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Katrina: A Forgotten Crisis?

August 26, 2009

Katrina-category-5 Well, yes, according to a recent study of print media coverage of post-Katrina poverty since 2005. The study by D.C.-based Freedman Consulting found that:

  • Coverage of the relationship between Gulf Coast poverty and the effects of Katrina on residents of the region in U.S. newspapers and wires has declined steadily, reaching its lowest point in recent months;
  • Coverage of Katrina in general, while also declining, has been relatively high; coverage of the relationship between poverty and Katrina has made up a very small portion of Katrina coverage;
  • Coverage has declined not only in regional newspapers outside the Gulf Coast region, but also in twenty-five of the most read national and regional newspapers;
  • Coverage in Gulf Coast newspapers has declined far less rapidly than it has in outside newspapers;
  • Coverage of major celebrities and Gulf Coast sports teams has exceeded and in most cases dwarfed coverage of the relationship between povery and Katrina.

True, the Katrina story has had to compete with a number of other big stories, including the surge in Iraq and subsequent deterioration of what had been an improved security situation in that country; an historic presidential election; and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Not to mention the comings and goings of all the Britneys, Lindseys, and housewives of god knows where.

But the Katrina-Gulf Coast poverty story is huge, and, as the Freedman study makes clear, the fact that it's fading from media coverage is cause for concern.

We're not a major national media outlet (yet), but as we were looking ahead earlier this month to the fourth anniversary of Katrina, we decided to reach out to one of the smartest people we know, Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, for a local perspective on Katrina, the persistent poverty in the region, and what foundations and the rest of us can do about it.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

Philanthropy News Digest: How are residents of the city and region feeling about the recovery effort? Are people optimistic? Tired? Do they feel abandoned or forgotten?

Albert Ruesga: There's an abiding anger over the city, state, and federal responses, but the folks I work with in the nonprofit sector, in business, and in government are very upbeat and hopeful. The region has come a long way these past four years. Long-time New Orleanians love their city deeply and their love has sustained the region for many generations. Newcomers like myself share their passion and want to contribute to the region's recovery. We've been warmly welcomed.

There's an organization called 504ward dedicated to helping younger newcomers establish themselves in the city. "Five-oh-four" by the way, is the area code for the City of New Orleans. The organization was founded by one of our local heroes, Leslie Jacobs, who also played a key role in saving and reforming the Orleans Parish schools in the aftermath of the storms.

PND: What have been the chief obstacles to a speedier recovery -- in New Orleans and region-wide?

AR: Our region was poor before the storms. The city suffered from so-called white flight in the '70s and '80s, and the region as a whole, being largely rural, suffered from years of public underinvestment. The failure of the levees during Katrina put 80 percent of the city under water and devastated tens of thousands of homes and other structures. We lost two thousand souls to the storm. You don't snap back from that in just a few years.

We have no lack of volunteers willing to come from across the country to help us rebuild. We're deeply grateful for their generosity. I don't want to sound crass, but what we need most is money. Our nonprofit leaders are the smartest and most committed you'll find anywhere. After the failure of the levees, they didn't wait for government -- local, state, or federal -- to save them and their neighborhoods. They took action. But they can't survive on air. They need resources to invest in their programs and in themselves. Our local philanthropic institutions are stretched to the limits. We support many functions that are properly the domain of government. Our public institutions also need support as much as they need to be challenged to speed our recovery.

PND: Based on stories you've heard since you've been at GNOF, which organizations and agencies were especially effective in responding to the disaster and its aftermath? Which ones could have performed better? And which ones are still delivering the goods?

AR: Stories of heroism abound. In the aftermath of Katrina, many neighborhood associations sprung up whose acts of courage and generosity are legend. I think of organizations like the Broadmoor Improvement Association and the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Association, Mary Queen of Viet Nam, and many others. They're still doing our region a world of good. There were many individual heroes and heroines acting without the support of private or public institutions as well.

Don't get me started on FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers.

PND: Has the Obama administration been responsive to the plight of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?

AR: We've had quite a few visits from members of the administration, and what we've seen during those visits is not only incredible sensitivity to the plight of the region, but also a very deep background in the kind of work the civil sector does. That's been refreshing. At the same time, one of the traps we have to be careful of not falling into is expecting that it's up to the Obama administration, it's up to a black president, to care for black people. It's not. It's the responsibility of every president and every legislator at every level....

PND: Katrina exposed some painful truths about New Orleans that had been hiding in plain sight -- entrenched poverty, an abysmal public school system, high levels of unemployment and crime, public sector corruption, a glaring divide between the region's haves and have-nots. That that was the reality for tens of thousands of the city's residents came as a shock to many Americans. Were you shocked by the racial and class disparities revealed by the storm and its aftermath?

AR: Not in the least. These disparities are endemic to every major city in the United States. It's consistently a tale of two cities in places like New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles -- wherever you go that has a significant minority population. I've had some of the most honest and fruitful conversations about race here in New Orleans, not in the cities of the East Coast. What was appalling to me, rather than shocking, was the lack of reflection and analysis in media coverage of the storm and its aftermath.

Its soul and its beauty aside, New Orleans is in many ways Every City....

To read the complete interview, click here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   August 26, 2009 at 06:43 PM

Bravo. What a great post and companion interview. The questions are spot on and the answers pure Albert Ruesga. And, by the way, don't become a major news outlet. If you do, you'll stop doing this great work.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   August 27, 2009 at 05:15 PM

Thanks, Bruce. I know you're crazy busy, and I really appreciate you taking the time to read the post and the Q&A. You probably know this, but interviewing Albert is like being one of the middle guys on a four-man bobsled. You just hop on and enjoy the ride. This was an especially enjoyable one, smooth sailing from start to finish. So when are we going to get together to bang out our state of the field/world post?

Posted by bestpricemovingus33  |   November 11, 2009 at 09:41 PM

Bravo. What a great post and companion interview. The questions are spot on and the answers pure Albert Ruesga. And, by the way, don't become a major news outlet. If you do, you'll stop doing this great work.

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