Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of our country’s greatest natural disasters, and one of the Bush administration’s greatest sins. The ineptitude of the federal government at the time, and the confusion on the part of state and local government, cost citizens on the Gulf Coast their lives and the loss of their property. Nowhere was this truer than New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where residents were left stranded to fend for themselves due to the lack of preparation and planning for the storm, and the federal government’s poor emergency coordination.
It was bad enough that people suffered such devastating losses but the treatment of victims in the aftermath of the storm was equally atrocious. For those who had lost their homes, the options were finding relatives with whom to live, being sent to an encampment in a neighboring state or receiving temporary housing in the form of a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Living up to its reputation, FEMA’s “help” turned out to be a hindrance as it took forever to deploy the trailers, and once distributed, the agency then pressured occupants to leave based upon some arbitrary timeline that was completely detached from the reality of the victims’ circumstances. In typical government bureaucratese, an exception was out of the picture because some unidentified bureaucrat had determined that the end of May 2009 would be the cutoff and occupants of Katrina trailers would face eviction. This, despite the fact, that it was fairly obvious that many of these families were a long way off from returning to their former residences.
Luckily, for the victims of Katrina, a presidential election also ushered in a new era of common sense in the White House. As opposed to the Bush administration’s “tough love,” the Obama administration has chosen to develop a more creative and compassionate response that will actually help many families get back on their feet. Rather than strip these families of their only means of shelter, the administration is giving them the option to purchase their trailers for $5 or less and also offering assistance in securing mortgages. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will give the 3,450 families still in trailers priority for $50 million in housing vouchers. FEMA has also announced that no families will face eviction while these new measures are implemented. Going from 43 to 44 might be a small increment numerically but for these families, in terms of presidential leadership, it is a quantum leap. Once faced with homelessness, these families have gained a new lease on life thanks to some level headed thinking in Washington.
Losing one’s home, in any form or fashion, is an emotionally devastating event. The families that were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and also Rita, bear the scars of victims who lives were upended by an arbitrary act of nature. The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can be overwhelming when having to think about rebuilding lives and memories that were lost when cherished family possessions were destroyed. Americans should be able to count on their government during such moments of crisis. Sadly, we failed that test in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the people along the Gulf Coast suffered. Many have continued to suffer, and most out of the glare of news cameras that have long gone off to the next story. We hope this latest announcement by the Obama administration is the real road to recovery for these families.