New Orleans & President Bush's Promises

After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush spoke of America's "duty to confront this poverty with bold action." A student reading offers a report card on this effort and suggests student responses.

To the Teacher:

After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush spoke to the country about "persistent poverty" with "roots in a history of racial discrimination" exposed by the Gulf Coast hurricane and its awful aftermath. Bush spoke of America's "duty to confront this poverty with bold action." The student reading below offers a report card on the results in the devastated city of New Orleans and suggests a student response to him and other public officials about it.

Student Reading:

'Think Disneyland, except on a river'

President Bush on poverty, racial discrimination & our duty
"Within the Gulf Region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When they houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses."
President Bush, speaking in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 9/15/05
"Americans of every race and religion were touched by this storm; yet some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle—the elderly, the vulnerable, and the poor. And this poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency."
President Bush, speaking on a National Day of Prayer at the Washington National Cathedral, 9/16/05
In these speeches the president outlined his plan to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and to confront poverty and racial discrimination with "bold action." The plan included:
1. Creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" that "should provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment, tax relief for small businesses, incentives to companies that create jobs, and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises, to get them up and running again."
2. An "Urban Homesteading Act" that would provide building sites on federal land free of charge through a lottery to low-income people.
3. "Worker Recovery Accounts" of up to $5,000 that evacuees could use for job training and education.
The New Orleans poor fifteen months later
Since the president's speech, the federal government has spent tens of billions on cleaning up and rebuilding New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, including levees and flood walls. Additional billions have gone to promoting business recovery and development, unemployment benefits and such social services as health care and education.
On the presidential plan for directly confronting poverty and racial discrimination with "bold action," the record, 15 months after his speeches, shows the following for New Orleans:
The president signed legislation for the Gulf Opportunity Zone, which authorizes $8.7 billion in tax breaks for small businesses and real estate developers. But, as Jonathan Alter reported, "Worker recovery accounts and urban homesteading never got off the ground." (Newsweek, 9/4/06)
In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 84% of New Orleans' African Americans said that most people affected by Katrina had not gotten the help they need; 75% said the federal government had not done enough to help state and local officials. (, 8/20/06)
Jeffrey Buchanan of the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights noted that more than half of the New Orleans pre-Katrina population—some 200,000 people, predominately African Americans from working class communities like the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Holy Cross—were spread across 46 states. "They have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods, basic issues like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether their local schools are open. Many are waiting on insurance claims to repair homes." Buchanan charged that the government had failed on two measures: "accurately delivering information about what is happening on the ground in their former neighborhoods and administering a comprehensive plan to protect the property and civil rights of the displaced while they are away." (Jeffrey Buchanan, Information Officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights,, 8/30/06)
Affordable housing in New Orleans is in very short supply. According to the New York Times: "The city has announced that it plans to refurbish only a small fraction of its traditional public housing units.  Though some aid has been set aside for landlords, many lower-income residents who say they are unable to return have been priced out. 'I want to come back, but who's going to help me build my life?' asked Lionel Smith, 46, a longtime resident of the Lower Ninth Ward and a driving school instructor whose apartment building was destroyed by the floodwaters. 'There's this plan in place to take care of homeowners, but I've heard nothing about helping renters. Where are we supposed to live?' From a renter's point of view, New Orleans has become off-limits to all but prosperous tenants, as rents have increased significantly in the pockets of the city that did not flood."
The Times also noted that "those communities that were home to the greatest concentration of rental properties are also those areas that still lie in ruins 12 months after the storm.  The lack of affordable rental housing is yet another factor making it more difficult for low-income residents to return. The city has also lost its extensive health care system for the poor; its school system is only partially functioning; and there is little public transportation." (New York Times, 9/17/06)
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, as of late October 2006, less than half of the New Orleans schools were open, 50 percent of the doctors and nurses had not returned to the city, two hospitals out of ten were open and 125,000 residents had no health insurance. (10/29/06)
A Rice University study reported that more than 80% of the Katrina evacuees in the Houston area were unemployed one year later, while 66% had had full or part-time jobs in the New Orleans area before the storm. Many of these people told researchers that there were not enough jobs in Houston or that the lack of transportation prevented them from finding jobs. Nevertheless, over 68% said they planned to stay in Houston because they had nothing to go back to in New Orleans.
The Texas Commission on Health and Human Services estimates that there are 110,000 evacuees in Houston and 251,000 in Texas. (, 9/9/06)
Those who have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward have complained about the lack of decent drinking water. Mayor Ray Nagin said the area has three major problems: lack of consistent water pressure, too many broken water lines, and poor water quality. It remained unclear when these problems would be solved. (, 9/20/06)
The New Orleans Times-Picayune interviewed Eraina Shorty who, along with many other people, had lost her home. "The tragedy occurred in a few hours. The headaches associated with trying to be made whole have dogged her for months." Shorty had been waiting for hours at the New Orleans Parish Mortgage and Conveyance Office to get routine documents need for a loan from the Small Business Administration. A reporter who wanted to know how many loans had been approved by the governmental agency could get no answer. (, 10/27/06)
A state survey estimated that 187,525 people were living in New Orleans as of 8/6/06; the census of 2000 reported 467,013 living there. An estimate just prior to the storm in 2005 put the population at 437,186. In short, the New Orleans population of August 2006 was 60% smaller than in 2000 and 57% smaller than in 2005. Low-income African Americans make up most of the missing population.
"As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city.  So we won't get all those folks back. That is just a fact," said Joseph Canizaro, a New Orleans developer close to Mayor Nagin and President Bush. (Common Dreams, 8/30)
According to Jeffrey Buchanan of the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, developers want to knock down what's left of working class neighborhoods and build luxury condos and other high priced housing. If they are successful, the result will be "a whiter, higher income city purged of its cultural roots. Think Disneyland, except on a river."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why have many African Americans from working class communities not returned to New Orleans? Developer Canizaro said, "these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city." What "resources" do you suppose he is referring to? Why do you suppose they aren't getting help to obtain them?
3. Why do you suppose that developers prefer to build luxury condos rather than low- and middle-income housing?
4. What "cultural roots" is Jeffrey Buchanan referring to? How do you interpret, "Think Disneyland, except on a river"?
5. In his speeches the president said that poverty in the Gulf Region had "roots in a history of racial discrimination" that produced "a legacy of inequality" and "closed many doors of opportunity." How do you explain what the president was talking about?

For inquiry

Having completed and discussed the reading, students might be asked to formulate questions to investigate, leading to deeper understanding of such issues as the following:
1. The roots of "deep, persistent poverty" in a history of segregation and discrimination.
2. The disappearance of "urban homesteading" and "worker recovery accounts."
3. The "cultural roots" of New Orleans.
4. Development underway in New Orleans.

For writing and citizenship

The president made promises to working class Americans whose poverty "has roots in a history of racial discrimination" to work for the elimination of "the legacy of inequality." Fifteen months after Katrina, much remains to be done to meet those promises.
Have students discuss them and then express their views in letters to President Bush, their two senators, and their representative in Congress. These letters might be most effective if they are short, to the point and ask specific questions for public officials to answer.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: