As of yesterday, heavy rains and melting snows brought rising floodwaters to the U.S., submerging areas stretching from the South through the Midwest towards the Northeast. Thousands of people were forced to flee 250 towns and cities. Images of people escaping their neighborhoods on rowboats and of the tornado that ripped through Atlanta last Friday may have evoked in some recent memories of another terrible weather event in a major Southern city.
This August will mark the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. In 2005, the storm swept through coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, and Alabama.
We know that 2.7 million were evacuated and that about 1,500 to 2,000 died during the course of the storm. More than 1 million were temporarily displaced. Estimates of the number of housing units destroyed or majorly damaged by Katrina range from 496,000 to 850,791. The Federal Emergency Management Agency put the number of those affected by at least moderately damaged homes at 711,698. “According to a 2007 RAND Corporation study, 72% of all houses in Orleans Parish, Louisiana which includes New Orleans, were damaged,” says Habitat for Humanity.
Some estimates say a quarter million of New Orleans residents still haven’t returned. And with good reason: the current housing situation is, quite frankly, a disgrace.
- Despite news stories that broke in early 2006 and have continued since about the toxic chemicals found in FEMA mobile homes, the current occupant count is 100,000 in some 38,000 Gulf Coast trailers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently recommending that FEMA trailer inhabitants get as much fresh air as possible, either by spending more time outdoors or opening windows.
- The rebuilding effort for those hardest hit by the storm seems to be relying on volunteer and charity organizations: college students on their spring break, or organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right Project,” which each expect to create a couple hundreds of homes by the end of 2008.
- The housing shortage means that in some part of New Orleans, for example, rents have more than doubled. The homelessness rate in New Orleans is now 1 in 25 residents, compared to a national average of 1 in 400. Many of those in homeless shelters were former homeowners who had paid off their mortgage but had no insurance.
Aside from shattered homes and neighborhoods, some of the basic services that lend stability to a community have also yet to be repaired. By the start of 2007, New Orleans had still not regained 50% of its public schools, 70% of its childcare centers, and 83% of its public transit. This made the task of competing for scarce employment and new housing even more difficult.
Things have since improved somewhat, and the touristy sections of the city are back in action.
One of the systems slowest to rebound, however, is health care. The Kaiser Foundation, a leading non-partisan think tank devoted to the analysis of health care policy and issues, now has a report that underscores what former New Orleanians would be facing if they came home.
This 15 slide narrated tutorial contains graphs comparing the city’s health care services before and after Katrina.
It illuminates how vulnerable our hospitals and clinics are to the ravaging effects of Mother Nature – how quickly a segment of the U.S. health system can fall into major disrepair in an area prone to disproportionate poverty, uninsurance and chronic disease. Louisiana was already consistently ranked as one of the nation’s least healthy states.
Maybe New Orlreans’ health care system didn’t have far to fall, but the seemingly third world status it now enjoys should be an embarrassment to us all.
For an archive of local coverage of Hurricane Katrina, go here: www.nola.com/katrina/pages/
For a video on how Katrina affected other part of the Gulf Coast, go here: www.boingboing.net/2008/03/07/one-house-at-a-time.html