Last week, Bush took a tour through the Gulf Coast, making promises to move the recovery process along. His recovery czar, Don Powell, tried to do damage control for the Administration’s continuing PR problem with Katrina, emphasizing that this was Bush’s 14th visit to check up on the region.
But the prez himself sounded decidedly underwhelmed with the situation in his own sound bytes. “To the extent we can, we’ll help,” Bush said, and then enjoyed Creole cuisine in the French Quarter.
The Bush Administration, abetted in the media coverage, has largely gotten away with portraying the debacle in the Gulf Coast as a problem of bureuacratic red tape. That’s why people were left behind during the flood, and now that’s why many communities remain abandoned and cut off from the billions in aid appropriated for them - because of red tape and big government bureaucracies.
It’s an easy, neat target to blame. We can all relate directly to the chaos and headaches posed by red tape in our own lives. And make no mistake, that has been an important part of the Gulf Coast problem, holding up everything from vouchers and trailers for people who need them to grants for homeowners to rebuild.
But this portrayal obscures something else that’s going on. With every contract awarded to Halliburton and other corporations, with casinos going up faster in Biloxi than housing and developers converging on the New Orleans downtown and riverfront, with police and ICE to regulate a disposable migrant work force, the rebuilding effort becomes more and more a bonanza for profit-making.
Not only is it an opportunity for enrichment, it’s a chance to hammer the nails into the coffin of New Deal and Great Society programs for the poor - Section-8 and public housing - and champion privatization as an innovative solution to poverty. What that’s amounted to is clear to anyone visiting New Orleans now, 18 months after the disaster. Condos are going up all over downtown and the French Quarter, and mixed-income housing complexes along the river, but street after street in the Ninth and Seventh Wards remain lined with gutted houses. Rents have gone up 70 percent, if you’re lucky enough to find an apartment available, and the city’s existing public housing is still locked as HUD resists efforts to stop its demolition plans.
We can hope that, with a little more pressure on Bush and initiative from the new Democratic Congress, some momentum will shake loose the recovery aid and make sure it gets to the people in the Gulf Coast. But beyond that, we’ve got to be persistent about exposing the racial inequality perpetuated by policies that have only picked up more steam since Katrina. Nothing less than the principles of a democratic and publicly accountable society are at stake.
For those living in the Gulf Coast’s reality, Wade Rathke of ACORN told me, it’s still “Katrina all the time here.”