Washington, DC — On the three month anniversary of President Bush’s address to the nation about rebuilding the Gulf Coast, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee released the following report today on the Administration’s failure to follow through on the commitments made by the President in the address. While today’s announcement that the President supports additional funds for levee protection in New Orleans is welcome, based on the Administration’s track record on Katrina reconstruction, Senate Democrats will continue to look for results on the ground, not more promises that help is on the way.
The text of the full report is below:
Hurricane Survivors Still Waiting for Bush Administration Help As Critical Needs Go Unmet
“The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the
largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen…Our goal is to
get the work done quickly.”
— President Bush, 9/15/05
“We are at a point where our recovery and renewal efforts are stalled
because of inaction in Washington, D.C., and the delay has created
uncertainty that is having very negative effects on our recovery and
— Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, 12/7/05
“After three months, it’s still unreal…In Louisiana and elsewhere on the
Gulf Coast, huge numbers of Americans struggle with the basics. Upward
of 100,000 of them are living in hotels. Many more are without homes
because of wind damage and the widespread flooding in New Orleans and
its neighboring parishes. One of America’s great cities remains crippled,
large parts of it shrouded in darkness. Few of the street lights work; little
stop signs remind one in every block that things aren’t anywhere near
back to normal. There’s even a curfew in the French Quarter, something
few people probably ever expected to see…Yet much of what we hear
from our leaders is that ‘Katrina fatigue’ is a reality in Washington and
across the nation. We have a lot of Katrina fatigue down here, too. But
it’s not a distant issue for us. It’s a bitter reality…We hope that Americans
are not tired of hearing about Katrina and her aftermath, because we still
desperately need help from our government in Washington to get
Louisiana on the road to recovery.”
— Editorial, The Advocate (Baton Rouge), 11/29/05
Bush Administration Fails to Live Up to Its Promises
President Bush promises one of the largest rebuilding efforts in history. When President Bush addressed the nation nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, he promised an unparalleled recovery effort. Specifically, he stated:
That the recovery would “be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen;” That the federal government “will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives;”
That the recovery effort must leave the communities in the region “even better and stronger than before the storm;” That the federal government would use the opportunity to “confront this poverty [in the region] with bold action;” and That the recovery effort would be carried out “honestly and wisely,” with “a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures.” (Address to the Nation, 9/15/05)
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has failed to uphold these commitments, responding with a recovery effort that has been slow, incomplete, mismanaged, and ineffective.
The Administration’s response has been disastrously slow. The Los Angeles Times has reported that, despite the President’s promises of leading a historic recovery effort, “the only real actors in the rebuilding drama at the moment are the city’s homeowners and business owners…Individual New Orleanians are struggling to come back largely under their own power, using mostly their own resources.” (12/4/05) In the first two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Congress appropriated more than $62 billion in emergency supplemental funding for relief and recovery efforts, with roughly $60 billion designated for FEMA. Three months later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that the federal government has only spent $7.6 billion of that money on relief activities for three major hurricanes: Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. In fact, over $36 billion of the appropriated funds has not been allocated to any government program; it is simply sitting untouched in the federal coffers. (FEMA weekly report, 11/30/05)
Despite Senator Frist’s claims, Congress has failed to act to meet urgent needs. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Senator Frist told the Senate, “we passed 21 separate pieces of legislation that have responded to many of the immediate needs…I want my colleagues and the American people to understand we are acting and we are moving.” (Congressional Record, 11/18/05) Unfortunately, the Republican Leader’s comments demonstrate a serious disconnect with reality. Congress has failed to act on numerous key provisions that would enable hurricane survivors to meet immediate needs and begin to rebuild their lives. As the New York Times reports, “less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, relief legislation remains dormant in Washington and despair is growing among officials here who fear that Congress and the Bush administration are losing interest in their plight. As evidence, the state and local officials cite an array of stalled bills and policy changes they say are crucial to rebuilding the city and persuading some of its hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents to return, including measures to finance long-term hurricane protection, revive small businesses and compensate the uninsured.” (11/22/05)
Despite lack of urgency in the Bush Administration and the Senate Republican leadership, Senate Democrats have pressed for swift action. Within days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Senators Reid and Landrieu, along with more than 20 other Senate Democrats, introduced major legislation to address the most urgent needs of hurricane survivors. Their bill, the Katrina Emergency Relief Act (S.1637), proposed a wide variety of measures to provide victims with health care, housing, education, and financial relief. The bill was intended for immediate action, and Senate Democrats have since tried repeatedly to get the Senate to act on its provisions. Yet the Republican leadership has refused to take up the bill or related legislation to address most of these needs. Senate Democrats have also introduced specific legislative proposals intended to address nearly every facet of the recovery challenges, including bills to address housing, health care, education, unemployment, long-term rebuilding, hurricane protection, and economic needs. Senate Democrats will continue to work for progress on these important initiatives.
