April 8, 2009

For four years, Katrina survivors have been living in these toxic boxes. But there's more to this story than mere indifference or even incompetence - there was a concerted effort to push poor people out of the area after Katrina:

JACKSON, Miss. - Thanh Nguyen will soon give up the cramped travel trailer that's been her home for more than four years, pack her belongings into an old Toyota Corolla and rely on the kindness of others for a place to live.

She has no choice: The government is taking back the trailer.

"I'm going to pack everything I have in a car and go to my friends' houses and move on and on until I find something I can afford," the Vietnamese immigrant said through a translator. "It's for however long they allow me to stay."

Nguyen is one of nearly 6,000 residents in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama who face a May 1 deadline to leave the government trailers and cottages where they have lived since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita raked the Gulf Coast.

[...] The main barrier is affordability. Following Katrina, rent more than doubled along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Much of the affordable housing stock was destroyed and insurance rates increased. Hundreds of housing units have been replaced within the last year, but "developers can't put it on line at pre-Katrina rates," Carr said.

The state also plans to transform 1,800 so-called Katrina Cottages — billed as a sturdier alternative to trailers — into permanent structures.

Nguyen, 69, lives on a $646 Social Security check, said Danny Le, who works for Boat People SOS, an organization that helps Asian immigrants.

Le said the minimum cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Biloxi is $500. He said Nguyen has applied for public housing, but hasn't received a response.

Perhaps things like this have something to do with it:

Peter Werwath [Enterprise Foundation] laid out a "Marshall Plan" to estimate how a relatively small amount of FEMA's budget could temporarily fix 150,000 roofs, install 50,000 trailers, and repair 100,000 homes. He noted the night and day difference between the progress being made in cleaning up Mississippi and the lack of activity in New Orleans, as well as the fact that FEMA had tarped tens of thousands of home roofs in Gulfport and Biloxi, while they had done very little in New Orleans.

From a volunteer with WorldChanging, a similar perspective:

When I first arrived, Biloxi didn't look too bad. A lot of it is pretty intact, houses still livable or newly-rebuilt, even fences in yards. But then I saw the beach highway, and everything was broken. Casino barges the size of hotels were not only washed up on the beach, but washed across the highway and smashed into buildings; now slowly being eaten by heavy machinery for conversion into bales of scrap metal and landfill. Many buildings were nothing but foundation slabs with the names of what they used to be spray-painted on them. Other places were mere roofs, or were ragged doll-house cutaways, or high-rise hotels with the first two stories ripped out and ocean gaping through.

New Orleans was the same but more so. Uptown areas are mostly fine; the French Quarter is in business, sort of--if only there were still people there to do business with, it would be done.

But the Ninth Ward is wholesale destruction. The entire neighborhood, the entire suburb, is destroyed. For blocks and blocks and blocks in all directions, there is nothing but wreckage. Houses picked up and dropped on cars, or washed into the neighbor's house; trucks smashed sideways through porches and each other; piles of debris so random and jumbled as to make the constituent parts unidentifiable. Your material life in a blender. It's amazing how much stuff a house holds.

At least in Biloxi, the trashed properties have mostly been gutted or demolished, but in the Ninth Ward everything was just left to rot. Cracked dried mud laying an inch deep in car interiors, air conditioner parts hanging from telephone wires, power lines dangling by a knocked-over fire hydrant. (both shut off, of course.) And no one there anymore. At first I felt guilty about being a tourist in the ghost town, just wandering the desolation and taking photos as screen doors creaked in the wind, but then I noticed that the only people there were also doing the same thing. Which was that much weirder. Although my friend said she talked to one woman who was looking for her house. ...She'd found the lot where her house used to be, so the house itself was probably no more than a block or so away.

You don't suppose there was, oh, I don't know, an actual reason why it was taking so much longer to rebuild New Orleans than Biloxi?

The Biloxi-Gulfport, Miss., MSA was on the east side of the eye of Katrina and, as a result, bore the brunt of some of the storm's most serious winds and water surges. More than 98,000 homes were impacted by the storm, and nearly 61,000 were rendered uninhabitable. One difference between this MSA and the New Orleans MSA is that while water surges destroyed thousands of homes along the Biloxi-Gulfport beachfront, floodwaters did not remain as they did in New Orleans. While Biloxi- Gulfport MSA employment remains more than 23 percent below its peak in 2005, all schools and hospitals have reopened and most economic indicators are showing solid recovery trends.

Now, let me point out here that the Republicans were motivated - nay, eager - to delay the Gulf Coast rebuilding, even in Biloxi - East Biloxi, their equivalent of New Orleans' Ninth Ward. Because just like New Orleans, they were trying to push all the poor people out and let all the developers in:

Biloxi has been one of the earlier test cases of the post-Katrina racial dynamic. Before the hurricane, the city had been a booming casino and vacation territory, crammed along the coastline with glitzy gaming palaces, hotels and restaurants, while remaining geographically segregated in the interior -- mostly white on the west side, mostly black and Vietnamese on the east side. Home to the state's first legal casinos after the passage of the 1990 Mississippi Gaming Control Act, Biloxi had become something of a showcase city for a new Republican ethos of vice-funded political power in an era of vanishing manufacturing revenues, as symbolized by the rise of biped swine like Jack Abramoff. This was the new America: tourism, shopping, fast food and poker, fueled by transient traffic. The old communities parked behind the casinos were the anachronism.

What's happening now is that legal processes have been instituted that are all but guaranteed to cause a rapid outflow of those poor blacks from the eastern interior, while at the same time a new wave of commercial developers will float in on a cloud of government largess. The mechanism here is an uneven application of new safety guidelines for residential homeowners, passed quietly alongside a colossal tax break for commercial investors. It's a high-stakes hand of real-estate poker, and the casinos, the condo developers and contractors like Halliburton are the ones drawing extra cards.

The scam in East Biloxi centers around flood maps, and it mirrors what is likely to be a similar fiasco in New Orleans. New guidelines called Advisory Base Flood Elevations, or ABFEs, issued quietly and unilaterally by FEMA late last year, place the average suggested elevation above sea level for house construction in most of peninsular East Biloxi at eighteen feet. In order to qualify for any federal assistance in rebuilding your home, you must rebuild according to these guidelines.

Currently, most houses in the neighborhood are at about nine feet or less. [...]

Around the time that FEMA was issuing its ABFEs for East Biloxi, Congress was passing the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005, colloquially known as the GoZone Act. When President Bush signed the law on December 21st, he made it sound like a relief program for the little guy. "It's a step forward to fulfill this country's commitment to help rebuild," he said. "It's going to help small businesses, is what it's going to do."

Well, not exactly. GoZone does an important thing. It provides a first-year bonus depreciation of fifty percent for commercial real-estate investors within the designated areas, which include East Biloxi and most of the lower parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and western Alabama. What this means, essentially, is that investors who bought into large projects after August 28th, 2005, will pay a fraction of the usual taxes in the first year of the investment.

The GoZone law is just another hand job for the rich, of the sort that has become a staple of the Bush administration's post-Katrina strategy. If the strategy for keeping public money from reaching the poor is to force people to first stand upside down and sing "Come On Eileen" backward and blindfolded, the strategy for giving money to the rich is a little more subtle. First, you give them tax breaks for indulging in the same activity you told the poor was dangerous, then you issue aid packages that only find their way down to needy recipients long after the value has been torn from the package's spine by a string of rapacious subcontractors, each taking their cut, who of course never had to enter into a competitive bid for their trouble. Carrying charges, my boy, carrying charges!

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