Congressional Testimony

The House Democratic Caucus
of the United States Congress
P. Bryan Mauldin
From the Lake to the River:
The New Orleans Coalition for Legal Aid and Disaster Relief

February 8, 2006

When the President stood in Jackson Square and promised to do "whatever it takes," we believed him. We believed him instinctively because we know that is the right thing to do. It is still the right thing to do. Five months after the President's dramatic speech in beautiful Jackson Square we listened to his State of the Union Address, waiting, but all we heard was silence. As if silence means the problem has been solved. The "problem" has not been solved. The people of Katrina are still "homeless." As of today there are still more than 750,000 displaced families. They are in hotels, motels, month-to-month apartments, and tiny travel trailers and they are still far away from home. As of this weekend, some are back on the street. The homeless who have nothing cannot find their own way back. They need you to help them. They need Congress to lead them home.

Now is not the time to focus on what went wrong or whose fault it is. Time is not on our side. America has never faced a mass evacuation. We were not prepared. We must bring all our energy, time and resources to getting it right and getting it right starting NOW. We must help the administration to get it right. We must help FEMA to get it right. We must help Louisiana get it right. We must help New Orleans get it right. It is time for strong leadership. The people of Katrina need your help.

FEMA insists that to receive recertification for help, every evacuee must "actively pursue a practical and reasonable permanent housing plan." But the evacuees shouldn't have to come up with a "permanent housing plan." They already have homes. Most New Orleanians were born in New Orleans. Many, black and white, have lived there for generations, and for hundreds of years. They have homes. They need the right to return to their homes. It is FEMA that needs a "permanent housing plan." And a permanent housing plan is not a one-way ticket to whatever far-away city or town that happens to have apartments for rent.

This is what Louisianans have to say.....................[Go to Visual]

Tell FEMA to bring them home. There are jobs in New Orleans, but there is no housing. And there must be affordable housing for New Orleans to survive. According to FEMA's own numbers even now — five months later, fewer than 40% of the ready and available trailers are occupied. That's inexcusable. That's just plain wrong. Let's get those trailers down there and hooked up so people can go home. There are people still in tents. There are people "squatting" in the rubble of their own homes, trying to keep warm, but afraid to let their fires be seen at night, because they aren't even supposed to be in the 9th Ward. Officially, they still aren't allowed in their own homes. They may only "look and leave." Less than half the debris has even been cleared away. And now there are people who were still in hotels out on the streets again, but this time far from home.

Housing assistance cannot be a rent check when there is no rental housing. An applicant has only 60 days to appeal a FEMA decision. Let's tell FEMA they only have 60 days to deliver trailers. And ask about the Guidelines for Recertification you told FEMA you wanted by January 13. If you, as members of Congress, can't get an answer, do you really think an applicant dialing 1-800-621-FEMA can? In the meantime, extend Disaster Unemployment Assistance and Housing assistance. It is meaningless for Housing Assistance to be available for only 18 months after the date of the disaster when more than five months later, thousands of applications are still being processed.

The welcome mat is rapidly wearing out in the communities that have so generously hosted the evacuees. The host communities opened their arms and doors in an emergency. They do not have the resources, infrastructure, schools or job opportunities to permanently absorb the evacuee population. Where there is available housing, it is usually because job opportunities are lacking. Is Congress going to stand by and watch the administration pass two million evacuees off onto other states? "No longer my problem" does not mean the problem is solved.

All housing starts with a foundation. In Louisiana that foundation is the barrier islands and the wetlands. The buffer zones dangerous storms must cross before they ever get to the levees. Oil and gas exploration and production for the entire country has taken those barriers and wetlands away. Let the oil and gas proceeds bring them back. Give Louisiana its fair share of the federal royalties from oil and gas production off Louisiana's shores. Do not give us the silent treatment and a one-way ticket away from home. When the evacuees got on those planes they didn't know the ticket was one-way. They didn't even know where they were going.

We cannot compromise when it comes to LIVES and LAND. There are 4,000 people still missing and unaccounted for. When are they coming back? People are buying shovels at Ace Hardware and finding their own relatives in the rubble. There are hundreds of bodies still lying unidentified in portable morgues. When do they get to go home?

A levee means a Category 5 levee. And it means a levee behind wetlands and barrier islands. You are either protected or you aren't. FEMA can redraw the flood plain all it wants, but no flood plain is realistic if the levees won't hold.

Community Development Block Grants may help the 20,000 homeowners who were outside the flood plain. But what about the remaining 200,000 homes that were inside the flood plain? 200,000 homes that depended on levees that did not hold. FEMA is not supposed to be running a housing lottery. One in ten is not good enough. Pass the Baker Bill and pass it now. Without a mechanism for buyouts everyone will remain homeless.

Beware of FEMA's numbers game. When FEMA says "applicant" it is is not referring to a person — but an entire household. In the hotel/motel population there were approximately 3.8 evacuees for every applicant household. There are still at least 2 million evacuees. They need to go home. As it is, all they can do is call 1-800-621-FEMA and be put on hold, or, if they are lucky, be told that their case is still "pending." A single 1-800 number is not an adequate remedy for homelessness on this scale.

I do not have all the answers. But I have spent the past five months making my way through debris, helping families pick through rubble, meeting with evacuees, speaking with Red Cross, FEMA and relief workers, meeting with mayors and agencies and service providers of both affected and host communities, visiting shelters, travel trailer sites, and assistance centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. I have visited every FEMA Disaster Recovery Center on the Gulf Coast.

What do you need to know? Please ask. If I do not know, I will help you find out.

I and about 2 million homeless American people thank you very much.

P. Bryan Mauldin
President, From the Lake to the River: The New Orleans Coalition for Legal Aid and Disaster Relief

February 8, 2006