Bush Administration Has Not Been Held Accountable for Its Mismanagement
Bush Administration’s initial response was disastrous. The Administration’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina was full of mistakes. Among its more egregious errors, the Administration:
failed to act with appropriate urgency to pre-position Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government personnel and assets in the region prior to the hurricane’s landfall and to mobilize a rapid and robust federal response after the extent of the hurricane’s impact became clear;
waited eight days after the hurricane’s landfall to deploy the active military to assist civilian authorities in response activities, and waited three days to begin coordinating the response of National Guard units from outside the affected states;
waited four days after landfall in Louisiana to evacuate the Superdome;
waited three days after declaring a state of emergency, and one full day after levees were breached in New Orleans, to declare Hurricane Katrina an “incident of national significance” and thereby trigger a full federal response under the National Response Plan;
failed to anticipate the extent of the damage from Hurricane Katrina and failed to mobilize an appropriately robust response, despite several warnings about the expected impact of the hurricane;
failed to prepare for a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, both by preparing first responders and local officials to respond and by ensuring adequate resources for maintaining and strengthening hurricane defenses in the region; and
failed to act with urgency to develop and implement a long-term recovery plan that addresses all the challenges survivors in the region now face.
In an open letter to the President, the New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial board stated, “We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.” (9/4/05) More importantly, the American people have decried the Administration’s response. In a CBS News poll in the immediate wake of the hurricane, 77 percent of Americans believed the federal government’s response was inadequate. (9/8/05)
Both the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans have resisted an investigation needed to prevent failures in the future. Investigating the mistakes made in the initial response to Hurricane Katrina is critical, not just so that survivors will have answers about what went wrong, but also in order to prevent similar failings from occurring in responses to future natural disasters. Over three-quarters of Americans believe that an independent, non-partisan commission, like the 9-11 Commission, should be charged with investigating what went wrong during the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. (Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 9/2/05) However, both the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress have opposed such an investigation, increasing the risk that the federal government will fail to learn from its mistakes. In the Senate, Republicans have repeatedly blocked passage of legislation offered by Senator Clinton to establish an independent, non-partisan commission to investigate the response.
HOUSING: Most Serious Crisis Since the Great Depression
The Gulf Coast region is confronted with a tremendous housing crisis:
·Thousands of hurricane survivors still lack housing. Approximately 42,000 families, or 125,000 people, that fled Hurricane Katrina are currently being housed in hotels around the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it will stop providing these hotel rooms on January 7, 2006, and only the intervention of a district court pushed that date back to February 7. In the court’s opinion, the judge wrote, “…unfortunately it seems as if inaction has been the leit motif of the response to the most severe natural disaster in the nation’s history.” (Washington Post, 12/13/05) Moreover, nearly 1,000 survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita remain in shelters, and nearly 7,000 remain sheltered aboard ships. (FEMA weekly report, 11/30/05) Many of these survivors lack access to manufactured housing units promised by the Bush Administration or affordable rental units for temporary lodging.
·Insufficient housing for returning survivors. Another significant problem is that, in New Orleans, “there is not enough housing for people who wish to return.” (Houston Chronicle editorial, 11/29/05) Thus, many residents who plan to eventually return to New Orleans are forced to remain in temporary housing arrangements until housing in New Orleans can be rebuilt and rehabilitated.
