A rose by any other name

rose1 Shakespeare so eloquently once stated: “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. We ought to take this sentiment to heart when considering the nature of the “economic stimulus” legislation working its way through congress right now.

For once, the republicans have got it right (sort of). Many have decried provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act not as stimulus items, but as projects that democrats simply think would be a good idea. What exactly do they mean?

One representative drew a useful analogy:  former Treasury Secretary Paulson asked for funds in order to relieve banks of “toxic assets”, to which congress promptly responded by passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka TARP- an apt acronym since congressional leaders evidently thought they could simply pull a financial tarp over the deep, systemic economic wounds the nation was suffering from). Then, once he got the money, Paulson decided that he actually didn’t want to buy toxic assets, but rather distribute the funds in a different fashion. So the problem is Paulson said he wanted the money for one thing (asset relief), but then used it on another.

In the same way, republican are accusing the democrats of simply pushing through funding under one name (stimulus), when they are actually pursing another goal (an agenda). A few examples: $20 billion for health information technology, $350 for military research on alternative energy usage for weaponry, $900 million to prepare for a pandemic influenza, $150 million for a repair backlog at the Smithsonian, etc…

Of course all of this spending will stimulate the economy in some way, but so would investing $250 million in toilet paper research. The question isn’t whether these programs will stimulate the economy- but whether they are the best vehicle for doing so. So what is the republican answer? Well, some of them are calling for massive tax cuts- one even proposed that all income tax be suspended for a year. The argument there is that American consumers can best stimulate the economy by  putting money in their pockets.

There are of course  a couple of problems with this philosophy, first and foremost- the previous stimulus payments made directly to consumers had very little demonstrative impact on the economy as many (wisely) choose to apply the money towards their debt burdens.  It is a reasonable assumption that in tough economic times as these, if Americans have more disposable income by way of reduced taxes they are not suddenly going to run out and purchase a new Prius, but rather pay down their debt, other obligations, or save the money. The net effect of these tax cuts would likely only enrich banks/creditors further, and only mildly stimulate the economy.

After the first round of $350 billion, the banks hardly showed an inclination towards resuming credit and investment, so it is unwise to assume that tax cuts that would largely benefit creditors would help get us out of the recession. A further point to consider is, whether the American people have been consulted on this notion of reducing taxes during a recession. By presumably borrowing money from foreign investors and making consumers involuntarily take the proceeds, we are in effect giving the American consumer a foreign backed credit card they didn’t ask for, without knowing the true future costs of that credit.

After all, if American’s really did go out and purchase big-macs, flat screen t.v.’s and Hummers, is that really how we want to try to stimulate the economy? More moderate republicans have suggested that while tax relief is indeed part of the solution, a greater part of the stimulus legislation should be focused on public infrastructure- and I tend to agree. Construction and repair of buildings, roads, homes, highways and public facilities should comprise a significant portion of the  economic stimulus as this will not only create long term benefits to the American people, but it will also immediately generate jobs and income.

The scope of the infrastructure projects that could be undertaken would be limited only by how much of the $825 billion was reserved for such purposes. Obama might be well advised to move towards a Tennessee Valley Authority or Civilian Conservation Corps type program as part of an economic stimulus. However all of this is not to say that the vast majority of spending in the stimulus legislation isn’t valuable, and  indeed necessary to the development of our nation, because it is; and it is certainly not to say that the republicans should be let off the hook and hailed as visionaries.

What Obama should do, is pursue a true program of economic stimulus spending on one hand, and then in another round of sweeping legislation, introduce and pass all of the other types of spending under a new “New Deal” type of contract with America. This would range from spending on education to healthcare to social services, and could represent a bold new policy agenda of which funding for these programs would be the beginning.

The benefit of such a strategy would be two-fold. First, if the democrats simply used the remaining $350 billion of TARP money for true economic stimulus side-by-side with separate, “New Deal” legislation that contained investment in all of the other programs they are seeking to fund, they would still get what they wanted: economic stimulus, and a new policy direction for the nation.

