By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League
As we Americans begin the arduous task of recovering from the wreckage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the devastating earthquake in Pakistan and the floods and mudslides triggered by furious rainstorms in Guatemala are terrible reminders that momentous natural calamities can occur to any people, to any nation, at any time.
Millions of Americans, too, now know what it is to be marooned amid widespread destruction and to look around and realize that, suddenly, all that is left of the many places and people that made up one's life are memories.
Hurricane Katrina caused the most damage: It literally washed away my hometown of New Orleans—and the hometowns of thousands of others throughout the Gulf Coast.
But, in the wake of the disaster, the American people's compassion and inventive generosity shone brightly.
I saw that inspiring response firsthand on Labor Day when I visited the Houston Astrodome with former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, and saw how a great city and hundreds of its citizens opened their hearts to those in need.
I was hopeful then—and I remain hopeful—that the American people, having seen the unmistakable, glaring inequities of poverty, realize now is the time to not only rebuild the Gulf region but to confront all the dimensions of the problems Hurricane Katrina laid bare.
This is a seminal moment in American history. We have the opportunity not just to build new buildings and stronger levees but to correct the mistakes of the past and make the Gulf region a place where there really is equal opportunity for all.
Part of the National Urban League's contribution to the effort is to propose a "Katrina Bill of Rights"—a framework for the actions that Congress should take now to protect the victims and ease their burdens.
The Katrina Bill of Rights is based on the principle that the citizens of the Gulf Coast, no matter where they are now, have: the right to federal aid in their effort to recover from the hurricane; the right to vote in the jurisdictions from which they were driven; the right to return to their places of residence; the right to take part in the rebuilding of the Gulf region; and the right to be helped in their pursuit of a meaningful opportunity to work.
Thus, first, Congress must establish a Katrina Victims Compensation Fund, as it did for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to compensate those Americans throughout the Gulf region who have lost most or all of their possessions and their livelihoods. Congress should also provide federal disaster unemployment assistance to the half-million people there who've lost jobs because of the storm.
Second, we must ensure that the hundreds of thousands displaced from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi continue to have full voting rights in their home states so that they have the voice they want in the rebuilding of their communities.
Third, precisely because the Gulf now faces the extraordinary challenge of reconstructing a ruined infrastructure and gathering its displaced population—a significant number of whom lived in desperate poverty—we must not "pay for Katrina" by cutting Medicaid, increasing Medicare premiums, and gutting rural economic development efforts.
Instead, we should give local residents first choice on reconstruction jobs and contracts—with the goal that 50 percent of all contracts should go to local contractors and 40 percent of all contracts should go to minority contractors: because there's no better anti-poverty program than a good job.
To insure that all those now displaced can afford to return home, Congress should institute a federal tax holiday for three years for those with annual incomes under $50,000 a year; and it should protect homeowners and others from negative financial consequences directly caused by the hurricanes.
We also must ensure that fair wages are paid and fairness in the workplace is upheld: the prevailing wage and affirmative action laws which have been suspended must be restored. Civil rights and equality of opportunity are not "red tape" to be cut when times are tough. There should be no more federal contracts granted until these guarantees are put back in place.
Obviously, I can do little in this space but sketch the breadth of the suggestions our Katrina Bill of Rights offers.
What's most important is to not lose sight of what's at stake here.
Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the landscape of the Gulf region, and revealed the lack of opportunity and the poverty that afflicts far too many there.
Now, America has the chance to set things right, to rebuild a treasured part of our country so that it lives up to the nation's highest ideals.
The great effort that will require can be an example of the nation we want to—and can—become.
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