'Thank you for helping to rebuild my beloved hometown'
Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated much of southern Louisiana, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and much of my beloved hometown of New Orleans. The city, much like how it makes its famous Creole seafood gumbo -- a slow-cooking dish rich in savory and spicy ingredients -- continues to recover: bit by bit, layer by layer.
Katrina was a nasty hurricane. On Aug. 29, 2005, she hit, killing more than 1,000 residents and destroying over 200,000 homes and 18,000 businesses. The storm surge breached the city's grossly underengineered, federally designed and constructed levee protection at several points, flooding the city for weeks and trapping many of its poor and vulnerable residents left, often for days, clinging for survival on rooftops and in makeshift shelters.
They waited for their government or someone to come and get them. Weeks later, Hurricane Rita reflooded the area and managed to do what her sister didn't: wreak devastation on the other side of the state close to the Texas border.
Despite the many challenges still facing the people of Louisiana and the entire Gulf Coast, there are real and strong signs of recovery. Thanks in large part to the American taxpayers and the state and local response, the folks down home are seeing signs of progress. And they have also witnessed more federal officials come down to lend a hand.
"To date," noted President Barack Obama in a radio address that commemorated the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, "11 members of my Cabinet have visited the Gulf Coast, and I'm looking forward to going to New Orleans later this year. ... From the streets of New Orleans to the Mississippi Coast, folks are beginning the next chapter in their American stories. And together, we can ensure that the legacy of a terrible storm is a country that is safer and more prepared for the challenges that may come."
When Obama arrives, he will witness the progress made from the more than $7.3 billion in federal aid the state of Louisiana has distributed to almost 120,000 families through the road home building program. In all fairness, I must admit that this program was very slow to start, but it has finally begun to help residents rebuild their properties and, in some cases, elevate them above storm-surge levels.
Funds have also been made available to landlords seeking to rebuild properties so more rental housing will be made available for those who cannot afford to come home.
The Obama administration has also taken steps to transition people out of FEMA's Temporary Housing Unit Program of trailers and mobile homes with vouchers that will help them move into affordable properties. Other residents took advantage of a federal program that allowed them to buy their FEMA mobile homes for a dollar. Housing is still tough, but with continued oversight, this issue can and should be resolved soon.
My dad, Lionel, is a 79-year-old retired Army veteran who was rescued from his New Orleans home in a boat by two men from Shreveport, La. Today, he resides, along with two of my siblings, also displaced, in Baton Rouge. Lionel would love to go home, but he's waiting for the VA Hospital to be rebuilt -- as well as more news on the levees -- before going back to New Orleans.
And for every resident, it's all about the levees.
Without a safe and secure levee system, the city of New Orleans and its surrounding area will not have a chance of survival should another large hurricane make landfall. According to senior White House officials, more than 220 miles of levees and floodwalls have been repaired and restored to pre-Katrina levels. But that's never going to be good enough.
The administration must remain vigilant and keep the U.S. Army Corps more accountable in rebuilding those levees stronger. New Orleans will require real 100-year flood protection and not some bureaucratic patchwork. The residents are demanding stricter standards that will withstand the kind of storm surge that took so many lives and destroyed so many homes and historic landmarks. As they say down home, "Never again!"
Finally, when all is said and done, it's about the people and those they choose to represent them in office.
Now that Louisiana has in the present administration an unwavering commitment to help it rebuild, it's going to be up to the local and state leaders to stir up the right ingredients to help transform and reinvent New Orleans.
Meanwhile, thank you, America, for helping to rebuild my beloved hometown.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR and contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.