·Foreclosures and evictions are imminent. The Boston Globe reports that “housing woes in the aftermath of the devastating Atlantic hurricane season are causing a fresh wave of trauma on the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastlines,” citing “a sharp increase in evictions,” “an expected deluge of mortgage foreclosures now that many foreclosure moratoriums have ended,” and many cases in which “lenders continue to demand mortgage payments on houses that have been destroyed.” The newspaper reports that “countless more people face confusing legal issues that are pitting tenants against landlords. Some property owners are evicting renters to make room for their own families or to allow contractors to begin repairs. Others are ousting long-time tenants to make way for higher-paying occupants, including government workers and construction crews armed with generous housing subsidies.” (12/10/05)
Bush Administration’s response is slow and ineffective. The Administration’s efforts to provide housing assistance to survivors have been lethargic at best. The Administration has allocated nearly $4 billion for production of manufactured housing for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and another $147 million for Hurricane Rita survivors, but only $566 million – roughly 1/8 of the funding – has been spent. In Louisiana, just over 12,000 manufactured housing units are now occupied by survivors. Progress is slightly better in Mississippi, where over 22,000 units are now occupied. But even Republican Senator Lott has expressed frustration that many Mississippians are still homeless, stating, “Winter is coming to Mississippi, and too many people are still living in tents or carports.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12/4/05)
In addition to the manufactured housing units, the Administration has spent about $4 billion on housing assistance for displaced survivors; much of this money, however, has been spent on the approximately 50,000 hotel rooms still in use. The estimated $3 million per day being spent on hotel rooms represents grossly inefficient management of taxpayer funds: “FEMA is paying about $60 a day for each of those rooms. For evacuees who move into two-bedroom apartments, by contrast, FEMA is paying an average of $786 a month, which saves the government more than $1,000 a month” per family. (Washington Post, 11/23/05) However, FEMA’s plan for moving evacuees from hotels into rental units is also faltering. According to the Washington Post, housing benefits are currently “guaranteed for only three months, and not all landlords are willing to rent to evacuees of uncertain status. More important, the criteria for obtaining extensions remain disturbingly vague. FEMA says families must ‘demonstrate a continued need for cash assistance’ and must show they have a ‘plan for moving forward’ – distinctly subjective tests.” (editorial, 12/5/05)
Finally, while temporary housing is important in the short-term, the Administration has failed to develop any plan for rebuilding housing in the long-term. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “the Administration’s most highly touted proposal concerning housing for low-income evacuees who seek to return – an ‘Urban Homesteading’ plan that would allow low-income hurricane victims to build houses on surplus federal land – is unlikely to aid more than a small fraction of the needy families displaced by the storm.” (11/2/05)
Congress has failed to take action on key proposals. On September 14, Senator Sarbanes introduced an amendment to H.R. 2862 to provide hurricane survivors with immediate assistance to find housing, including emergency housing vouchers. The Senate unanimously agreed to the amendment, and passed H.R. 2862 a day later. Republican legislators removed the provision during the House-Senate conference on the bill. Another amendment to the bill, offered by Senator Lieberman, would have provided foreclosure relief and assistance to renters, but was defeated by Senate Republicans 56 to 42. Congress has done virtually nothing else beyond making some minor tax changes to address the region’s emergency housing needs. In fact, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee has not only not approved any legislation to address emergency housing needs, it has not even held a single hearing on the issue.
ECONOMY: Businesses, Jobs, and Savings Destroyed
Much of the Gulf Coast’s economic infrastructure and labor force has been severely impacted by the hurricanes:
·Thousands of survivors have lost their jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mississippi’s unemployment rate for October 2005 was 9.6 percent, up from 6.9 percent a year ago. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was even more troubling at 11.3 percent in October 2005, compared with 5.8 percent a year ago. That rate makes Louisiana’s unemployment problem easily the worst in the nation. However, the unemployment rates may underestimate the full effect on the Gulf Coast economy. The Department of Labor now reports that 599,700 Americans have lost their jobs because of the hurricanes. (Associated Press, 12/8/05) The toll is particularly severe in Louisiana, where “nearly 350,000 Louisiana citizens – or 21 percent of the workers in the state – have filed unemployment claims in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 11/30/05) The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 24.5 percent of those evacuated the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina, and 42 percent of minority evacuees, are now unemployed. (11/9/05) A Labor Department survey of 900,000 evacuees found that only 44 percent report being employed. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://stats.bls.gov/katrina/cpscesquestions.htm)
·Thousands of businesses have been destroyed. Many of these jobs were lost when entire businesses were destroyed. In October, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco reported that “Katrina and Rita have shuttered or displaced almost 81,000 firms – that is 41 percent of Louisiana businesses. Most of them are small businesses.” (Office of the Governor, 10/6/05) Mississippi has been devastated as well, with 70,000 businesses damaged or totally destroyed. (Entrepreneur, 9/22/05)
