Part II: "Nothing Left" — A Volunteer’s Perspective
During Spring Break 2006, thousands of college students went to the Gulf Coast to help with recovery of communities and small businesses. Church groups and charitable organizations have been sending groups of volunteers since last September. One volunteer, “Jake,” who went to the devastated town of Waveland, Mississippi, says the following:
It’s only church and private groups there [in Waveland] now. No FEMA, no federal government workers to speak of. They’ve left. The entire population of this county [Lauderdale County, MS, which has a population of approximately 100,000] could go down there to work and it’d still take months. These people are living in tents and FEMA trailers. They have nothing and feel abandoned by their government.
Jake’s account is typical of volunteers who see the devastation, and apparently his statement that the hurricane victims feel abandoned is true as well. This is far from the first time that they have expressed that emotion. Along the destroyed coast, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed, of being ignored and left to pick up their lives and communities. No doubt this is an example of the Bush Administration’s “faith-based services” that Bush promoted in his campaign in 2000. Private charity is a great thing, of course, but in a situation like this, leaving a completely devastated community to its own devices only results in a “faith-based recovery,” in a wholly different sense of the term “faith.” A sense that actually means something like “wishful thinking” or “fool’s hope.” That is not good enough. The hurricane relief and recovery problem is tremendous in scale, much bigger than people realize until they see it firsthand, and it will need more than can be provided by the resources of private altruistic groups.
Meanwhile, “big industry” gets the aid packages.
Part III: The Priority List
It is noteworthy that within days after Katrina struck, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pushed for, and got, legislation allowing the gambling casinos to move inland, whereas before, they had been required by law to anchor themselves offshore. The casinos bring in billions in tourist revenue, and that tourist revenue was his priority.
At the same time that Barbour was pushing to legalize onshore gambling, the insurance companies (with the exception of one, Farm Bureau of Mississippi, which later filed for bankruptcy when other divisions of the company did not pool money to help out the MS division) decided that they didn’t want to pay off the coastal homeowners and refused to pay anyone who did not have a flood insurance package. These homeowners had been sold something the companies billed as “hurricane insurance” and believed that they were covered. The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the companies on behalf of the victims, but as of the end of 2005, it was still in court. Initially, Katrina damages were estimated at well over $100 billion, with about half of it insured (a ratio that is typical for hurricanes). However, late last autumn, the insurance industry reported a comparatively paltry $37 billion in insured damage, which would mean $75 billion total for the storm if the insured-to-total-damage ratio held. This disparity was not simply initial overestimation. Total damages certainly must exceed $100 billion, considering how many communities have been completely washed out to sea, but insurance companies seem not to want to pay for more than about a third of that.
Curiously, the media seemed to ignore or remain in the dark about the situation in Mississippi and rural Louisiana, all the while condemning Louisiana state officials for the failures in New Orleans. In October 2005, history professor Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote an editorial about the “Mississippi Myth” that the mishaps were strictly Louisiana-based and that it had been handled better in Mississippi. However, since then, there has been very little acknowledgment of the situation on the coastal areas of Mississippi and southern Louisiana that were literally “wiped off the map” by Katrina’s storm surge.
In New Orleans, on the other hand, entire neighborhoods were abandoned during the pre- and post-storm evacuation. These neighborhoods, which are almost exclusively poor or lower middle class, remain unoccupied, the homeowners unable to return, while their houses slowly disintegrate. The evacuees, meanwhile, remain in other parts of the country. Many of them did not have their houses insured, and, of course, many of those that did have insurance have not received any payments. No one at the scene seems to care, which recalls the class and race distinctions in the recovery from the 1928 Florida hurricane.
The abandonment of large parts of New Orleans is utterly shameful and is indicative of a pattern—and a looming problem. The 2006 hurricane season officially began on June 1, and already there has been one storm strike the Gulf Coast that nearly reached hurricane status, but thousands of people remain on the storm-battered coast in thoroughly unsafe and substandard housing—as accounts such as Jake’s would indicate. This is a major part of why the hurricane recovery is such a massive, enormous problem.
Volunteers to the Coast describe the devastated towns between New Orleans and Biloxi, MS as having “Third-World” conditions. A quick search on the Internet for Hurricane Katrina damage photographs proves this description to be quite apt. This strip of coastline, encompassing numerous small towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, is where the worst part of Katrina’s eyewall passed. It is where entire neighborhoods have been obliterated. –And it is the location that the private volunteers reveal has been most shamefully neglected in the recovery.
Given what we know about Governor Barbour’s push for onshore gambling, and given that the surrounding metropolitan areas are on the road to recovery in places, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that this part of the Coast has been, as the residents say, abandoned by the government because of the comparative lack of wealth and economic (read: tourism) revenue it has brought to the region. Of course, the tourist money can’t be forgotten, and no one would suggest that the revenue-generating large businesses should be abandoned. However, they—by their very nature—have more resources and are better equipped than the private residents and small businesses on the Coast. Simply put, the “regular people” need the shot in the arm more, and instead they are getting the metaphorical back of their government’s hand.
What makes it especially disgraceful is that this is not unique to Hurricane Katrina. Leaving coastal communities to fend for themselves has been a pattern ever since 2003, when this administration first really had to deal with hurricanes.
Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003? How Hurricane Isabel of 2003 was just the beginning.
Part V: Fiasco in Florida: What about the victims of the other hurricanes?
Part VI: A Dire Situation: What might 2006 hold?