Checkmating Hurricane Katrina Fatigue

By: Marc H. Morial
President and Chief Executive

National Urban League

Three months ago Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in a relentless whirlwind that left hundreds of thousands of Americans homeless and produced searing images of physical devastation and human despair.

In its wake, and amid a shockingly confused response by some local, state and federal agencies, Americans of all kinds from all over the country opened their hearts—and their wallets.

Now, as the holiday season shifts into high gear, we should not let our own good fortune and the visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads erase or obscure the feelings—of horror and grief and compassion and a determination to help fellow human beings—we felt and acted upon then.

Now is no time for Katrina fatigue.

The fear that that is what is happening as time distances us from the actual event itself and the questions regarding the recovery effort unavoidably become more and more complex has itself become the topic of numerous news articles in recent weeks.

Public officials, business leaders and ordinary citizens throughout the Gulf region and especially in Louisiana, the hardest hit area, express concern that the rest of America has become alarmed at the possible total cost of the recovery, distracted by intervening events, and "moved on," as the popular phrase goes.

Writing in a recent Time Magazine, Donna Brazile, the veteran Democratic Party strategist who is a native of New Orleans, urged the Congress and the general public not to surrender to "Katrina fatigue."

Speaking of her colleagues on the newly-formed Louisiana Recovery Authority, she declared, "We simply can't afford Katrina fatigue. There's too much work to do."

Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, worried in a column this week that "there seems to be no sense of national urgency about the slow destruction of a major American city (New Orleans)" and asked, "The hurricane hit in late August, but hundreds of thousands are still suffering, and it's entirely possible that much of [New Orleans] will never be rebuilt and many of its residents will never come home. Isn't that as important as anything else going on in this country right now?"

The concern has grown even as the media is now in the midst of a fresh round of hurricane-related stories.

Some, rightly, focus on the progress made by communities and individuals throughout the region in getting back on their feet; and on the efforts of evacuees scattered across the country to either get back to their former communities or sink roots now where they are.

Other stories, however, plumb the growing complexity of and disputes about the recovery effort—of the huge but as yet unclear price tag; of government policies toward the evacuees and homeowners and business owners in the Gulf; of what environmental
policies should be part of a new flood-protection effort; and indeed what should be the scope of the latter, and so on.

In light of such difficult questions, it's easy to see that the "human element" that so gripped the nation's attention and compassion in September and October may have waned somewhat.

But perhaps some statistics about what New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf region still face will re-animate our imaginations.

For example, about 250,000 wrecked businesses have applied to the federal Small Business Administration for loans; 150,000 evacuees remain housed in hotel rooms around the country, wholly dependent upon the federal government to pay their hotel bills (having recently gained a reprieve from the cut-off of such federal support until January 7); and roughly 25 percent of evacuees who lost their jobs because of the storm remain unemployed.

The import of the latter figure was suggested in a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington, D.C. think tank.

"While some who have lost jobs are covered by unemployment insurance," the report stated, "the benefit levels in the three states hardest hit by the hurricane are the lowest in the nation; the average unemployment benefit in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama equals only about half of the income needed to raise a family of four to the poverty line. Due to the extent of poverty and job losses among families displaced by Katrina, many will be able to secure stable housing only with government assistance. The nation consequently faces a transitional housing challenge that far exceeds anything it has confronted in the past."

One meaning of that reality is that the nation will be dealing with not only the complexity of rebuilding the Gulf's physical infrastructure for years to come, it will also need to attend to setting a significant segment of its "human capital" on solid footing as well.

Neither duty can be shirked.

Donna Brazile had it right. America can't afford Katrina fatigue. There's too much work to do.

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