Laying Blame for New Orleans' Slow Recovery

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New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are slowly being rebuilt a year after Hurricane Katrina's winds and floods. But shouldn't the federal government be held far more accountable for the current state of the Crescent City? Commentator Lester Spence is assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

ED GORDON, host:

As rebuilding continues after Katrina, commentator Lester Spence says people must demand accountability in order for the Crescent City to return to glory.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): About one year ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. No, devastated isn't the right word, perhaps decimated is more like it. A dear friend of mine has spent several months out of the past year helping people to reclaim their lives. Rebuilding homes in some cases, tearing through wreckage in others.

She's been commuting from Los Angeles to New Orleans and bringing as many students with her as are willing to take the trip. What they've seen has changed their lives, and even now it is hard for me to totally wrap my head around the fact that the United States government allowed one of its jewels to fall into the sea.

A year later, where are we? Where's New Orleans? Over 200,000 residents are still displaced. HUD had demolished thousands of low-income homes, prompting Republican representatives to literally to praise God for doing what they wanted to do but couldn't.

Does anyone remember the speech Bush gave, promising a massive reconstruction? Twenty-three percent of residents are still unemployed. Near where Katrina hit, residents of the town of Venice have to travel over 80 miles just to get a grocery store. Seventy-five percent of the hospitals remain closed.

Some estimate that New Orleans has more than half of its physicians and over 1,000 nurses, missing. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the deputy coroner of New Orleans reported a three-fold increase in the number of suicides.

We should expect a significant increase in anxiety disorders, in heart disease, in hypertension, and in mortality rates throughout the region.

And I've yet to speak about the levees. It's been a blessing that forecasters predict a weak hurricane season. But no sane pundit would open his mouth to say that New Orleans and the Gulf region as a whole would be ready if another Katrina hit. This is where we are. How did we get here?

Let's say you're severely injured hanging out with your uncle. On the way to the hospital before you pass out from shock, you're asked one question: would you rather be seen by a doctor or by your uncle? Now your uncle is not a doctor. Not only is your uncle not a doctor, he doesn't even think the practice of medicine is legitimate. His solution to everything - from a heart attack, to a cold, to a broken bone - is the same: suck it up. Of course you'd want a doctor.

There are a number of reasons why the Gulf region was torn apart by Katrina, but the one reason that stands out is simple: The political party in control of the three branches of the federal government do not believe that the federal government should exist. They believe it should be - to quote a conservative activist - small enough to drown in bathwater.

What we've done is akin to putting people who don't believe in medicine in charge of the pharmacy. Why else would the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association be placed in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Does it make any sense at all to basically put a horse trader in charge of emergency response?

In revisiting the carnage that Katrina left in its wake, we've begun to talk about the role of racism and poverty play in the lack of a response.

Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina speaks powerfully about how resilient the men and women of the Gulf Coast are, even as they were ignored. But we've got to have an honest discussion about how what we've done is the equivalent of placing people who believe the world is flat in charge of NASA.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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