·Financial relief. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains that hurricane victims “typically are eligible for either standard unemployment benefits or disaster unemployment assistance (DUA) benefits. But the unemployment insurance benefits that Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama provide are exceptionally low, equaling only about half of the poverty line for a family of four. Minimum DUA benefits in these states are just one-quarter of the poverty line for a family of four. Further, the job searches of many Hurricane victims will be long, either because these people are returning to their hard-hit communities where their old jobs may no longer exist or because they are residing in new communities where they have few contacts and know less about the job market.” (11/21/05)
·Gulf Coast farm economy suffers tremendous damage. State economists estimate that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused as much as $1.6 billion in damage to the Louisiana farm economy. The damage is expected to range “from strawberry fields that were washed away to entire forests that had 10 to 15 years’ worth of timber destroyed. And, because of the salt-water flooding, agriculture experts say the damage could stretch on for years.” (Christian Science Monitor, 11/30/05)
The Bush Administration has blocked progress on economic recovery. The President proposed two initiatives to jump start the economic recovery: the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone (GOZone) with tax incentives for businesses; and the establishment of Worker Recovery Accounts with $5,000 in job education and training funding available for each eligible individual. (President Bush, Address, 9/15/05) Experts have raised concerns about the usefulness of these proposals (Los Angeles Times, 10/25/05), and the President has failed to persuade members of his own party in Congress to take action to implement them.
In addition, the Bush Administration is obstructing efforts to help businesses get back on their feet. The President is blocking a “bipartisan Senate bill that would authorize $450 million in bridge loans and grants to businesses damaged by the Hurricanes, allow these businesses to defer payments on federal loans, and increase the size of disaster loans. (New York Times, 11/22/05) The Administration is also failing to support the recovery of small businesses in the region. In its latest disaster update issued on December 7, the Small Business Administration reported over 202,712 loan applications are waiting to be processed. (Disaster Update for Presidential Disaster Declarations, 12/7/05) Out of 28,540 loan applications from the Gulf Coast region, only 10 percent have been processed and only three percent have been approved. (Washington Post editorial, 12/9/05) According to USA Today, “the federal Small Business Administration is processing disaster loans for Gulf Coast hurricane victims at less than half last year’s rate, despite an increase in the number of employees working on them.” (11/24/05) The slow rate of processing has created at least a four-month backlog.
Congress has failed to act on key proposals. To help hurricane survivors get back on their feet, Senator Lieberman introduced an amendment to H.R. 2862, the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill, to, among other things, help ensure adequate unemployment benefits for survivors; establish a moratorium on any payment or financial obligation for a federal loan; provide greater assistance for temporary housing, rent, and other expenses; help survivors who face foreclosure or eviction from their homes; provide penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans; increase the availability of food assistance; and provide temporary relief from stricter bankruptcy rules for hurricane survivors. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans defeated this amendment by a vote of 56 to 42. The Senate did pass an amendment, offered by Senators Kerry and Snowe, to the same legislation, which would have provided support for small businesses recovering from the hurricanes, but the provision was removed by Republicans in conference. Other “efforts to raise benefit levels for the unemployed, or increase their duration, are languishing in Congress.” (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 11/21/05)
PUBLIC HEALTH: Crisis Emerges Amid a Toxic Environment
Gulf Coast residents are beset by health problems caused by a toxic and moldy environment, but too many survivors lack health coverage and too many hospitals lack the capacity to treat them:
·A “major health crisis” is emerging. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “three months after Hurricane Katrina raked the Gulf Coast, a major health crisis is emerging as residents struggle with the fouled air, moldy houses, and the numbing stress the killer storm has left behind. Across Mississippi and Louisiana, people are afflicted with coughs, infections, and rashes. They are jittery, depressed and prone to bizarre outbursts.” (12/05/05) The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina has filled the air with carcinogens, dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde, and other irritants that place residents at risk of developing short- and long-term illnesses. The most prominent afflictions currently reported are respiratory conditions and skin problems.
·Hospitals have insufficient resources to meet health needs. To make matters worse, many hospitals in the region “are short-staffed and struggling to care for” residents in the region.” (USA Today, 12/5/05) The Washington Post reports that “Katrina damaged more than a dozen hospitals and uprooted thousands of private physicians. Now, nearly three months later, health care remains scarce.” (11/25/05) In addition to creating new demand for care, the hurricanes striking the Gulf Coast have exacerbated preexisting health care inadequacies, magnified chronic funding shortages, and interrupted treatment for thousands of chronically ill patients, creating a host of additional challenges for the strained health care system.