Second, and perhaps more strategic, by going along with republican demands that the stimulus solely consist of tax cuts and infrastructure programs they would demonstrate bi-partisanship, and then when seeking funding for a “New Deal”, they could expose the republican opposition for what it truly is: ideological opposition to spending on social services, alternative energy options, and in general, progressive, liberal programs. By removing spending for these programs from the tough-to-defend label of “economic stimulus”, republicans would only have ideological arguments to fall back on when voting against such programs.

By calling their bluff, republicans would look quite foolish in front of the American people denying the necessity of investment in education, alternative energy, health care and social service programs, during our worst economic downturn since the depression. But by trying to sneak funding for these programs in under the label of “economic stimulus” democrats try to subvert the legislative process, call the spending something its not, and give the republicans something to hide behind.

For too long, republicans have beaten the democrats at rhetoric, spin, and in general, the political game. If the democrats and the Obama administration are serious about a new mandate for America, they need to be smart and deliberate about their decisions.

After all, if we get an economic stimulus, and our social programs under different names, won’t they still smell just as sweet?

-kd-



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Lobbying or Lying?

handshakeGrowing up, as I became more aware of the political process, the terms “lobbyist” and “lobbying” would frequently crop up- and always with a negative connotation. For a long time, I thought lobbying was a four-letter word, and all the dirt bags out there doing whatever  dirty lobbyist do, were just a bunch of corrupt cronnies.

Fortunately, thanks to the marvels of higher education, I have had not only learned what lobbying really is, but have also had the opportunity to lobby in the Connecticut & Pennsylvania state Legislatures, as well as in D.C.

So what is lobbying? Who lobbies? What role does money play? Are there any honest lobbyists out there?

From Wikipedia (I can do that because they were declared accurate today):

Lobbying is the practice of influencing decisions made by government. It includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.

So what exactly does this look like?

Well, if you call your representative and advocate for legalizing marijuana- you are lobbying; if you and your local church group put on a public forum about homelessness and invite city council members to attend- you are lobbying; and if you go to congress and meet with legislators & their staff to talk about legislation- you are lobbying.

So why the bad rap? Unfortunately, when Enron calls their Representative and speaks against financial disclosure rules- they too are lobbying; when Lehman Brothers whisper into the ears of senators against financial regulations- they are also lobbying; and when {evil corporation here} wines and dines legislators in exchange for votes, they are lobbying- albeit unscrupulously.

So are there honest lobbyists? Sure. Every lobbyist has a job to do, and that is simply to try to convince an elected official to take some sort of action- usually of benefit to the group of people whom the lobbyist represents. So just because the NRA might work for lax gun restrictions- it doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong. On the contrary, they are taking advantage of a fundamental democratic right on behalf of their members.

The fact that there is likely just as much illegitimate lobbying as legitimate lobbying, is all the more reason why ordinary folks and organizations need to get out there and lobby! We need to take full advantage of the fact that our taxes pay the salary of legislators to listen to and serve us. After all, if Bank of America is talking with Dodd about what they want, so too, should small community banks. And if GM is talking with Pelosi about what they want, so too, should the Auto Workers Union.

Lobbying, for the most part, isn’t about lying, or bribing, or deceiving. It is about communicating in an organized fashion, a set of central ideas or beliefs, or requests that an organized constituency has. For instance, when the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania lobbied in D.C. today for increased housing funding- it was because we believe our efforts might be of benefit to low income home owners, renters, and the homeless.

The Obama administration recently laid out strict new rules about lobbying:

The rules restrict political appointees who leave the administration from lobbying former friends and colleagues for at least two years and ban those coming on board from working on matters they previously lobbied on or approaching agencies they once targeted. In addition, no member of the administration will be allowed to accept gifts of any size from lobbyists. And all staff members must attend an ethics briefing.

So next time you have the opportunity to write, phone, or visit with a legislator- take full advantage of the moment!

Take action & lobby for change!

-kd-

Economic Stimulus for Social Workers

tax_relief The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill has been submitted to Congress for review. There are billions of dollars floating around in this economic stimulus proposal & yours truly has taken a look through it to cull some funding streams that should be of interest to social workers & like minded individuals (read: you are concerned about the welfare of poor, oppressed, and vulnerable populations).

