Hurricane Katrina’s Continuing Crisis

By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League

Throughout the stricken Gulf region, the flood waters are receding, civil order has been restored, and in some places, residents are being allowed to return to their damaged—or "disappeared"—neighborhoods and homes.

But even a cursory glance at the stories in the nation's newspapers, or a half-hearing of radio and television news reveals the deep scars that Hurricane Katrina has gouged across the lush coastal region and the lives of many of its people.

I suspect this catastrophe has pushed the American nation into uncharted territory in many ways, a notion brought home to me by a gripping story in the September 12 Washington Post describing the extraordinary challenges confronting the Gulf rescue operation.

"The sheer geographic extent of the calamity, covering 90,000 square miles of Gulf coast," the report noted at one point, "with floodwaters containing gasoline, chemicals and human and animal waste, and a complete meltdown of the region's communications networks are only the most obvious difficulties in a search and rescue effort now nearing two weeks."

This bizarre scene, it added, "has presented even the most seasoned search and rescue workers with logistical, medical and safety challenges that far surpass those of any U.S. disaster the veterans here can recall. The story quoted one rescue worker plying the flood waters of St. Bernard's Parish just east of New Orleans: "I don't think I've ever had a more surreal experience in my life."

Imagine what the victims of the Hurricane's full force and its aftermath are feeling.

Furthermore, there remain reports from many quarters that substantial relief aid has yet to reach many stricken poor rural communities and urban neighborhoods in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The pleas for help—and the anger that help has not yet arrived—is as bitter as it was in the first agonizing days after Hurricane Katrina hit.

By now, many have noted that in its devastating wake, Hurricane Katrina has made visible what had, for many, again become invisible—the coruscating impact of race and class and poverty on life in America.

It was surely Fate that the hurricane struck just days after the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report on income, poverty and health insurance.

The Census report showed that, despite America's general economic recovery, the bottom has literally fallen out from under millions more Americans in the past five years: Four million more Americans are living in poverty than before the economic recession of 2001, meaning that now there are 37 million Americans in poverty; and 4.6 million more Americans could no longer afford their health insurance, pushing that total figure to 45.8 million.

The import of those figures was then underscored by the demographic profile the Associated Press published September 4 of residents in the three dozen neighborhoods in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana hardest-hit by the storm.

The AP analysis, based on Census data, determined that those living in these neighborhoods were predominantly people of color and were twice as likely to be poorer than the national average and to not own a car.

For example: Twenty percent of these neighborhoods' residents didn't own a car; the national average is 10 percent. Nearly 25 percent of these residents had incomes below the poverty line, almost double the national average. One in 200 American households doesn't have adequate plumbing—running hot and cold water, a shower or bath, and an indoor toilet. In these neighborhoods, the figure was 1 in 100 households. The indicators of poverty were even worse in particular neighborhoods in New Orleans, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and in Mobile, Alabama.

University of South Carolina historian Dan Carter told the AP such figures shouldn't be surprising, but that usually there's "not a lot of interest in (issues of poverty), except when there's something dramatic. By and large, the poor are simply out of sight, out of mind."

As I'm sure Professor Carter intended, there's America's inspiration, challenge—and obligation.

Now, as the drama of this issue begins inevitably to be transformed into the seemingly more mundane work of recovery and reconstruction, let America not forget what—and who—has been made visible again in America. Let Americans turn their minds and hands to the work needed to put our fellow Americans back on their feet and, for those that need it, to giving them the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

One resident of New Orleans who had been trapped at the city's convention center for five days after the storm told the AP, "Let them know we're not bums. We have houses. Our houses were destroyed. We have jobs. It's not our fault that we didn't have cars to leave."

Now, in the wake of this great storm, is America looking? Is America listening?

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