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.

Mourners at an Aug. 2010 healing ceremony at the site of theLower Ninth Ward levee breach. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mourners at an Aug. 2010 healing ceremony at the site of theLower Ninth Ward levee breach. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Stafford Act, weak as the paper it’s inscribed on, leaves up to the president whether to involve the federal government in disaster recovery. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been big on slogans and promises to build New Orleans “better” than before, but neither has delivered enough to improve the lives of the displaced, particularly when it comes to housing.

Homelessness in New Orleans has doubled. UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that tracks and provides services for the homeless, recently found 154 people living in abandoned buildings. Given that New Orleans has more than 55,000 vacant homes, by one estimate more than 3,000 people could still be living in these unfit structures.

You can’t talk about these unsheltered families without addressing the closure of the public housing projects. As controversial as that decision was, shutting those units was probably the right decision in terms of policy. The federal government should not be in the business of segregating people by race and income, yet that’s exactly what it was doing by keeping housing projects open across America.

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.