Garcia and Brenman (2005) observe that “The people who lived in the areas of New Orleans that were still flooded days after Hurricane Katrina struck were more likely to be black, have more children, earn less money, and be less educated than those in the rest of the city. People of color and low income communities disproportionately bear the burdens of the Katrina disaster.”
The authors suggest that “In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast region need to be rebuilt in a sustainable and socially just way.” In this report they “present recommendations to help ensure the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of reconstruction, while promoting democratic values of full information and full and fair public participation in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.”
The private sector is poised to reap a windfall of business in the largest domestic rebuilding effort ever undertaken. Normal federal contracting rules are largely suspended in the rush to help people displaced by the storm and reopen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts have already been let and billions more are to flow to the private sector in the weeks and months to come. The administration has already waived the federal law requiring that prevailing wages be paid on construction projects underwritten by federal dollars. Some experts warn that the crisis atmosphere and the open federal purse are a bonanza for lobbyists and private companies and are likely to lead to the contract abuses, cronyism and waste that numerous investigations have uncovered in post-war Iraq.
Lawmakers and industry groups are lining up to bring home their share of the cascade of money for rebuilding and relief. Louisiana lawmakers plan to push for billions of dollars to upgrade the levees around New Orleans, rebuild highways, lure back business, and shore up the city’s sinking foundation. The devastated areas of Mississippi and Alabama will need similar infusions of cash. Communities will want compensation for taking in evacuees. Future costs of health care, debris removal, temporary housing, clothing, and vehicle replacement will add up.
Other ideas circulating through Congress that could entail significant costs include turning New Orleans and other cities affected by the storm into big new tax-free zones; providing reconstruction money for tens of thousands of homeowners and small businesses that did not have federal flood insurance on their houses or buildings; and making most hurricane victims eligible for health care under Medicaid and having the federal government pay the full cost rather than the current practice of splitting costs with states.
The relief money is not expected to cover any of the real reconstruction costs that lie ahead: repair of highways, bridges and other infrastructure and new projects that seek to prevent a repeat of the New Orleans disaster. Nor will it help pay for expanded availability of food stamps and poverty programs to cover hurricane victims. Farmers from the Midwest, meanwhile, are beginning to press for emergency relief as a result of their difficulties in shipping grain through the Port of New Orleans.
One of the most immediate tasks after Hurricane Katrina hit was repair of the breaches in the New Orleans levees. Three companies have been awarded no-bid contracts by the Army Corps of Engineers to perform the restoration. To provide immediate housing in the region, FEMA says it suspended normal bidding rules in awarding contracts.
1. Jobs and Contracts
The people on the Gulf Coast devastated by the Katrina disaster should receive their fair share of the economic benefits of recovery through local jobs for local workers, and an even playing field for small business enterprises.
Federal regulations should be revised or waived to permit local hiring preferences, so that local people can be hired to do the repair, construction, and restoration work.
Employers and unions should run strong apprenticeship and training programs for local workers.
To supplement the income from jobs and contracts, Individual Development Accounts can be set up for local low-income residents. These are savings accounts for low-income individuals that can be used for specific purposes, such as buying a home, starting a business, or paying college tuition. Individual savings are often matched by either government or private resources so that assets build more rapidly.
2. Sustainable Flood Control, Levees, and Wetlands
The natural ecosystem along the Gulf has been stripped of natural buffers like coastal reefs, tropical forests, and swampland that can absorb rising water and resist tidal surges. The levees in New Orleans need to be restored and strengthened for flood control purposes, but flood control cannot be the only purpose dictating the design of the levees and surrounding wetlands.
Levees and wetlands should be restored in a sustainable, environmentally sound manner that serve people’s needs for safe and healthy open space for parks, recreation and habitat restoration, clean air, and clean water. Every few square miles of marshes lower the flood level significantly. We should plan with nature instead of railing against it.
3. Green Construction
Sustainable construction standards should be set and followed for new and restored buildings in the Gulf Coast.
4. Transportation Justice
Fully one-quarter of the people in New Orleans did not own cars or have ready transportation out of town in the event of evacuation orders. Civic leaders knew that many of the city’s poor, including 134,000 without cars, could be left behind in a killer storm. Many who had cars before will not be able to repair or replace cars damaged or destroyed by the flood.
