Roundtable

Farai Chideya's guests are Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions; Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University. They discuss why some believe Hurricane Katrina evacuees may have worn out their welcome in Houston. They also discuss President Bush's visit to Mexico.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. On today's roundtable, we'll examine why some folks believe Katrina may have worn out their welcome in Houston. Plus, the president's visit to Mexico.

Joining us today from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.: economist and author Julianne Malveaux and Republican strategist Tara Setmayer and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. He's at member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, N.C. Welcome to you all.

Dr. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO, Last Word Productions, Inc.): Thanks, Farai.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So it's been roughly seven months since 200,000 Louisiana residents were left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, but after an increase in crime, long lines at health clinics and bus stops, fights, greater overcrowding in schools, Houston is saying enough is enough. Now, this is a real problem because what choice does Houston have? What choice do these folks who are displaced have? I'm going to start with you, Dr. MALVEAUX.

Dr. MALVEAUX: You know, clearly we've been hearing about the implications of migration from New Orleans; the displacement of a million people, which has had implications for our labor market; implications for the labor market, the education--and as you say, Farai, literally every institution in the places where there are concentrations: Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge--are places that have seen lots. And Houston, I think, has taken so many people that we've heard more about that. Hey, we've got to suck it up. These are American citizens too.

The challenge here seems to me to be that people are not looking at these folks as citizens but, instead, as aliens. And so, what if there were some other kind of disaster where we had to absorb people? We've done it in the past, and we can do it now. I won't accuse Houstonians of being ungenerous because I don't think that that's what the case is. But I think that there has been some dislocation of resources and that the federal government really has dropped the ball here in making sure that those people who've been displaced have their displacement cushioned.

We accepted people who came here from Vietnam, and we've surrounded them with resources. We've accepted from other places and surrounded them with resources. We have not done the same for Katrina survivors, and it's to our shame.

CHIDEYA: Tara, Dr. Malveaux mentions displacement of resources. One example in Houston is that roughly $12 million has been spent by the county hospital system treating people from Louisiana. Only $2 million of that has been reimbursed. Should the federal government step in?

Well, the federal government has stepped in, and there has been significant amounts of money poured into areas like Houston, including a program where 12 months rent was provided for over 80,000 Louisiana residents. It's a full year's rent plus utilities to help people find housing and to get back on their feet. I mean, there is no lack of money.

The problem is here, and we can't always--money isn't always the issue. The money is there. It's a matter of the way in which its managed, the way in which it's dispersed. Is there accountability? We've already seen acts of fraud and wasteful spending--which is the real tragedy here because those are dollars that are earmarked to help these evacuees.

I think what's going on in Houston is--again, not to say that--I think Houston has been a great city. They were more than willing to take on the challenge. Over 150,000 New Orleans' residents went there, and they--60,000 volunteers came out within the first few days to help the evacuees--I mean, Houston has been a wonderful city. But there is also a real element here that despite what some conspiracy theorists may think, the hurricane didn't target a certain group of people. You're going to have the criminal elements and those--the unsavory folks--evacuees are going to go into these cities as well. And I think, you know, Houston is--they cannot be demonized because these are legitimate concerns. Not all evacuees are this way, but it is a legitimate concern. I think it's fair for them to say, okay, do we have a plan. So let's protect Houston.

CHIDEYA: Professor Irvin...

Dr. MALVEAUX: Farai, this is utterly laughable.

CHIDEYA: Oh, it's Julianne.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Let me just interject here. She, Tara has talked about 80,000 people getting 12 months rent, but we've heard the headlines about people being evicted. If 80,000 are getting rent out of a million people displaced, there seems to be a gap there.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, we're talking about Houston.

Dr. MALVEAUX: And this nonsense--just a minute. Just a minute because this is so--I am abhorred by the notion that someone talk about people were not targeted. We know that the poor and the vulnerable were the least able to bounce back, and to talk about criminality in this context literally turns your back on what's happening. If there has been fraud... Michael Brown talked about the fraud. The fraud stems from the White House, from FEMA. It does not stem from these people. Let us not demonize American people who have been displaced and who are now, literally, survivors who are being targeted.

Ms. SETMAYER: And let's not also--just because people have fallen a bad way that was not their fault, but let's not explain certain--the uglier realities of the situation that are now affecting Houston.

Ms. MALVEAUX: The ugly realities are Americans who are turning their backs. That's the ugly reality.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to get Professor Irvin in here before he's froze out.

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Now, what we're talking about here is really the situation in Houston but also the responsibility of the federal government and the issue of crime came up, and in fact, there have been quite a few murders where the victims or the perpetrators were people from Louisiana. Of course, you know, there would have been murders in Houston anyway and murders in Louisiana if those people had remained, but looking ahead, what can you expect a city infrastructure to do? America's cities tend to be pretty overtaxed. What can you expect a city infrastructure to do when it's all of the sudden just swamped.

