Hurricane Recovery: A Forgotten Priority?

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005; 9:09 AM

The television cameras have mostly left the Gulf Coast, but the region continues to reel from the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

More than two months after the storms, leaders in both political parties seemingly have backed away from some of their initial pledges to support reconstruction whatever the cost. As Manuel Roig-Franzia and Ceci Connolly wrote in The Washington Post on Tuesday, "financial aid from Washington, once expected to reach $200 billion, has stalled out at about $70 billion."

The Congressional Black Caucus, seeking to jumpstart the recovery effort and reassure the region's residents that Washington has not forgotten them, has unveiled a comprehensive proposal to aide the poor and other vulnerable citizens most affected by the storms.

The CBC acknowledges there is little hope that the bill will pass in its current form, but its members hope it will set the stage for a meaningful debate about whether America is serious about helping those still hurting in the hurricane-ravaged region.

The bill will almost certainly inflame the already rancorous debate about spending priorities and the role of the federal government at a time when some conservatives are rebelling against the budget-busting tendencies of Congress and the White House. But the CBC believes that Katrina and Rita were historic event that has left an entire region suffering a set of problems of unprecedented complication.

"The CBC is trying to play a proactive role," Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) told Talking Points. "Here we are four months after Katrina and Congress has still not moved a comprehensive bill that deals with the whole panoply of issues related to the hurricane, from Medicaid and health care issues, to housing issues, to wealth replacement issues for business, to capital replacement for communities.

"This is why people are frustrated about politicians. It's the failure to focus on what is happening with [people's] daily lives. When I go home back to my district, I hear it all the time. Occasionally they are wrong or short-sighted in terms of what affects them, but more often than not, they're right."

The problems facing Katrina and Rita victims are well documented. More than 100,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. And with so many questions up in the air about rebuilding the complex levee system that protects New Orleans from flood waters, even those who can afford to rebuild aren't sure it makes sense to do so.

While neither Davis nor most of his CBC colleagues directly blame race and class for the malaise they believe has descended upon Washington in dealing with hurricane recovery, it's a fact many of the people facing the long-term displacement are poor and/or black.

To address these realities, the CBC proposes a number of steps:

* Create a Victim Compensation Fund, modeled after the fund established by Congress for families of 9/11 victims. In this case, a "special master" would "determine what compensation is necessary to restore each individual Hurricane Katrina claimant to his or her pre-Katrina condition.

*Extend unemployment benefits to Katrina survivors by 26 additional weeks.

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