- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Gulf Coast recovery efforts are the forgotten political story.

The government’s ineptitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a good red meat applause line for the Democratic presidential hopefuls, but the residents still sifting through broken lives in Mississippi and Louisiana stopped waiting for help from politicians long ago.

“We struggle for a voice. I’m not sure if anybody else is listening, and it may take a Katrina in their neighborhood for them to listen,” said Jean Larroux, a Presbyterian pastor and Bay St. Louis, Miss. native who returned home two years ago to work to restore the community.

“Let Katrina hit Kennebunkport,” he said. “I imagine that we wouldn’t have to pray a whole lot about [getting them help]. I’m really not bitter. I’m just opinionated.”

As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama campaign across the country, they consistently decry the “outrage” of millions without health care or the “unfunded mandate” of No Child Left Behind law, but rarely mention Katrina. They made some fleeting references to the storm while campaigning in Mississippi this month.

“They’re basically talking about the economy right now and the war but I haven’t heard anybody say anything about the efforts as far as the Gulf South, other than when they came here and spoke,” said John Kevin Garner, 39, who is helping his father rebuild their home in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. “They worry about Iraq so much, but don’t worry about the people.”

While most said a new president would be an improvement over President Bush, Gulf Coast residents The Washington Times met from Biloxi, Miss., to New Orleans said they hear little from Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and Mr. Obama, of Illinois.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin agreed. “I think they are, I won’t say afraid, but a little hesitant to tackle the issues” that still confront the city “and the lack of preparedness to deal with future natural disasters,” he told The Times last week in Washington. “The candidates are a little hesitant about fully embracing our dilemma. I would like to hear more about what they would do to bring about the full recovery of our infrastructure, which is in deplorable shape.”

Katrina bypassed

On the stump, Mr. Obama tells voters the next election will signal an end to the era of “Brownie incompetence,” referring to the nickname Michael Brown earned from Mr. Bush as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Katrina. Mrs. Clinton says she would appoint “qualified” people, ridiculingthat Mr. Brown’s only qualification before taking the post was leading the Arabian Horse Association.

Both Democrats have worked in Congress to help recovery efforts, and each has a plan for the Gulf Coast, but it has not topped either’s political agenda.

The Gulf Coast is not one of the 13 “issues” detailed on Mrs. Clinton’s Web site. Visitors to the Obama home page must bypass the 20 issues listed and go to “additional issues” to find his “Katrina” plan.

Mrs. Clinton recently told the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black community papers, she was “embarrassed” by the Katrina response, which she called a “national disgrace.”

In New Orleans last month before the state’s primary election, Mr. Obama lamented the Crescent City has become “a symbol for what we could not do. The words ‘never again’ — spoken so often in those weeks after Katrina — must not fade to a whisper,” he said.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina began and ended his presidential bid here. He brought 700 college volunteers to the region in 2006, an event he spoke about while campaigning. After dropping out of the race in January, he rebuilt a Ninth Ward home and promised to remember the Gulf Coast, saying it was a “moral responsibility and, “we must do better.”

“This journey of ours began right here in New Orleans,” he said. “We joined together in a city that had been abandoned by our government and had been forgotten, but not by us.”

“We knew that they still mourned the dead, that they were still stung by the destruction and that they wondered when all those cement steps and all those vacant lots would once again lead to a door, to a home, and to a dream,” he said.

“We came here to the Lower Ninth Ward to rebuild. And we’re going to rebuild today … and we will continue to come back,” he said. “We will always be here to bring them hope so that some day, one day … the working people can come marching in and those steps once again can lead to a family living out the dream in America.”

Mrs. Clinton told Mississippi Democrats she would appoint someone who would report recovery efforts to her on a daily basis, an idea Mr. Edwards often promised during his campaign.

More than money

Interviews with Gulf Coast residents last week yielded many complaints about bad decisions, wasteful spending and too much of a focus on money, as Mr. Nagin and other local officials were in Washington lobbying for more recovery funding.

So far, the federal government has allocated more than $82 billion to Mississippi and Louisiana, a figure that includes money for home rebuilding, funds for levees and other infrastructure needs, cleanup, schools and farmers impacted by the storm.

Gulf Coast residents need manpower, direction, leadership and “a real plan” to get back on the path, said Michael Owen, a pastor from Jackson, Miss.

“So little is being done and quite frankly, people have just given up hope,” he said. “We’re the richest nation in the world, but we can’t do the right thing.”

Mr. Larroux and volunteers working with his Lagniappe Presbyterian Church have done relief work for two years, from building dozens of homes to cleaning up debris.

But in a video to encourage supporters to help his church, he says the community needs more: “What we long for is restoration — to see artists and music and beauty and culture, along with sheetrock and shingles.”

Fed up

Politically, it is strange the candidates have avoided talking about Katrina, the very issue that began to solidify Mr. Bush’s tumble in opinion polls and helped lead to the Democrats’ resurgence in Washington.

When they were still engaging in retail politics and speaking to small groups of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were regularly questioned about their Katrina plans. But as the long campaign in multiple states leaves them room for few appearances other than rallies and the debates have barely touched on any Gulf Coast issues, the region’s residents are wondering what, if anything, will be done.

