Here's the latest in a CQ Roll Call series of reports on the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, continuing our conversations with New Orleans' congressmen Steve Scalise and Cedric L. Richmond: Ten years ago, Congress barely blinked before greenlighting billions to rebuild the Hurricane Katrina-battered city of New Orleans. Would Congress do the same today?
“Yeah, I think Congress would, and has,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise said. “There were a lot of debates, as there should have been, but ultimately, the decision was made that they weren’t going to let a major national city fade away.” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond shares a city and a long friendship with Scalise — they were colleagues in the state Legislature before coming to Washington — but the New Orleans Democrat has a decidedly different take on whether Congress, circa 2015, would act if the future of his city hung in the balance.
“Hell no,” said Richmond. “I think the atmosphere that’s created up here with Republicans and others is just awful. [Republicans] are so caught up with the money that we spend that I think the human elements have been taken out of this body.”
Both lawmakers — one a black Democrat, the other a white Republican — lived through the same storm. But for each, Katrina symbolizes two distinctly different American experiences.
Some of that has to do with simple party politics. In his recollection of what happened before, during and after the storm, Scalise is careful not to criticize the George W. Bush administration, while Richmond unabashedly accuses the national GOP of withholding resources from Louisiana Democrats.
Some of it has to do with the politics of race, which hangs heavy over the post-Katrina landscape. The black community Richmond has represented in various capacities for more than a decade is still bearing much of the brunt of the hurricane’s destruction.
The difference is evident in the way the two men talk about their experiences: Richmond's voice at times quivering with anger, while Scalise's recollections are more even-keeled — even stoic.
"You couldn't run around feeling sorry for yourself, there was too much stuff to do," Scalise said in response to a question about whether he ever felt despair in the aftermath. "Spending all your time not complaining but figuring out how to get it fixed, break through red tape."
"He has a different district with different needs," Richmond said. "His areas for the most part are back in business and thriving."
In separate interviews with CQ Roll Call, Scalise and Richmond reflected on the storm’s legacy — the government’s response, the city’s resurgence and what sort of commemoration is appropriate for this weekend’s anniversary observances.
Grading Government's Response Katrina hit the city on Aug. 29, 2005. By Sept. 2, both the House and Senate had cleared the first round of relief money for New Orleans and other devastated areas along the Gulf Coast. There was so little controversy, party leaders shepherded the measure through without roll call votes.
Just six days later, both chambers voted on a second relief package, unanimously in the Senate and with only 11 dissenting Republicans in the House.
But in his interview with CQ Roll Call, Richmond criticized the White House’s inability to deliver critical resources to the city and state:
“The amount of hurdles that the Bush administration put [Democratic] Gov. [Kathleen] Blanco through was unheard of. I will always believe that it was petty, Dick Cheney-type politics that kept the governor from getting the resources she needed to do what she needed to do. In Mississippi, on the other hand, who had Haley Barbour, who was a Republican, they had everything they needed. I mean, they had an over abundance of money.”Scalise disputes the notion that politics came into play, particularly when it came to funding for the federal grant program to help homeowners fix storm-wrecked houses:
“I think when you look at it, the Road Home program, you had the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, immediately come up with a plan for those whose homes had been destroyed in the storm. And our governor, she complained about it after the fact, but Haley said, ‘Hey, I came up with a plan, and the government responded. Why didn’t you ask for a plan?’ And we ultimately got the same deal Mississippi did.”The whip laid more blame with state and local government than with the federal:
“I thought a lot of people tried to make scapegoats of the federal government for the failures at the local and state level, which there clearly were. Consider what the tolerance level was before the storm. I think there was a change in attitude for the public. … They demanded, ‘Look, I’m not coming back and rebuilding the same old fail system that we had before. I’m going to demand better levies, I’m going to demand better elected officials and we’re not going to tolerate the garbage that happened.’”But Richmond remains emphatic. Republican officials made choices that were detrimental to the recovery of the city, he said. And a flawed bureaucratic system kept his constituents in the devastated and now infamous Ninth Ward from receiving what they needed to rebuild:
“We saw all the money flow down there … that could have gone to the home program, [go] to redo the Superdome. I’m talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. And this was, by the way, after the Superdome had already been renovated, towards additional renovations. ... So these are the things where you see it, it builds up — the anger — and I think a lot of the community is still very, very angry and there’s still cause for the [inspector general] to look at the funds and look at where they’ve been spent because people have still didn’t get what they need to get back.”What Went Right, What Went Wrong Scalise said Katrina forced a deep reexamination of standard operating procedure in New Orleans, with fed-up citizens finally demanding better.
