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Helping People Make it Home Again, a Year after Katrina

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With the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina tomorrow, as so many Americans remember the horrifying images of the disaster, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will be dealing with reality they face today - that in a lot of neighborhoods it looks like a hurricane hit a week ago, not a year ago.

Over the past year, in my listening sessions in Wisconsin, I have heard from so many people upset with the federal government's response to Katrina and their emotional pleas to not forget about the people who lost their homes, their communities and their way of life.

On a trip to New Orleans in July, the painful realities about life were everywhere - abandoned businesses, and homes and neighborhoods that were totally destroyed by the hurricane and its aftermath. The challenge of rebuilding is enormous. But what's even tougher is trying to rebuild in a way that helps everyone come back, not just people with access to lots of resources and lots of different options.

There are so many ways that Gulf Coast communities still need help - creating jobs, rebuilding the school systems, and gutting damaged homes so that they can be rebuilt. But when you see those blocks and blocks of neighborhoods that were destroyed - with no sign of reconstruction - it's clear just how much help the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast need to find affordable housing.

Housing has to be affordable so that the Gulf Coast can get back to work. So many of the people who are the lifeblood of the tourism industry - like hotel and restaurant workers - want to call New Orleans home again, but they can't move back if they can't afford any place to live.

It's a testament to the strength of these communities that so many people want to come back, at every income level. You can't do that if you were working a minimum wage job that doesn't exist anymore, and you were renting an apartment that ended up engulfed in flood water.

There are a lot of barriers to moving back for homeowners, but it's also tough for Gulf Coast citizens who were renting when the hurricane hit. In the year since the hurricane struck, rents in the Gulf Coast region have skyrocketed, which makes it even more difficult for low income renters to return to their homes. With a significant percentage of renters in the New Orleans area before Katrina, we need to ensure that the housing assistance in the Gulf Coast is aimed at helping renters, as well as homeowners, rebuild their lives.

We've got to do something to help displaced residents - particularly low-income people - who want to move back to New Orleans. I have put together a few different ideas into one bill, building on really good work on housing issues by some of my colleagues in the Senate. It doesn't tackle every problem, but it will help address some of the tough housing issues facing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It includes housing vouchers to help make rents affordable for the lowest income people and families. It also makes housing like the Katrina Cottages - which are more like homes, and less like trailers - more available to those who want them. There have been a lot of problems with the FEMA trailers, so it's important to give people the option of living in a more permanent home. And finally it allows HUD to handle temporary rental assistance programs from here on out, instead of FEMA, which isn't equipped to handle housing issues like these for the long haul.

When I posted here after a trip to the Gulf Coast in July, I talked about the challenge of rebuilding a society in a way that includes the region's most vulnerable populations. Almost a year after the levees broke, the idea of returning is still out of reach for a lot of people, especially for people struggling to make it paycheck to paycheck.

A year after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, there is so much that we can still do - and that Congress can do -- to help the Gulf Coast recover. Looking ahead, we've got to reform the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees in the first place, to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. I'm really pleased that the Senate passed several Army Corps reform measures I wrote with Senator John McCain. But we also have to focus on the here and now -- what people are facing on the Gulf Coast today. As we look at the images of the hurricanes a year later, and we remember what people went through, we also have to recognize how far we have to go, and rededicate ourselves to helping the people of the Gulf Coast make it home again.

**Update: I agree with DSB's comment that the poorly constructed levee system contributed to the massive flooding New Orleans endured following Hurricane Katrina. I have been working for years, along with Sen. John McCain, to ensure certain Army Corps of Engineer projects, including the levees, undergo independent peer review. Earlier this summer, I offered an amendment with Senator McCain and others to the Water Resources Development Act to require independent peer review of future Army Corps of Engineers projects that are costly, controversial, or critical to public safety. The amendment, which passed on a bipartisan vote, draws on the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and over ten years of government reports looking into the Army Corps. But we're still not in the clear. Our provision is in danger of being stripped out during the House-Senate negotiation process. I urge you to continue to make your voices heard on this issue. It would be irresponsible for Congress to sit by and allow a system that contributed to the failure of the levees to remain unchanged.