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Chris Kromm

On the Gulf Coast after Katrina

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Chris Kromm
  • Chris Kromm

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, people living on the Gulf Coast have little hope that the federal government will help them rebuild. Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, based in Durham, discusses the failed recovery, which is detailed in an August/September 2007 institute report, "Blueprint for Gulf Renewal: The Katrina Crisis and a Community Agenda for Action."

Where do things stand?

We were down on the Gulf Coast two weeks ago. What's so shocking when you drive from New Orleans to Biloxi, you see just miles and miles of utter devastation. I don't think this is what the national public thinks is happening. But it's a horrifying situation. Over 60,000 people are still in "temporary" FEMA trailers. Countless schools, hospitals and homes are shuttered. The levees aren't even rebuilt in New Orleans. Across the board, this has been a failed recovery.

What is the federal government doing wrong?

Whenever he's been confronted with how badly the recovery is going, Bush always says, we've written a big check. The figure is $116 billion. In this report, we did the most detailed analysis to date about what really happened to that money. The results were shocking. Most of that money was just for short-term relief: the Coast Guard, debris removal, emergency needs. That leaves only 30 percent for all of these long-term recovery needs that are necessary for the Gulf to get back on its feet. Of that 30 percent, up to half of it is still bottled up in bureaucracy somewhere and hasn't even been spent.

The first priority is for Washington to exercise some leadership and get that money to the people who need it the most. But the Bush administration's approach, which we call trickle-down recovery, is based mainly on giving tax breaks and deals to corporations and special interests and hoping that will find its way to those most in need. For instance, the Gulf Opportunity, or GO Zones, is a $3.5 billion program in tax breaks. People apply with the idea to jumpstart a business in the 91 distressed counties and parishes. To date, one project has received GO Zone tax break funding in New Orleans. Meanwhile, a developer is getting a $1 million tax break to build luxury condos next to the University of Alabama football stadium, four hours from the coast.

What needs to happen?

On the Gulf Coast they're still 100,000 jobs short of what they had before Katrina. During the Great Depression, in two months the government created 2 million jobs with the Works Progress Administration to repair thousands of schools and hospitals across the country. A lot of the Gulf leaders we talked to say, Let's take a page out of history and create a Gulf Civic Works program. We estimate that for less than $4 billion—half of what we spend in Iraq every month—we could create 100,000 jobs paying $15 an hour to get people back to work, get them rebuilding their communities and revive the local economy.

What else are you hearing from people on the ground?

They're completely overwhelmed. What you hear time and time again is that these organizations are shocked at the desperation they see in these people. We interviewed 40 Gulf Coast leaders for this report, and every one of them said that the bulk of assistance they received has been from private charities and organizations—not the Red Cross, which is still looked upon poorly by people on the Gulf Coast because they failed as much as FEMA did in the wake of the storms, but church groups, nonprofits, a whole array of private charities have led both in terms of relief and also supporting the recovery. When we went to the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward, they didn't have much good to say about FEMA, but they had a lot good to say about Brad Pitt, who's sponsoring a green rebuilding initiative, Global Green, to build affordable houses there that are stronger and more sustainable.

Correction (Sept. 17, 2007): The University of Alabama football stadium is four hours from the coast.

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