Environment News Service (ENS)

Two Years After Hurricane Katrina: A Tale of Two Louisianas


Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, August 29, 2007 (ENS) - Two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, costing at least 1,836 people their lives and causing at least $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history and one of the deadliest.

In Louisiana, the flood protection system in New Orleans failed in 53 different places as Hurricane Katrina passed east of the city as a category 3 storm. Nearly every levee in metro New Orleans broke open, flooding 80 percent of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes for weeks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that accurate forecasts provided by NOAA meteorologists, including those at the National Hurricane Center, provided critical advance warning and saved countless lives, but countless others perished.

Today, everyone from hurricane survivors to the governors of the affected states to President George W. Bush marked the anniversary in a diversity of ways.

Many hurricane survivors held a Tribunal today at the PanAmerican Conference Center to try the U.S. government 'for human rights violations and crimes against humanity' in the handling of citizens before, during and after the hurricane, and to call for justice and restitution.

Tribunal organizer Kali Akuno, executive director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, says governments at all levels had at least four days advance notice that the levees could not contain mass flooding expected from a category three hurricane, but they did not mobilize to evacuate people, instead leaving them 'to die on their roofs and in the rubble of the devastation.'

'In the face of this abandonment,' writes Akuno, 'the population of New Orleans took their survival into their own hands and neighbor-to-neighbor attempted to save lives and reach secure ground.' 
'In the chaos of their own incompetence and racist rumors, local, state and federal governments sent military and mercenary personnel to New Orleans,' Akuno writes. 'They launched a military invasion aimed at removing the Black population and containing a potential rebellion, rather than sending a relief effort.'

'New Orleans became a battle zone between government and mercenary forces seeking to ‘protect’ the white neighborhoods of the city and the surrounding suburbs from the Black mass fleeing the floods and seeking refuge from the disaster and race induced neglect,' he writes.

'Dozens were murdered and arrested by various government forces and mercenaries as the media fueled and justified human rights abuses by their unfounded, and later to be found completely untrue, reports of mass looting and rape,' Akuno writes. 'To this day, the government has produced no accurate count of the number of people killed.'

'What is known is that some one million, mainly poor Black people, were forcibly dispersed to over 44 states across the US,' Akuno writes.'They herded people onto buses and trains at gunpoint, separating mothers, children, grandmothers and cousins. They uprooted and separated families, friends, neighbors, support networks and violently ripped apart the social fabric of peoples lives in order to transform the ethnic and racial make up of New Orleans and the region forever.'
'The net result of the systematic policies of intentional neglect and depraved indifference being executed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is ethnic cleansing of the historic and politically strategic Black communities in the region,' Akuno writes. 'This ethnic cleansing is being conducted through a deliberate and strategic collusion of government and multinational corporations, particularly real estate developers.'

In addition to making its views known and holding the various levels of government accountable, the Tribunal seeks to attain national and international recognition as Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, for the all the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and to attain financial restitution and reparations for all Gulf Coast IDPs.

At the same time that the Tribunal was gathering, across the city President George W. Bush and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were visiting the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income black neighborhood that was under water for weeks.

Standing in the library of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, the first public school to open in the Lower Ninth Ward after the devastation, Governor Blanco stressed 'the optimism and hope that comes with progress.'

'Schools are welcoming new students. Homes are being rebuilt. Businesses are opening their doors. Life as we knew it is slowly but surely returning to our neighborhoods,' Blanco said.
'We are making progress in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe that requires an unprecedented response. A full recovery will take a sustained effort - at the local, state, and federal levels - over a period of years,' said the governor.

Thanking the American people for its generosity towards the stricken state, the governor pleaded for more help, from the federal government and from ordinary people. 'Come be a part of this historic rebuilding,' she invited. 'Come teach in our schools and work in our hospitals. If you want to make a difference, Louisiana is the place to be.'

'Louisiana has committed more than $4.9 billion dollars to our own recovery, and we will continue prioritizing resources,' she said. 'But we cannot do it alone. We must have a renewed and sustained commitment from Washington.'

Governor Blanco asked President Bush to act now on four key priorities. 'First, I asked the President to support full-funding for the Road Home Program. Louisiana has more homeowners with more damage covered by less insurance than FEMA estimates, resulting in a shortfall,' Blanco said.

