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There was a marvelous photo op for President George W. Bush last week, perfectly arranged by his political guru, Karl Rove. There he was, Bush standing in Jackson Square in New Orleans, declaring this great city will rise again.
Bush said the federal government will institute one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. As he spoke, about three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, some parts of the Gulf Coast still were waiting for some relief from either the public or private sectors.
Former Vice President Al Gore, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, observed: Katrina is the first sip, the first taste, of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us over and over again. It is up to us [to tackle climate change], and it does involve accepting that there is a legitimate role for government. The response to Katrina should not be to suspend environmental laws and to cut taxes once again.
Bush spelled out a series of steps to ensure tax breaks for big business, permanent dispersal for the poor and middle class of New Orleans, and future gentrification of poor and middle class neighborhoods now under water.
The supervisor for this mammoth effort will be none other than King Karl Rove himself, as he faces possible charges in the Valerie Plame incident. Already the lucrative reconstruction contracts have gone to our old buddies Haliburton. Who else?
This grand scheme will involve what has been called a Gulf Opportunity Zone. It will include Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Inside this zone, tax relief and guaranteed federal loans will be offered to small businesses, including those owned by minorities. Companies that create jobs will be up for tax incentives as well.
But how good and how practical is all of this? Investigative reporter Wayne Madsen, who has a pipeline to inside sources in Washington, says: The Bush speech was full of corporate contrivances that dodge the type of assistance that is actually needed for the displaced population of the New Orleans metropolitan region.
Madsen is not alone in that opinion. A number of urban renewal experts say it has all been tried before, with mixed results. They say planners should think beyond tax incentives and try to incorporate the poor into the social fabric of the area and transform poor neighborhoods without pricing low-income residents out of the market.
Alexander von Hoffman, senior fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, told Salon.com: The federal government, over the last 15 years, has tried to use zones where they have tax relief to promote economic development. It hardly ever works. He said such experiments already have failed in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Elise Bright, author of Reviving Americas Forgotten Neighborhoods, said: The evidence shows that enterprise zones can be mildly effective, but if there is something wrong with the location to begin with, they wont overcome that. In this area, it may not be enough to overcome the reluctance to relocate in a place that hurricanes hit. Im not sure it makes sense to offer tax relief to bring people back to an area thats very susceptible to environmental disaster.
Professor Bright thinks it would be better to use tax incentives to encourage people to rebuild in areas less likely to flood. Otherwise, she said, its practically encouraging people to rebuild in an area that is likely to flood.
Paul Grogan, CEO of the Boston Foundation, had some further thoughts. Its certainly positive that the president was saying that there has to be massive public investment as part of the deal to bring back the city, he said. But it shouldnt be a commitment to just bring the city back to where it was before. My hope is that there is a real commitment to deal with some of the terrible problems that New Orleans has in a very tangible way. A lot of those problems relate to the incredible isolation, segregation and walling-off of the African-American population from economic opportunity in New Orleans.
President Bush proposes to investigate what went wrong with the hurricane recovery effort, but dont hold your breath. An internal investigation will be nothing but a whitewash, absolving officialdom from any accountability. That includes George W., despite his claim of accepting responsibility.
The issues of race, poverty and opportunity are likely to be swept back under the rug until well after the next election. Bush did not speak to the immediate and future needs of the people of the Gulf Coast. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for instance, continues to block badly needed aid to the homeless, according to several sources. Madsen reported Jesse Jackson found 300 semi-trailers filled with water, ice and food, stalled in Memphis, unable to enter New Orleans.
According to Madsen, some of the missing elements of the federal plan are: adopt-a-family tax credits; grants for orphaned and homeless children; bankruptcy relief; temporary housing at government installations; a 50 percent residency target for all contracts; a 40 percent minority vendor provision for reconstruction; a moratorium on all contracts until civil rights provisions are included; and a freeze on foreclosures of all storm-affected property for one year.
Those are only a few of the things that need to be put in place to ensure a prompt and proper recovery can begin. Already, right-wing Republicans in the Congressincluding Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2008are complaining about the potential federal cost for reconstruction.
The question remains as the floodwaters recede: What kind of city will New Orleans be? Already the land speculators are moving in with visions of converting the New Orleans area into the Las Vegas of the east, and displacing the poor and powerless and filling part of their old neighborhoods with glitzy houses and condos.
Salon magazine asks: Will the poor residents of the citys 9th Ward, who were displaced by the floodwater, come back, or will they instead be part of a permanent migration throughout the Southeast while the city is rebuilt for its wealthier residents, and as a tourist playground?
Von Hoffman observed: The best way to ensure that those poor people are able to come back to those neighborhoods would be to rebuild with the kind of variety of housing types that were there originally. One way to do that, he said, is to limit lot sizes so developers can build on them and prevent the shotgun shacks from being bulldozed.
As this was written, a hurricane watch was posted for the Florida Keys. Although forecasters believed the storm, if it grows to hurricane strength, is unlikely to come anywhere near the Gulf Coast, it cant help but increase the anxiety of those who have still painful memories of Katrina.
The great unwashed, as some of Bushs political class consider the poor, have been washed out of their homes and limited wherewithal by Katrina and deeper down the dry well of poverty. As the rest of the world and America marvels at this exposé of the full extent of the underclass, the manner in which we address this shame will be even more revealing. Then again, with the ultimate effect of globalization and the exporting of our heavy industry and technical jobs, the dwindling middle class may take the bath as well. More hurricanes are on the horizon, and how we weather those storms will determine the fate of this nation.
From the Sept. 21-27, 2005, issue