Why does this matter? This legislation represents the most sweeping financial stimulus the nation has ever seen, and the potential for great good to be done for our clients is within our grasp. It is up to us to contact our legislators and let them know what we support, do not support, or wish was in the stimulus that is not there.

I encourage you to read the full summary here in the next week before the bill is voted on.

elderly Vulnerable Populations:

Child Development Center: $360 million for new child development centers.

Veterans Medical Facilities: $950 million for veterans’ medical facilities.

Job Corps Facilities: $300 million to upgrade job training facilities serving at-risk youth while improving energy efficiency.

Education for Homeless Children and Youth: $66 million for formula grants to states to provide services to homeless children including meals and transportation when high unemployment and home foreclosures have created an influx of homeless kids.

Child Care Development Block Grant: $2 billion to provide child care services for an additional 300,000 children in low-income families while their parents go to work.

Head Start: $2.1 billion to provide comprehensive development services to help 110,000 additional children succeed in school.

Training and Employment Services: $4 billion for job training including formula grants for adult, dislocated worker, and youth services (including $1.2 billion to create up to one million summer jobs for youth).

Child Support Enforcement: $1 billion to provide federal incentive funds for states to collect support owed to families.

Centers for Independent Living: $200 million for state formula grants to help individuals with disabilities continue to live in their communities.

cap-and-certificate Higher Education:

Pell Grants: $15.6 billion to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $500, from $4,850 to $5,350.

College Work-Study: $490 million to support undergraduate and graduate students who work.

Student Loan Limit Increase: Increases limits on unsubsidized Stafford loans by $2,000.

safehousing Housing:

Energy Efficiency Housing Retrofits: $2.5 billion for a new program to upgrade HUD sponsored low-income housing to increase energy efficiency, including new insulation, windows, and furnaces. Funds will be competitively awarded.

Native American Housing Block Grants: $500 million to rehabilitate and improve energy efficiency at some of the over 42,000 housing units maintained by Native American housing programs.

Homeless Assistance Grants: $1.5 billion for the Emergency Shelter Grant program to provide short term rental assistance, housing relocation, and stabilization services for families during the economic crisis. Funds are distributed by formula.

Lead Paint: $100 million for competitive grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to remove lead-based paint hazards in low-income housing.

food-fruit-01 Food Security:

IDEA Infants and Families: $600 million for formula grants to help states serve children with disabilities age 2 and younger.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance: $20 billion to provide nutrition assistance to modest-income families and to lift restrictions that limit the amount of time individuals can receive food stamps.

Senior Nutrition Programs: $200 million for formula grants to states for elderly nutrition services including Meals on Wheels and Congregate Meals.

Afterschool Meals: $726 million to increase the number of states that provide free dinners to children and to encourage participation by new institutions by increasing snack reimbursement rates.

whiteeyes Undeserved Communities:

Wireless and Broadband Grants: $6 billion for broadband and wireless services in underserved areas to strengthen the economy and provide business and job opportunities in every section of America with benefits to e-commerce, education, and healthcare.

Economic Development Assistance: $250 million to address long-term economic distress in urban industrial cores and rural areas distributed based on need and ability to create jobs and attract private investment.

Rural Water and Waste Disposal: $1.5 billion to support $3.8 billion in grants and loans to help communities fund drinking water and wastewater treatment systems.

Bureau of Reclamation: $500 million to provide clean, reliable drinking water to rural areas and to ensure adequate water supply to western localities impacted by drought.

Bureau of Indian Affairs: $500 million to address maintenance backlogs at schools, dams, detention and law enforcement facilities, and over 24,000 miles of roads.

Indian Health Service Facilities: $550 million to modernize aging hospitals and health clinics and make healthcare technology upgrades to improve healthcare for underserved rural populations.

Rural Community Facilities: $200 million to support $1.2 billion in grants and loans to rural areas for critical community facilities, such as for healthcare, education, fire and rescue, day care, community centers, and libraries.

pencils Primary Education:

School Construction: $20 billion, including $14 billion for K-12 and $6 billion for higher education, for renovation and modernization, including technology upgrades and energy efficiency improvements. Also includes $100 million for school construction in communities that lack a local property tax base because they contain non-taxable federal lands such as military bases or Indian reservations, and $25 million to help charter schools build, obtain, and repair schools.

