There Was Nothing Good About Katrina

Policymakers should stop suggesting that Hurricane Katrina provided an opportunity to improve New Orleans. It disrespects the 2,000 lives lost -- and the gains are not clear, says a reporter who has covered the recovery process.

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And while ritual crime and abject poverty are not the say-all, be-all of any housing project, when the many honest residents -- post office workers, hotel managers, teachers, clergy and social workers -- have to live in constant fear because of a few bad apples, the federal government, as landlord, has some responsibility.

Incentives Continue to Bypass the Gulf

The federal government is legally mandated to enforce racial and economic integration, if nowhere else then on its own property. But the incentives the government set up to encourage private developers to create replacements have constantly shortchanged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. As a result, New Orleans still has gaping holes where hundreds of houses once stood.

The feds' own bureaucratic rules have left unused hundreds of millions of dollars in community-development block grants; Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone) bonds have gone to oil companies instead of businesses and housing development; GO Zone tax credits sit depreciated and unfinanced because of the market crash; and despite all that, Congress won't extend the deadline for housing developments to get completed.

The federal government has asked the poor and the displaced to trust that the new mixed-income housing developments, along with the federal voucher system, will bring families into better housing and greater economic parity. But five years later, hundreds are still living in vacant buildings. Thousands more are dispersed throughout the state and the country -- tripled and quadrupled up with burdened family and friends, if not on the streets -- through no fault of their own, but because the levees broke.

It would be nice if every dispersed person had Tr'Vel's story. But for every happy ending, there is the story of Mr. Hammond, 71 (pdf), who once supported himself with his gardening and horticultural skills. After losing his home in the floods, and being denied financial assistance, he now wades through the streets of New Orleans collecting aluminum cans that he hopes to trade in for drywall to restore his home.

This is why Katrina can never be identified as a good thing. Tr'Vel's proclamation does not prove right policymakers who have said the same thing. It only means that a teenager who was involuntarily exiled from his home has found the strength and temerity to restore his life in a different city. The federal government should make good on its promises to the multitudes in the Katrina Diaspora that it will rebuild New Orleans not only "better" but also for all.

Brentin Mock has covered post-Katrina issues in the Gulf region since 2005. He moved to New Orleans in 2009.

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