Monday, August 04, 2008

Compassionate Conservatism, an Ongoing Series

Crowded, yes, but less toxic than a FEMA trailer

Here's how the richest--and one of the most religious/Christian--nations on earth treats its least fortunate citizens:

At the end of May, the doors closed at Renaissance Village, the FEMA trailer park outside of Baton Rouge that had been home to hundreds of families, its end hastened by an official acknowledgment of unhealthy levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. Those who were left at the park at the end, most of whom were among the neediest of the evacuees, began moving out on their own.

In light of the early promise that the recovery from the hurricane would provide the chance to address New Orleans’s social ills, the farewell to the trailer park might have been an opportunity for a fresh start, with families fortified by more than three years of government support and charity programs. But when the park closed earlier than expected, government planners said they were left unprepared.

State and federal officials blamed each other for the plight of those whose mental limitations, physical afflictions or addictions, exacerbated by their exodus, have kept them from taking advantage of what help was available. Now those people have left their cramped quarters behind but taken their problems with them.

Support systems have been slow to catch up. Red Cross money for necessities like furniture, work clothes and, in some cases, cars, ran out just as Renaissance Village and most of the other trailer sites were closing, and many residents are making do with nothing but a mattress. A contract for case managers who helped evacuees get back on their feet ended in March, and a new case management pilot program is still in the planning stages almost three years after the storm.

"I know we’re behind the eight ball," said Paul Rainwater, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "People talk about recovery, but on one level, we’re still responding."

The problems these families face are complex. Ms. Fountain, 65, could afford to fix the faulty repair work at her house if she had an award from the state’s Road Home program for homeowners. But Ms. Fountain’s husband of three decades died in 2007, and she cannot get the money until she can establish that the house is rightfully hers, a process that costs upward of $1,500. The legal service hired by the state to help low-income people with such issues has a long waiting list.

Meanwhile, Ms. Fountain, still in the Baton Rouge hotel, still grieving for her husband and worried about a son who has just been deployed to Iraq, has given in to incoherent fits of anger. Only recently, the lap dog she got after her husband’s death had to be euthanized.

"She's had mental issues to break out before," said Ms. Fountain’s daughter Jean Marie Selders, who is living with a friend in New Orleans and saving part of her paycheck to help with her mother’s house. "The longer it takes, the more distorted she gets."

And, while the poor get shafted yet again, Ray Nagin, wittingly or not, manages to ensure the New Orleans "brand"--of corruption--remains an issue.

That said, I'm in awe of Karen Gadbois. Over and over again she epitomizes how an informed citizen who truly cares can make a difference.

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