“I am tired of living like this. They were not even listening to my crying. They think it’s a joke but it’s really not.”
—DeBorah W., hurricane survivor and resident of New Orleans, describing her struggle to find a new home after suffering severe respiratory problems while living in her public housing unit.
Five years on, the storm still rages. Amnesty International has compiled a grim list of human rights violations witnessed on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes. The storm itself was tragic, but the worst suffering was wrought by humans: the widespread demolition of homes, traumatized survivors left without medical or mental health services, the brutalization of residents under a draconian criminal justice system.
Though the media’s interest in the Gulf Coast recovery process has waned (eclipsed by coverage of Mardis Gras and area sports teams, and more recently, Southern Republicans), Amnesty reports on the deep inequities that have marred the rebuilding process. Many of the problems were rampant even before Katrina and Rita hit, but the unmet needs have now erupted into a domestic refugee crisis:
Now, nearly five years into the recovery process since Katrina, for the residents of New Orleans in particular and the Gulf Coast states more generally, there is a continued lack of access to housing and health care and issues related to the criminal justice system persist. These obstacles have contributed in preventing the overall return of former residents (known under international human rights standards as internally displaced persons (IDPs)) and lead to rights violations for those who have returned.... these issues are intrinsically intertwined in the New Orleans region to significantly impact low income residents and communities of color.
In Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which suffer from extraordinary poverty rates, bursts of federal aid and public sympathy have not alleviated an epidemic affordable housing crisis. Due in part to retrograde funding formulas, much of the critical funding for home rebuilding has not reached the neediest residents, effectively replicating past patterns of segregation. In Louisiana's home rebuilding grant program, for example:
Statewide,it was reported that the average Road Home applicant fell about $35,000 short of the money needed to rebuild their home, with highly flooded, historically African-American communities particularly impacted. The result has been a complete lack of redevelopment of specific communities and neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, where currently there are nearly 6,500 unoccupied residential addresses.... Amnesty International is concerned that the problems with the Road Home program may have led to the permanent displacement of many predominantly low income and African-American New Orleans residents.
In Mississippi, meanwhile, "there are currently 283 families living in travel trailers along the coast while advocates report that nearly 2000 families still lack the funds to rebuild homes from wind damage."
While the more affluent neighborhoods of New Orleans have rebounded, many schools and hospitals have vanished from the tattered landscape. Amnesty reports that in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, many of the stricken public schools have not reopened, “child care centers are still at only half of their pre-Katrina totals,” and most of the pre-storm hospitals in the area remain wiped out. The shuttering of Charity Hospital, previously a central source of care for the poor of New Orleans, symbolizes the quiet abandonment of the uninsured and communities of color.
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The struggles facing the public education, health care and housing systems are deepened by the impoverishment of civic institutions. Though dysfunctional criminal justice systems are prevalent across the country, places like New Orleans are uniquely plagued by a combination of an anemic bureaucracy, a lack of legal resources for the poor, and the oppression of law enforcement. One advocate quoted in the report describes the day-to-day struggles at the nexus of crime and poverty:
Crime is economics. People who don’t have are needing to get by. They need living wages. The tourism and service industry do not pay enough so you can’t make a living in those fields. Rents and costs have gone up, but not wages. Criminal justice issues contribute to this. Able-bodied people can’t get employed because of doing time and will need to do crime to survive.
Perhaps the report's most disturbing revelation is the fact that it is being published today—that the crisis continues to haunt the coast so deeply nearly half a decade after Katrina and Rita made landfall. The one silver lining in this looming cloud may be that a legal framework for protecting the vulnerable exists both in international and US law. Amnesty's report calls for enhancements to the federal Stafford Act, which lays out guidelines for disaster recovery under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to incorporate the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Some basic reforms to federal recovery policy could pave the way for more equitable rebuilding:
[Federal law should] ensure the right of all impacted individuals and communities to participate in decisions related to the right to return. Communication and coordination with impacted individuals and non-governmental organizations on the
ground is essential in order to address particular local issues for individuals during the recovery process from a disaster.
Federal, state and local agencies should provide effective case management assistance for individuals affected by disasters in order to aid them in navigating the appropriate agencies and programs to access housing and health care services during both the immediate aftermath of a disaster and the long-term recovery process.
Federal, state and local governments should ensure that all persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina are guaranteed their right to return to their former homes without discrimination or be compensated for any housing that is impossible to restore as determined by a competent, impartial tribunal.
Federal, state and local governments should ensure that all Gulf Coast residents return to adequate housing and an environment which is consistent with the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
It may be too late to remedy many of the worst human rights abuses that followed the storms. But going forward, the disaster provides some painful lessons, exposing the faultlines of privilege and poverty that weaken every community's defenses against natural catastrophe. The challenge of healing the Gulf Coast continues to test the nation's capacity to deliver compassion in the wake of nature's fury.