In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush spoke of the hurricane disaster recovery on the Gulf Coast and pledged to “stay at it until they’re back on their feet.” In his 2007 State of the Union address—delivered one week ago—Bush failed to once mention the “struggle to rebuild.” Yesterday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a field hearing in Louisiana to discuss the reconstruction efforts. Panel member Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) noted, “There is not a sense of urgency in this administration to get this done. You get a sense that will has been lacking in the last several months.” Frustrated Louisiana residents feel betrayed. As the hearing commenced, a protester yelled, “Stand up for justice!” Joe Aguda, a Katrina victim who now lives in a FEMA trailer, had a simple reaction. “We’ve been forgotten,” he said.
- Federal and state officials have been slow in delivering needed funds to Louisiana communities. Much of the growing tension between state and local officials in Louisiana stems from delays in a federal program that reimburses local officials for a host of infrastructure projects, including road repairs, public building construction, and debris removal. The Federal Emergency Management Agency “has paid Louisiana roughly $5.1 billion to reimburse local officials for infrastructure projects following Katrina, but only about $2 billion of that money has reached communities 16 months after the storm” due to cumbersome audit procedures. State officials too have been slow to meet the demand. As of January 18, FEMA “had agreed to pay for $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but Louisiana had forwarded only $145 million to the city. State officials have said city leaders failed to provide required documentation.” Additionally, only 300 of more than 100,000 applicants for the state’s homeowners aid program have received any grant money from the program.
- The Louisiana Gulf Coast region remains economically devastated in the wake of the storms. The Institute for Southern Studies aptly described the current state of Louisiana as “largely an economic disaster area as a result of Katrina.” Congress has allocated more than $110 billion on recovery efforts in the Gulf region, but there are still 62,000 people living in FEMA trailers, and the devastated 9th Ward of New Orleans “remains all but vacant.” The effort to provide housing for displaced Katrina victims has been “a failure with many causes, including institutional neglect, lack of funding, and poor planning, decision making, and execution.” Beyond housing problems, the reconstruction of the broken levees “has slowed.” Residents are in such desperate need of health care that a recent free health clinic drew thousands of uninsured registrants.
- The time has come for Congress to exercise its oversight authority on the reconstruction in the Gulf region. Former FEMA chief Michael Brown said that in a still-secret videoconference held shortly after Katrina hit New Orleans, he warned presidential aides that 90 percent of the city was being “displaced.” He was greeted with “deafening silence.” In the last Congress, under conservative leadership, both House and Senate committees sought copies of the White House’s Katrina records, but the administration declined to turn over messages between the President and his top advisers. While the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee possesses subpoena power over some of these documents, the chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), has “quietly backed away from his pre-election demands that the White House turn over” these potentially embarrassing documents. “Katrina was perhaps the government’s biggest failure ever,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “For the Congress not to be willing to stand up to the White House and demand to know who’s accountable is a total abdication of their responsibility.”
Daily Talking Points is a product of the American Progress Action Fund.