Hurricane Katrina was not only a domestic tragedy. The U.S. government’s insufficient efforts to prevent families from being uprooted, its inadequate emergency response, and the still-lagging recovery are at odds with internationally recognized human rights principles that the Bush administration has promoted in other countries.
That’s the finding of “Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” a report released last Wednesday by the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-partisan research center tracking the Katrina recovery.
The study comes as Walter Kalin—representative of the united Nations Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons—held a series of meetings with local officials and residents in New Orleans, Houston and Mississippi last week.
Kalin told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday that he came to the Gulf Coast to “learn from the experiences” of those still grappling with Hurricane Katrina Issues as well as to share the United Nations’ expertise, experiences and tools in “finding solutions to the problem of displacement.”
Kalin and Chris Kromm from the Institute for Southern Studies spoke Wednesday at a New Orleans press conference about the report’s findings and how human rights law can help ensure a better future for Gulf Coast residents.
Kalin told The Louisiana Weekly that he was both encouraged and discouraged by what he’s seen during his visit to the Gulf Coast last week. “What is encouraging is to see that a lot has been rebuilt,” he said. “In affected areas, many have come back to the region and their houses. What is discouraging is to see those who are still in a difficult situation because they can’t go back to their homes or find affordable housing for themselves. That’s, of course, very often hardest on the more vulnerable parts of the population. I’ve seen single mothers with children, elderly people and working poor” who are still struggling.
“From a human rights perspective, reconstruction in the aftermath of a disaster is not only about reconstructing infrastructure and buildings. It’s really about reconstructing lives especially for vulnerable parts of the population. I think it’s fair to say that more needs to be done.”
Kalin said local and statewide elected officials have a very specific role to play in the ongoing post-Katrina recovery efforts.
“I think it is really the responsibility of the local government to petition the national authorities to create the conditions that make it possible for each and everyone who has been displaced to get back to housing that is affordable and accessible, to get back to a life and or people to have access to all of he things they need,” Kahn told The Louisiana Weekly. “As long as these conditions are not in place, one has to conclude that the United States” is not fully committed to addressing the needs of those who remain displaced as a result of the 2005 storm, he added.
The Institute’s report is the first in-depth look at how closely U.S. officials abided by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The United Nations adopted the Principles in 1998 to protect the rights of people uprooted by war, storms and other calamities. “Leaders in Washington have embraced the U.N. Guiding Principles for helping disaster victims abroad,” said Chris Kromm, co—author of the study and Institute director. “But there’s serious concern that the Principles continue to be ignored at home in the Gulf Coast.”
Hurricane Katrina displaced more than a million people when it struck in August 2005, and tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents remain displaced two years and five months later. The U.N. standards clearly spell out the obligation of national leaders to prevent displacement, to protect human rights during displacement, and to help displaced people return home to safe and humane conditions.
Based on interviews with hundreds of Gulf Coast leaders and residents and an analysis of reams of data and research reports, the Institute concludes that the U.S. government failed to live up to the U.N. standards during all stages of the disaster—with many Katrina victims still suffering the consequences:
• Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government didn’t uphold its obligation to prevent displacement, cutting funds for fortifying New Orleans’ levee system by 44 percent from 2001 to 2005 and leaving the city vulnerable to flooding. In the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, inadequate commitment to coastal protection and other storm defenses continue to put millions of U.S. residents at risk of displacement.
• As documented in the U.S. House of Representatives’ official report on Katrina and other studies, U.S. officials didn’t adequately protect the human rights of residents during displacement—particularly the rights of vulnerable populations such as the poor, the sick, the elderly, and children.
• Perhaps most important today, federal leaders have failed to fulfill their obligation to end displacement and to ensure the displaced have a say in recovery, as evidenced by the many Gulf residents still in “temporary” housing or otherwise still uprooted.
“The failure of the U.S. government to live up to the U.N. Guiding Principles isn’t an academic discussion,” said Sue Sturgis, Institute editor and report co-author. “For the tens of thousands of people still displaced by Katrina, these Principles provide an invaluable framework that U.S. officials must urgently consider as the Gulf Coast continues its struggle to recover.”
The study was produced in collaboration with the BrookingsBern Project on Internal Displacement. In her foreword to the report, Project Director Elizabeth Ferris says the document “makes a valuable contribution in analyzing the response to Katrina-induced displacement in light of accepted normative standards for internal displacement.” Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement is the fifth major study released by the Institute tracking Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Previous reports released by the non-profit center based in Durham, N.C. include Blueprint for Gulf Renewal (Aug/Sept 2007); A New Agenda for the Gulf Coast (Feb/ Mar 2007); One Year after Katrina (Aug/Sept 2006); and The Mardi Gras Index (Feb/Mar 2006).
Kalin said the United States and all nations should have learned from Hurricane Katrina “to be better prepared at all levels to reduce the consequences of disasters” and to be better prepared to move quickly to meet the needs of disaster victims.
Kahn has a message for those still displaced by Hurricane Katrina. “You do have rights,” he said. “You are not second—class citizens. That’s why you should not be neglected in your suffering and difficult situations You are not forgotten.
“Not only do you have rights but the authorities have obligations to address your situation,” he continued. “We think it’s the responsibility of the United States but we at the U.N. stand ready to provide our advice and experience, and to help the United States to find solutions to these ongoing problems.”
A full version of the report is available at: http://www.southernstudies.org/ISSKatrinaHumanRightsJan08.pdf.