Volunteers who have come from across the country say they are shocked New Orleans is still in tatters because it doesn’t get enough news coverage. Illustrating the point, reporters from other organizations who learned The Times was doing this story wondered why, since the Katrina anniversary isn’t until August.

“Whenever I turn on the news, it’s always Hillary and Obama and this is slowly being forgotten about,” said Andy Adelman of Indianapolis, a volunteer gutting a flooded Ninth Ward home through Kesher, a Jewish student group.

Mr. Nagin told The Times the city needs millions of dollars more in assistance, but that FEMA and other agencies have not provided enough financial aid outside of government loans. “We’ve been financially starved.”

He said if the government’s help was as strong as the work done by volunteers, “we would have been in better shape.”

Residents and volunteers repeatedly urged the politicians to remember Katrina, saying no other message was more important to send to Washington.

“Just don’t forget about the people down here in the Gulf South. It’s still a constant struggle,” said Mr. Garner, looking around his Ninth Ward neighborhood and pointing to homes where people died during Katrina, and bright spots where they were rebuilding. “After awhile, people forget.”

Mr. Larroux’s message: “If I had five minutes with whoever the next president would be, I’d spend four minutes praying for them and the next one minute saying, ‘Please bring us to the table. Not the foundations and organizations. We are here. You need somebody who has walked in those FEMA trailers. We’ve cried, we’ve been here.’ ”

Emotional toll

Residents said they are worried Gulf Coast children are showing signs of emotional trauma that’s disrupting their learning and putting pressure on already strained teachers, many of whom lost their homes and are still holding lessons in FEMA trailers.

“The psychological needs down here are amazing,” Mr. Larroux said, noting that survivors joke they are “Baypolar” instead of “bipolar.”

As Mr. Larroux, 37, recalls how he stocked up on gasoline and headed from his home in Tennessee to where he grew up to rescue his mother, aunt and uncle, he sometimes laughs, calling it “madness.”

Then the story takes a turn — his elderly aunt and uncle drowned after they refused to leave their home. Recovering their bodies from their home was the beginning of many more difficult moments for Mr. Larroux, who soon decided to move back to Bay St. Louis with his family because, “Somebody had to do something.”

While driving past foundations on lots that were once homes, naming most of the families who had lived there, Mr. Larroux shook his head. “It hits me that this was our life and I’m not sure when that will finally sink in,” he said. “Everything you knew as you’d grown up was gone.”

Mr. Adelman said it is emotional for volunteers, recalling how a rotted dresser he carried from a home had fallen apart and its contents spilled out. “It was filled with Advil, cassette tapes, that sort of thing. I thought, ‘I have that drawer at home. It’s very personal,’ ” he said.

Elaine Coulon, 68, moved back into her once-flooded Ninth Ward home after nearly two years in a trailer, but many of her neighbors haven’t returned and she struggles to avoid depression.

“It takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of strength,” she said. “Sometimes I would like to blame the federal government for moving too slowly but you have to just go with it. It’s a matter of determination and doing what you have to do.”

But there is a bright spot when she’s down — her new bathroom features a deep spa-style tub.

“That is my pride and joy. It’s my take-a-break, wash-all-of-this-stuff-off,” she said. “I’m in my house and it feels good.”

A new life

New signs of life can be found all along the Gulf Coast.

The coast is sprinkled with brightly colored, freshly painted homes that stand out among piles of junk from gutted houses and still festering storm debris. Destroyed trees have been carved into intricate bird statues.

About two-thirds of New Orleans’ residents have returned, but the neighborhoods that once made up the Lower Ninth Ward are now bare foundations. Multiple breaches of the levees after Katrina leveled nearly the entire ward.

Many of the bars and restaurants in the French Quarter have reopened, some with “We’re back” signs in the window.

Bay St. Louis bore the brunt of the storm’s 100 mph winds and a fast-moving 40-foot wall of water.

“If we pass something that is standing that made it through the storm I’ll tell you,” Mr. Larroux said on a tour of his town, pointing out the one home that weathered the storm surge in Ward One.

Entire neighborhoods were washed away along the Gulf. The casino, hotel and fishing industries in Gulfport, Miss., and Biloxi were nearly wiped out.

Officials moved quickly to fund the rebuilding of the casinos and construction of new high-rise condos in Biloxi to help the economy.

It’s difficult for some residents to see the changes as they long for what they once knew.

Paul Godsey, a Biloxi ironworker, charged that officials are spending money on “the wrong things,” such as new palm trees along the coastal road, instead of “giving us our piers back.”

Still he enjoys an early morning fishing session from the blown-out Broadwater Marina, once home to the President Casino that Katrina swept half a mile down the beach. Though the rotted and broken pieces of what was once the marina’s roof litter the water, the new ecosystem has helped him catch redfish, flounder and snapper, he said.

“It’s coming back slowly but surely. You don’t have any other way but to be optimistic,” he said.

Clyde Baker, a contractor building new homes in Waveland, noted that most volunteers are from faith organizations, and he asks them to spread their work back home.

“God’s people have done him proud on the Gulf Coast,” he said. “There are little Katrinas all the time all over the United States. A poor family may need a new roof, or someone’s home has burned down. There are so many ways that we can show mercy.”

Don Lambro contributed to this report from Washington.

Also by Christina Bellantoni:

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