IDEA Special Education: $13 billion for formula grants to increase the federal share of special education costs and prevent these mandatory costs from forcing states to cut other areas of education.

Title I Help for Disadvantaged Kids: $13 billion for grants to help disadvantaged kids in nearly every school district and more than half of all public schools reach high academic standards.

48_healthinsurancesect_s188 Health:

Medical Facilities: $3.75 billion for new construction of hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers, and $455 million in renovations to provide state-of-the-art medical care to service members and their families.

Superfund Hazardous Waste Cleanup: $800 million to clean up hazardous and toxic waste sites that threaten health and the environment

Prevention and Wellness Fund: $3 billion to fight preventable chronic diseases, the leading cause of deaths in the U.S., and infectious diseases

Community Health Centers: $1.5 billion, including $500 million to increase the number of uninsured Americans who receive quality healthcare and $1 billion to renovate clinics and make health information technology improvements.

Training Primary Care Providers: $600 million to address shortages and prepare our country for universal healthcare by training primary healthcare providers including doctors, dentists, and nurses as well as helping pay medical school expenses for students who agree to practice in undeserved communities through the National Health Service Corps.

COBRA Healthcare for the Unemployed: $30.3 billion to extend health insurance coverage to the unemployed, extending the period of COBRA coverage for older and tenured workers beyond the 18 months provided under current law.

CB022158 Financial Security:

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: $2.5 billion for block grants to help States deal with the surge in families needing help during the recession and to prevent them from cutting work programs and services for abused and neglected children.

Employment Services Grants: $500 million to match unemployed individuals to job openings through state employment service agencies and allow states to provide customized services.

Increased Benefits: $9 billion to increase the current average unemployment insurance benefit from roughly $300 per week, paid out of State trust funds, by $25 per week using Federal funds, through December 2009.

Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants: $500 million for state formula grants for construction and rehabilitation of facilities to help persons with disabilities prepare for gainful employment.

Payments to Disabled and Elderly: $4.2 billion to help 7.5 million low-income disabled and elderly individuals with rising costs by providing an additional SSI payment in 2009 equal to the average monthly federal payment under the program

Community Service Employment for Older Americans: $120 million to provide subsidized community service jobs to an additional 24,000 low-income older Americans.

world-connect-people-community-international Other:

Transit Capital Assistance: $6 billion to purchase buses and equipment needed to increase public transportation and improve intermodal and transit facilities.

Department of Labor Worker Protection and Oversight: $80 million to ensure that worker protection laws are enforced as recovery infrastructure investments are carried out.

Compassion Capital Fund: $100 million for grants to faith- and community-based organizations to provide critical safety net services to needy individuals and families.

AmeriCorps Programs: $200 million to put approximately 16,000 additional AmeriCorps members to work doing national service, meeting needs of vulnerable populations and communities during the recession.

Community Services Block Grant: $1 billion for grants to local communities to support employment, food, housing, and healthcare efforts serving those hardest hit by the recession.

Emergency Food and Shelter: $200 million to help local community organizations provide food, shelter, and support services to the nation’s hungry, homeless, and people in economic crisis including one-month utility payments to prevent service cut-off and one-month rent or mortgage assistance to prevent evictions or help people leave shelters.

It is important not to become complacent and assume everything will work out now that Obama is in office. We still need to support good legislation, demand better when necessary, and provide constructive criticism  flawed ideas.

For instance:

-The plan to lift time restrictions on the length of time individuals can receive food stamps is a laudable policy

-The plan to invest $224 million in the repair of flood control systems neglects New Orleans (see full bill)

-The plan to invest $350 million to research renewable energy sources for military weaponry would be better spent on green civilian technology such as mass transit.

