Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Promises are Made to be Broken: A Rights-Based Solution to Katrina Recovery

August 29, 2009
Atlanta, Georgia
Speech to Katrina Citizens Leadership Corps
on the 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

Good morning. Thank you, Yolanda Adams, for that warm introduction. More so, thank you Yolanda for your steadfast leadership as the Atlanta coordinator for the Katrina Citizens Leadership Corps.

I was introduced to KCLC only last year, when Mary Joseph and Oleta Fitzgerald – two of our modern-day Deep South Social Justice Giants – invited me to one of their convenings in New Orleans. How many of you have ever attended a Children’s Defense Fund convening? Powerful, aren’t they?

If Rush Limbaugh attended one of these meetings at Haley Farm, he’d convert. Become an Obamaholic. Might even begin preaching the healthcare ‘single-payer’ option.

Y’all know a Haley Farm meeting is life changing.

Anyway, I was overwhelmed by the camaraderie of these mostly New Orleans natives, and marveled in knowing my neighbors and friends – no matter how far displaced from home – still retained the essence of this region’s spirit: a dogged determination to survive despite any barriers placed in our paths.

Today, I want to talk about needing more than survival. Why more than survival? Well because we were promised more than survival.

Travel back with me to September 15, 2005. President Bush stood that evening in the middle of Jackson Square, in front of St. Louis Cathedral.

Do you remember that night and that speech?

And Mr. Bush made several promises to the people of the Gulf Coast. I know you all remember that speech. Let me read to you his third promise:

“Our third commitment is this: When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

And President Bush then continued with that for me was a life-altering pledge –

“So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created. Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive; not just to cope, but to overcome. We want evacuees to come home, for the best of reasons – because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love.”

It is now four years later, and the No. 1 question from everyone – Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, my driver to the hotel last night – that No. 1 question is “How’s New Orleans doing?”

I’ve been a bit irreverent in my response lately. “New Orleans,” I say “is like a well coiffed, well manicured, well dressed woman who doesn’t take care of herself.”

Oh, her hair is fierce, like the Superdome one year after the storm. The bent metal was laid bone-straight. The dome was slick and shinny, like newly sprayed as Afro-sheen.

And don’t talk about her nails. Perfect. No chips. No peels. Just drive down Canal Street. We have some of the most ‘horticulturally-correct” palm trees outside of Palm Springs. The sidewalks aren’t cracked.

Finally, let’s not forget the outfit. St. John Knit with Ferragamo matching pumps and bag, baby. Our French Quarter homes and Garden District mansions never looked better.

But this well coiffed well manicured well dressed woman, smokes like a chimney and drinks like a sailor. Unhealthy. No way to live.

And so closes the parallel with New Orleans. On the outside, in some places, we look good. Real good. But the statistics show degenerating health:

0. Number of renters in Louisiana who have received financial assistance from the $10 billion federal post-Katrina rebuilding program Road Home Community Development Block Grant – compared to 116,708 homeowners.

0. Number of hospitals in New Orleans providing in-patient mental healthcare as of September 2009 despite post-Katrina increases in suicides and mental health problems.

11.9. Percent reduction in employment in the professional and business services in Louisiana.

18. Percent reduction in employment in the education and health services industry in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina

35. Percent of child care facilities re-opened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

50. Ranking of Louisiana among states for overall healthcare.

30,396. Number of children who have not returned to public school in New Orleans since Katrina.

And these figures mimic those in Gulf Coast Mississippi and Alabama communities ravaged by Katrina. So sure we look good, but we are not a healthy region, a long way from the beloved communities promised by President Bush.

It is why those promises have not been met that is the focus of – WHAT IT TAKES TO REBUILD A VILLAGE AFTER A DISASTER, the title of the KCLC report. Why have so many of our students not returned to our schools? Why is our healthcare situation in a state of chaos? Why are renters suffering from oppressively high rents, easily double the pre-Katrina rates?

Why? Because ladies and gentlemen, an elected officials’ promise means absolutely nothing unless a ‘right’ is bestowed along with it; and the people of the Gulf Coast who suffered as a result of Katrina had no right to recovery.

I’m going to pause for a moment, because I want you to hear my words again. The people who suffered from the most impressive natural and man-made disaster to befall the United States have no right to recovery.

Recover from disaster is governed by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act, a federal law implemented by FEMA. The Stafford Act places almost all disaster response, at the discretion of the President of the United States, and explicitly denies an individual harmed by a natural disaster the legal right to claim assistance or compensation for loss. Under the Stafford Act, people affected by natural disasters are subjected to widely different governmental responses as chosen by presidents and negotiated on agreements or waivers.

A president can break a promise – intentionally or by benign neglect. I state governor can fail to obtain a waiver, due to ignorance or malevolence.

But a right to recovery is not dependent upon the shim of one man, or the competence of another. This is a right to which all internally displaced people would be entitled pursuant to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These principles establish the duties of national governments and the rights of displaced people for the purpose of ending displacement and ensuring the recovery of people and communities.

The duties of national governments, range from preventing or at least mitigating the conditions that can cause displacement, prohibiting any form of ethnic cleansing that alters the racial, ethnic, or religious composition of an area where displacement occurs, and providing specific assistance to displaced persons that includes, but is not limited to housing, education, and healthcare.

The rights of individuals include, but are not limited to, voluntarily choosing to return home, integrate in the area where evacuated, or resettle elsewhere in the country, as well as a right to humanitarian assistance, such as housing, food, healthcare, education, and other social services for the duration of their displacement.

It is a right to more than just survival.

The subtitle of the KCLC Report “Stories from Internally Displaced Children and Families of Hurricane Katrina and their Lessons for Our Nation” foretells what you will hear today. You will hear the story of Maude Perryman, a 65 year old grandmother who asked “Where do I go from here?” after being relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, where she is raising four grandchildren without any assistance. It’s the story of Zeneta Jones who finally settled in Snellville, Georgia, having moved several times with her husband and 4 year old son, while still struggling each month to pay for food, education, and healthcare. And it’s the stories of David Graham, and Bandaka and Lyle Soule, and Shirly Scieneaux, and Cora Murray.

These are the stories of the Katrina diaspora. Their poignant struggles with employment, cultural adjustment, healthcare, school systems, childcare and housing are struggles that cannot go unnoticed as we try to rebuild houses and communities, which cannot be rebuilt without them.

I leave you with the words of President Bush, also delivered on September 15, 2005. “This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We’re going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature or act of evil men that could threaten our people.”

So, not from Mr. Bush, but form our Katrina Citizens Leadership Corps, I deliver to you the Lessons for our Nation. By exceeding the greatness of his words with their own resurrection and resolve, we are Called to Act, to reform our laws and ensure no other United States resident suffers in this way again.

Thank you.

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