Bush to Rebuild New Orleans, Somehow

President throws expensive bag of gimmicks at Katrina disaster

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Bush’s vague promise from New Orleans on Thursday night to lead the nation in “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen” shied well clear of any specific action. Some estimates put the federal burden at $300 billion dollars, but the government isn't set up to spend it well.

Disaster recovery in any case requires quick, comprehensive health care, extended uniform unemployment insurance, and massive housing. Facing a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, he offered none of these. A few more doctors and nurses, a few more unemployment checks, a few trailers here and there won’t get the job done.

Instead, Bush offered a slew of gimmicky projects such as yet another tax free zone—the Gulf Opportunity Zone; worker recovery accounts, for job training and child care, that sound very much like the account schemes Republicans have struggled to get passed as part of their privatization of Social Security; and the urban homesteading on vacant federal lands—probably of dubious value.

Details

For continuing coverage of the Katrina cleanup, see The Bush Beat, by Ward Harkavy.

FEMA is not prepared to provide housing on the scale demanded by the Hurricane Katrina. In the past it has helped pay mortgages, fix roofs and provide trailers—nothing on the scale now needed. Housing vouchers that pay landlords for the cost of modest apartments are probably the best way to go. But while HUD has approved numerous vouchers, there is not enough money to actually fund the program.

The employment assistance to New Yorkers after 9-11 turned into a hopeless mess. If the government doesn’t move fast to help Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, these hard-pressed states are likely to cut unemployment benefits overall and raise business taxes, worsening the situation, not making it better, according to analysts with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The nation has no health-care system and no real health-care policy. The destruction of hospitals and clinics along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans make the distribution of care a nightmare. Medicaid is the one operating system. No matter how difficult, it simply must be made to work for displaced people now. And this is no easy job, because the administration has been trying to cut back on this program ever since Bush got elected. Conservatives in Congress—even now—look upon efforts to open up Medicaid as just a foot in the door for the welfare queens. As of today, there is some hope the Senate will embrace a broad Medicaid expansion, albeit a temporary one, to appease right-wing ideologues.

Many people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are without jobs, and overall the employment prospects in this region are dubious at best. Louisiana had a 6.1 percent unemployment rate before the storm hit, and now hundreds of thousands of 1.9 million workers are out of work. According to Labor Department statistics, last week 10,000 people filed for unemployment insurance in the hurricane region. Newsday reports, “The nation could lose as many as 400,000 jobs through the end of this year because of the destructive storm, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.”

Bush now has signed an executive order that lets states pay substandard wages for cleanup and repair work. Wages in Louisiana are already 19 percent below the national average. In Mississippi, average wages are $586 a week, 28 percent below the national average.


Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuga, Ali Syed

 
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