Katrina: The Big Fix

Soon after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and jobs, President Bush said the region looked like it had been obliterated by a weapon. It was. Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction. And the Bush Administration's indifference to the economic security of New Orleans residents continues to this day.

For the 500,000 evacuees still not back in their homes, unemployment is epidemic: About one-quarter of whites, and one-half of African-Americans, are still out of work. It's not because jobs are scarce; in fact, there is a labor shortage in New Orleans. Most of those who have returned from the Katrina diaspora have found jobs. The massive unemployment is caused by the lack of housing near the reconstruction job sites.

The indifferent Bush Administration, through the now-infamous FEMA, is compounding the unemployment problems of hurricane victims. FEMA located the largest temporary housing facility for evacuees ninety-one miles from New Orleans, in Baker, Louisiana. That's hardly a reasonable commute, especially for low-income folks. Barry Kaufman, business manager of Local 689 of the Construction and General Laborers, told the New York Times he had "at least 2,000" evacuees willing to take cleanup jobs. The trouble was getting them there; the local's hiring hall, along with thousands of evacuees, has been displaced to Baton Rouge, more than an hour's drive away.

So the cleanup jobs are going to out-of-town contractors, young single out-of-towners and undocumented workers. Not that these folks are getting a great deal either: President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring that the area's average wage be paid on all federal construction projects. George Miller led the fight in Congress to roll back that suspension. But the President also lifted the requirement that all federal contractors have an affirmative-action plan, and the Department of Homeland Security granted a waiver to employers from collecting the immigration status of reconstruction hires.

Unlike the damage caused by Katrina, these problems are entirely man-made--and they can be solved. Several steps can be taken to address the employment problems the Administration has exacerbated. First, we need to put housing near jobs. ACORN has recommended that temporary housing facilities be re-sited in New Orleans, or as near the city as possible.

Second, all federal reconstruction contracts, subcontracts and grants should require corporate recipients to hire locally. A high standard, such as the 50 percent requirement in Senator Ted Kennedy's bill, or the 40 percent level in the Congressional Black Caucus's bill, should be the guide.

Third, let's recognize that New Orleans today is an extreme microcosm of America--saddled with a broken infrastructure and significant unemployment at a time when federal budget deficits are peaking and dampening the prospects of adequate rebuilding money. Nationally, estimates of what it will take to fix our crumbling infrastructure exceed $1 trillion.

Where will the money come from? Congress should direct the Federal Reserve to make zero-interest loans available to states and municipalities for the express purpose of modernizing and repairing our nation's schools, water systems, bridges and streets. These loans would be integrated into the normal open-market operations of the Fed, which controls the nation's money supply in a similar way.

I will be introducing the Repairing America's Infrastructure Act, a bill that already has bipartisan support, in the upcoming session of Congress. While creatively financing the rebuilding of New Orleans, we can start rebuilding the rest of America's infrastructure--and creating good jobs, with fair wages, in the process.

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