A few weeks ago, President Bush made a speech in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, an area particularly hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. Bush said New Orleans “is better today than it was yesterday, and it’s going to be better tomorrow than it is today.”
Typical deep thinking from the president, prompting the question: Better for whom?
It’s not like the “old” New Orleans was perfect. Poverty rates were high. The school system was possibly the worst in the nation, and public housing was terrible. Streets and other infrastructure (like the levees) were in serious need of repair, thanks in part to state and local politics that had been notoriously corrupt for decades.
Over the past two years, the U.S. government allocated $114 billion to assist in the “re-New-al.” But much of that – The New York Times estimates $75 billion – was “disaster relief.” Getting aid to about 500,000 Lousiana residents in a time of crisis and failing infrastructure is one thing. Helping them go back to rebuild their schools and homes is something else.
About 1,000 square miles of land was submerged and damaged due to the hurricane. Despite the ads enticing us to come to Mardi Gras and eat at Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, rebuilding has yet to occur on most of that land.
To put it in perspective, say a tornado wiped out an area about the size of Tarrant County. Two years later, a couple of corporations have built a few skyscrapers and restaurants near downtown, but homes, schools, and hospitals have not been rebuilt. What would you think?
The government trumpets that $45 million is available to help Louisiana open or reopen charter schools. While it’s critical to rebuild schools (private or public), a mess of infrastructure has to be fixed for families to be able to use those shiny new charter schools. According to the group Justice for New Orleans, the public transportation system, libraries, and childcare centers are estimated to be at only half their pre-Katrina capacity. Only two-thirds of the region’s licensed hospitals are open. Rents are high, and housing is scarce, so even if evacuees wanted to go back they might not be able to find or afford housing.
Crime is rampant – not necessarily news in New Orleans. But controlling crime is hampered by the fact that New Orleans’ finest are apparently operating out of FEMA trailers. They lack fax machines, and in some precincts, indoor plumbing.
Assuming the federal math to be correct, there should be an additional $39 million available to help rebuild the city’s infrastructure. But the Bush administration’s mantra is privatization: Private contractors are the key to solving all of our nation’s issues. Large corporations always see war and disaster as opportunities. These days, the opportunities are served up on tax-paid golden platters.
Example: The federal government paid a contractor called the Shaw Group to put blue tarps on the roofs of houses after Katrina. Shaw Group got $175 per tarp, then subcontracted the work out to another company for $75 each. That company further subcontracted the work out to a third firm which, you guessed it, subbed it to guys who did the actual work for $2 per tarp. If it only cost $2, why did the feds pay more than 85 times that?
The federal government provided $2,000 emergency debit cards for about 4,000 evacuees. Putting aside the stories about New Orleans evacuees using the cards to buy liquor and boob jobs, I figure the private contractors pocketed thousands of times more disaster aid than the average Louisianan could, even with multiple identities.
An estimated 300,000 homes still need to be rebuilt. Lumber is scarce. Insurance is difficult to come by, especially since the levees are still weak. The federal government is slow, but it’s no slower than the local government. The building-permit process in New Orleans has been likened to a maze with mostly dead-ends. The history of governmental corruption extends from former governors to local ward representatives. The psychological needs of the people who survived the hurricane are going to be staggering.
Of the millions of federal dollars allocated to new Orleans, little is being spent in ways that would allow average people to come back to the homes they had or the lives they lived. Is it criminal or simply business as usual for the Crescent City?
Laurie Barker James is a local freelance writer.