·Mental health issues are particularly acute. Newsweek reports, “in a survey released by LSU last week, 39 percent of Louisiana residents reported feeling angry and 53 percent said they were depressed. Already, mental-health systems are stressed. In Louisiana, for example, only 28 percent of adults and 3.5 percent of children identified as having a mental illness receive care–and that was before the storm. Experts worry that the underserved will continue to struggle as otherwise healthy Gulf Coast residents succumb to the storm’s psychological aftereffects, now festering like sediment in the floodwaters.” (12/12/05) Mental health experts have predicted a dramatic mental health toll from the storm, with up to a third of survivors experiencing some sort of mental health challenge. (Forbes, 9/6/05) Government officials estimate that as many as 500,000 Gulf Coast survivors may require some form of mental health care in the wake of the hurricanes. (Newsweek, 12/12/05) And mental health issues, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suffered in the immediate wake of the storm are likely only to be compounded by the struggles hundreds of thousands of hurricane survivors have experienced while being relocated in temporary housing arrangements, facing financial strain, being separated from friends and family, and undergoing other types of stress.
·Toxic environment endangers long-term public health. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have created serious environmental risks throughout the Gulf Coast: “when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore along the Gulf Coast 100 days ago, it stirred up tons of toxic substances, much of which had been stored safely or buried benignly beneath the earth. But when floodwaters subsided or were pumped out of low-lying areas, they left behind sediment and sludge that oozed and then dried into layers of muck and dust that in some places remain hazardous…Scientists who tested soil and sediment in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana – on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club – found what they say are dangerous levels of arsenic, heavy metals, dioxin, and E. coli bacteria.” (Christian Science Monitor, 12/8/05) Another significant problem is that debris and refuse continue to cover the region. The Army Corps of Engineers reports that Hurricane Katrina alone left about 55 million cubic yards of debris in Southeast Louisiana, equivalent to 34 average years worth of trash, and “smelly piles of debris still tower beside curbs, and thousands of abandoned houses sit filled with moldy ruins.” (Austin American-Statesman, 12/8/05)
·Health care for veterans is “in peril.” While the hurricanes destroyed and damaged health care throughout the Gulf Coast region, “veterans may have been hit worst of all.” The veterans’ health care network in the region faces several challenges. First, several clinics and hospitals, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Gulfport, Mississippi and one of the VA hospitals in New Orleans, were destroyed or badly damaged. An even greater challenge may be “the hurricane’s massive displacement of VA doctors and other medical workers.” Many VA employees lost their homes and have been forced to relocate. (Gannett News Service, 11/11/05)
The Bush Administration has no plan to address the crisis. Despite a public health crisis that will require resources and treatment far beyond the capacities of federal and state programs at their current funding levels, the Bush Administration has not proposed any significant measure to:
·Address funding shortages and bureaucratic obstacles preventing state Medicaid programs from responding to the spike in patients;
·Help hospitals and clinics rebuild and restore services;
·Provide mental health treatment and crisis counseling to hundreds of thousands of at-risk survivors (FEMA reports that not a single dollar has been spent on crisis counseling so far [Weekly Report, 11/30/05]); or
·Aggressively identify and remove environmental hazards that threaten public health.
Congress has failed to act on key proposals. On September 15, Senators Baucus and Grassley introduced a bipartisan bill, S. 1716, to provide emergency health coverage to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The legislation would temporarily relax eligibility requirements for Medicaid to allow survivors to get the health coverage they need on an emergency basis. The legislation has 13 additional co-sponsors, and enjoys support from a majority of the Senate. Unfortunately, a small minority of Republicans, led by Senators Sununu and Ensign, have blocked passage of the bill. (Los Angeles Times, 9/29/05) Senator Frist has refused to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. In a recent statement, Senator Grassley complained that, “unfortunately, the White House is working against me behind the scenes.” (Reuters, 10/6/05)
After working for several weeks to bring S. 1716 to the floor for a vote, Senator Baucus was able to include a scaled-back health care relief package in S. 1932. Senator Lincoln offered a more robust health care relief proposal as an amendment to this legislation, but Republicans defeated the amendment in a partisan vote, 48-51.
