The four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating landfall on the Gulf Coast -- the biggest disaster in U.S. history -- has come and gone. As I pointed out Monday, the media coverage -- which tapers off dramatically with each passing year -- largely focuses on what happened four years ago, without acknowledging the ongoing tragedy today. They remember Katrina, but forget the Gulf Coast.
This way of looking at Katrina -- as a one-shot disaster that's part of our distant past, unrelated to our present and future -- is based on a set of myths about Katrina and the Gulf Coast recovery.
MYTH 1: "The Gulf Coast is Returning to Normal"
REALITY: The media likes a feel-good story, but for thousands of Gulf residents life is far from normal. Nobody can deny that many areas have greatly improved. But progress has been extremely uneven: Wealthier and whiter areas have done better, while the lower-income, largely African-American areas hit hardest continue to struggle. Nearly one out of three residential addresses in New Orleans are vacant -- and those are largely concentrated in areas like the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward. Vast stretches of coastal Alabama and Mississippi remain vacant lots. Housing isn't the only problem: key infrastructure like affordable medical care are also in short supply, especially in New Orleans where the only hospital with a mandate to serve low-income families has been closed
MYTH 2: "Anyone Can Get a Job in the Gulf Coast"
REALITY: The subtext here is that those who haven't gotten on with their lives are shiftless, lazy or incompetent because there are plenty of jobs. While the post-Katrina building boom has created lots of jobs -- although the Gulf has been far from immune from the national recession of the last year, with unemployment in New Orleans jumping from 5.9% in May 2009 to 7.3% in June. The bigger problem is job quality: Rents are 40% higher in New Orleans than they were pre-Katrina, making it harder to get by on the historically low-wage, non-union service economy jobs that drive the coastal economy. On top of that, the Gulf has become infamous for wage theft: In one survey, 80% of workers interviewed said they had been illegally denied pay for work they completed by unscrupulous contractors.
MYTH 3: "The Government Has Done All it Can Do"
REALITY: If only that were true. As the Institute documented in a 2007 report, of the more than $116 billion President Bush said had been spent for Katrina, less than a third was earmarked for long-term rebuilding -- and fully half of the long-term rebuilding funds at that point were still bottled up in federal bureaucracy. In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour diverted $570 million in funds earmarked for affordable housing, instead using it to expand a shipping port. Washington and the states have also been slow to rebuild health care infrastructure, fortify levees and protect coastal land being destroyed in part by energy and other commercial interests -- despite the fact that it's New Orleans' best defense against future storms.
MYTH 4: "Obama and the New Congress Have Brought a Big Change in Gulf Recovery Efforts"
REALITY: Many in the Gulf had big hopes when President Obama came into office; as Obama said during a February 2008 campaign stop at Tulane University, "I promise you that when I'm in the White House I will commit myself
every day to keeping up Washington's end of this trust [to rebuild the Gulf]. This will be a
priority of my presidency." Obama's team has taken important steps, like helping create an arbitration panel to resolve legal disputes holding up projects, and most recently launching a cross-agency panel to tackle coastal land loss. But critics point to the economic stimulus bill, where -- despite well-crafted proposals for a Gulf jobs program and other initiatives -- the Louisiana Congressional district including New Orleans ended up getting the least stimulus money of any district in the country. Media accounts like this AP report -- based largely on interviews with people who either have or hope to get money from Washington -- claim Obama is getting "high praise" in the Gulf. But in an Institute survey of 50 Gulf community leaders working on the ground, Obama and Congress received no better than "D" grades for their Gulf recovery efforts.
The Katrina recovery isn't just a problem for the thousands of people still struggling to get by -- it's everyone's issue, a symbol and statement about our country's commitment to helping those most in need. Have we lived up to our commitment?