Prof. IRVIN (professor of future studies at Wake Forest University): Well, let me just say this. I lived in Texas for 10 years, and Houston had a lot of traffic before the Katrina victims came. I remember riding on the 610-K(ph) freeway. You could have a birthday trying to cross town. Houston had a lot of crime. They had a lot of near-do-wells before Katrina came into the town. Public schools weren't that good and, but seriously--and I have a sister who lives in Texas--and I think we could say for sure that the people in Houston have really extended themselves to the folks who came, who as a result of Katrina have had to find new places to live, so I want to say this.

I want to commend the people of Houston for their generosity. They are, after all--I mean, we are all dealing with the humanity of an extraordinary tragedy. And the fact is this that, you know--I don't care who you are, if you are in a house that's built for seven--and then you have people, you have certainly have nine people staying in it--after the second day, the third, you know... The first two days is okay. About the third day, you start to notice it, and this, of course, happened. The fact is we just--people's lives have been turned upside down. Right now, what we need is to just kind of step back and to look and see what role can the state and the federal government do to try to meliorate this situation.

The other thing is this: This is what I think has really clouded the whole issue of how we go about trying to address the problems of major disasters like Katrina. What America suffers from is called the, what I would call the American--it's the ABC show, the extreme makeover phenomenon, the reality show. The kind of notion that somehow you can remake a city in seven or eight months or that--you can't do that. These are difficult issues. Now we find out that it's going to take 25 years. That's the most realistic conversation that I've heard about trying to remake... It's going to take 25 years to redo the city of New Orleans. (Unintelligible) think about that...

CHIDEYA: Professor, let me just jump in.

Prof. IRVIN: Let me just finish this.

CHIDEYA: Okay. Go ahead.

Prof. IRVIN: I'm saying this, Farai. If you think long term, then you can begin to think about how do you build the right kinds of institutions to absorb the huge numbers of people that have come now, unfortunately, into Houston, but you know, this could happen again, so what I'm suggesting finally...

CHIDEYA: What I wanted to jump in on is...

Prof. IRVIN: Go ahead.

CHIDEYA: The whole idea of this could happen again, just to transition you within the same story, new estimates $10 billion it's going to take to rebuild the levees.

Prof. IRVIN: There you go. Just the levees.

CHIDEYA: The federal government has allocated about $3 billion. Now, new estimates say $10 billion. Hurricane season is coming up in just a few months. There's absolutely no way that folks will be protected this hurricane season, but right now the federal government is saying, we don't know where that money's going to come from. These areas may not be protected, period. And I think what's interesting is that Senator...

Prof. IRVIN: That's real interesting.

CHIDEYA: Senator David Vitter, who is a Republican senator from Louisiana, said that the announcement confirmed his warnings since November that Washington is, quote, "stonewalling" and seeking, quote, "way too little money for levy repairs." Now, he is a Republican. He has not been that vocal, always, in criticizing the federal government, but he is now. What's going on there?

Dr. MALVEAUX: Farai, you know...

Prof. IRVIN: Well, I just think--go ahead, Julianne.

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, Professor.

Prof. IRVIN: Is it me?

Dr. MALVEAUX: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, you go ahead and then we'll all get to it.

Prof. IRVIN: Okay, just briefly I would say this. This is a part of the reality that--it takes awhile for some of the politics and then some of the practicality of how do you remake a community like New Orleans, if in fact we way to spend that kind of money. How does--in other words, it takes awhile for the reality to set in for both the people who are being impacted, one. Number two, the policymakers and then, of course, the elected officials. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a matter for the country itself to say what do you do when you've been hit of this magnitude--and again, this could happen again.

Dr. MALVEAUX: You know, Farai, what's frightening when you see the report that the levee-cost of levee rebuilding is nearly triple what's been allocated and you combine that with the fact the Army Corps of Engineers has been calling a clarion call now for at least a decade about the inadequacy of the levees and when you combine that with the billions of dollars that we very willingly pour into Iraq, is that we have some very skewed priorities in this country. The levees have always been a federal responsibility. There's legitimate difference about what the fed should do and state should do, and local...

Prof. IRVIN: Right.

Ms. MALVEAUX: ...governments should do. But that levees have always been a federal responsibility, the feds and it's not just the Bush Administration, frankly if I say a decade, we're talking about other administrations.

Prof. IRVIN: Right.

Ms. MALVEAUX: And falling down on the job. Now to rebuild New Orleans, it requires not only massive sums of money, but also massive political will. And I simply have not seen the political will there. What repulses me, and I can't even use a stronger word, is the way that our nation, our entire nation has turned its back on these people. The legislation on New Orleans is being carried by select subsets of legislators, by people like Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, you know...

Mr. IRVIN: Mm hmmm.

Ms. MALVEAUX: ...not an Ohio Republican, the Congressional Black Caucus. I mean, where are the people who are constantly praying and signing and swaying about rights and responsibility. Suddenly they're missing in action when it comes to these people, citizens, taxpayers. It's just absurd.

