by Melissa Harris-Perry and James Perry
New Orleans hurricane disasters are who we are.
We met in the aftermath of Katrina, both giving speeches about race and recovery at a fair-housing conference. We attempted our first date during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, but the requisite preparations and family evacuations for Hurricane Gustav made it impossible to connect with each other. On our second date, at President Obama’s inauguration, we co-authored a commentary arguing that his election was possible because the televised suffering of Katrina survivors dramatically changed American public opinion toward President Bush and the Republican Party. We were in love by the time President Obama made his first presidential visit to New Orleans. We took the opportunity to write together again, claiming that the lessons of post-Katrina New Orleans offered a blue print for rebuilding our national economy.
That’s how nerd love works… at least in New Orleans.
Hurricane Isaac, by striking the Gulf Coast on the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, reminds us that while some things have changed, much remains the same.
Much has changed for us. We are no longer dating; we are happily married. This time there were two sets of parents to evacuate. This time there was a fifth grader’s school schedule to consider. This time there were two houses to secure. There is the little shotgun in the 7th ward where we live; we just celebrated the full post-Katrina restoration of that home earlier this year. It stood strong in the storm. Across the street was the other home. It had been ravaged by Katrina and Gustav, but we’d just closed on it a few weeks ago, hoping to fully restore it and make it our home so our family would have room to grow. Isaac took it on Wednesday morning, exactly seven years after Katrina.
This time we could share the emotional despair and deferred dreams as never before.
But the changes since Katrina are not just personal. This is a different country. We have a Democrat in the White House. President Obama, working with Congress, has led the federal government in constructing a state-of-the-art federal levee and water pumping system to protect the New Orleans metropolitan area. This time, the levees held. And thank goodness they did: Katrina’s disastrous legacy is due mostly to the failure of the federal levees and subsequent flooding of 75 percent of historic New Orleans.
Still unchanged is the devastation and dashed hopes that are left in the hurricanes’ paths. Like Katrina, Isaac destroyed homes, separated families and left people stranded on rooftops. Our dream home, which had stood for more than 100 years, is gone. Even that loss is minimal compared to the massive losses of personal property and memories that so many of our neighbors in Plaquemines Parish have suffered.
Also unchanged is Republicans’ uncanny ability to demonstrate just how out of touch they are with the suffering on the Gulf Coast. Recalling President George W. Bush’s ignominious flyover seven years ago, Republicans partied and danced the night away in Tampa, Florida, voicing only fleeting concern for those in Hurricane Isaac’s path. But as most conservatives celebrated the Romney-Ryan government rollback ticket, one up and coming Republican leader rebutted a fundamental conservative premise.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal asked for the federal government to do more. He has been a standard bearer against so-called “Obamacare” and has railed against federal stimulus dollars, but as the winds and rain of Isaac devastated his state, Governor Jindal reached out for Washington’s help. The president had declared a state of emergency, thereby allowing the governor and the people of Louisiana access to federal support to “alleviat[e] the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population…to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.” Jindal, concerned that this might be insufficient, wrote to the president: “…the state’s original request for federal assistance…included a request for reimbursement for all emergency protective measures. The federal declaration of emergency only provides for direct federal assistance.”
It was the right move. In the wake of disaster, communities need support that can only be provided by the collective support system that federal government provides. The request, however, runs afoul of party stalwarts. From Ron Paul to Eric Cantor, Republican leaders have called for the defunding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These agencies lead and manage government response to disasters and track hurricanes and predict their paths so that Americans can prepare appropriately. In fact, even as Hurricane Irene struck Cantor’s district, he refused to support full funding for FEMA and NOAA.
During Hurricane Isaac, only one levee failed. It was a levee in Plaquemines Parish built using private resources. It was constructed because local members of Congress, citing cost concerns, refused to fund construction of a federal levee to protect the low-lying parish.
The failing private levees supports the notion that there are some things that private corporations and rugged individualism simply are not designed to handle. Surviving disaster requires support that can be provided only by the collective. Our collective tax dollars allow the National Hurricane Center to warn us of impending hurricanes. Our collective tax dollars fund federal interstates that allow evacuation. Our collective tax dollars fund emergency response agencies that help disaster victims in need.
So while Republicans dance the night away in Tampa, we remain in New Orleans. Our home collapsed, and our neighborhood has been without electricity since Tuesday. For once, we stand in agreement with Governor Jindal. We need more government, not less. Too bad Governor Jindal won’t be in Tampa to spread the word.
James Perry is executive director of Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
Melissa Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is the author of Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough, and a contributor to MSNBC.