I hesitate to talk in broad, general terms about tragedies of others; because to do that, to me, offends the personal nature of grief. So, please, please, excuse me for expressing hope, in the midst of such destruction brought on by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Because I do believe if there was ever a moment in time for Americans to be brought together to work for our own common good, it is now.
Joseph Campbell once said, paraphrased, “Save yourself and you save the world.” Well, I want to do what I can to make sure the ideas presented below are carried out. I want the people of the Gulf Coast to have direct involvement in the rebuilding of their lives.
We’ll be stronger as a people if that happens.
“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster,” Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical journal Sojourner’s, told a Washington Post reporter last week.
He was, of course, referring to the stunning way the fury of Hurricane Katrina and the slow start-up of the governmental response laid bare in stark, tragic terms the profound, corrosive poverty that still exists in America–and which in the Gulf region literally left many poor residents facing a wrenching physical suffering.
The effects of poverty there that millions in America and around the world could see with their own eyes thanks to the news photographs and television reports were underscored by two statistical reports that were published amid the devastation.
One, released in late August just before the hurricane struck, was the annual report of the U.S. Census Bureau on income, poverty and health insurance. It showed that, despite America’s general economic recovery, the bottom has literally fallen out from under millions more Americans in the past five years.
For example, four million more Americans were living in poverty in 2004 than before the economic recession of 2001 (1.1 million of whom fell below the poverty level in 2003 alone), meaning that now there are 37 million Americans in poverty.
The import of those figures was then underscored by the demographic profile of residents in the three dozen neighborhoods in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana hardest-hit by the storm the Associated Press published September 4.
Using Census data, the AP determined that sixty percent of 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: Nearly 25 percent of these residents had incomes below the poverty line, almost double the national average; and, while one in 200 American households doesn’t have adequate indoor plumbing, in these neighborhoods, the figure was 1 in 100 households. The indicators of poverty were even worse in some 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.”
Philosopher Cornel West said much the same in an interview for the British newspaper, The Observer. “It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty,” he remarked. “It happens about once every 30 to 40 years.”
We could say that some in America have long been trying to direct America’s attention to the persistence of poverty. Our own publication, “The State of Black America,” has had plenty of company in reminding the nation that the war on poverty the federal government mounted in the 1960s has never ended.
Now, apparently, more segments of American society have seen what had become invisible amid the nation’s rising affluence and overall economic recovery.
President Bush in his speech in New Orleans last week pledged “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen” for the Gulf region and declared his administration “will do what it takes [and] stay as long as it takes to help [its citizens] rebuild their communities and their lives.”
The task ahead, still yet to be fully glimpsed, is one of extraordinary complexity.
But certainly the overriding principle local, state and federal governments must adhere to is fairness–fairness in the distribution of relief funds to individuals, families and businesses, fairness in enabling those who want to return to their communities do so, and fairness in involving Gulf residents in every aspect of the planning and execution–from strategy to jobs to contracts and procurement–the reconstruction effort requires.
In addition, the National Urban League has proposed a Victims Bill of Rights which recommends guidelines Congress should take to protect the victims and ease their burdens–including a victims compensation fund (as was done for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) for the hundreds of thousands of citizens injured, killed and displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Congress should also provide meaningful federal disaster unemployment assistance to every worker–estimated to be at least half a million–left jobless by this tragedy. And it must ensure that the hundreds of thousands of displaced Gulf citizens continue to have full voting rights in their home states and districts, so that they can have a proper voice in the rebuilding of their communities.
The crisis Hurricane Katrina has left in its wake has ironically also produced an extraordinary opportunity to make life better for all of its victims and for all Americans, too. It’s an opportunity our nation can’t afford to waste.
Marc H. Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League. His column is published weekly.