Realities of poverty and devastation in the Katrina-affected Gulf are still unchanged

It’s a long way from the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills to the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish, La., and the divide is more than geographic.

Having participated in the Milken Conference in April and traveled to Plaquemines two weeks later, I was struck by the chasm between the viewpoints expressed in these two locales, a divide that I believe underscores one of the most significant challenges to full and meaningful recovery for the Gulf region.

While businesspeople and politicians tout the resurrection of tourism, as well as the strong Gulf business climate and plans for cutting-edge educational reform, families like those who worship at the Mount Olive Baptist Church confront a stunning failure to rebuild the low-income residential communities wiped out by the storms.

The utter devastation that still exists in the low-income neighborhoods of New Orleans and the surrounding rural areas stands in marked contrast to the revitalization discussed in boardrooms: In these poor areas it looks as if the storms just hit, and the vast majority of the families who lived in them are no closer to coming home than they were immediately following the disaster. The policy leaders paint an optimistic picture.

It was tempting to leave the late-April Milken Conference panel on “Rebuilding After Katrina” with a genuine sense of encouragement. In the midst of this conference of Nobel laureates, business titans and national political figures, the loftiness of the credentials of this panel were rivaled only by that of their optimism about the future of the Gulf region.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, described New Orleans’ schools as being in the midst of the most significant and exciting educational transformation in the United States. Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana lieutenant governor, agreed that nearly 90 percent of the businesses in the region are doing the same or better than before the storms. And everyone was excited about a plan to turn the New Orleans’ waterfront into a modern, world-class center of culture and commerce.

Yet, alarmingly, the rebuilding of residential communities in the Gulf region seemed to be entirely off their radar screens. When repeatedly questioned about this, they did not identify any plan for repairing or replacing housing and could not describe any progress to date. Eventually, they mustered a vague response calling for a new federal “Marshall Plan” for the Gulf, Plaquemines Parish and New Orleans’ “Lower Nine.”

Beginning in September 2005, Bet Tzedek Legal Services helped spearhead a major initiative to assist evacuees from the Gulf region. More than 2,500 families came to Southern California after the storms, yet many seemed to leave as quickly as they arrived, often without any forwarding address or phone number.

As we read reports of local government permitting people to return to previously sealed areas, we assumed that many of the families we helped had gone home.

In fact, the stark reality is that less than half of New Orleans’ low-income families and fewer than 25 percent of rural Louisianans are back in their homes.

People like Mt. Olive Pastor Ted Turner (not to be confused with media mogul Ted Turner who spoke at the Milken Conference) are still waiting in cramped FEMA trailers or with extended family and friends miles away from their homes and communities. Many homes remain uninhabitable but undemolished, while others like Turner’s have nothing left but the foundation.

Two weeks after the Milken Conference, I traveled with Reboot and Jewish Funds for Justice to Louisiana. We started the trip in Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost tip of Louisiana, a peninsula barely a mile wide between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

We stayed for two nights with Turner at his church and strapped on safety glasses and masks to help rebuild a congregant’s house. We toured neighborhoods utterly leveled by the storms and saw schools and supermarkets whose frames remained standing but whose interiors were torn to shreds. We saw giant shrimp boats sitting on top of each other on dry land hundreds of yards from their moorings.

It was a very different picture than the one described by the panel at the Milken Conference.

Turner told us that the parish is a wonderful place to live. His great-grandfather was a slave in Plaquemines, and he himself was born there.

It’s a place where people stop their cars to say “hi,” with an active oil refinery that still employs many parish residents. Turner had managed to rebuild his church, but, like many others we met, his insurance has refused to pay to rebuild his home, and he is faced with the threat of foreclosure. We couldn’t help but note that the lender would be foreclosing on a slab of concrete where the pastor’s family home once stood.

We also traveled to the Lower Nine, where the devastation was similarly vast.

On blocks that were not wiped entirely clean, crumbling houses leaned against each other and awaited demolition. Aside from the 10 or so new, pastel-colored homes in Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village, it seemed like nothing had happened since the storm, aside from the partial removal of the debris that once coated the streets, sidewalks and roofs.

In Plaquemines, the failure to rebuild could be based on benign neglect; worse still, in the Lower Nine, the lack of restoration seems to have been by design: Until late March, just a month before our visit, the recovery manager of New Orleans had slated this historically residential area to be returned to wetlands. Only after significant pressure from community organizers and residents did he announce his intention to rebuild this area. The plan has not yet been specified.

Where is the leadership?