Buried last week beneath the news of Vice President Dick Cheney filling a friend with birdshot in a quail-hunting accident was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's admission of gross agency failure to effectively respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
A congressional report, penned by a select committee of House Republicans, outlined the breakdowns following Aug. 29, 2005: "Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare."
Chertoff responded: "It is completely correct to say that our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate." He promised evacuation drills would begin in June this year, well in advance of hurricane season, in especially vulnerable areas along the Gulf Coast.
Many in Congress now are demanding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was absorbed into and managed by the Homeland Security Department soon after Sept. 11, 2001, be removed from that umbrella to become a stand-alone agency again.
To the million or so survivors of Katrina who fled New Orleans and coastal Mississippi, only to find hastily formed emergency relief efforts, all of this must sound too little, too late. A half-million among them still haven't returned home.
In Colorado Springs, initial emergency relief efforts went smoothly enough to instill pride in the volunteers and service agencies that banded together to staff what most simply called the Disaster Center. They initially processed some 1,800 evacuees, setting them up with clothes, food, housing, medical care and other services.
Nearly six months later, operations have moved to the Pikes Peak Support Center, part of the Pikes Peak Support Alliance, which offers continuing help to more than 600 known evacuee families still living in the area. More evacuees have relocated to Colorado Springs than to any other city in the state.
Coordination of efforts among local agencies has gone so well, says Val Acosta, senior community liaison for the Support Center, that Colorado Springs has become a model for alliance-building and disaster relief.
Agent of change The Pikes Peak Support Center employs two community-liaison workers and four case managers to respond directly to the needs of Katrina evacuees in the area. Acosta, a 32-year-old mother of four, finds her life changed by all that she's seen and learned since the early days of the relief effort.
Currently, she and her crew are dealing with fallout from FEMA's announcement since retracted that it would end emergency aid paid through the city on Feb. 13. That emergency money covers the rent for most evacuees here, who are dispersed around town in housing that has been designated Section 8 or low-income.
Following the announcement, evacuees in the Springs first had to be contacted, an often difficult task with an unsettled population. They then were told that they had to reapply for more lasting individual assistance funding from FEMA.
"They thought FEMA would be paying [emergency aid] for 12 months," says Acosta. "This change caused such a panic. Twenty families that we know of abandoned their housing for fear of being evicted. Had they come in, we have an advocate from FEMA in Denver to help them, and a number of people at city fire departments ready to help. Both work to make sure landlords know the process."
Due to logistical issues, FEMA has pushed back the transition from emergency aid to individual assistance to the end of March. Case managers and community liaisons now are busy helping evacuees fill out paperwork necessary for the change.
"We have to advise them that if they're evicted, they can't get future FEMA funds," says Acosta. "They can move to a new place, but they have to work within the system to keep receiving benefits."
Acosta says that like many people, she became frustrated and upset watching the Katrina drama unfold on television last August.
She volunteered first for the Disaster Center, then for the Richard Skorman Center, helping to arrange giveaways of some 40 to 50 cars, housing, furniture, clothing and other necessities to families relocated to the Springs. Eventually, her volunteer work led to a paid, full-time position at the Support Center.
In November, Acosta traveled to New Orleans to see the extent of damage there, so that families in the Springs could file insurance claims, if they were insured, or make decisions as to whether or not to return home.
She stayed at a tent city financed by the owner of a New Orleans sports club, who pooled money with FEMA matching funds to provide shelter for 2,000. This was near Chalmette, a suburb that had stacked up a barricade of ruined cars to keep evacuees out.
"It changed my life," says Acosta of the trip to New Orleans. A military officer allowed her through a barricade to take pictures of the devastation in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, where many evacuees to the Springs had lived.
"Seeing the water level lines inside the houses was so eerie," Acosta explains. "You could go anywhere in the city and feel and see what level of water people were standing or swimming in, inside their houses before they left or were rescued."
The trip also gave her a good idea of the hazards, both physical and emotional, that still consumed the city. She wore flip-flops one day in the murky water standing in the streets and developed an infection. Her feet haven't healed yet.
"Most of the people in the hospitals were construction workers," men gutting houses and removing debris without proper hazardous-material equipment, she says. "One hospital told me they rotated their medical workers every two weeks because of the high likelihood of cross-infection, what's referred to as "the Katrina cough.'"
Acosta took hundreds of photographs to bring back to the Springs, to show her clients here what their neighborhoods looked like.
