Forgotten Communities, Unmet Promises

An unfolding tragedy on the Gulf Coast

One year ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, elected officials at all levels pledged bold new action and committed to righting inequities as devastated communities rebuilt—better, safer, with more access to opportunity than before. However, despite their pledges that the most vulnerable citizens would get the help they needed to reclaim their lives and livelihoods, lawmakers have lacked the political will to turn their rhetoric into action.

This examination of three communities emblematic of longstanding poverty and exclusion— the urban neighborhoods of East Biloxi, Mississippi, and the rural communities of Vermilion and Plaquemines parishes in Louisiana—reveals that government neglect at all levels extends beyond the well-publicized failures in New Orleans to encompass an entire region in distress.

Access to opportunity remains unequal—and unfair. In Biloxi, government officials acted first to save the city’s battered casinos by convincing state lawmakers to allow gaming on land. Not ensuring that the low-income residents of East Biloxi shared in the economic benefits, however, has made them victims of an enormous land squeeze, forcing them out of their neighborhoods and homes.

False assurances undermine future visions—and current optimism. The self-reliant residents of Erath, a mostly Cajun community in rural Vermilion Parish, began rehabilitating their houses the moment they returned after Hurricane Rita’s flood waters receded. After confusing signals about new flood elevations, plans for the town’s future, and possible homeowner grants, their progress has slowed and in some cases has been reversed by the agencies meant to facilitate it. Institutional neglect leaves communities at risk of losing everything—even their way of life.

Few state or federal funds have assisted the recovery of independent commercial fishers, who for generations have made Plaquemines Parish the center of their trade. Their inability to continue is draining Louisiana’s usually robust commercial fisheries, normally second in the nation only to Alaska.

These communities, and many like them, teeter on the brink. They are being rendered invisible.

Left behind. Forgotten.

The pattern of inequity in receiving recovery assistance from the government has been well established by past disasters. Federal disaster assistance tends to favor people who have economic assets at risk—that is, the affluent. Though the pattern may be familiar, it need not be inevitable.

Making sure the billions designated for recovery benefit the region’s most vulnerable communities remains a matter of political will. Action can and must be taken immediately.

  • Make eligibility requirements for homeowner assistance inclusive. Both Louisiana and Mississippi can make improvements in their plans to use CDBG funds by dropping the penalties they currently impose on those homeowners that did not have insurance. Denying assistance to uninsured homeowners unjustly punishes the poorest and most vulnerable, many of whom simply lacked the money to buy insurance.
  • Assign proportional attention and funds to affordable rental housing, a particularly critical resource for a community’s low-wage workers and poorest residents. Neither state provides anywhere near the assistance needed to replace the affordable rental units lost in the storms, let alone meet increasing demand. Funds should be used to supplement Low Income Housing Tax Credits, increase small landlord rental repair, and expand work force housing.
  • Humanize and rationalize transitional housing. FEMA’s transitional housing program has been characterized by one expensive snafu after another, some of them almost inhumane— circumstances that do not bode well as the program’s 18-month term winds down. FEMA should develop and communicate a plan now that is especially attentive to the needs of low-income families before this situation grows into a major catastrophe.
  • Improve accountability to ensure funds benefit the poor. Government at all levels must hold itself accountable to both hurricane survivors and the taxpayers underwriting this recovery. Ensuring that both Mississippi and Louisiana provide regular, clear demographic data on the disbursements of grants would provide important evidence of the extent to which equity is being achieved—while there is still time to change course if improvement is necessary.
  • Partner with community agencies to minimize uncertainty and improve outreach. Confusing and conflicting information has been a hallmark of this recovery. Federal and state agencies should create stronger relationships with trusted nonprofit and grass-roots organizations, and rely upon their community expertise to ensure that vulnerable populations understand and access the benefits for which they qualify.
  • Reform post-disaster housing assistance. Congress must pass and the president must sign the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, sponsored by Senators Collins (R-ME) and Lieberman (D-CT). This bill would improve the nation’s emergency management capability by reconstituting FEMA and improving housing service delivery, to prevent the same bureaucratic bungling from accompanying the nation’s next disaster.
  • The incremental injustices occurring during this recovery are less apparent to the eye—yet just as devastating—as the futility witnessed so widely on the nation’s TV screens one year ago.
  • Decisive, firm action can reverse this course and provide low-income survivors the opportunities they deserve.

It is, after all, what the nation promised them. That they would be rendered whole. Get ahead. Thrive.

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