April 20, 2010

Gulf Coast recovery efforts are a human rights disaster

From The Progressive and McClatchy:

The scandal of Katrina is not yet over.

Post-hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast states are a violation of human rights law, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

Katrina and Rita, the two hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas in 2005, devastated people's lives. An estimated 1,800 people died in these storms, and 3 million were evacuated. The pathetic response by government officials was responsible for much of this.

The hurricanes revealed the cracks in local law enforcement. Federal prosecutors have accused New Orleans police officers of shooting unarmed black civilians at close range on the Danziger Bridge, and covering up their crimes. Three officers have pleaded guilty to charges related to the shootings, which killed two people, including a man who had severe mental handicaps.

Even to this day, the most vulnerable residents of the affected communities, including the poor and people of color, have been left out of recovery efforts, according to the Amnesty report, "Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights In the Gulf Coast." Officials have violated the basic human rights of these residents, including the right to adequate housing, health services and equal access to the justice system.

"The botched recovery effort has exacerbated the discrimination and inequality present in many Gulf Coast communities," says Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The region suffers from a lack of affordable housing, and little is being done to replace demolished public housing and affordable rentals. Almost 82,000 rental units in Louisiana were lost due to storm damage, mostly in New Orleans. Sadly, only 38 percent of lost rental units in New Orleans have been rebuilt, and rents are 40 percent higher than before Katrina struck. As a result, many are unable to come home, and those who remain are threatened with homelessness.

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, there was an acute lack of access to health care. Today, there is still a lack of access to health care. In Louisiana, 20.1 percent lacked health insurance in 2008. And maternal deaths in that state are among the highest in the nation, with 15.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Of the more than 400,000 New Orleans residents prior to Katrina, 350,000 of them lived in areas damaged by the hurricane. Of those, 75 percent were black, and almost 30 percent were under the national poverty level of $19,350 for a family of four in 2005.

We can only wonder if the government would have responded differently to all the victims of Katrina had they been of a different race or on a higher rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

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