"You can never return."
Sounds like a funeral eulogy, don't it?
Those are words many lower 9th Ward and New Orleans residents are being implicitly told by FEMA, Louisiana state, and city authorities, in evacuee meetings in Atlanta, Houston, Birmingham and other cities around the affected areas of the Gulf coast.
For Katrina evacuees, the nightmare has shifted from the hurricane's aftermath to the government's neglect.
Doubly so for hard-working citizens and homeowners who listened to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco in their calls for residents to return to the area. Listening to intently and believed in President Bush's message on hope and empowerment from New Orleans in the weeks after the storm. Those evacuees, some poor, but mainly middle-class and black, trusted the federal government would live up to its promise of repairing the levees (to Category 5 levels) and getting the infrastructure (lights, gas, and roads) back online. It is almost 4 months since the storm; the tragic stories have been off the news media's radar, and (unlike media's polished assurances), no Hollywood ending.
Just the old story of the politics as usual served Southern-style: money is power, power is money, and without either you have none; and therefore no response when it is matters. For these residents, it is their livelihood, homes, land – their culture, at stake. In terms of shear numbers, the Katrina evacuation from New Orleans was one of the largest (de facto) resettlement events since black Northern migrations in the 1930s and '40s. And while they are desperately attempting to re-plant roots, the federal government has not decided yet the financial (and political cost) to keeping them there.
In the meantime, in the eyes of real estate developers and conservative interests, an abandoned lower 9th Ward and vicinity would be to New Orleans' benefit in terms of financial services (fewer lower-income residents), further relaxation of construction rules and regulations, and increased 'comfort level' of visitors, introducing a "new and improved" New Orleans: a more 'modern' attitude, a heightened "pleasure-land" for young adults and (possible) retirees, and a different demographic: going from 70% black to 70% white.
What a difference a storm makes. So many of the little things which make big differences in perception, funds, and in how rebuilding will take place.
One wonders if government critics, who sites how overwhelmed FEMA and Louisiana state authorities were after Katrina, have an answer as to how still in the worst affected areas in Louisiana and Mississippi, why so little has been done. Over 600,000 still in government-sponsored temporary housing ( i.e., hotel rooms, mobile homes), in Mississippi, rural police search teams still searching for the unaccounted missing, and how temporary housing has yet to assigned to residents, at least, nearby where they once lived, instead of (in some cases) hundreds of miles away.
However, due to political pressure some government action is taking place, the Federal Housing Authority has decided to pay the mortgages of federally-insured Katrina-damaged homes for a year (instead of simply three months), affecting 20,000 homes. In addition, the National Flood Insurance Program, managed by FEMA, has borrowed $18.5 billion dollars to assist homeowners with damage claims due to flooding.
Government intervention will be needed for years to reestablish economy and support existing infrastructure. This assistance on top of the immediate aid needed to hold the middle-class and small-businesses in the affected areas.
And from the residents who want to rebuild their lives, to the politicians who wish to stay in office, to the environmentalists encouraging 'responsible' development, gradually healing the Louisiana marshland from further man-made erosion via the levees: all believe they know what is best for the New Orleans city and the region, but it's the federal government (starting with President Bush) who should take the region.
After all, this larger than "9/11"-scale event was an 'act of God.' The Katrina recovery effort should be a pillar to his promise of "Compassionate Conservatism" during the 2000 campaign.
Instead, where is Bush?
Not only is Katrina a watershed for government action (or lack thereof), but, on a political level, the end of the 20th Century Republican Party and its continued 'Southern' strategy. There is nothing unlike the human experience of struggle (or suffering) on TV to change one's priorities, especially when they are Americans.
(There are no words.)
We help our own.
Tommy Ates is a syndicated columnist based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tommy Ates has appeared in several publications, such as The Chicago Tribune, The Houston Chronicle, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Wichita Eagle, and The Macon Telegraph, among others . Please consult contact information on column release dates and/ or pricing.
Contact Tommy Ates at: firstname.lastname@example.org