Meanwhile, her Support Center co-workers ensured that seniors were receiving Social Security and disability payments; that families were getting their children registered in schools; and that all evacuees were taking advantage of the services available to them.
Bidding on chances The challenges that face these individuals and families are nearly unfathomable to anyone who never has faced this kind of disruption.
While no one has systematically collected data to assess the conditions of those relocated here, and it's unclear what their long-term intentions are, Acosta and others work to make sure they're aware they can receive mental health care, job counseling, transportation help, cultural liaisons and just plain comfort.
Recently, Pikes Peak Mental Health sponsored a "Look Good, Feel Good Spa Day" for evacuees, offering manicures, pedicures and other treats. Pikes Peak Workforce Center and Goodwill Industries coordinate job-search and training efforts with the Support Center, which are greatly needed, since getting a job is one of the biggest problems facing the dislocated.
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued earlier this month, joblessness remains rampant among Katrina evacuees, especially those who have not returned home.
Among all those who left home immediately following the storm, including the 500,000-plus who have returned to the Gulf Coast, the overall unemployment rate is 14.7 percent, compared to the national unemployment rate of about 5 percent. The unemployment rate among those who have not yet returned is 26.3 percent.
The Economic Policy Institute, responding to the crisis, recommended that Congress "quickly craft and implement policies to help them find transportation to return to the Gulf, temporary housing, and a system to help match them up with employers, including contractors engaged in federally funded reconstruction." Results have yet to come from that recommendation.
The housing situation in New Orleans itself is grim, with boarded-up and locked public housing units and jacked-up rental rates. FEMA's trailer program, designed to provide 18 months of subsidized housing to those without a home, quickly became a bureaucratic nightmare.
To those who are considering a return home to try to get a trailer, Acosta cautions that many of the trailer communities are located "on the outskirts of town, where [residents] are having a hard time accessing services" and there's no reliable public transportation.
Leasing the present Despite coordinated and generous relief efforts like those in Colorado Springs, the problems facing Katrina evacuees point out one undeniable truth: That was the emergency, and this is now.
Six months later, evacuees who want to return home still face impassable obstacles, and most communities around the United States have yet to learn how to best serve those who essentially are "internally displaced persons" (IDPs).
Don't call us refugees, Katrina evacuees urge. That implies this is not their country, an important sentiment.
Technically, the evacuees who fled New Orleans and the Gulf Coast following Katrina and the ensuing floods number among 25 million worldwide who've been forcibly displaced within their own countries, either by violent conflict or natural disasters.
International standards have been in place since 1998 to respond to the rising number of IDPs worldwide. Statistics collected by the Global IDP Project in 2005 showed that last year there were 100,000 IDPs in Afghanistan, 800,000 in Sri Lanka and one million in both the Unites States and Iraq.
The guiding principles for IDPs define the responsibilities of governments. When those governments can't meet the responsibilities, say the United Nations' high commissioner for refugees and others, those governments must call on the international community for help.
Katrina evacuees do not receive the same level of recognition or support from the United Nations and other international relief organizations as other refugees. But UNICEF could help with water and sanitation issues if called upon, and the World Food Programme could coordinate food and nutrition efforts. The U.N. Development Programme could have helped deal with early recovery efforts, like debris removal and temporary housing for those rendered homeless.
While it appears no one is advocating for this kind of assistance at this point, television celebrities like Oprah and Anderson Cooper continue to air gruesome footage of a New Orleans that looks nearly as ravaged today as it did six months ago. They ask the question: Why are people still living like this?
Meanwhile, the federal government finally is taking responsibility for its failures last August and September, while offering few solutions to the lasting housing, employment and aid problems that Katrina evacuees face daily.
Reporting this story, the Independent tried to contact as many as 20 families and individuals relocated to Colorado Springs, to talk about the difficulty of losing their homes and relocating. Some answered calls initially, then stopped answering. Some set up interview dates and didn't show up. Some said they didn't want to say anything negative for fear of sounding ungrateful or getting in trouble. Some numbers were disconnected.
When asked why he didn't want to talk about his experience, one man reached by phone said he would talk about the problems associated with relocating, but did not want to be identified.
"I just don't really feel like being pitied right now."
If you are a Katrina evacuee in Colorado Springs and need transportation help, call 482-9900 ext. 2, then ext. 109; or 720/219-4644; or leave a message at 351-2771.
For mental health consultations, call Pikes Peak Mental Health at 314-0740 or 447-4785.
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