Bracing for the next Katrina

By Michelle Chen Jul 09, 2009

Four years after its disastrous response to the Gulf Coast hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency still doesn’t have a basic plan to provide shelter for catastrophe-stricken communities. Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner testified at a House hearing on Wednesday that the agency’s capacity for providing housing falls well short of what’s needed to help people rebuild their lives. Yet his testimony points to the underlying housing crisis that Katrina amplified:

The repair and restoration of existing housing stocks is one of the most important challenges FEMA and its response and recovery partners face following a catastrophic housing disaster. All other housing decisions and programs hinge on this single variable. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was simply not enough affordable housing left to allow many victims to remain near their communities. The Brookings Institution reported that in the months following Hurricane Katrina, the population of New Orleans might have fallen by as much as half. It’s not that people wanted to relocate outside the area; there just wasn’t enough housing to support the population.

The crippling housing shortage didn’t begin with the hurricane. A deep lack of affordable rental homes in New Orleans existed prior to the storm and continues through the hobbling rebuilding efforts, and on the national level, the same trend is more apparent than ever in the outcry over the foreclosure epidemic and other crises assaulting poor and segregated neighborhoods. The hearing raised an issue beyond the scope of emergency management: how to manage the aspirations and opportunities at stake in the aftermath of disaster.

when housing stocks are destroyed and have little prospect for quick repair, FEMA, state, and local officials should clearly communicate to stakeholders that there is not enough housing stock for everyone and that some will need to relocate to other communities. This will help individuals and families begin to rebuild their lives.

How does this square with the political clamor over the disenfranchised groups who have been frustrated by and shut out of the rebuilding process? Not long after Katrina hit, Xavier de Souza Briggs of MIT explored the fraught politics and moral ambivalence of mass displacement and collective healing:

the “right to return” should be reaffirmed, but it will be rhetorical in lieu of secure legal and financial supports…. rebuilding lives in particular places, including the places evacuated, should reflect the mixed evidence on how poverty is linked to place, and people to the social worlds around them, not Potemkin Village notions of socially cohesive poor neighborhoods.

Whatever kind of post-Katrina city ultimately emerges, the hardest-hit (poorer and blacker) communities will remain displaced, psychologically and spatially. Souza’s central argument is that any rebuilding effort should revolve around self-determination and informed decisions, combined with a sustained public commitment to making survivors whole. Had the Gulf Coast recovery process been more inclusive from the start, we’d have a clearer understanding of what the poor and people of color had to lose or gain in the rebuilding effort. But with the storm’s ferocious momentum now dulled to political inertia, we may never know… until maybe the next disaster strikes. Image: Shawn Escofferey, Rockefeller Foundation New Orleans Initiative (via NPR)