DENVER, Colorado, August 26, 2008 (ENS) - Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans a new report from international relief organization Oxfam America launched today at the Democratic National Convention reveals the slow pace of recovery in the region and urges the next administration to make recovery a national priority.
Oxfam's report, "Mirror on America: How the state of Gulf Coast recovery reflects on us all," comes three days before the August 29 anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
"The uneven and inequitable state of recovery of the Gulf Coast is a national embarrassment," said Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser. "Although the force of the storm was an act of nature, the failures of the recovery are an act of our government. If we refuse to address this as a nation, it will go down in history not only as a failure of leadership, but also as a failure to hold our government accountable."
Less than a month after Category 5 Katrina, Hurricane Rita struck some of the same Gulf Coast areas, the third Category 5 hurricane of the harsh 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.
Three years later, the barriers to a complete recovery are highest in the housing and jobs sectors. Almost 37,000 people on the Gulf Coast are still living in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Oxfam's report.
In Mississippi, federal money that was mandated for use in rebuilding low-income housing was diverted to improving the shipyards in Biloxi, the report shows.
Only 12 percent of African-American evacuees who returned to New Orleans after the hurricanes have been able to find work, compared with 45 percent of white evacuees, according to the report.
"Compliance with federal labor laws has been ignored with frequent occurrences of safety and health violations, wage theft and exploitative treatment of immigrant workers," Oxfam states.
"It was the perfect storm of worker exploitation and wage suppression," said Tracie Washington, president and CEO of the Louisiana Justice Institute in the report.
Derrick Evans arrived in Denver from Gulfport, Mississippi, hauling a FEMA trailer emlazoned with a message designed to make Democratic delegates think: "Where did $129 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery go?"
Evans said that he brought his "KatrinaRitaville Express" to Denver because neither presidential candidate has paid attention to the struggles on the Gulf Coast. He will haul the trailer into Minneapolis-St. Paul next week for the Republican national convention.
Other serious problems still plague New Orleans as it attempts to recover and prepare for future storms.
Special Counsel Scott Bloch, of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, this month sent a letter to President George W. Bush detailing that the investigation conducted by the Department of Defense into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' pumping installation in New Orleans and its contract with Moving Water Industries was "superficial and dismissive."
The investigation was a response to a whistleblower's accusations that the Corps installed defective pumping equipment and conducted improper contracting procedures with MWI, but the Defense Department cleared the Corps of these allegations.
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said, "It is very troubling that two years after these pumps were installed we are still uncertain if these pumps will keep our city safe from rising water."
Landrieu last week pressed for a congressional investigation into the pumping equipment installed in New Orleans by the Corps and the contract for the pumps.
"The possibility of a dysfunctional flood protection system threatens the entire recovery of South Louisiana," Landrieu wrote to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
"The possibility that New Orleans faces a risk of failure of the flood protection system because of inappropriate government contracting is unacceptable," wrote the Lousiana senator.
Landrieu today commented on a Government Accountability Office report tracking the progress of debris removal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Home demolition in hurricane-ravaged areas of New Orleans is moving forward, albeit slowly," said Laudrieu, "and I am glad that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has diligently issued 120 enforcement actions as of May 15, 2008 against businesses or individuals who improperly disposed of debris at unauthorized sites."
In the nearly three years since the hurricanes, approximately 58.8 million cubic yards of debris have been collected in Louisiana.
Landrieu says she supports the work of state and federal agencies to prevent illegal dumping in New Orleans East and called for the closure of one controversial landfill.
"We are still awaiting the final closure of the Chef Menteur landfill, which has generated controversy because of its close proximity to a national wildlife refuge and a residential neighborhood," the senator said. "The closure is currently caught in a bureaucratic tangle, awaiting a 404 permit from the Corps of Engineers, among other things, before final closure can commence."
Some schools and other public buildings in New Orleans have been rebuilt, yet whoever takes up the reins of power next January will have much to do to help the Gulf Coast recover.
Oxfam is urging the next administration to create an Office for Gulf Coast Recovery headed by a federal coordinator; to make sure all federally subsidized housing destroyed in the storms is reopened or replaced; to require states Gulf Coast states that receive federal recovery dollars to provide regular reports on the use of those funds; and to ensure compliance with labor laws.
"The transition to a new administration is a critical opportunity to rebuild the Gulf Coast better and stronger," said Offenheiser. "Not only can we help the Gulf Coast recover, we can take the opportunity of the rebuilding effort to address the long-standing root causes of poverty and vulnerability that existed in these two states long before the storms of 2005."
Sharon Hanshaw, executive director of Coastal Women for Change in Biloxi, Mississippi, said, "This is our community, we want it back the way it was - or better."
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