Contact your Representative

Contact your Senator

Contact your President

****UPDATE: On CSPAN tonight the House was debating this bill and of course the Republicans wanted to CUT THE FOOD BANK / FOOD STAMPS provisions….this is why you must stay informed & involved!!*********


-kd-

Today I stood for the Star Spangled Banner

american-flagOften chided by my foreign-born girlfriend for my cynical tirades about the state of America without giving credit to the multitude of freedoms and opportunities available within our borders, I usually acknowledge that yes, I do live in a great country, and it is marvelous that I am able to freely criticize the government without (too much) fear of retribution. Then I talk about how it is patriotic to critique our leaders, and why it is important to not just engage in “feel-good reflections” about the state of our nation while only casting a quick and furtive glance to the dark pages of our domestic and foreign policy playbook.

Today, however, I do feel compelled to express my gratitude for living in this nation. There is a lot to be bitter about, and there is much room for improvement, but watching President Obama address the nation and the world, I took solace in the fact that, even if he falls short of his lofty goals, that the nation choose to elect a leader who so forthrightly proclaimed to the world:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.

I am cautiously optimistic that in the coming years we will see a strengthening of civil liberties, a broadening of social protections, and a multilateral approach to foreign policy. For now,  I can say I am proud to belong to United States of America and hopeful about our future.

-kd-

The Cost of Being Ordinary

homlessAs I drove along Market Street I was surprised at how empty it was. The thousands of folks who hustle and bustle during the daytime were now largely gone. As I approached Chinatown however, there was one person whom very definitely had not left Market Street when the shops closed up. In fact, this person might have been more accurately described as a body, because that is what they looked like as I drove by.

In those few seconds I slowed the car, but  I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I stop? Should I see if they were okay? What could I do to help? I pulled over and thought for a second. I really wanted to help this person- they were clearly in need. Most of the time when I see individuals suffering from homelessness, they are stooped in a corner, huddled against a wall, or on the move. This person however had no stereotypical cardboard, no doorway, no cliche blanket. They were just lying in the middle of the sidewalk, unmoving.

I stepped out of my car and grabbed a package of trail mix that I thought I would have eaten on my long drive from CT to PA, but hadn’t. As I approached the individual, a Philadelphia police van drove by. I thought they might slow down when they saw the person on the sidewalk, and I wished they had- what if they were dead? Just a few weeks ago, there was a memorial in Philadelphia to remember the lives of the 83 homeless and formerly homeless folks who had died in 2008.

I reached the person, whom I could now tell was a man, but I couldn’t be certain if he was awake or not because he had a hat pulled down over his face. “Excuse me?” …”Hello?” (what do you say to a body on a sidewalk?). To my relief he moved and pulled his hat up. The drool on his cheek told me I had woken him. I apologized and mumbled a few lines about whether he was okay, or if I could help him.

It was an awkward 45 seconds during which  I, the social worker, asked a man sleeping on the sidewalk at midnight over a subway grate, whether there were any shelters that he might be able to go to. He told me no, and I began to feel incredibly ridiculous. What could I offer this man at midnight that was worth waking him up for? I asked him if it was okay if I left him something to eat. He said yes and eagerly took the bag of trail mix.

I told him to take care and as I walked away I looked back. He was still on his side, still trying to warm his body from the subway grate, as he opened the bag of nuts and raisins and began to eat them. My heart broke, and I had to ask myself was my stopping more about assuaging my guilt, or about actually helping this man? I walked back to him and asked if he wanted to grab something hot to eat. He looked at me and said no. He didn’t seem like he was interested in more conversation.

Back in my car I shuddered and turned the heat up. I sat for a while angry, frustrated, and hopeless. I was angry- I was angry that during this interaction two city police vehicles drove by this man without so much as stopping. I was angry that I lived in a society where the sight of  what might have been a body on a sidewalk aroused no curiosity from the police, or the sole other passerby who continued on by as if the man were little more than an obstacle to be avoided. I was frustrated. I was frustrated that I had little more to offer him than a bag of nuts that might not have even been worth the difficulty with which he would  now face in trying to fall back asleep in the cold. I felt hopeless as I turned the key in the ignition and headed for home. What was the answer? Was there an answer?

Seeing this man tonight, it was with irony that I wondered if he would have been better off in D.C. where authorities have been conducting a massive operation to remove homeless people from the streets of the Capitol ahead of inauguration.

At least he would have been noticed there.