Louisiana has committed $1 billion in state resources towards this gap, and the governor asked President Bush to free up the $1.2 billion dollars of promised Hazard Mitigation funds from red tape. 'This would go a long way towards filling the gap,' the governor said.

'Second, I asked the President to rescind his veto threat and sign the WRDA bill.' This bill, the Water Resources Development Act, WRDA, passed by both House and Senate this spring, does not fund projects. It is an authorization bill that identifies projects that are eligible for future funding. It awaits the president's signature to become law.

'Louisiana stands to receive billions of dollars to strengthen our levees, close the MRGO and protect against future storms,' said the governor. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, MRGO, is a 76 mile channel that provides a short route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans' inner harbor.

'At a time when our communities remain vulnerable, we cannot afford to be sidelined by political turf battles. Six years is long enough to wait for WRDA. We need it now,' the governor said.

'Third, I asked the President to waive the local match for the $7.6 billion in levee work needed to strengthen the federal levees to the level they should have been pre-Katrina. It will be next to impossible for future governors to pony up the resources we do not have to meet this $2.6 billion price-tag,' she said. 'Let's do what it takes to rebuild the federal levees, and let's do it without delay.'

'And fourth, I asked President Bush to cut through federal red tape and reform the Stafford Act. Every dollar, every ounce of federal assistance is tied up in pounds of red tape that is choking our recovery,' Blanco said. 'The Stafford Act is like an archaic relic from the past. Our school systems have to justify their replacement expenses pencil by pencil before they can be reimbursed.'

'A strong recovery requires an efficient, effective and expedient government that is not caught in a bureaucratic nightmare,' said Blanco.

President Bush received the governor's requests in the form of a letter, but did not respond directly to them today.
Instead he said, 'New Orleans, better days are ahead,' and 'We're still paying attention. We understand.'

The president reminded Louisiana that, 'The citizens of this country thus far have paid out $114 billion in tax revenues - their money - to help the folks down here.'

'Of the $114 billion spent so far - and resources allocated so far, about 80 percent of the funds have been disbursed or available,' said the president.

The president had a message for the rest of the country too. 'The taxpayers and people from all around the country have got to understand the people of this part of the world really do appreciate the fact that the American citizens are supportive of the recovery effort,' he said.

According to Department of Homeland Security figures released Tuesday, $24 billion went to rebuild the Gulf Coast states and provide survivors with a place to live, repair damaged infrastructure, and build houses and schools in 2007.

Of the $114 billion allocated for Gulf Coast recovery, 84 percent has either been disbursed or is awaiting claims. FEMA awarded $8.3 billion in public assistance funding for education, criminal justice, public works, health and hospitals, and historic and cultural resources; education and public works receive $1.3 billion apiece.

As of July 2007, over 95,000 households have received aid.

Concerning the critical set of levees that is supposed to protect low-lying New Orleans from storms, the president said the federal government is going to 'complete storm and flood protection infrastructure to a hundred-year protection level by 2011.'
'We're also going to fund a $1.3 billion network of interior drainage projects to ensure the area has better hurricane protection,' said President Bush.' In other words, there's federal responsibilities; the levee system is the federal responsibility, and we'll meet our responsibility. And obviously we want to work together with the state and local governments, as well. Obviously it's a collaborative effort.'

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has set September 30 as the last day of operations for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers' Louisiana Recovery Field Office, LA-RFO.

Right-of-way debris pick up will transfer to the city of New Orleans on August 31 with the expiration of Corps/FEMA interagency agreements for Orleans Parish signed today, on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

In Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, where work is focusing on cleanup of private property debris and canals, the Corps expects operations to be complete by September 30.

'The Corps/FEMA role is clear and terminal,' said Mike Smith, LA-RFO Director. 'To set the stage for communities to get back on their feet.'

For two years, Smith said, the 'white shirt' Corps of Engineers volunteers have answered numerous historic, unparalleled missions, engaging about 10 percent of the Corps' worldwide team as volunteers in Louisiana alone.

The following missions were completed in early 2006 using a Corps workforce that peaked at 1,700: emergency ice and water, 310 temporary critical facilities, power generation, mortuary center construction, disposal of 50 million pounds of rotting meat, housing site evaluations and 81,000 roof repairs under Operation Blue Roof.

By September 30, the Corps is expected to have removed, recycled or processed almost 29 million cubic yards of debris, enough to fill the Superdome eight times, demolished about 7,100 structures and cleaned up almost 70,000 private properties in southern Louisiana.


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