Monday, May 28, 2007

New Orleans - 18 months after Katrina

This past January I attended the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Assocation (PHEWA) Biennial Conference in New Orleans with the theme: "Repairers of the Breach" based on Isaiah 58: 12. At the conference our plenary address was given by Bill Quigley, a noted law professor in New Orleans and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University.

Quigley has provided updated information on the situation in New Orleans some 18 months later and it is a troubling report that he offers in the recent PHEWA Newsletter. Here are some of the facts:

  1. 18 months after Katrina, a third of a million people in the New Orleans metro area have not returned.
  2. 80% of the 5100 New Orleans occupied public housing apartments remain closed by order of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Dev. (HUD)
  3. A key figure- Louisiana received $10 billion to fix up housing. Over 109,000 homeowners applied for federal funds to fix up their homes. 18 months later (Feb. 27, 2007), fewer than 700 families have received this federal assistance.
  4. Renters, who comprised a majority of New Orleans residents, are worse off; they get nothing at all. Quigley observes that many in New Orleans do not want the poor who lived in public housing to return at all.
  5. Tens of thousands of migrant workers have come to the Gulf Coast to work in the recover. Most workers tell of being promised good wages and working conditions, and plenty of work. Most of these promises were broken.
  6. Healthcare is in crisis. Charity Hospital, which saw 350,000 patient visits a year, remains closed, as do half the hospitals in the city.

It's a disturbing account that Quigley presents. Where is the kind of national leadership that our President and Congress should be offering the Gulf Coast? This remains a moral and political challenge to our nation, and so far we are not responding.

Quigley observes that "Katrina did not create the inequalities of gender, race, and class; it provided a window to see them more clearly. But the aftermath of Katrina has aggravated these inequalities."

I wonder what the future holds for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I consider this one of the great moral issues of our day. Increasingly, I believe people of faith must rise to the challenge of mission in the Gulf.

Historian Douglas Brinkley frames the issue well in his monumental account of the week of the flood in New Orleans brought on by Katrina: "I have no doubt that New Orleans will recover, in time, form Hurricane Katrina. But America as a nation will never get over what happened."

(The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley, William Morrow Publishing, 2006)

This Memorial Day Week-end is a opportunity to realize that all battles for good aren't fought on distant battle-fields between armed combatants. Sometimes the battles are closer to home and they are moral and spiritual and political, and they will define the kind of people we are as a nation just as surely as other engagements we have entered as a nation.


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