This August will mark the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and survivors still can’t seem to get a break. At the close of 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reportedly mailed out tens of thousands of notices to victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in an effort to recoup more than $385 million it says was mistakenly sent out due to employee errors. Okay, what's wrong with this picture? Hurricane Katrina was my first ever cover assignment, so writing about this has been dear to me these past years. I had to ask a few people their thoughts about this one.
“I don’t see how they could dare say people owe them when they still owe us so much for what was done to us. We were never fully compensated for all that we lost nor have people been made whole since 2005. This is immoral,” said Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, a retired Dillard University professor. His family is now residing in Houston.
The combination of Katrina and Rita caused billions in damages in the Gulf Coast in August and September 2005. Victims from Louisiana still remain scattered throughout more than 5,000 U.S. cities. In October of that year, Wilma caused billions in damages in Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, and the state of Florida.
Dr. Sanyika and his wife were forced from their home in New Orleans East and lost everything after floodwaters ripped through the city. For the next five years he had to commute from Houston to New Orleans to maintain his position at Dillard. He says his family was mentally distraught and in a constant bout with red tape of the FEMA system.
“They have the nerve to say the victims owe them? Most of us literally left with what was on our backs or in our cars. We lost homes, lost jobs, got displaced from relatives and some of us lost relatives because of the storm. I doubt if FEMA gets anything back from the people,” said Dr. Sanyika.
"I think FEMA’s delayed rescue response, shelter issues, FEMA trailers and now this issue of seeking repayment for funds that were more than likely spent on legitimate needs of people after these disasters, shows that the government was not as prepared as it has portrayed itself,” said Student Minister Willie Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque No. 46, which is located on Downman Street in New Orleans.
“The so-called debt should be forgiven for those who can show that the funds were properly spent and were not fraudulent,” said Mr. Muhammad.
"No one in government has ever pursued those that truly profited off of the disaster that came post-Katrina. Corporations like Ashbritt and Halliburton and Blackwater made hundreds of millions of dollars by exploiting people's suffering for their own profits,” said New Orleans author and activist Jordan Flaherty.
“Just as Wall Street has never been held accountable for what they did to the U.S. economy, and foreclosures continue around the U.S., the same is true on the Gulf Coast: the poor are made to suffer while the rich look forward to the next disaster they can exploit,” said Mr. Flaherty.
Wes Johnson, who is also an activist in the Crescent City, said “It is unfortunate that FEMA is allowed to go after the victims who are still suffering mentally from Katrina. But the real thieves, such as those running who have run the Louisiana Road Home program, have not been criminally investigated.”
In mid-December, U.S. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., announced that Congress passed year-end federal funding legislation, signed by President Obama, to ensure fairness for disaster survivors who are facing recoupment of assistance payments due to government error. “Many families facing recoupment are honest disaster survivors who experienced great tragedy and who never intended to misuse funds or take anything to which they were not entitled. It is simply unfair to make families pay large sums of money back to the government for someone else’s mistake,” Sen. Landrieu said in a statement on her website.
What do you think?
(All photos by Brother Jesse Muhammad taken August 2010 in New Orleans)