Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan ("It's the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot"), Nyler tells me what she is nervous about. "I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back." "Why not?" I ask, a little surprised to be discussing reconstruction politics with a preteen in pigtails. "Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone."Ms. Klein goes on to make the point quite dramatically:
I don't have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighborhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city. An hour earlier I had interviewed New Orleans' top corporate lobbyist, Mark Drennen. As president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., Drennen was in an expansive mood, pumped up by signs from Washington that the corporations he represents--everything from Chevron to Liberty Bank to Coca-Cola--were about to receive a package of tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations so generous it would make the job of a lobbyist virtually obsolete.
Listening to Drennen enthuse about the opportunities opened up by the storm, I was struck by his reference to African-Americans in New Orleans as "the minority community." At 67 percent of the population, they are in fact the clear majority, while whites like Drennen make up just 27 percent. It was no doubt a simple verbal slip, but I couldn't help feeling that it was also a glimpse into the desired demographics of the new-and-improved city being imagined by its white elite, one that won't have much room for Nyler or her neighbors who know how to fix houses. "I honestly don't know and I don't think anyone knows how they are going to fit in," Drennen said of the city's unemployed.
New Orleans is already displaying signs of a demographic shift so dramatic that some evacuees describe it as "ethnic cleansing."
What Drennen doesn't say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans' poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built. Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate--17.4 percent, according to the 2000 Census. At that time 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market hasn't improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still there and still vacant. It's much the same in the other dry areas: With landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents, the French Quarter has been half-empty for years, with a vacancy rate of 37 percent.Which may explain this part of the Bush "recovery" plan:
Two days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans to issue emergency vouchers aimed at helping poor storm victims find new housing quickly by covering as much as $10,000 of their rent.In fact, the presentation of the plan is so blunt in this article, it's worth quoting at length:
But the department suddenly backed away from the idea after White House aides met with senior HUD officials. Although emergency vouchers had been successfully used after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the administration focused instead on a plan for government-built trailer parks, an approach that even many Republicans say would concentrate poverty in the very fashion the government has long sought to avoid.
A similar struggle has occurred over how to provide healthcare to storm victims. White House officials are quietly working to derail a proposal by leading Republican and Democratic senators to temporarily expand Medicaid. Instead, the administration is pushing a narrower plan that would not commit the government to covering certain groups of evacuees.
As President Bush tackles the monumental task of easing the social problems wrought by Katrina, he is proving deeply reluctant to use some of the big-government tools at his disposal, apparently out of fear of permanently enlarging programs that he opposes or has sought to cut.Bush, of course, is not tackling the "monumental task of easing the social problems wrought by Katrina." I think he's absolutly incapable of it, almost constitutionally unable to do so. And those problems are beyond the ken of even this article. Ms. Klein is much closer to the mark: housing is available now, but it will not be allowed to "those people." When even Newt Gingrich criticizes the plan as disastrous, you know it's bad. But it's still worse than that: it's a cultural matter.
Instead of depending on long-running programs for such services as housing and healthcare, the president has generally tried to create new, one-shot efforts that the administration apparently hopes will more easily disappear after the crisis passes. That has meant relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has run virtually all of the recovery effort.
"FEMA can help fill some immediate needs after a disaster, like giving grants to help people repair their roofs or pay for temporary housing," said John P. Sucich, a former senior FEMA official who oversaw the recovery from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. "But it is not the agency to turn to to ensure the kinds of continuing help that families need to begin putting their lives back together.
"That's what the rest of government is for," Sucich said.
At least in the case of housing, critics say that the president's unwillingness to rely on existing programs could raise costs. Instead of offering $10,000 vouchers, FEMA is paying an average of $16,000 for each trailer in the new parks it is contemplating. Even many Republicans wonder why the government would want to build trailer parks when many evacuees are now living in communities with plenty of vacant, privately owned apartments.
"The idea that — in a community where we could place people in the private housing market to reintegrate them into society — we would put them in [trailer] ghettos with no jobs, no community, no future, strikes me as extraordinarily bad public policy, and violates every conservative principle that I'm aware of," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
"If they do it," Gingrich said of administration officials, "they will look back on it six months from now as the greatest disaster of this administration."
Yesterday evening the priest told a small gathering that Katrina showed us that "there's more of them than us." "Us," of course, being people with money, with credit cards, with cars (often one per family member; the roads in Houston were clogged not just by evacuees, but by families trying to save a car for every eligible driver. Our affluence is killing us, physically as well as spiritually). She pointed out she voted Republican, like most of the people there, and even defended Bush's response to Katrina (she blamed local officials). But still, we cannot ignore the poor forever, she said. Not harsh words at all, but strong enough to make one person "break the fourth wall" and address her point, argue with her. I had that happen to me, once, as a student pastor. It shook her up, but she pressed her point. She told the story of a woman who entered a small church, and was invited to communion that Sunday by the pastor. "Everyone is invited?" she asked. Yes, said the pastor, everyone is invited. "And what does it cost?," she asked. Well, replied the pastor, not less than everything.
The sad truth is, the cost is nothing. It's the way we are living now, that costs us everything. All of our energy is expended in keeping other people away from us, in taking as much from them as we can and keeping it for ourselves, and in fearing and denying that they outnumber us, and could take it all away from us, if they chose. That's what all the false stories of looting in New Orleans were about. Fear; fear not of a "black planet," but of a poor planet. Fear that is is true, and that it is our system that is at fault, the society we have so carefully arranged, the culture we have so assiduously passed on: fear that, in the end, we are indeed responsible for one another.
And fear that a day of reckoning will come. Fear that, knowing the poor will always be with us is an indictment, not an excuse.