REBUILDING AND RECOVERY: The Needs Are Tremendous
While urgent action is vital to address immediate relief needs, the Gulf Coast will require a significant investment by the federal government for long-term rebuilding and recovery. As the Washington Post has noted, the “costliest part of Gulf rebuilding is yet to come” as the region works to “recreate a public infrastructure network – including roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, sewers, power lines, ports and levees – that was all but destroyed when Katrina swept in.” (11/21/05) Among the critical priorities:
·Thousands of houses have been severely damaged or destroyed by flooding. According to the National Association of Home Builders, more than 350,000 homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, more than 12 times the number destroyed by any previous natural disaster. In addition, “roughly half a million homes…sustained major damage but can be repaired, suffered minor damage and are still habitable or had largely cosmetic damage.” (Nation’s Building News, 10/10/05) So far, New Orleans has inspected 114,000 homes, about 50 percent of the city’s total homes, and has found only 28 percent to be habitable. (London Guardian, 12/11/05)
·Gulf Coast residents still lack access to essential services and infrastructure. Many essential services throughout the Gulf Coast remain inoperable or in disrepair, particularly in New Orleans. Over a third of New Orleans residents have restored electrical service, and only half have gas service. Only 12 percent of New Orleans buses and 37 percent of public transportation routes are currently operational. (Brookings Institution Hurricane Katrina Index, 12/6/05) In five New Orleans zip codes – 70126, 70127, 70128, 70129, and 70117 – water is still not potable and sewer systems are inoperative. (City of New Orleans Situation Report, 12/8/05)
·No Bush Administration commitment to ensure Category Five protection. Hurricane Katrina destroyed over 30 miles of the levees built to protect New Orleans from flooding, causing breaches in 50 separate places. (WAFB News, 10/28/05; Reuters, 11/22/05) Army Corps of Engineers officials report that they are on pace to rebuild the levees to their pre-Katrina strengths by June 2006, the beginning of the next hurricane season. But such levees would again fail in the face of a hurricane like Katrina, leaving New Orleans vulnerable to a repeat of the disaster. The need for a strong federal commitment to effectively rebuilding hurricane defenses is underscored by recent reports that poorly built levees and other defenses contributed to the damaged suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As the New Orleans Times-Picayne reported, “floodwall breaches linked to design flaws inundated parts of the city that otherwise would have stayed dry, turning neighborhoods into death traps and causing massive damage. In other areas, poorly engineered gaps and erosion of weak construction materials accelerated and deepened flooding already under way, hampering rescue efforts in the wake of the storm.” (12/8/05)
·Wetlands have also been decimated. Wetlands along the southeastern coast of Louisiana have been cited as key defenses against hurricanes, slowing them down as they turn inland. The wetlands have been steadily eroding over the last several decades, but the hurricanes this year accelerated that erosion. The U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that “Katrina and Rita transformed about 100 square miles of marsh into open water — an area more than 1½ times the size of Washington, D.C. ‘Indications are that much of the loss may be permanent,’ the agency said in a statement on Nov. 1.” (USA Today, 11/21/05)
·Family members remain separated. In the wake of the storm, many Gulf Coast families were separated during chaotic evacuations. Unfortunately, three months later, many of these families remain apart. USA Today has reported that 6,644 Gulf Coast residents – nearly 4 times the official death toll for the storm – remain missing three months after Hurricane Katrina struck. (11/21/05) Vulnerable populations have been hit particularly hard. The whereabouts of at least 1,300 children remain unknown. Moreover, “the problem is likely to worsen when the federal government stops paying for hotel rooms for evacuees, who will be forced to move yet again.” (Newsday, 12/4/05) Many elderly survivors also remained separated from family. The Houston Chronicle reports that “at least 10,000 nursing home residents once lived in the hardest-hit coastal counties in Louisiana and Texas. In the aftermath, thousands remain isolated from families who have lost everything and many have no home to return to.” Furthermore, the Chronicle reports that there is currently no record of the whereabouts of nearly 100 nursing home residents. (11/28/05)
In spite of these needs, the Bush Administration has:
·Failed to develop a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. The Bush Administration has offered no plan for long-term rebuilding in the Gulf Coast, including how to rebuild hurricane defenses, how to rebuild the tens of thousands of homes damaged by the storm, how to ensure safety and opportunity for residents wishing to return to the region, how to rebuild key infrastructure, and how to rebuild the economy.
