September 1, 2007

Hurricane Katrina: Two Years Later

I sat down to write a post on the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina just as I did for the one year anniversary, but I was too mad to write anything that day. I wanted whatever I would write to be more than a rant. I decided to take some extra time to evaluate the progress, check some sources, and make sure that I was providing accurate information. This may be late, but it is no less heartfelt. And yes, I'm still mad.

The community in which I reside, some 60 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, has recovered well in the past two years. There has been significant progress, especially during the past year. We have absorbed several thousand additional residents, displaced by the storm, and this has helped to fuel rapid business growth. Money has poured into the area, and although important questions have been raised about where the money has been spent, there have been some undeniable benefits. For example, several new restaurants and retail stores have opened and appear to be doing extremely well. There has been recent talk of commercial real estate developments coming to the area, and it seems safe to predict continued growth for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, these signs of progress hide an unpleasant truth, which, although far more visible in coastal Mississippi and Louisiana, is evident here too. Simply put, those most in need of assistance have been least likely to receive it and have derived the least benefit from the progress described above.

Those without solid insurance before the storm or without the means to sue their insurers afterward have little means of recovering their loss. Thousands remain without permanent housing, and coastal building has become so slow and expensive that this includes many who live well above the poverty line. There have been reports of people receiving $100,000 insurance settlements and still being unable to find housing due to skyrocketing demand and inadequate supply. Virtually everyone I meet has a tale about unscrupulous contractors.

Two years after Katrina, less than half of previous New Orleans residents have returned. Those who have remain concerned about the levees. There is a palpable and realistic fear that this could happen again. Parts of the city have returned fully while neighboring areas remain uninhabitable. Nobody misses the fact that it is the wealthy areas which are coming back while the poor areas remain wasteland. According to MSNBC,
But much of New Orleans still looks like a wasteland, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned. Basic services like schools, libraries, public transportation and childcare are at half their original levels and only two-thirds of the region’s licensed hospitals are open. Rental properties are in severely short supply, driving rents for those that are available way up. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.
In Mississippi, the two year anniversary has once again spawned a wave of resentment of the media's continued decision to focus on New Orleans and ignore our state. Loss of confidence in federal and state government continues, and I worry that this may have lasting political consequences for the region. The steep psychological toll I predicted is becoming a reality. Mental health services on the Mississippi coast were devastated and are only just beginning to come back, only to face considerably more demand than they can handle.

I have the sinking feeling that I'll have to write a similar post a year from now. Click here to let President Bush know that we expect him to keep his promises to the region.