"Louisiana had a storied history of political corruption and I think it was a healthy development that people said, 'We're not gonna tolerate it anymore,'" he said. "People started calling the FBI and turning people in. Elected officials went to jail in pretty large numbers if you consider what the tolerance level was before the storm."
And then there's the Louisiana public school system:
"New Orleans had the most failed, corrupt public school system in the country before the storm. We had a major fight in the Legislature to make the reforms that are now the model for the whole country of how to reform a failed urban system and it’s yielded great results. But there were big fights to get it to that point. I was on the board of Teach For America at that point and we had to change collective bargaining so we could have a charter schools system where teachers could hire based on merit and groups started getting involved in taking these schools back and it transformed that failed system to now a successful model."Richmond took a completely different view on the transformation of state education's status quo:
"There’s gonna be a million debates about the school system, which people would love to just run around the country and the world and tout how great New Orleans’ school system is, and it is just not. And they are very good at camouflaging the fact that our school system is in disrepair. ... I think it has the bones to be a good system. But the people who are in charge of it, whether it’s the school board or the state superintendent of education, they don’t want to face any of the criticisms. … Kids on the bus for hours to get to school, it’s the most segregated school system than it’s ever been. The schools that the states run are still failing schools and very horrible. The charter schools give people the ability to pick and choose kids and it’s just an awful system. You know I could go on and on."Ten Years Later The two congressmen each will be on hand this weekend when New Orleans commemorates the anniversary of the storm, with faith-based groups, art centers, universities and community organizations holding events. Both men used the word "progress" to describe their shared city's resurgence, and said they wanted to emphasize that momentum on the national stage.
"It's easy to harp on the areas of shortcoming, but it's also important to highlight the success and show where people demanded better and have gotten it," said Scalise. "Because that's a message that other people need to see ... to see how they can get there. I want every community to fully recover and in a better way because you don't want to rebuild the things that are broken. You want to rebuild it better than they were before."
Scalise went on:
"Most communities in New Orleans are in a better position than they were before the storm, especially if you look at the flood protection system ... the education system, and a lot of that I credit to the people of the city, black and white, who demanded a better system and got it. Bright, young people coming into the city is a new development, and a healthy development for the city. Entrepreneurs, companies opening up new business. You haven't had that influx of new people coming into the city in decades."Like his old friend from the Statehouse, Richmond is optimistic. But his tone is somber:
"I think it's time to get real. I think, you know, we should recognize we're a very resilient city and we bounce back but we don't have to celebrate that. People will see, and people will know that. We have nine million visitors last year. Yeah, they see we bounce back. So if we're going to do anything for Katrina 10, it should be focusing on what still needs to be done, instead of pat ourselves on the back for the work that we've done. We've done some good work, but I think while we have the nation's attention we should focus on these people, these neighborhoods that still need to be improved. I mean, we're the No. 1 city, I guess, for entrepreneurs and people to come to, but that's not something we should be celebrating until we get all the people who lived there the ability to come back home. and we still have far too many people who want to be home who are not home."In the final installment of this series, members of Richmond's and Scalise's respective congressional staffs share their stories of New Orleans before and after the storm.
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