Bringing the Gulf Coast to the Debate

This Presidential Primary season, voters have listened to nearly a half a million words from two dozen Presidential candidates in 25 debates. Through 37 hours of discussion, one major American crisis has struggled to break into the debate.Debate moderators have avoided asking what each candidate as President will do to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, where communities are still fighting to come back more than two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee failures. Critics claim that the future of Gulf Coast communities and residents has not received adequate attention in the debates, given its national importance. Analysis of the more than 1,000 pages of transcripts from the debates reveals that discussion of Gulf Coast rebuilding makes up a mere fraction of a percent of the dialogue during the debates this election season.

Through twelve Republican candidate debates, neither George Stephanopoulos , Wolf Blitzer , Anderson Cooper , Brit Hume , Chris Matthews nor any other moderator for that matter have asked Republican candidates a single question about Gulf Coast rebuilding. Moderators of Democratic events have not done much better, directing only a fraction of their debates, less than one percent, to Gulf Coast recovery.

Top candidates from both parties have gone out of their way to characterize the government's response to Hurricane Katrina as a failure during their respective debates. Only once this primary season, at Howard University's Democratic Debate sponsored by PBS, was each candidate asked a question related to Gulf Coast recovery. NPR's Michelle Norris asked whether each candidate would support a federal law guaranteeing a human right to return home after Hurricane Katrina, based on international law. Though some candidates hinted at their rebuilding plans, there were no follow-up questions so the candidates were not pressed to explain the steps they would take to create the economic and social conditions necessary for residents to realize their rights.

Gulf Coast residents fear that important questions about the future of their communities and the hundreds of thousands of their friends and families who are still displaced will continue to go unasked and unanswered this primary season.

Things are not looking much better for the general election debates.

Despite letters of support from a bi-partisan list of seven Presidential candidates and supportive editorials from USA Today, the New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post, New Orleans' application to host one of four scheduled general election Presidential Debates was recently denied.

"New Orleans did not measure up," claimed Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the debate site committee, explaining why his committee passed over the city.

With New Orleans set to host such large scale events in upcoming months such as the Sugar Bowl, the NCAA Championship Game and the NBA All-Star Game, city leaders found the snub shocking.

Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, the group which led the application effort with a consortium of local universities including Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier, called it, "a case of politics trumping the clear moral choice."

"A defining moment in American history"

Debates are a time to make candidates take a stand on the most important issues facing American voters. National polling data indicates that Gulf Coast rebuilding is still important to Americans nationwide, not just those living in the region.

John Zogby, one of the top minds in the polling industry, wrote recently in Campaigns and Elections Magazine that polling data on domestic issues facing candidates in the 2008 elections indicates, "Katrina, over the long haul, will prove to be more of a defining moment in American history than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." He went on to note that after witnessing the failed federal response to Gulf Coast recovery, American voters "hunger nationwide for a new model for the federal government."

Zogby found that Americans wanted a leader who would could unite the nation and marshal the necessary resources to rebuild after a disaster. He wrote that Americans wanted federal leadership with the flexibility to work with local leaders, including local governments, faith and community groups, and solve problems.

Still Recovering: More than Two Years Later

In terms of physical devastation, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breakdown far surpasses any disaster in America's history. They caused more damage than our three largest disasters combined; the September 11th attacks, Hurricane Andrew, and the Northridge earthquake. The human face of the disaster can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who remain displaced from their communities two years after the levees broke.

Housing shortages threaten communities across the Gulf Coast. Thousands of families are about to be kicked out of FEMA trailers, which the federal government recently determined contain levels of toxins so strong that they have advised their employees not to enter the structures.

Federal programs like FEMA Public Assistance have proven slow and inflexible for rebuilding vital community infrastructure. Critics claim construction projects addressing long term needs are often ineligible for federal aid. In New Orleans, this policy has resulted in infrastructure deficiencies with severe social and economic consequences . With schools closed, students must travel long distances and some 300 students in New Orleans during the 2006/07 academic year were unable to even enroll. Restricted public transit and battered roads limit access to work and services. Scarce childcare facilities limit options for working parents. Crime rates have risen while police headquarters operate out of FEMA trailers. Death rates rise as hospitals operate at diminished capacity.