·Wavered in its commitment to rebuild hurricane defenses. The success of recovery efforts and the future of New Orleans depends, in large part, on the level of confidence individuals and businesses have that they will be protected against major hurricanes in the future. Yet, despite the President’s pledge to rebuild communities in the region “better and stronger than before the storm,” the Bush Administration has refused to commit to rebuilding levees strong enough to withstand Category 4 and 5 hurricanes like Hurricane Katrina. (Associated Press, 11/29/05) In addition, the Administration has “objected to a bipartisan proposal that would give the state up to 40 percent of the more than $5 billion in annual federal revenues generated by Louisiana’s offshore oil and gas industries” to create a “stream of money for restoring coastal wetlands and constructing levees capable of withstanding Category 5 hurricanes.” (New York Times, 11/22/05)
·Mismanaged the National Flood Insurance Program. Because most homeowner insurance plans do not cover flood damage, the National Flood Insurance Program was created to provide support for homeowners who see their homes damaged or destroyed by catastrophic floods: “in theory, the FEMA-run program should make decisions about whether to rebuild easier…by promising to cover up to $250,000 in flood damages.” However, “flood insurance has turned into a morass in the wake of Katrina, with many homeowners and business owners finding it nearly impossible to collect for the just-passed storm.” (Los Angeles Times, 12/4/05) FEMA reports that it has paid 75,183 flood insurance claims; however, it also reports that 218,919 claims have been made, and that 856,043 individuals in the region have reported not having any form of flood insurance. (Weekly Report, 11/30/05) On November 16, USA Today reported that the National Flood Insurance Program “has run out of funds to cover flood insurance claims and, in an unprecedented move, has stopped payments to policyholders.”
·Shut local businesses out of rebuilding contracts. Government contracts for rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast region provide an important opportunity for local businesses to get back on track. However, the Bush Administration has largely shut local businesses out of these contracts. According to FEMA’s latest report, 4.85 percent of rebuilding contracts have been awarded to businesses in Louisiana, and only 3.6 percent of contracts have gone to Mississippi businesses. In contrast, Indiana businesses have received over 15 percent of the contracts. Small disadvantaged businesses, including minority-owned businesses, account for only 2.3 percent of contracts. (FEMA report on Hurricane Katrina-related contracts, 12/5/05)
Congress has failed to act on key proposals. Congress has failed to take up key legislative initiatives that would accelerate rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast and ensure that local businesses are supported in their attempts to recover from the storms. S. 1925, the Rebuild with Respect Act introduced by Senator Kennedy, would require contractors to hire local workers and would ensure that such workers receive fair wages. It continues to lie dormant in committee. S. 1777 would ease funding restrictions on federal aid, allowing greater federal assistance for rebuilding projects, and would bolster unemployment assistance. This bill has been reported out of committee, but Majority Leader Frist has refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. Several bills introduced by both Democrats and Republicans to provide federal assistance for rebuilding levees, restoring wetlands, and bolstering other hurricane defenses – including S. 1702, S. 1709, and S. 1836 – have not been reported out of committee.
