Four years later: Government response to Katrina hobbles New Orleans

Hurricane's victims seek shelter in Superdome

Hurricane's victims seek shelter in Superdome

This Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The people of New Orleans, particularly the poor and African-American communities, suffered disproportionately from the hurricane’s effects, living in the least-protected areas and lacking the resources to flee the storm’s onslaught. The lackadaisical response of the federal, state, and local governments to the necessity of robust rescue efforts compounded the hurricane’s damage.

The health status of people in Louisiana — one of the least healthy states in the country prior to Hurricane Katrina — has deteriorated even more over the last 4 years. Pre-Katrina, approximately 21% (900,000 individuals) of Louisiana residents were without health coverage. In New Orleans, individuals without health coverage typically received care at either Charity Hospital or University Hospital, which are a part of the Louisiana State University health system.

In 2004, approximately 75% of patients treated at Charity Hospital were African American and approximately 85% had an annual income of less than $20,000. (The federal poverty rate is $22,000 a year for a family of four.) Charity Hospital also was the area’s primary provider of substance abuse treatment, psychiatric care, and HIV/AIDS treatment. Pre-Katrina, Charity Hospital was faced with limited financial capacity, due in part to budget cutbacks by local governments and a high percentage of uncompensated care.

The weakened Charity Hospital was finished off by Katrina. Its doors remain closed today, and a hospital that was once a safety net for Blacks, poor, and uninsured patients is now an empty building surrounded by wire fence.

Not that health problems in New Orleans have abated. According to The Economist of May 16, 2009, some two-thirds of New Orleans residents report having a chronic health problem, which is a 46% rise since 2006. Mental health issues are a particular problem. The percentage of people with depression has tripled since 2006, and the suicide rate has doubled since 2005.

While the federal government has poured more than a trillion dollars into the coffers of the banks, insurance companies like AIG, and the auto industry, only about $400 million federal dollars have been directed specifically towards restoring health services, including mental health initiatives, in New Orleans. The most commonly noted barrier to providing mental health services is a lack of mental health providers, and the most commonly cited barriers to receiving mental health care for children include a lack of transportation and competing family priorities (including housing, employment, and other financial concerns).

Almost a fifth of New Orleans households live below the federal poverty line. Less than half of New Orleans’s public transport facilities have been restored. Some 12,000 people are still homeless.

What New Orleans, and the other communities hit by Hurricane Katrina, needs is a massive public works program to rebuild transportation, housing, schools, and the health care system. The paltry effort being mounted by the federal government and a few foundations is a band-aid on a festering wound that needs radical treatment. The lives of tens of thousands depend upon such action. We need to demand that the federal government provide massive relief. The poor and minority communities of the Gulf Coast deserve it far more than the Wall Street financiers.

Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 04:28