Levee construction remains under-funded and preventable erosion continues to destroy nature's flood protection, the wetlands, threatening returning residents. Some like Nyra Humphries of New Orleans, who is finishing repairing and moving back into her home, cannot help but worry that all their hard work will be in vain.

"It's hard to put so much time and money into my home when there's no work done to prevent more flooding," Nyra said.

These issues impact the pace of recovery and ultimately the human rights of residents to return to their communities and live with safety and dignity.

A handful of candidates this campaign season have traveled to the Gulf Coast. A few have even posted portions of their rebuilding plans on their websites but not all voters and Gulf Coast residents have access to this information. For residents who are still waiting on the federal government to fulfill its promises, questions remain about the Presidential candidates' commitment to the region.

A New Model for Gulf Recovery

Recently, Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Charlie Melancon (D-LA) and Gene Taylor (D-MS) introduced a new model for Gulf Coast recovery in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4048, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. The policy was developed with the help of Gulf Coast residents, human rights groups, and the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, a college campus based effort to jumpstart the region's recovery. The legislation hopes to empower the region's greatest assets, the disaster's survivors, with the resources they need to lead. Through funding and implementing critical infrastructure and environmental projects, the legislation would create 100,000 living wage jobs. The policy would build stronger communities across the region through providing skills training opportunities, supporting local businesses and working closely with community groups, residents and local leaders.

Stephen Bradberry, State Head Organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Louisiana, believes this bold plan will require the support of the next President to become a reality.

"The current President made a whole list of promises to residents about rebuilding the Gulf Coast but the job is not done. The moderators of the upcoming Presidential debates need to ask the next President whether they plan to right the situation," says Stephen Bradberry, state organizer of ACORN Louisiana, the region's largest organization of low and middle income families. "We need to put the candidates on record, "Do you support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act to rebuild stronger communities across the region hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?"

ACORN members, students and supporters like the RFK Center for Human Rights have begun an effort to push moderators of upcoming debates to get a straight answer from the potential nominees on Gulf Coast rebuilding. Together they hope to give the region a voice to influence the discussion using social networking websites like Facebook and Myspace and other internet advocacy tools.

"If the debate is not coming to Gulf Coast then we need to bring the Gulf to the debate," said Bradberry, winner of the prestigious RFK Human Rights Award in 2005.

The campaign, aptly named "Bring the Gulf to the Debate ", has begun to target Facebook, ABC and WMUR, co-hosts of the back-to-back Republican and Democratic New Hampshire primary debates on January 5th. The groups provide supporters with ways to contact debate moderators, reporters and officials at the media organizations hosting the debate on their website. Facebook and Myspace users are urged to join "Bring the Gulf to the Debate" user groups for updates and other ways to support Gulf Coast communities.

Supporters of the legislation with a Facebook account can directly contact ABC reporters asking that they push for a question about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act in the January 5th debates. Through ABC's newly announced partnership with Facebook, ABC has begun feeding political content to the youth driven website and off-air ABC political reporters have begun keeping active profiles detailing their days with the candidates. Building off the success of other trendy web 2.0 efforts like the CNN-YouTube debates, the partnership gives the public greater influence about which questions are asked to the Presidential candidates. ABC World News Tonight host and New Hampshire debate moderator Charles Gibson even posted a Facebook profile where his "Fans" can suggest questions for the Republican and Democratic candidates.

"It's a unique opportunity to move these media organizations to finally ask the questions the people of the Gulf Coast and their fellow Americans need to hear answered," said Chris Hauck, a San Jose State university student and Gulf Coast Civic Works Project organizer.

With the New Hampshire debates, and the CNN-Los Angeles Times-Politico debates in California on January 30th and 31st, the primary debate season is still in full force. Though the Gulf Coast will not host a Presidential debate, residents and their national supporters still have hope that the region's crisis can be brought back into the national debate this election season.

Jeffrey Buchanan is a human rights advocate, freelance journalist and Information Officer with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

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