CHIDEYA: Tara, let me get you in on this and also just to throw into the mix, apparently, there could be up to five major hurricanes in the Gulf region this year. This is from professors all across the country who are analyzing the situation. So we could really be facing yet another disaster. Tara, what is the responsibility of the federal government?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, first of all I'd like to say I think it's unfair for Julianne to characterize the American people as turning their backs on Hurricane Katrina victims. The outpouring of support and the millions and millions of dollars and the homes that were opened up across this country, not just in Texas and the surrounding states, but all over this country for Katrina victims, has been overwhelming. So to underestimate what the American people have done for their own, I think is shameful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SETMAYER: However, what the federal government response here, is well, thankfully the Louisiana Senators and the, are representing their constituents, it's their job to do that and make sure, they should be the champions of rebuilding and the revitalization effort of their own state, and of their own congressional districts.

The Federal Government needs to find the money to rebuild the levees. We do find money to fund all kinds of other things, like bridges to Alaska, you know, bridges to nowhere in Alaska. We can get the $10 billion that we need to build these levees.

I think where the debate lies, is that there is a contingent that feels as though this may not be a worthy investment, because...

Mr. IRVIN: Right, yeah.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...we've already seen that this is a natural inevitability. Unfortunately, we cannot fight Mother Nature. And I think that there are those that feel, and this sentiment was expressed early on in the debate, even the speaker of the House, had to reluctantly apologize for his suggestion that we may not need to build, rebuild New Orleans, just because of this. A spilled...

CHIDEYA: How do you feel about the issue?

Ms. SETMAYER: I think that, I'm conflicted--because New Orleans has such a rich history and you would hate to see an American city with such value and history lay in ruins. And at the same time do you want to pour in billions of taxpayer dollars into a sinking ship, we just, I don't know I'm conflicted.

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, Farai, we have to rebuild New Orleans. I mean, I think not only do we have to rebuild New Orleans, but we have to assert a responsibility to the citizens that they are American people. There is nothing shameful about pointing out what is going on here. There was an immediate outpouring of support, which was wonderful. And then within two months, people were ragging about Katrina fatigue. Now how you going to be fatigued, when you weren't even in it? You know, I find that very amusing.

Places like Houston and Baton Rouge have basically expanded their boarders and done their best. But the fact is, is that you have, you have 230 bodies, Farai, that still haven't been buried. We had a child that was just, few weeks ago, reunited with her family. We have shut down on these folks. People are saying enough and it hasn't been enough yet.

Look at the ways we look at other parts of the world and pour our resources there. Can we not do that for our own people?

CHIDEYA: Well, the question, I think in many people's minds is, even if the resources go to rebuild New Orleans, what is a city without people? And do we believe that the people who have been New Orleans residents are going to be able to return, if it's going to take so long to rebuild? I think it was you, Professor Irvin, who said 25 years. What's going to happen, I mean folks certainly aren't going to wait a whole generation to return. What's going to happen? In the meantime people are going to start putting down roots aren't they?

Mr. IRVIN: Well they are. And I think that's, that was what my point was, that we're looking at a generational change here. This city will never be the same and you can just look at the public schools, only, I think it's probably a quarter of the public schools have been reopened. That's where the future of the city would come from, young people.

The young people are not moving back there. If I were a family, if I were a young person trying to bring up a young--if my wife and I were much younger, bringing up our children--would we want to move back to New Orleans? No, we don't have time to do that. Children would, you know, would dominate our lives. And in fact, what we're looking at now is the remaking of a city and it take--it will take a generation. We've got to get the long-term perspective on it. And it will require some difficult choices. This is not, this is not going to be easy.

CHIDEYA: Tara.

Mr. IRVIN: This is not ABC's Extreme Makeover.

(Soundbite of laughter):

CHIDEYA: Tara, we only have literally a minute: what can the Federal Government do to tell people in the U.S., who are already burdened by the Iraq War and other expenses, you're going to have to pony up and pay some money for this New Orleans rebuilding?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well I think that, I mean unless there, are you asking me should the federal government add a new tax or higher taxes?

CHIDEYA: Well should the federal government say, this is going to cost you, and be prepared.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well I think that, I don't think that that's necessarily the way it's going, they're going to present that. I think that the federal government is going to come out and say this is what, I think the American people are very well aware of what requires, what's required to rebuild New Orleans. I think we need to be fiscally responsible and at the same time, the American people will be more than willing, as long as it's done in a way that is productive in the long run.

Public/private partnerships and things like that are, the more we can do in the private sector as opposed to the federal government, as far as rebuilding, the better off we'll be anyway and let the markets play it out.

CHIDEYA: All right, we're going...

Ms. MALVEAUX: Farai, I'd like to response to that...

CHIDEYA: ...we're going to have to end it there. I'm sorry.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Okay.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Republicans strategist Tara Setmayer in Washington D.C.; also economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, is at member station WFDD, in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and we could go on and on. But we can't.

Mr. IRVIN: Yes we could.

Ms. SETMAYER: Take care.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Take care.

Mr. IRVIN: Take care.

(Soundbite of music)

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