-kd-

(After going home, I went on the internet and was able to locate a resource that may have of been to help to this man. It was a program called Philadelphia Homeless Outreach Hotline- 215.232.1984. They can help house a person for the night, and encourage people to use the number to help individuals experiencing homelessness. If you don’t live in Philly, take a minute to go online and see if you can locate a similar resource in your town. If you don’t have one, lobby for it!)

Mississippi Mud

pearlingtonOn Saturday, January 3rd I boarded a plane headed for New Orleans. We touched down a few hours later, and made the hour-long drive to a little town forgotten by the world: Pearlington, Mississippi. Having spent some time in the Gulf region last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect three years out from Katrina.

Would there be the sprawling emptiness of the 9th Ward, where desolate cement slabs marked where homes once stood, where families ate, where children played? Would there be sporadic building- foundations beings poured by church groups, windows being constructed by habitat for humanity? Would the people be resentful at the post-Katrina ADD of the nation?

In a span of little over a week, I would realize the insignificance of these questions.

For the past week, I have been part of  a team of social workers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice who went to Mississippi. The goals of our trip were fairly straightforward:

Provide compassionate listening to the individuals and families we met in the community. In a world where news is no longer news after a brief media rotation, it has been no secret that thousands of people have been scarred by Hurricane Katrina, and met only with a deafeningly silent response. Going door to door, and sitting for an hour or more, we listened. We sat with them as they re-lived clinging from a tree for hours. We listened as they told us about drinking salt-water from a ditch, and we teared up as they did, recalling the pain of leaving pets behind, of their homes washing away, of their lives being forever turned topsy-turvey on that fateful August day.

-The second thing we wanted to do was to assess the health needs of the community. In this small town of roughly 1,500 people, we knew there were many needs that were not being met. We asked about their doctors and hospitals, we talked about access to facilities and medications, and we recorded their wish lists and recommendations for improvement. It was our hope that in compiling health-needs data and providing it to regional health providers, we would be able to establish an awareness of the health needs in this community- and eventually improve the availability and accessibility of resources.

-Finally, we advertised our health fair. For the past 2 years, the University of Pennsylvania has collaborated with local health care providers and civic organizations to put on a health fair for the community. The free blood pressure readings, hot dogs, vision screenings, moon bounce, raffles and dancing were the stuff of the first major community event the people who turned out had seen in nearly a year.

These goals however, quickly became overshadowed within the first few home visits I made with my partner. The reality of life in Pearlington, Mississippi, we learned, existed outside of health care assessments, and free toothbrushes. So what did I learn? Let me recall a few quick stories I heard:

-A mother of two told us of how both her children developed asthma after moving into FEMA trailers. Both children now require inhalers and nebulizers, and their condition is so serious, that her daughter had to be taken off the school bus one morning and transported to the ER by ambulance from one of the attacks. She then told us that the class-action lawsuit against the government for their formaldehyde laden trailers was being dropped, and individuals were now being forced to pursue their claims individually.

-Another woman who told us she was denied government assistance after the storm. Her husband had to sell his retirement to help rebuild a home, and she later learned that $10,000 in relief aid had been applied for and received in her name fraudulently by someone else.

-A middle aged man whose new home was framed, but not yet completed done in the inside, was scheduled to loose his MEMA cottage (the government version of an upgraded (read: less toxic) FEMA trailer) within a few months. He was told that he was not allowed to stay in his new home because it was not completed, in the same breath that he learned the government wanted their cottage back. So what did he plan to do? Sleep inside of his unfinished house, and set up a tent outside in case people came by to make sure he wasn’t sleeping inside his home.

-Finally, another woman who told us about her two parents who had to move into FEMA trailers after the storm. Her father, with no prior history of the illness, developed full-blow lung cancer within three months of moving into the trailer and died.

We heard dozens of stories of inefficiency, corruption, and incompetency on federal and local levels, over and over again. We saw countless people hold their heads up high, refusing to be deterred from survival, even as they were denied access to building materials in corrupt allocation processes. We heard people tell us they didn’t know what they were going to do when they lost their MEMA trailer, even as we learned that the government was putting these very trailers up for auction. In short, we saw a community victimized once by the storm, and a second time by the entities supposed to support them.

