Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is coming back—but not for everyone. It’s true, the French Quarter is back. The city’s population has returned to two-thirds of its pre-Katrina’s size. The unemployment rate is down. Student test scores appear to be improving. Progress is blossoming.
But alongside that progress is the real risk that we are reinventing the past by recreating a city rife with the same racial and economic inequalities that were laid bare on the world’s front pages two years ago. Governing regulations and unwieldy paperwork are slowing up the recovery process for many of the least advantaged citizens. It’s clear that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act isn’t providing its intended orderly and systematic process for disaster relief.
When President George W. Bush stood in the ethereal light of Jackson Square 17 days after the storm, he shared his vision of a new New Orleans: “When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. …So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”
The federal government promised to turn this tragedy into an opportunity to address the pernicious history of racial and economic injustice in the Crescent City. Instead, that “legacy of inequality” is coming back in full force. We are in danger of rebuilding a divided city.
Much of the progress we have seen in New Orleans has been made by those who had resources before the storm: homeowners, business people, and private schools. For those without resources such as renters, low-wage workers, and public school students, the rebuilding effort has been far slower and more grueling. Just getting back to New Orleans has been a challenge for these people. More than 40,000 New Orleans families are still displaced outside of Louisiana, and though many of those families want to return home, high rents and poor job prospects have made that step impossible.
This is unacceptable. We must recommit our nation to giving New Orleans residents the help they need to create an economically, educationally, and socially vibrant city.
Thankfully, the innovations by community groups and nonprofits have brought some progress even among the most challenging circumstances.
But there has been one major and particularly unnecessary federal hurdle to rebuilding New Orleans’ infrastructure and creating thousands of recovery jobs: the cumbersome and bureaucratic Stafford Act. Streamlining the governing regulations and unwieldy paperwork burdens of the Stafford Act could free up more than $4 billion of FEMA resources already allocated to Louisiana.
As someone well-versed in the policy maze that is the Gulf Coast recovery, I know we need clarity on the ground to get results. A blue-ribbon presidential commission to reform and streamline the Stafford Act is the only way to address the red tape that is severely hampering the recovery process. Such reform would not only help the Gulf Coast now, but potentially help any region in the future faced with recovery from a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood or a terrorist attack.
For catastrophes on the scale of Katrina, the Stafford Act must expand to include a category of automatic payments that will help infuse the region with rebuilding money and slice through the bureaucracy. The federal government should immediately waive the local match required to secure federal funds for such mega-disaster, just as it did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and, after a long struggle, in the Gulf Coast this May.
A reformed process would also give the region automatic and immediate federal payments, free up community disaster loans, and provide more flexibility to the rebuilding process. Red tape is more than an economic annoyance at times like these. In the Gulf, it is blocking countless infrastructure projects—one of the greatest and most direct jobs programs the government can offer.
If we were to ease the bureaucracy, we could let the federal government use its tremendous resources, expertise, and leadership to guide the Gulf Coast toward a truly equitable recovery. Yet as long as the onerous Stafford Act remains unchanged, the best intentions of Gulf Coast residents and government workers will not be able to overcome the crushing inertia of the bureaucracy.
The people of New Orleans are doing all they can to reclaim their city. But the scale of the disaster is so immense that a true recovery is not possible without the resources, expertise, and leadership of the federal government. Sadly, red tape is stunting much of that progress. New Orleanians need safe, affordable homes to live in, good schools to educate their children, and well-paying jobs to support their families.
Two years ago, in ways big and small, Americans showed that they cared about the people of New Orleans. Now only leadership from the highest levels of power can combat the drastic toll Katrina took on New Orleans. The people of New Orleans are fighting to save their city. Will America give them the help they need?
Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works.