The world has already seen more than its fair share of natural disasters in 2010. From the earthquake in Haiti to the floods in Pakistan, our hearts and our resources have gone out to those in distress. Yesterday, however, the nation turned its attention back home to New Orleans as we remembered Hurricane Katrina. It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, a region once again struck by catastrophe as it struggles to cope with the largest oil spill in history.
Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. 1,836 people were killed during the storm and subsequent flooding in New Orleans, where the levee system collapsed, and property damage totaled $81 billion. The government’s response, or lack of response in the days immediately following the disaster, combined with the exposure of a level of poverty thought to be absent from such an affluent nation as the United States led the media to label this event our “National Shame.” As we looked back at the heartbreak and destruction, it was our sincere hope that those bearing the brunt of the region’s economic impact would have been able to gain access to the resources needed to rebuild their lives after their devastating losses. Sadly, this hope has not been realized.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the federal government allocated $11 billion for the “Road Home” program to provide grants to Louisiana homeowners whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the storm. Although the Road Home program was touted as a way to get residents back into their homes and back into the region, it has done little for those most in need. The formula used to calculate grant amounts has failed to provide low income homeowners, who are mostly African-American, with the funds needed to rebuild or repair their homes and the process has only served to exacerbate socio-economic disparities in the region.
In November 2008, advocates and a group of homeowners challenged the grant making process, claiming that it was discriminatory because it disproportionately affected African-Americans. Two weeks ago, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) won a victory in the courts on this very issue. In coordination with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and individual homeowners representing others who were unable to obtain sufficient grant funds to rebuild under the current system, LDF successfully pressed a district court in Washington, DC to halt any further grant awards based on this formula. Hopefully, this victory will lead to future grant awards that will enable lower income homeowners to rebuild and return home.
Five years after Katrina, as the consequences of the recent oil spill unfold and legal claims against BP begin to take shape, let us once again remember to keep the Gulf region in our minds -- and hope that the court system will remain an instrument of justice and equal opportunity for all.
(Photo by Euclid vanderKroew.)