Some moments in history transform the ways in which societies operate. Others constitute a call to action that goes unheard. Before the history is written about the 2005 hurricane season, and the flood that devastated much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Jewish community and all Americans must seize this moment to create lasting and necessary change.
Americans and much of the world viewed with shock the calamity that unfolded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in particular the exposure of a vast segment of our society that, facing a variety of obstacles, could not escape the impending disaster. Millions of Americans face the same danger. These fellow citizens live lives that are often out of the media spotlight, out of the national consciousness, and – as we learned – out of the emergency preparation and response that are the basic obligation of any society to all its members. These Americans, disproportionately racial minorities, found themselves trapped without transportation or adequate personal resources.
The hurricanes served as painful reminders of the human cost of our failure to invest in our infrastructure and our social safety net. In addition, failures in emergency preparedness underlined the nation’s continuing vulnerability to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
An additional concern was the quick resort of some political leaders to use the exigent circumstances of Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to advance unrelated agendas. Examples include the proposal of massive cuts to social programs; seeking to authorize circumvention of labor regulations and fair bidding practices. Also of concern to some were proposals which would allow public funds to support non-governmental relief agencies and schools serving the hurricanes’ victims in ways that weaken the scope of the separation of religion and state.
The JCPA believes that:
- It is unacceptable in America, a nation of enormous potential and wealth, for there to exist vast swaths of impoverished people. Poverty, such as that which was thrust into the media spotlight and thus the conscience of all who witnessed the human tragedy in New Orleans, must be confronted and eliminated;
- The national conversation about the persistence of poverty must also address the issue of race in that it is intertwined with both the causes of poverty and with our public policy response;
- Quality public education and the opportunity for students to graduate with skills that enable them to enter the workforce are vital to addressing the issues of poverty and economic vulnerability;
- Emergency preparation and response must become a key priority for cities, states and the federal government, with special attention paid to populations that have historically been vulnerable to natural disasters. Plans must consider the special needs of the elderly, disadvantaged, and minority communities and address transportation, ongoing access to shelter, medical care, food and other life essentials that are more readily available to those with personal resources. These plans must also incorporate the lessons of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which revealed inadequacies in our nation’s preparedness for both natural disasters and terrorist attacks;
- Religiously affiliated social service providers and educational facilities can play an important role in disaster response, but the transfer of public funds to such providers must be accomplished in a way that maximizes safeguards against religious coercion, proselytization, or discrimination. Furthermore, religious providers of social services cannot take the place of government, which must be held accountable for adequately and effectively responding to disaster;
- The exigent circumstances of a disaster should never be an excuse to waive vital protections for workers, contractors and others. In no circumstances should any emergency changes in policy be anything but temporary and narrowly tailored; and that,
- Investments in disaster-avoidance infrastructure and human capital must not be sacrificed to achieve short-term cost-savings.
The community relations field should:
- Seize the moment and lead a national conversation about our priorities and the role of the private and public spheres to protect the most vulnerable among us. This conversation should highlight the need for regionally-focused, integrated measures to help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Many such programs enjoy bi-partisan support, including workforce development, job-creation strategies and access to quality education for all, such as HUD’s successful Hope VI initiative, President Bush’s proposed homeownership tax credit, and expansion of the earned income tax credit;
- Hold accountable those leaders at the local, state and federal levels who failed to heed prior warnings about the vulnerability of the New Orleans levee system, and who failed to plan adequately for and implement evacuation, rescue and relief efforts;
- Participate in local efforts to assist Gulf Coast evacuees who choose to reside temporarily or permanently in their community;
- Support appropriate initiatives – including federal legislation – to provide necessary funding for rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and extensions of safety net programs to sustain the victims;
- Assist local leaders in planning for and implementing evacuation, rescue and relief efforts in your community; and,
- Support investment in strong infrastructure in order to prevent another such tragedy.