February 13, 2010 – Des Moines Register
Under normal circumstances, I’m not much of a sports fan. But like nearly everyone in my adopted hometown of New Orleans, it seems I have lost my senses in the euphoric frenzy of the Saints’ improbable journey to the Super Bowl championship. During last Sunday’s game, throughout our still-struggling-to-recover neighborhood, pockmarked with houses abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, my neighbors and I rushed out on our porches and screamed “Who Dat!” – the now-famous chant of fans who for 43 years cheered a losing team. Firecrackers popped. Horns honked. Grown men cried. For months, the city has been united in its belief that the Saints would at last be victorious.
Coming after the rebuilding of their team and the Superdome – the scene of searing trauma after the levees broke – the Saints’ underdog victory seems a powerful metaphor for the recovery of New Orleans. For a people traumatized at every turn – by mass death and destruction, by questions about whether our community was worth saving, by the Corps of Engineers’ dodging of responsibility for its role in the levee failures, by government missteps at every level – the Saints’ victory is a tremendous boost to our collective morale. It symbolizes our belief that by persevering, we can prevail. And our camaraderie during the quest reinforces what is already New Orleans’ greatest strength – our joie de vivre, our distinctive culture.
“New Orleans is back, and this shows the whole world!” Saints owner Tom Benson exulted. Indeed, advertising experts noted that the victory and the televised scenes of crowds celebrating in the French Quarter reinforced the image of the city’s recovery and likely will be a major boost to tourism.
We want – and need – every visitor we can get. But a danger lies in our euphoria, if the nation concludes from it that New Orleans has truly recovered. Yes, much progress has been made since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The part of the city that tourists see was not heavily damaged and today looks almost better than before. But the levees have not been fully repaired, let alone armored to protect the city from a Category 5 hurricane. Throughout large swaths of the city, terrible suffering continues.
As with any major disaster in America, in Haiti, or anywhere, one thing is certain: The poorest suffer the most, and their recovery is the most challenging. Homelessness in New Orleans has nearly doubled since Katrina, and thousands of people, many of them mentally or physically disabled, are living in the city’s 61,000 abandoned properties. They sleep on bedrolls in gutted houses or moldy buildings, with buckets as their toilets and no electricity, heat or running water. New Orleans’ homeless outreach workers are still engaging in search-and-rescue operations, combing abandoned buildings in the middle of the night, armed only with flashlights, to rescue the storm’s most vulnerable victims. In one abandoned garage, outreach workers found eight elderly men living together, the oldest 90 years of age.
Over 100,000 New Orleanians remain displaced. The lack of affordable housing is a major barrier to their return, with rents 45 percent higher since Katrina. Thousands of modest-income homeowners still struggle to rebuild their homes, but lack the funds to do so, often due to contractor fraud. Meanwhile, the city’s hospital for the poor has not yet been rebuilt.
Much remains to be done. Congress can still play an important role, by prodding the Corps to protect New Orleans and helping to ensure that already-appropriated recovery funds are used to benefit those suffering the most. The Senate Finance Committee, of which Sen. Charles Grassley is a leader, can act to ensure the region’s hurricane recovery tax-credit program achieves its goals to rebuild thousands of additional affordable apartments. New Orleanians will always be grateful for America’s concern for the most vulnerable victims of our nation’s largest housing disaster.