So what are the lessons learned? What are the answers? Well the sweeping conclusions are obvious: The government screwed up- hold them accountable for FEMA trailer health problems. Local government screwed up- investigate and trace funding streams- and prosecute any mismanagement. These are broad, and laborious processes, and the true problem is what does Pearlington need from us right now?

1. Money/Building Materials– direct aid and material donations need to be made directly to storm survivors, or well established and respected aid organizations- not untested local bureaucracies.

2. Volunteers– the initial wave of post-Katrina volunteers was heavy, and has since slowed to a trickle- but there are still homes that need to be completed. In the words of one man we visited- “Y’all are the first people who have come out here in a year besides the meter reader“.

3. Long Term Solutions– This is the most crucial part of the equation. The question is not what do we do to prevent not another “Katrina”, but rather, what do we do to prevent another “Pearlington”, another “9th Ward”?

First and foremost we must have commitment. We must as a society decide that it is unacceptable to turn our backs on millions of coastal residents, suggesting that they should not be assisted because they live in a flood plain and “its just going to happen again”. How do we get over this case of “Screw them because I’m okay?” Take a look at a map, and point to an area that is not subject to hurricanes, wild fires,  severe snow/ice storms, earthquakes, flash floods, tornadoes, mudslides or any other natural disaster. We should no more prohibit people from living in California because of wild fires and earthquakes than we should fail to rebuild the Gulf region.

Global warming and last year’s tsunami have showed us we live in a new era coastal dangers. Short of relocating the entire US coastal population to the North Dakota, we must accept we live in a world where mother nature will strike at whim, and the best we can do, is work together to protect each other.

-Second, we must have funding behind that commitment. Grandiose promises without financial backing will mean little to those in Pearlington, and other similar towns still reeling from the storm. We must have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan for every state in the nation- that is established in a collaborative process between FEMA and each state. FEMA itself is too small to plan for every constituency, but each state should be quite capable of identifying dangers/plans and communicating those to FEMA.

-Third, we must make sure that those responsible for relief efforts are held accountable- not to be vindictive, but to ensure that they are doing their jobs correctly. Someone, somewhere along the way made the decision that FEMA trailers, with known dangerous materials, were okay to distribute to children and families. Someone, somewhere along the way decided that MEMA cottages must be removed unconditionally from everyone without planning for the repercussions.

During the 10 days I spent in New Orleans & Slidell, LA last year, I learned of two other serious issues that should also be addressed: the first is the levees. I stood in the Lower 9th Ward face to face with enormous spans of the levees newly constructed. They were nice and new, and apparently finally built to code. A geographic specialist from a local university explained to us that the levees should have been built to a depth of “x number of feet”- however, the Army Corps of Civil Engineers has only dug down “y number of feet”. This decision allowed water to seep under the levee, weakening the land, and eventually led to the collapse. The federal government has since recognized this error and built the new sections of the collapsed levees to their appropriate depth. So whats the problem? Miles of the old levees are still at the original depth- simply ensuring a different part of the levee will collapse next time.

The other major issue I encountered was a program where the federal government was offering homeowners 50% of the post Katrina value of their homes– then the home would be demolished, declared a “green space”, and never be built on again. In short, the government is trying to buy off homeowners instead of planning to protect the city- and even worse- is only offering 50% of post Katrina value (how much can a pile of 2′ by 4’s be worth?). How are these people to get a new home with such a pittance?

I went to Mississippi thinking that my prior time in the area had wizened me to the reality of the region- the problems, causes, implications, and solutions. But this time I came face to face not with project foremen on building projects, but with real people in need. I learned of tragedy and corruption and came home with a different kind of Mississippi mud on my boots. This is my attempt to at least spread awareness of the severity of the situation three years out. The woman who had lost her father to a FEMA trailer, and told her soon to be 7-year old before us that there was no money for his birthday party this week, asked us with tears in her eyes to not forget them, and to be her voice. It is a request I can not deny.

-kd-

Local Television Coverage of our trip

Local News Article of Our Trip

FEMA response to Formaldehyde

NY Times Article on Levee Depth