Lessons from Laura (on Katrina’s anniversary)

Lessons from Laura (on Katrina’s anniversary)

The storm surge from Hurricane Laura wasn’t as bad as experts predicted, yet the Category 4 hurricane still tore a destructive path through western Louisiana on Thursday morning. And as Louisianans have learned from hard-earned experience, disasters usually take the most from those who have the least. Policy Link’s Ashleigh Gardere reviews a key lesson from Hurricane Katrina: policymakers guiding investments in recovering communities need to address racial inequities head-on.

New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery experience teaches practitioners and policymakers that even the most inclusive planning, the smartest program innovations, the most thoughtful policy reform and systems-change efforts are no match for the nation’s 400-year-old social, political, and economic structures, introduced with the arrival of the first slave ships to New America’s shores. Leaders continue to invest their best thinking and action without recognizing that the structures that govern our democracy and economy have been designed to exclude Black people and people of color and, as a result, limit the entire nation’s progress. Despite our best intentions, as leaders we employ race-neutral strategies expecting to achieve racial equity, convinced that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And so we fail to center people over profits, always in a negotiation with the economic markets.

Media Matters for America’s Evlondo Cooper III, in a guest column for Nola.com | The Advocate, calls on the news media to do a better job of highlighting the disparate effects of major storms on marginalized communities.  

Alternatively, corporate news networks could adopt a just approach to extreme weather journalism, which connects extreme weather events to policies and practices that exacerbate climate impacts, contextualizes systemic inequalities that drive the disproportionate impacts, and consistently reports on the fates of those with the least resources to recover and rebuild.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Lucy Tompkins reports on a bright spot in the destruction: the toppling of a Confederate statute that local leaders had refused to take down despite public pressure. LBP’s Davante Lewis provided some context:

“If the city would have done what many of us asked it to do, that statue could be in a museum, it could be well kept together and not be damaged,” Mr. Lewis said. “But unfortunately, they took other opportunities to keep it in the bright light of day, and Mother Nature had another plan.” 


Red tape – and less funding – for hungry kids
When Covid-19 shuttered schools in March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave school nutrition programs broad flexibility to serve meals to kids quickly and comparatively easily. Now, with schools restarting but with many kids attending virtually, the agency is rolling back many of those flexibilities. Both of the congressional committees that oversee the nation’s child nutrition programs have told the USDA that it has the authority to keep school meals simpler to administer, but agency leaders disagree. Linda Jacobson explains in The 74 Million how these changes are already making it harder for Louisiana families to access food.

Under the summer programs, families were also able to pick up multiple meals at once, cutting down on the number of times they needed to leave home. But operating under the National School Lunch Program, schools would now have to “verify eligibility or collect payment from every student at every meal distribution,” she said. “That increases the risk of students going without meals, raises the risk of COVID-19 transmission, due to more interaction between students and staff, and reduces meal participation.”


Congress, do your job
It is now a full month since the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefits expired, leaving millions of families in America with far less money to cover basic necessities. Meanwhile, with the pandemic still not under control, jobs remain scarce. But with no response from Senate Republicans to the Covid relief package that the House passed in May, the Senate remains on vacation as hunger and homelessness rise. As the Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg and Heather Long report, the people that were paying their mortgage or rent and feeding their families with that unemployment benefit are not likely to forget Congress’s inaction.

Shawn Gabriel, a single father of two in Parma, Ohio, has learned what it means to struggle since he lost his construction job in March. His landlord sent him an eviction notice after he was a few days late on August rent. Gabriel keeps looking for work, but for now his family is living off of $189 a week that he gets in unemployment benefits, which is not enough to cover his $950 rent, let alone food, electric, Internet and other expenses. But the bulk of his frustration has been reserved for one place: Congress, whose members left town in August after letting the $600-a-week unemployment bonus that millions of people like Gabriel have been relying on expire. “Most of them are rich. They don’t struggle. They get paid,” Gabriel said. “I think they should have come to an agreement.”


Post-disaster mental health funding falls short
Disasters like Hurricane Laura leave a long shadow on the mental health of many people they affect, with psychological consequences that often extend years after the physical recovery is complete. But the United States has only one federal program to support post-disaster mental health: FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Program (CCP), which federal officials say is intended only as a supplement to local mental health services. Dean Russell and Jamie Smith Hopkins of Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity report on how this important program currently falls short of need.

States are required to plan for the mental-health consequences of disasters. Officials said they’re grateful when they get (FEMA Crisis Counseling Program) funding and appreciate the flexibility to plan the response they think will suit their communities best. But the way the program works can also impede efforts to help. Though disasters always impact mental health, states don’t automatically get the funding. Wildfires often aren’t deemed large enough to qualify. When events do pass the magic threshold, states must complete long applications justifying the need. Iowa’s most recent request, for instance, ran 168 pages. And states must fill out two applications if they want to access the full program because FEMA splits it into “immediate” and “regular” phases. The second application can take months to be approved.


Number of the Day
75.6% – Percentage of “prime-age” (25-54) workers in Louisiana who were employed in 2019 – a decrease of 1.9 percentage points since 2007. Louisiana’s employment-to-population ratio consistently trails the rest of the nation. (Source: Pew Charitable Trusts)