Katrina victims should not be undercounted

OPINION - If you walk through certain parts of the Lower Ninth Ward today, you would find it hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina happened four years ago.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you walk through certain parts of the Lower Ninth Ward today, you would find it hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina happened four years ago. There are still very grim reminders of the tragedy that unfolded here – barely standing homes cluttered with furniture, clothing and toys strewn about in chaotic display and building facades that still bear the markings of rescue workers noting the number of dead bodies or animals that were recovered inside.

But, there are also signs of tremendous progress. Just steps from the point of the levee breach are a number of beautifully constructed homes that have been developed and built through Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project. I had the chance to walk through a few of the nearly completed structures and was very impressed with the sturdiness of their design, eco-friendly features and cheery colors. They offer a sense of hope in the heart of a neighborhood that felt the brunt of the storm’s impact and the harsh consequences of a faultily constructed levee wall.

With their new homes standing on stilts, many Ninth Ward residents are hopeful that the structures can weather the next storm. And yet, these hopes are precarious, as they know that they are just entering the period that has historically marked the peak of activity during the Atlantic hurricane season.

Recent estimates suggest that the City of New Orleans is back to 76.4 percent of its pre-Katrina population. But the progress that has been made certainly hasn’t been equally distributed. Many of the city’s black residents remain displaced and continue to face obstacles in their efforts to rebuild and return home.

For example, the federally funded Road Home Program, which provides grants to help families rebuild, has failed to provide sufficient support for many black residents. Under the program, rebuilding grants are based on a formula that relies on the lower of two figures: the pre-storm market value of your home or the cost of repairing the storm damage incurred.

For those residents who lived in wealthy sections of the city like the Garden District and the French Quarter, the program has worked. However, many black residents, particularly those who lived in segregated and distressed parts of the city, have found themselves short-changed. For them, the cost of repairing the damage to their homes has often far exceeded the depressed pre-storm market value of their homes. Without the resources to make up the difference, many black New Orleanians have simply found themselves locked out.

In addition to these practical challenges, there is a sense of a changing political tide in the city. With the mass displacement of so many black residents, there has literally been a shift in power that has limited the black electorate’s opportunities to have its voice heard. State officials’ efforts to purge displaced voters from local registration lists have compounded the problem, making political participation an all but impossible endeavor for many.

And in the midst of continued displacement, the city, like the rest of the country, will soon face a U.S. census count in 2010. The U.S. Census Bureau has announced that it will continue to apply the same standard practice of counting people as being residents of the place where they are located as of April 1st. Recently, criticism of the plan prompted the bureau to agree to hand-deliver Census forms to New Orleans residents; but there is still more than can be done.

Some believe the state stands to lose a Congressional seat (and more than $300 billion in funding that goes along with it) due to population loss after Katrina and the constitutional mandates that accompany reapportionment. If that happens, state legislators may be inclined to look first to the seat now occupying the New Orleans area, should that district be one that is indeed significantly under-populated in the next round of redistricting.

In other words, Louisiana could become a battleground if there is a sense that the Census Bureau fell short on its effort to secure an accurate count of citizens throughout the state and, in particular, of those who remain displaced because of the storms. No doubt, some may need to turn to the key protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act to ensure that the voting rights of the state’s minority population are not unfairly diluted or worsened.

Hurricane Katrina remains one of our nation’s most deadly natural disasters. But the “unnatural” aspects of the disaster continue to haunt us. Indeed, Katrina helped expose and unmask the deep-seated racial inequalities, poverty and racial segregation that have long persisted in New Orleans. We all watched as news cameras documented the loss of life in the absence of any immediate and sufficient federal response and relief effort. When we saw the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, we thought of similar neighborhoods in urban communities all across the country. The continued suffering and inadequacy of relief remains as unsettling today as it was in the storm’s aftermath.

The development of affordable public housing options, more equitable delivery of funds to black homeowners under the Road Home Program, efforts to prevent a Census undercount of those impacted by the storms and steps to preserve the voting rights of the region’s racial minorities must be cornerstones of any strategy that aims to bring about racial equality in this post-Katrina era.

Now is the time to recommit ourselves to rebuilding a city, deemed by many as the “soul of our nation,” in a way that brings some justice and equity to those who have been and continue to be deeply impacted by one of our nation’s greatest tragedies. There would be no better way to appropriately honor and pay tribute to those 1,836 people – many of them African American – who lost their lives on and after August 29, 2005.

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