Anya Kamenetz is a columnist for the Village Voice and author of Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young, about student loan debt, the job market, and other matters of generational politics, published by Riverhead Books in February 2006.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. That's what's happening right now in New Orleans. FEMA, having demonstrably and repeatedly failed, continues to hold the purse strings of recovery. Meanwhile, behind an overlay of general incompetence, officials are applying conservative anti-welfare politics out of context—shaping the future of the city by determining who can return.
Having carefully examined the post-Hurricane Katrina situation, a Senate committee officially concluded, as the public long knew, that the thing was a royal mess—a failure of both leadership and resources. The May 2006 report, "A Nation Still Unprepared," recommends abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and replacing it with a more capable and integrated structure.
The culture of underachievement at FEMA is such that several qualified outside applicants turned down the position of chief, and as of March 30, the agency remained at only 73 percent of its authorized staff capacity with many top posts unfilled.
Yet this same FEMA is still in charge of New Orleans' recovery. And its incompetence didn't end in September—far from it. Just ask Malcolm Suber of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund & Oversight Coalition, a local grassroots advocacy organization. The group is organizing nationwide protests at FEMA offices around May 15 in response to reports that rental assistance to up to 50,000 people could be cut off June 1. City governments in Houston, Memphis, and elsewhere told The New York Times that FEMA had promised these families vouchers for a full year following the storm. "The ineptness that FEMA showed during the crisis continues and in many ways is being multiplied by the constant tension that survivors are under," Suber told TomPaine.
A new problem in the latest round of proposed lockouts, as advocates like Suber see it, is the application of means testing to housing assistance. FEMA had previously promised, this past October, that disaster victims would not be asked to pass qualifications similar to those used to trim welfare rolls. "They are portraying hurricane survivors as freeloaders," says Suber. The 36,000 former residents who remain locked out of all public housing projects in the city—many of which need only minor repairs—testify that the city's poor are not wanted back. City Council President Oliver Thomas minced few words in February when he said, "We don't need soap opera watchers [coming back to the city]."
Even long term, there is no large-scale or integrated proposal for affordable housing. The "Road Home" housing plan approved April 26 by the Louisiana Recovery Authority includes up to $150,000 for repairing or relocating, a reasonable assessment. But the incentives are for homeowners and landlords only—no assistance for the renters who are slightly over half of the city. Funding for the plan comes from the $4.2 billion in a supplemental federal budget request currently awaiting approval by the Senate. The Senate bill does include an additional $1 billion to repair affordable rental stock, including public housing, but HUD has the authority to waive the requirement that this money be used for low-income housing.
The reality is, when it comes to the next round of decisions about rebuilding and repopulation, the window of opportunity may be soon closing for New Orleans's exiled working-class African-Americans. With the mayoral runoff scheduled for May 20, displacement has officially become disenfranchisement. Displaced residents had to vote in the first round on April 22 by absentee ballot or by driving to polling places in Louisiana. NAACP President Bruce Gordon called the elections "illegal."
According to a front-page analysis by The Times-Picayune of the first round of mayoral voting,
Voters from Gentilly, the Lower 9th Ward, Central City and most of eastern New Orleans voted in far fewer numbers than neighborhoods spared by the flood, such as the French Quarter and Uptown, which saw moderate increases in turnout. The same did not hold true for flood-ravaged Lakeview, where voters turned out in nearly the same numbers as they did in the 2002 mayoral election.
Gentilly, Central City and eastern New Orleans are middle-class to working class, the Lower Ninth is working class; all are predominantly African-American. Uptown, the French Quarter and Lakeview are primarily affluent and white. The concerns of the latter group of voters may explain why, in a May 1 mayoral debate, Mayor Ray Nagin and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu were asked about the fear of crime returning to the city and about free wi-fi, but not about the lack of public housing.
A natural disaster might be expected to fall equally on rich and poor, black and white. The inequality of outcomes so far between folks who used to be neighbors is jarring in the midst of Jazzfest, the two-weekend musical gathering that is a landmark cultural event on the city's calendar—a symbol of unity and diversity as well as a magnet for tourist dollars.
In a VIP tent on the Fairgrounds, holders of the new $300 Brass Pass sipped iced coffee and discussed where to find a good contractor, and which doctors and dentists are still in town. Meanwhile, large numbers of formerly local performers had to travel from Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge. One such group, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, led the crowd in a chant of, "There's no place like home." Are they going to get a chance to come back for good?