventable erosion of natural flood protection, the wetlands, increases the threat of future disasters. Without proper oversight, numerous workers, especially in the immigrant population, have experienced wage theft and sometime brutal labor abuses in recovery projects. Each of these needs further impacts the pace of the overall recovery and ultimately the human rights of the disaster's survivors.

As we approach the third anniversary of our nation's largest disaster, national leaders seem unwilling to confront the homegrown human rights crisis in the Gulf Coast.

In recent months a number of community and faith based organizers and service providers from diverse sections of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi have begun coming together to examine local, state and national level rebuilding policy. While the exact nature of the devastation was different from neighborhood to neighborhood (for instance Mississippi and Alabama did not suffer as much extended flooding and internal displacement as did New Orleans and parts of Southern Louisiana) survivors and communities face many of the same problems.

With no real solutions coming out of Washington, community leaders have taken on the responsibility to develop their own homegrown solutions. In one such effort, Gulf Coast community organizers like ACORN, interfaith groups like All Congregations Together, Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, and environmentalists like Turkey Creek Community Initiatives began meeting and working with academics from San Jose State University including Dr. Scott Myers Lipton and human rights groups like the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial (full disclosure: my employer) to develop a federal policy to empower the region's greatest assets, the disaster's survivors, with the resources they need to return and confront many of these issues. The effort, which became known as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign, developed federal legislation known as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.

In early November 2007, Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Charlie Melancon and Gene Taylor introduced the bill in the U.S. House as HR 4048. Since then the bill has reached 16 co-sponsors, including one Republican, and has been endorsed by a number of state political parties, including the Louisiana Republican Party and California and Missouri Democratic Parties.

The bill aims to jumpstart Gulf Coast recovery by funding critical infrastructure and environmental projects to create 100,000 job and training opportunities for displaced and current residents. Instead of relying on inflexible bureaucracy, the policy allows residents and local leaders to communicate their needs and play a direct role in the development of their communities. Through local advisory councils, leaders of community based organizations such as neighborhood associations and churches, who best know what their communities need, along with the public, participate in open hearings to determine what infrastructure and environmental projects their communities need to promote sustainable recovery. This way community leaders not only determine how their communities are rebuilt but they can more effectively oversee how federal dollars are being used in their name to add an extra layer of accountability.

Also community based organizations are allowed to contract with the federal government to help recruit and train workers. This will allow the federal government to build on the knowledge and relationships these organizations have built in the recovery to more effectively promote economic development and provide opportunities to working families. The bill also promotes stronger communities through living wage jobs, skills training, and supporting local businesses. It could be a pilot project for disaster recovery or rebuilding infrastructure and restoring the environment in other parts of the country.

The bill builds on the success of community organizations in recovery while leveraging the resources of the federal government to empower survivors of the disaster to realize their rights to return and rebuild. In this way it closely resembles US international disaster recovery programs the US State Department uses to support international human rights laws in the countries of allies like Iraq, post tsunami Sri Lanka, and Colombia after disasters that cause large scale internal displacement. Under the United Nation's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, national governments have a responsibility to rebuild after a disaster like the 2005 Hurricanes in a way that supports the rights of residents to return with safety and dignity and participate in the rebuilding of their communities. The United States has endorsed the Guiding Principles on numerous occasions, urging our allies to accept these human rights norms and funding projects to support the rights spelled out in the Principles. In Iraq, the U.S. is funding an ambitious public works plan, guided by the local residents and leaders, employing 100,000 displaced Iraqis to rebuild their communities and help their neighbors realize their human rights to return. Oddly, U.S. officials in 2006 told the United Nations that Americans displaced by Katrina are not guaranteed these same human rights.

If the United States wants to lead the world in human rights, leadership must begin at home. As we approach the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and subsequently as we determine our next President and Congress, we should call on our leaders to support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act and a new resident led vision for recovery along the Gulf Coast. Supporters of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign have also been working to make sure both Democrats and Republicans refocus on these issues, urging the DNC and RNC Platform Committees to adopt human rights based rebuilding planks. In the coming days national leaders of both parties have an opportunity at their National Conventions to partner with Gulf Coast communities and commit our nation to fulfilling its promises and human rights responsibilities, beginning with adopting the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act as a model for recovery. Supporters of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act will be traveling to Denver and Minneapolis, accompanied by the KatrinaRitaVille Express FEMA Trailer Tour, to discuss this new vision with both parties. Colorofchange.org, as well as other supporters, have been running e-advocacy campaigns to support the bill here.

Jeffrey Buchanan is a 2008 Taproots Fellow with the Center for Community Change and also serves as information officer of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. The opinions expressed in this article represent the opinions of the author and not that of any organization.

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