A recent survey of Louisiana residents brings home the amazing strength, vitality and generosity of the Bayou State and its people. The same survey, taken after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, also shows that the storms left us poorer -- and mad as hell at all levels of government. Among other things, the survey revealed that nearly 40 percent of Louisianans had a friend or family member stay in their homes after the storms, while half made monetary contributions to religious organizations. Another 35 percent contributed monetarily to nonprofit organizations, 53 percent made non-monetary contributions, and 23 percent volunteered at a nonprofit or religious organization. An additional 14 percent of respondents volunteered their homes to people they had never met before the hurricanes -- while 38 percent reported staying in someone else's home. In short, the storms brought us closer together by bringing out the best in us, but they also hurt us deeply.
Roughly 40 percent of Louisiana's citizens said they or a family member suffered property damage or lost income because they were unable to work during and after the storms. The economic toll doesn't stop there. For example:
• 31 percent said that they or a family member lost a job or were laid off as result of the storms.
• Another 11 percent lost a business.
• 47 percent will have a tougher time making ends meet now.
• 53 percent expressed feelings of psychological depression because of the storms.
• 39 percent feel anger.
• 7 percent have sought counseling because of the storms.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that 47 percent said the hurricanes haven't adversely affected them economically. But that's small consolation. When so many Louisianans suffer, we all suffer.
Politically, the storm winds appear to be blowing even now. No one needs a survey to show how angry local citizens are after state lawmakers killed a bill that would have consolidated area levee boards. The bill would have improved the chances not only for uniform regional flood protection but also for federal aid in rebuilding the levees. Lawmakers and Gov. Kathleen Blanco are running for cover in the wake of that backlash. The LSU survey found similar voter sentiment across the state in the form of general negative feelings about local governments, state government and the federal government. By contrast, survey respondents rated religious and nonprofit organizations very highly in the wake of the storms.
On a scale of 1-10, Louisiana residents give religious organizations an 8.1 and nonprofits a 7.5. New Orleans city government and state government in particular received the lowest marks -- 4.6 each. That's even worse than the scores of FEMA, which earned a 5.3 rating, and insurance companies, which collectively received a score of 5.2. Clearly, Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Blanco have some repair work to do, not just to the city and the state but also to their tattered public images. Local governments other than New Orleans fared a little better in the survey, with a rating of 6.5, while the federal government got a 5.1.
The hard-hit New Orleans region (identified by surveyors as the 504 area code) graded all levels of government more harshly than did other areas of the state -- giving the feds, the state and City Hall ratings of 4.2, 4.1 and 4.0, respectively.
The low marks given to government should get the attention of the governor, the mayor and state lawmakers. Even more telling, survey respondents said that the federal government should not only pay the cost of rebuilding southeast Louisiana -- but also control how the money is spent. Put another way, the people inside Louisiana share some of the same concerns about public corruption and official incompetence that have been expressed in Washington and elsewhere. In fact, almost 49 percent acknowledge that Louisiana's reputation hurts our chances of getting federal aid, while less than 18 percent believe our reputation is good enough to help our chances of getting that aid. In southeast Louisiana, respondents were much more likely -- 60 percent -- to say our state's reputation hurts its chances of getting federal assistance.
One topic on which there is general agreement is the need to assure adequate flood protection, going forward. There were some geographic disparities in terms of which should come first -- repopulating New Orleans as quickly as possible to get our economy rolling again, or fixing the levees -- but there is widespread overall support for doing both in one form or another. This is no surprise. Louisiana knows how important New Orleans is to the state's viability, and it knows how important flood protection is to the city's viability.
Going forward, city and state leaders must put aside parochial political interests and focus on the larger picture. The whole world is watching our every move, and we can't afford any more missteps. Moreover, the LSU survey shows that Louisiana citizens are watching, too -- and they don't like much of what they've seen.
(For complete survey results, visit www.survey.lsu.edu.)