By Tracie L. Washington, Esq.
Director/Counsel, Louisiana Justice Institute
There was an odd sense of relief in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast as we approached this sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We had survived another year without a major storm. But that joy is always saddened by our memories of those loved ones lost and those remaining who still struggle to return to their communities, some of which are not yet rebuilt. Further, we sat fixated by scenes of the onset of Hurricane Irene, knowing as few others in our nation, what our fellow Americans will face in the coming months and years as they work tirelessly to rebuild their communities.
Hurricane Katrina exposed is that we are a nation vulnerable to disasters, both natural and man-made. And many of the inadequacies in our social/public infrastructure – exacerbated by persistent and generational racial and economic disparities – make these disasters even more devastating. Notwithstanding the wrangling and hyperbole of our current national political troupe, what we know certainly is that this nation needs a social safety net, because when our infrastructures fail, communities cannot rebuild on their own.
Lessons of Hurricane Katrina begin with understanding that as a nation we must revise and then codify a standard of care for rebuilding communities after disaster and displacement of people. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the federal law that is implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), places almost all disaster response, including emergency medical assistance and the reduction of life-threatening risks, 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. “The numerous governmental barriers to recovery – from the demolition of affordable housing, lack of employment, inadequate home repair grants, closing of schools and hospitals to racial inequalities in flood protection – are allowed under this flawed statute.”
Our new standard of care must establish the duties of the federal government and the rights of those individuals harmed and displaced by disaster, to ensure recovery of people and communities. These rights must include and range from voluntarily choosing to return home to all forms of humanitarian assistance, such as housing, food, health care, education, and other social services.
To our fellow Americans all along the East Coast, many of whom find themselves displaced and struggling to simply survive, when faced with seemingly insurmountable barriers– Take Heed of our Hurricane Katrina Lessons. You must demand there be changes made to the Stafford Act to guarantee your right to full recovery and our federal government’s duty to assist you in this effort. And we, your fellow Americans – Hurricane Katrina survivors – will continue to share our lessons learned.
Tracie L. Washington, Esq. is a member of Katrina Citizens Leadership Corps. Along with Monique Harden, Esq., Director, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Tracie co-authored the report “What it Takes to Rebuild a Village After a Disaster: Stories from Internally Displaced Children and Families of Hurricane Katrina and Their Lessons for Our Nation,” which was commissioned by the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional and Louisiana Offices.