CITIES AND STATES: Governments Are Going Bankrupt, Services Suffer
State and local governments and government agencies, which are responsible for providing many essential services such as public schools, health care, transportation infrastructure, public safety, and sanitation services, have been crippled by the hurricanes:
·Government agencies have been forced to slash their budgets. The mass exodus of residents and the tremendous destruction of property in the Gulf Coast has decimated state and local government revenue streams from sales, property, and income taxes. Without these revenues, state and local governments have been forced to trim their budgets by cutting back on important services. The Louisiana state government has lost $959 million – roughly five percent of its budget – in income tax revenue, and has been forced to cut $600 million from its budget, including funding for education and health care services. (Associated Press, 11/23/05) New Orleans’ Downtown Development District has had to trim its budget by 34 percent, causing it to cancel several police and sanitation department services. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 12/8/05) The City of New Orleans government was forced to lay off 3,000 employees. (City of New Orleans Situation Report, 12/8/05)
·Gulf Coast school systems have been hit particularly hard. Schools across the Gulf Coast are battling storm damage, decimated rosters, and displaced employees. The problems are particularly acute in New Orleans, where the first public school opened only two weeks ago, on November 28. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that, “as public schools begin to reopen their doors in New Orleans, it is increasingly clear that everything is going to be different. Many schools will return as charter schools. The Legislature voted to let the state take over nearly 90 percent of the district’s schools. Many school buildings are destroyed or seriously damaged. And some students might never come back.” (11/29/05) Moreover, approximately 7,500 New Orleans public school employees still haven’t returned to work after being evacuated from the city during Hurricane Katrina. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 12/1/05)
·Displaced students are straining their adopted school districts. Thousands of students displaced by the hurricanes have streamed into other school districts throughout the Southeast, bringing with them added strain on districts that often have insufficient resources to cope with the new enrollees. The Houston Chronicle reports, “as many as 20,000 Louisiana students have settled in Houston-area schools since the hurricane, further taxing resources that teachers say are already stretched too thin.” (11/30/05) In Dallas, where over 2,000 students displaced by the hurricanes have enrolled, school administrators attribute a significant rise in behavioral problems to the additional strain caused by new enrollees. (Dallas Morning News, 11/30/05)
·Louisiana universities are facing severe financial strain. Discouraged by the uncertainties still facing their home states, students evacuated from area colleges and universities are choosing to stay in their adopted schools. The lost revenue has threatened the schools’ financial solvency. Another strain on school budgets is damage from the storm itself: “schools are grappling with major losses, with Tulane having more than $100 million in damage. A spokesman said the university has laid off 243 full-time staff members and 2,381 part-time employees, including part-time faculty, part-time staff, and student workers.” (Boston Globe, 12/6/05) Other schools are making cutbacks too: “New Orleans’ Dillard and Xavier universities, for example, have each laid off more than half of their staffs. Louisiana State University’s cuts may exceed 5,000, officials say.” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 11/25/05)
The Bush Administration has hurt recovery with poor management and no real plan for addressing the challenges. The Bush Administration has failed to develop a real plan for helping state and local government agencies, including school systems, cope with the resource crunch and other challenges facing them in the wake of the hurricanes. The Administration’s plan to address the strain on public school systems caused by the hurricanes has been particularly ineffective. The National Education Association (NEA) states that “the Administration’s plan falls significantly short of what the states have requested. It does not do nearly enough to respond to the needs of those children whose lives have been ravaged by the hurricane, nor does it adequately address the needs of the schools that are receiving the thousands of displaced children.” (NEA Statement, 9/21/05)
In addition, the Administration has failed to provide adequate resources to help agencies stay afloat. FEMA established a cap for its loan program, leaving many local agencies in difficult financial straits. On November 16, FEMA abruptly announced “in a one-sentence e-mail that Louisiana loans would be capped at $700 million, with the remaining $300 million going to Mississippi.” Consequently, the state of Louisiana was forced to trim many of its loans to local government agencies by up to 30 percent. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that “officials from the seven government bodies affected so far – five in Jefferson and one each in Orleans and St. Tammany parishes – recoiled at the news that their loan applications had been decreased, saying they may have to secure commercial loans, possibly at higher interest rates, to make up the difference, or cut public jobs and services.” (12/6/05) Finally, adding to the fiscal woes of these state and local governments, “the White House has also insisted that disaster loans to local governments, many of which no longer have a tax base, be made with the cruel and unusual provision that these loans cannot be forgiven.” (New York Times, 10/10/05)
Congress has failed to take action on key proposals. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, Senate Democrats introduced comprehensive legislation, S. 1637, to facilitate a swift and effective federal response. Among other things, this legislation would award grants to school districts that receive displaced students and would offer assistance to early childhood education programs and agencies receiving displaced children. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have refused to take action on the bill. In addition, Senators Kennedy and Bingaman worked with Republican Senator Enzi to introduce S. 1715, a bipartisan effort to provide relief for students and schools affected by Hurricane Katrina, including ensuring that funds are directed to assist school districts to reestablish themselves and continue providing education, additional support for supplemental educational services and after-school programs, enhanced access to child care and Head Start, assistance to individuals with disabilities, and financial aid assistance for institutions of higher education and students. Despite bipartisan support, the bill has been pending on the Senate Calendar without a vote for nearly three months. Senators Kennedy and Enzi developed a modified version of the legislation and offered it as an amendment to S. 1932. Though the amendment passed by voice vote, the legislation remains stuck in a House-Senate conference that has not yet held a single meeting.