Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Long Road Home

Ron Ault
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

In August and September of 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita plowed paths of destruction of apocalyptic proportions throughout the entire Gulf Coast region. These storms were an act of God and were unavoidable. Modern weather forecasting and Max Mayfield’s personal calls of dire warnings of the consequences of these storms to the Governors of Louisiana and Mississippi saved millions of lives. We can all say thanks to the National Hurricane Center for doing their job so well. NOAA was one branch of our federal government that performed magnificently during this disaster.

But overall government, at all levels, failed its citizens, both before and after the storms. Today, those governments are still failing. The lead for such disaster recovery is always with the federal government and our national leaders. State leaders define local needs and allocate available resources back to local governments at the community level, but those resources are a combination of federal and state. Partisan politics are also in play. Over two years after the storms subsided some partisan Republicans and Democrats are jockeying for political advantage, finger pointing and playing hard ball party politics.

Louisiana had a Southern Democrat as Governor and was given second fiddle status by the Bush Administration in recovery funds and priority of first responders. The White House went out of their way to make Governor Blanco look bad. She didn’t need any help.

Mississippi had a Republican Governor, the former Republican National Party leader, Haley Barbour. Not surprisingly, he got the lion’s share of early federal money and assistance. But what did Mississippi do with that money and where did the assistance go? Most of it went to rebuild the gambling industry as first priority…then wealthy areas got priority in rebuilding the infrastructure of roads, businesses, electricity, gas, water and sewers.

Today, the vast majority of the working classes, everyday citizens of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still trying to rebuild their lives. Many still live in FEMA trailers. They have been left out of the billion dollar federal and state grants that were so generously given to business and corporations to rebuild. Those most needy and unable to afford to rebuild are just out of luck in this equation and distribution of public funds. They don’t have a big politically connected lobby knocking on the doors of Congress for them.

What about Louisiana? Their state government focused differently and funded the recovery differently. They allocated more money to the poor and middle class workers to rebuild their lives. The money was very slow coming to Louisiana from FEMA and the federal recovery monies allocated by Congress. But it is finally starting to be allocated down to the local community level and the results are dramatic. Tens of thousands of individual homes are being rebuilt or new replacement homes are under construction. In the past six months I have seen a quantum leap of recovery progress in the communities and suburbs of New Orleans. And all this progress happened before the election of a Republican Governor in Louisiana, so party politics did not come into play. This is just the difference in priorities that Louisiana placed on the recovery that Mississippi did not.

The one story of non governmental organizational assistance and generosity in this tragedy that has not been told by anyone is the story of organized labor’s help and assistance-not by Anderson Cooper; not by CBS, NBC, ABC, Newsweek, USA Todayno one- no newspaper ink; no public exposure. Not one word about labor’s help has appeared in the national press…

Organized labor responded immediately and has sustained that effort for over two years now. Teams of union volunteers from all unions packed their bags and went down to the Gulf Coast to help. Tractor trailer loads of supplies of potable water, food, emergency equipment, medical supplies, and temporary shelters were all supplied by, opened, stocked and run by labor unions.

I was on the ground in Pascagoula, Mississippi, within days of Katrina and before Hurricane Rita struck. I was part of a team of senior level union representatives on a fact finding tour of the area interviewing survivors, assessing, filming and documenting the needs of the Gulf Coast. Upon my return to Washington, D.C., I gave a power point report to a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council with hundreds of vivid pictures of the wide spread destruction and the overwhelming scope of this disaster.

Five days after Katrina Hurricane Rita struck much of the same area and made the situation much worse. Organized labor, through all of its International and National Unions, freely gave millions of dollars of aid and invested millions more dollars in manpower and staff to the area’s recovery efforts with no strings attached or any thought of profit. The AFL-CIO directed a massive investment of union funds into the area that totaled a billion dollars. Part of that billion (with a B) dollar investment is a factory (Housing International, Gulf Coast) located in Reserve, Louisiana, to manufacture affordable, storm resistant, steel framed homes for workers and everyday citizens. In addition, organized labor is investing in rebuilding residential tracts of housing in the historic Treme section of New Orleans-a new Convention Center, a new Hotel, a worker training center and labor is helping in rebuilding area hospitals and schools.

We have been working for over a year to get this manufactured housing facility up and running. Our goals are to be able to provide affordable worker housing that can be ready for the family to move in as soon as three days after the site preparation is complete.

We want this strong, fire resistant, “green (65% recycled materials),” hypo-allergenic, energy efficient, termite proof, and low maintenance housing available to workers nationwide, but most especially for storm ravaged workers in the Gulf Coast region. We have been working hard to get the first prototype housing certified as 150 mph storm protection (that includes walls, roof, doors and windows). This 150 wind protection rating will exceed Dade County, Florida hurricane building code requirements, the toughest building code in the nation. Like the proverbial “chicken and the egg” question, we have struggled to get the first commercial orders for this new concept housing out on the market. I am happy to say that that phase is now complete. And an added point is that no one can tell from appearances that these houses are not conventional “stick built” houses.

Labor’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens in the Gulf Coast emanate from our fundamental commitment to the principle that we are all our brothers keepers. Our frustration with the failure of the media to spotlight this work grows not out of some self-centered need to garner “credit” but from a genuine understanding that the rest of America needs to know what has been done and what more can be done through the generosity, determination and creativity of America’s unions and their members.
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