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Katrina fatigue and hurricane's forgotten victims

By Jesse Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 26, 2009 - 9:42:00 PM

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(L to R) Jalinh Vasquez, Jayshel Barthelemy and Kimora Barthelemy sit in their trailer in the FEMA Diamond trailer park May 13, 2009 in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Seven children and four adults from the family were still living in the FEMA trailer after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The trailer park used to house hundreds of families but a few still remained. They were awaiting money from the federal Road Home program to purchase a new home. Approximately 2,000 families in the New Orleans metropolitan area still live in FEMA trailers nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina. Eighty percent of those still in trailers are homeowners who are unable to return to their storm damaged houses. May 1 marked the end of the Temporary Housing Program for Katrina victims as those still living in the trailers were given a May 30 deadline to move out or face possible legal action. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
( - Four years ago when Angel Robinson evacuated from New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she only expected to be away from home for a few days and looked forward to returning back to her job at City Hall. “You really don't know how fragile things are and life is until you have to throw everything you own into a garbage pile on the side of the street. It is still painful because I will never forget that moment,” she said.

The world watched as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in2005, making landfall on Aug. 29 in southeast Louisiana. It has been recorded as the costliesthurricane, as well as one of the five deadliest, in the history of theUnited States.

From central Florida to Texas, Katrina caused severe destruction, much of it due to thehigh storm surge. Then there were the failures that happened after the storm rolled through the region. The most severeloss of life and property damage occurred inNew Orleans, which flooded as theleveesystem catastrophically collapsed.Eventually 85 percent of the city became flooded along with neighboringparishes, and floodwaters remained for weeks.

Nearly 1,900people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and subsequent floods. Millions were evacuated to all corners of the country via cars, planes, and charter buses. Thousands are still displaced and in need of psychological repair.

“Four years later, the mental weight of Katrina is still on many of us, including myself,” longtime New Orleans activist Mtangulizi Sanyika told The Final Call. Mr. Sanyika is project manager for the African-American Leadership Project. He has been commuting back and forth to Houston the last four years.

“There has been some progress made in the city but most of the poor areas are still in need of repair,” Mr. Sanyika said. “But I believe Katrina fatigue has settled in more and more every year, meaning people have forgotten about us. So the struggle continues.”

New Orleans pain index

“Though New Orleans has been somewhat shielded from the recession due to substantial rebuilding activity, four years after Katrina the region still faces major challenges due to blight, unaffordable housing, and vulnerable flood protection,” according to the Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center annual New Orleans Index Anniversary Edition.

This year's report highlighted the progress—or the lack thereof—in the areas of population, economy, housing and infrastructure to go along with public services presently available. Statistically, New Orleans lost 0.9 percent of its jobs since last June, compared to the 4.1 percent lost nationally. The city's unemployment rate rose to 7.3 percent while the national rate climbed to 9.5 percent.

Over 8,500 households are actively receiving mail, the largest growth since 2007. However home sales are down 39 percent and new construction down 48 percent. Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans with an unprecedented level of unoccupied residences. New Orleans has 65,888 unoccupied residential addresses.

“Steep rent increases have abated, but at 40 percent higher than pre-Katrina, rents remain out of reach for many critical workers. Typical rent for an efficiency apartment is $733 per month, unaffordable for food preparation, health care support, and retail sales workers,” the report said.

Groups like the Katrina Information Network (KIN) are pushing for Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, legislation introduced in the 110th Congress but never called for a vote. The bill would create a minimum of 100,000 jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced workers.

“This is a very important act to protect workers right to return to work who are displaced,” said Neville Waters, KIN media adviser. “There is a lot of work left to do in the recovery.”

Pain, starting over and honoring lost ones

Jamie Riley eats dinner with three of her seven children in the FEMA Diamond trailer park May 13 in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Seven children and four adults from the family are living in the trailer after their home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. They are still awaiting money from the federal Road Home program to purchase a new home. Approximately 2,000 families in the New Orleans metropolitan area were living in FEMA trailers nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina. Eighty percent of those still in trailers were homeowners who were unable to return to their storm damaged houses. May 1 marked the end of the Temporary Housing Program for Katrina victims as those still living in the trailers were given a May 30 deadline to move out or face possible legal action. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Ms. Robinson escaped to Texarkana, Texas, after Katrina. She lived there for three years after landing a consulting job. “I was looking out the window of a LaQuinta hotel in Texarkana and it hit me all at once that I had lost my home, my job and I cried. But then I determined that I couldn't sit by and wait for anyone to do anything for me,” she said.

That self-determination prompted her in 2006 to also launch her dream business Write Robinson, a stationery designing firm. She now has clientele nationwide and moved back to New Orleans in 2008. She lives in the home originally owned by her great grandparents. “This company is a dream come true and I am happy I used Katrina as motivation to get up and do something about my situation. And I would advise others, although I understand the pain, to help yourself. Stop waiting on the government, FEMA or anyone else,” she said.

Keisha Reed moved forward as well. “When Katrina struck I thought I would only be gone for a few days. I only had a few changes of clothes and my cat when my friend left, not knowing I would lose everything,” she recalled.

Ms. Reed, a college graduate, had just landed a job she loved at a restaurant in New Orleans before having to evacuate to Houston.

