by William Fisher
(IPS) -- Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans faced several hundred displaced constituents seething with anger, frustration, confusion and hopelessness.
The questioners, three out of four of whom were African Americans, had been urged by Nagin to return to New Orleans from distant but temporary locations where they were trying to put their shattered lives back together. They had been promized trailers, electricity, running water and help finding jobs.
But they told Nagin and his top lieutenants that they were deeply mired in government red tape, misinformation, no information and an apparent lack of interest. The meeting was broadcast live on the cable channel C-Span last week, and the seething disapproval of every level of government was palpable.
Many told stories of spending days on the phone trying to reach local, state and federal agencies, often only to find that their phone numbers "were no longer in service."
Others were told to go to centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), only to find that many of these centers had closed.
One woman, who had traveled to New Orleans from Atlanta, told of being approved for -- but not yet receiving -- a reconstruction loan from the Small Business Administration and, a day later, being notified by FEMA that she was no longer entitled to food stamps or to her temporary housing stipend.
An elderly woman trying to reclaim the body of her husband, who died in the flood, was refused by the central morgue because DNA testing had not begun because the contract with the laboratory had not yet been finalized.
A man who owns a tree-care business complained that contractors had been brought in from other states to do the work he had been carrying out for the city for the past 20 years. He said he had never heard from FEMA, despite its pledge to favor local firms.
Several speakers told the mayor they had been advised that their temporary housing was to be discontinued, and that they had 48 hours to find other places to stay. Others complained that after being urged to return, there were no schools for their children to attend.
Still others told of having to sleep in their trucks or on a floor, living out of a car and waiting for the help that was promised but has not yet arrived.
Said one woman, whose import business was wiped out by the storm, along with her home in New Orleans East: "You come to these FEMA centers, you sit all day, you get no answers to your questions. They're evasive. You're constantly 'pending.' What are you going to be doing, 'pending' for the rest of your life? I've lost everything."
Nagin listened intently to every questioner. He answered some in vague generalities. He referred others to his staff and promised that they would quickly take the appropriate action to bring them relief. He is currently conducting other town hall meetings in other cities where displaced New Orleanians are now living, and continues to urge them to return.
Many of the citizens attending the New Orleans town hall meeting were residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, the poorest part of the city, and the hardest hit by the hurricane.
Meanwhile, Katrina has been gradually but steadily disappearing from prominent coverage in newspapers and on television. With President Bush no longer visiting the stricken areas, the media has apparently moved on.
The Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance told IPS, "With all of the coverage that this disaster received and with it having damaged the Bush administration's credibility so severely, it is amazing that these people have been so quickly forgotten by our government and that the administration has so blithely moved on to other things like immigration reform, as if the Gulf Coast was even stable, much less repaired."
He added, "What this problem needs is some sustained attention by the executive branch. The president needs to pay more attention to the Gulf and less to giving his second term an 'extreme makeover.'"
There are also indications that a proposed congressional investigation into government responses to the disaster could itself become bogged down in jurisdictional wrangles and partisan infighting.
From the very beginning of the post-Katrina disaster, Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landreau has adopted an aggressive posture in urging Congress to appropriate massive sums for relief and reconstruction. But her in-your-face style has reportedly alienated some of her colleagues.
In contrast, senators from Mississippi -- parts of which were also devastated by the hurricane -- have been working more quietly behind the scenes to steer resources to their constituents.
But some Louisiana officials suggest that party politics is playing a role in the provision of resources. They point out that their state has a Democratic governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and that New Orleans is a Democratic stronghold. Mississippi is heavily Republican. Its governor, Haley Barbour, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and has close ties to the Bush administration.
Documentation released yesterday by Gov. Blanco reveals the total chaos that existed between local, state and federal authorities in the days before, during and after the hurricane hit. They suggest that federal authorities were trying to shift the blame toward the governor while, in fact, no one was in charge.
A FEMA spokesman said last week that the agency was working as fast as it could to aid the thousands still destitute from the storm.
"I don't know if you understand the magnitude of this disaster," said the spokesman, James McIntyre. "Almost 1.5 million people have registered for assistance, and we're working to help them all."
Another FEMA official, the manager of an assistance center in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, said the mental anguish of many of his clients was now palpable.
"As people come in, they become desperate," said the official. "They're coming back, thinking they can live in their dwelling. And then all of a sudden, there's nothing."
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left more than 281,000 Louisiana residents -- 14 percent of the workers in the state -- jobless. That created a massive run of unemployment filings that threatens to bankrupt the state's unemployment trust fund.
Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group, told IPS, "The anger displayed by displaced persons at the town hall meeting convened by Mayor Nagin is illustrative of a much broader problem.
"Now that the Katrina disaster is no longer in the news, the federal government is responding to the mostly African American victims with the same kind of blatant neglect that produced the human side of the tragedy in the first place.
"Bureaucratic ineptitude, racism and disdain for poor and working people are perpetuating a nightmare in the lives of thousands of displaced persons. Momentary efforts to repair his image notwithstanding, George Bush and this administration just don't care," he said.
December 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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