Hurricane Katrina struck U.S. soil on August 29, 2005, and the world watched over several days as the federal government failed to adequately respond to the needs of fellow Americans. It has been nearly 18 months since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast and the region still struggles.
House Democrats responded to the disaster by forming a task force of members that visited the region numerous times, most notably on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to meet with local officials on the ground to develop effective recovery legislation. But those bills fell to the apathy of the Republican Do-Nothing Congress and a president focused on other priorities.
This November, the American people elected a new majority that was committed to making a difference in the Gulf Coast and moving the region in a New Direction.
Members of that taskforce are now chairmen, and they are planning and preparing to take action.
Democratic Leadership made their plans known to the president at a bi-cameral, bi-partisan meeting at the White House two weeks ago... tomorrow the president is scheduled to visit the region for the first time in six months.
For the president's trip, House Democrats prepared a briefing titled, "America's Gulf Coast, Month 18: Outstanding Issues." We hope he will provide some answers to these problems when he arrives for his photo-op.
America's Gulf Coast: Month 18
* Federal and state leaders must make accountability on operations, maintenance, and overall performance of levees and coastal protections systems a top priority. The failure of the pre-Katrina levee system was not just a structural failure but also a lapse in ongoing maintenance and oversight at all levels of government. Both federal and state leaders must put in place standards and systems to monitor and maintain these mega-public investments.
* Housing rehabilitation, and demolition, are well underway but with a tightening housing market and rents rising by 39 percent, housing has become dramatically less affordable. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the troubled local housing authority, needs to take further steps to clarify the future of public housing and put in place a concrete plan to make sure that any displaced HUD-assisted families have access to housing in a shattered rental market.
* Low-income residents and renters have been substantially neglected in the housing response. Nearly half of the damaged homes in the flooded areas of the New Orleans region were apartments yet the bulk of the housing response has been aimed at homeowners.
* Across the city, public services and infrastructure remain thin and slow to rebound. Only 17 percent of public transportation is in use, same level as in January 2006. Gas and electricity service is reaching only 41 and 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base, respectively.
* The labor force in the New Orleans region is 30 percent smaller today than one year ago and has grown slowly over the last six months; meanwhile, the unemployment rate remains higher than pre-Katrina. The New Orleans metro area lost 190,000 workers over the past year, with the health and education services industries suffering the largest percentage declines. In the past six months, the region has seen 3.4 percent more jobs but much of that may reflect the rise in new job seekers. The unemployment rate is now 7.2 percent.
* Since last August, over $110 billion in federal aid has been dedicated to serving families and communities impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. In the meantime, the number of displaced and unemployed workers remains high. Of the funds appropriated, nearly half have been dedicated to emergency and longer-term housing. In the meantime, an estimated 278,000 workers are still displaced by the storm, 23 percent of whom remain unemployed.
* Crime levels have risen, and the full level of police protection is only made possible for the moment due to the help of state police and the National Guard. Overall, if these critical public services are not addressed soon, not only will they diminish the city's quality of life, but they will also add to the increasing cost of living and cost of doing business for families and firms, potentially sparking an exodus from the city.
* As in past months, critical infrastructure gaps remain, challenging the city's ability to attract and retain families and businesses. New Orleans has only 30 percent of the child care centers, about half the public schools, about 40 percent of the food establishments, and only 17 percent of the buses it had prior to Katrina. The city's major utility also continues to struggle financially and depends on infrastructure vulnerable to outages.
* Direct disaster relief for fisheries has been almost non-existent. Very limited assistance was provided through the last supplemental, it was nowhere near the amount needed in the disaster affected areas, and it left out entire industries such as shrimp and menhaden. Despite these inadequacies, when Gulf Coast Members asked for more aid in response to a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, the Administration specifically opposed direct assistance for the fishing industry, calling it "preferential treatment."
* Federal levee construction and maintenance throughout coastal Louisiana have been neglected for decades. Tens of thousands of people in south Louisiana have little or no protection from the next major storm because the Republican majority failed to pass critical levee construction bills in Congress. Because of this inaction, Hurricane Rita - sometimes called the "forgotten storm" - caused disastrous flooding across southwestern and central Louisiana. Farmers in this region were particularly devastated and did not receive nearly enough disaster relief to help them recover.