Gulfport, Miss.— National and community leaders at a town hall meeting today criticized the lack of political will, the bureaucratic bungling, and the poor policy decisions that have characterized the recovery from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and international humanitarian agency Oxfam America convened the session.
Held at the Good Deeds Community Center in Gulfport, Miss., the town hall meeting gave voice to the frustrations and fears Gulf Coast residents have grappled with since losing loved ones, homes, and jobs to Katrina. Most participants agreed that a year into a hurricane recovery, remarkable not only for its scale but its willful neglect of the poor, the region’s neediest residents have not received adequate help, despite the billions of dollars spent and allocated.
“The reality is that folks on the Gulf Coast still need our help—maybe even more than they did a year ago,” said Danny Glover, an actor and activist, who spoke at the event. “We’ve got to make sure that this multi-billion dollar investment in rebuilding the coast is fair to everyone, especially the region’s poorest people. They need a place in this recovery—not on the sidelines, but front and center.”
“Envisioning a better Mississippi” was the theme of the two-hour town hall meeting, which covered eight broad areas, including housing, jobs and economic development, environmental justice, and governance and accountability.
“This town hall meeting gives coastal residents an opportunity to have a voice in what has happened one year out and the impact those decisions have had on their lives and their ability to rebuild,” said Derrick Johnson, state president Mississippi NAACP. “It’s part of a larger effort to develop a policy agenda for the 2007 Mississippi legislative session.”
NAACP President Bruce Gordon, and Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, served as panelists along with Danny Glover in the discussion moderated by George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. Community advocates and state officials participated in the conversation, and Curry entertained questions and comments from the audience, drawn largely from Mississippi’s three coastal counties.
“A lot was promised, but a pattern of neglect, as deep-seated as the poverty it fosters, has shortchanged untold Gulf Coast families,” said Offenheiser. “Lip service doesn’t rebuild houses. It doesn’t create jobs. It’s time to turn all the talk into action.”
Connell Lewis, a 59-year-old Biloxi resident, whose house was flooded by Katrina lamented that nearly a year has passed and his home remains just a shell with exposed studs and plywood floors. At this rate, he believes it’s going take 10 or 15 years before the community will get back to where it was before Katrina hit.
“It makes me feel real bad that my government is not responding to the needs of the American people after we need it now,” said Lewis.
The town hall meeting also featured a photo exhibition and video documentary produced by Steve Liss, an award-winning photojournalist from Time magazine. Liss recently spent a month on the Mississippi and Louisiana coast photographing and interviewing people whose lives were drastically affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The photos, which are also featured in the Oxfam America report called “Forgotten Communities, Unmet Promises: An Unfolding Tragedy on the Gulf Coast” released this week, chronicle the day-to-day activities and emotions of residents who have waited too long for the help they desperately need. The NAACP has also released an independent but complementary report titled “Envisioning a Better Mississippi: Hurricane Katrina and Mississippi—One Year Later.”
“I think people have lost hope,” said Diana Naranjo, a Biloxi resident featured in the photographs. “When people don’t have any hopes, they don’t have anything to drive them to work, to do something good. Hope is long gone.”