The plight of the working poor with limited or no access to cars illustrates the need to implement a transportation policy agenda to provide choices to people who currently lack them.
An evacuation plan for low income people must be developed and implemented with local people on the planning team to ensure full and fair public participation. Effective communication with local people is essential.
The very low car ownership rates of African-Americans in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas need to be addressed. More public transportation alone will not be enough in an evacuation. Public transit is one of the first parts of infrastructure to cease operation or fail in an emergency. Car ownership, maintenance, and insurance should be funded through micro-loans.
Neighborhood car repair businesses can be funded through disadvantaged business enterprise programs.
The monopoly on taxi cab ownership and operation should be ended. Jitneys (multi-unassociated riders) should be permitted. Increased car ownership is one obvious answer, but traditional environmentalists are often not comfortable with this.
5. Oversight, Information, and Public Participation
An independent citizens’ oversight body of progressive individuals should be created and funded to find out what went wrong and why, and how to create a better future, to serve as a check and balance for any official commissions and studies. We need to offer a counter-narrative because we cannot trust what the government will do. Democratic values of information and public participation need to be implemented.
The oversight body can gather, analyze, and publish the information necessary to understand the impact of Katrina and the rebuilding efforts on all communities, including communities of color and low income communities.
Public participation has to be rooted in the impacted communities, in the hearts and minds of real people. What kinds of communities do people want to live in and raise children?
6. The Vision and the Values at Stake
It is necessary to articulate and implement a collective regional vision and plan for reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast based on the diverse values at stake that will bring people together and ensure full and fair public participation in the decision-making process.
Key strategies should include coalition building and community organizing, public education, policy and legal advocacy outside the courts, multidisciplinary research and analyses, strategic media campaigns, creative engagement of opponents to find common ground, and impact litigation as a last resort.
7. Congressional Caucuses
The Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Congressional Caucuses should begin to work together immediately to address sustainable and socially just rebuilding and relief efforts.
Black people in New Orleans disproportionately suffered from the Katrina destruction.
145,000 Latinos have been left without jobs in the Gulf Coast. Many Latinos in rural areas did not have adequate access to information, do not speak English, are undocumented, and are quite alone in the recovery.
The needs of Asian-American small entrepreneurs in the fishing industry on the Gulf Coast need to be addressed.
8. The Unique Culture and Heritage of New Orleans
One of the reasons New Orleans is dear to the hearts of people everywhere is the rich artistic and cultural heritage of the area, as expressed in art, music, food, and cultural celebrations. Mardi Gras in February 2006, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring of 2006, will provide opportunities to mourn destruction and celebrate reconstruction together, with tourism helping to bring economic recovery for all.
Reconstruction should preserve the rich cultural heritage of New Orleans through preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings and neighborhoods. Reconstruction must respect the diversity of the Native American, Spanish, French, African-American, Creole, Cajun, and other people who have given New Orleans its unique power of place.
Reconstruction must preserve and build on the strengths of New Orleans and its character as a compact, walkable, historic community. Reconstruction should also avoid the mistakes of the past and prevent concentrated poverty in some areas.
9. Never Again
“I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane,” Senator Barack Obama said last week. “They were abandoned long ago–to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.”
Long term benefits of reconstruction and relief should make concrete improvements in people’s lives compared to their lives before the destruction, give people a real sense of their own power, and alter the relations of power.
In a video guide to hurricane evacuations that had been prepared for but not yet distributed in New Orleans before Katrina struck, the Rev. Marshall Truehill warns “Don’t wait for the city, don’t wait for the state, don’t wait for the Red Cross.” The central message to the people of New Orleans was blunt: Save yourself, and help your neighbors if you can.
We can and must do better than that by turning to each other and our government to achieve equal justice, democracy, and livability for all in New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast, and across the nation.
García, Robert, and Marc Brenman. “Katrina and the Demographics of Destruction and Reconstruction” Center for Law in the Public Interest. September 16th, 2005 http://www.clipi.org/blog/archives/173