“Most of the time the media only wants to talk about those who couldn't escape. What about all of us who were educated and employed before the storm? We lost everything too and it was just as painful for us. I believe people still do not know the full story of what we all went through,” she told The Final Call.

She became a permanent resident of Houston and worked towards achieving her dream of opening a restaurant. That restaurant was launched in 2006 in the Third Ward area, a little over a year after Katrina.

“I am not the type to just sit by and wait for someone to do for me what I can do for myself,” said Ms. Reed. “I encourage others that after four years, it is time to get up and make it happen. Put yourself in position that if it happens again your family can leave too. In New Orleans we have had generations pass on apartment units. Break the cycle now.”

For those unable to start fresh elsewhere and to mark Katrina's toll, the Hands Around the Dome gathering is an annual gathering to mark the anniversary of the storm. The Louisiana Superdome was the refuge thousands sought and, with government failures, a place of suffering and death in the storm's aftermath. “The Hands Around the Dome is our way of remembering the human suffering and pain caused by the unexpected flooding of the city, the human errors and the failure of the emergency response system to adequately respond to the crisis,” said Mr. Sanyika.

“Despite the suffering, loss of life and property, the Hands Around the Dome is also a way of affirming the resilience of the people of New Orleans,” he added.

The African-American Leadership Project will also host a town hall meeting to discuss building a community-based agenda for next year's elections and beyond. The three main issues to be discussed will be the present safety of the levees, the state of the recovery and disaster preparedness lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.

Campaign to Save Charity Hospital

Charity Hospital, the largest medical facility in New Orleans, sustained severe flood damage duringHurricane Katrina and has been closed since. In January 2008, the Louisiana Justice Institute filed a lawsuit seeking partial reopening of the facility.

“Charity Hospital was critical to serving the mentally ill of our community,” Jacques Morial told The Final Call. He is a member of New Orleans' famous Morial family—his father Ernest “Dutch” Morial and his brother Marc Morial served as mayor. His brother is now the head of the National Urban League.

“Instead of people with anti-social issues being imprisoned, they could be serviced at Charity. People are suffering from serious mental health issues and now result to things like self-medicating, drugs, and drinking to cope,” said Jacques Morial, who is co-director of the institute.

According to Mr. Morial, the institute is awaiting a decision by the Louisiana State Supreme Court on whether to hold the hearing lawsuit in Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

“Before Katrina, Charity was one of the leading crisis intervention facilities in the country. It was high quality service for the mentally ill. We need it back,” said Mr. Morial.

No hospitals in New Orleans were providing in-patient mental health care as of September 2009 despite post-Katrina increases in suicides and mental health problems, according to an analysis written by Davida Finger, a social justice lawyer and clinical professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer on leave from Loyola now serving as legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The authors noted New Orleans ranked number one among U.S. cities in murders per capita for 2008, an estimated one-third of 134,000 FEMA trailers in which Katrina and Rita storm survivors were housed by the federal government had formaldehyde problems. There has been a 35 percent increase in demand at emergency food programs with underemployment and rising food, housing, and fuel costs, they added.

Louisiana ranks last among states for overall healthcare and 128,341 Louisianians were looking for jobs, while Governor Bobby Jindal rejected $9.5 million in federal Medicaid stimulus money, which would have expanded temporary Medicaid coverage for families who leave welfare and get a job. Gov. Jindal also rejected $98 million in federal money available to bolster the unemployment compensation funds to assist 25,000 families in Louisiana, according to writers Finger and Quigley.

Mixed feelings about Mayor Nagin

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is in his last term and has received mixed post-Katrina reactions on his performance the last four years.

“Since my initial visits to Washington, D.C. after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the breached levees, I have long advocated for reforms that specifically include the need for arbitration and an appeals processes to expedite recovery funding to communities in need,” said Mayor Nagin in an Aug. 6 media statement.

In a 2009 voter opinion poll, led by TulaneUniversityand Democracy Now, 64 percent of the respondents and nearly 50 percent of Blacks disapproved of the job that Ray Nagin is doing as mayor. His disapproval rating was 92 percent amongst Whites and 47 percent amongst Blacks.Also poll results showed respondents believe the upcoming mayoral race will be “the most important city election in my lifetime.”

“I honestly cannot give him a grade and really don't care to because I'm just focusing on rebuilding myself,” Rachel Murphy told The Final Call. “I believe he did the best he could but I believe the federal government deserves the bigger blame. But it doesn't matter to me anymore.”

In another poll in April by the University of New Orleans, Mr. Nagin was deemed the third “biggest problem” for the city, following crime and education. Only 24 percent of residents approved of him as mayor, which is the lowest rating ever given to a mayor of that city.

“Many of Nagin's progressive efforts to further thecity's recoveryhave been opposed primarily by the White members of the city council, some who have aspirations to be the next mayor of the city,” said Nation of Islam Student Minister Willie Muhammad of New Orleans.

“Mayor Nagin will be the standard for which others who go through similar disasters will be compared to. He is a pioneer in regards to having the responsibility to rebuild a city that had its complete infrastructure destroyed. Those who forge a way, that will be an example for others, do not do so traveling down a mistake free road,” he said.