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September/October 2009

Washington Report to Presbyterians

A Forgotten Tragedy: The Gulf Coast Yet To Be Rebuilt

Leslie G. Woods

August 2009 marked the fourth year since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Mississippi and Louisiana remain the two poorest states in the nation, despite the influx of millions of recovery dollars; and too few people are concerned with rebuilding the infrastructure of a once-great city, New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, resulting in the loss of more than 1,600 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi and more than $40 billion in property damage.  Hurricane Rita followed not more than a month behind, striking the Gulf Coast of Texas, inflicting billions more dollars in damage and at least 11 more deaths. And more tragic than the reality of these figures was the utter breakdown of government at all levels to provide protection for its citizens in the midst of a deadly disaster.

In 2008, the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved “Struck Down, But Not Destroyed: From Hurricane Katrina to a More Equitable Future.” This statement begins by “saluting the Christian commitment of volunteers,” commending the thousands of dedicated people who give of their time and resources to travel to the Gulf Coast and assist with rebuilding efforts. 

Indeed, Presbyterians have been generous. According to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), through 2008, nearly 40,000 volunteers had helped to repair more than 3,500 homes in the Gulf Coast alone. PDA is also responding to victims of Hurricane Ike, which struck Texas in 2008.  Even though Ike is the third most destructive hurricane to hit the United States, it has been labeled the “forgotten” storm, for its timing during the Republican National Convention. 

PDA continues to respond not only in the Gulf Coast, but also in other parts of the United States affected by disaster. In 2009 more than 4,000 volunteers have sought shelter and meals at PDA volunteer villages in the Gulf Coast, Illinois, Iowa and West Virginia. While the good work of PDA and Presbyterian volunteers continues to focus on bringing hope to situations of chaos, the massive project of community re-creation in New Orleans and the greater Gulf Coast cannot be completed by the goodwill of volunteers and charities alone. The 218th General Assembly (2008)

… call[ed] the nation to repentance regarding our society’s continuing failed responses by taking concrete, timely steps through policy formation and the appropriate marshalling of financial and human resources, to transform New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region into a model of redevelopment with social and environmental justice.

According to an article in The Economist, a quarter of New Orleans population has not returned after the natural disaster and ensuing human drama that spread the city’s residents all over the nation. One third of homes remain vacant, with flood lines and decaying porches still visible; and less than half of the city’s public transportation infrastructure is restored. 

Perhaps most disturbing of all, city residents’ access to medical care is abysmal. Only 57 percent of medical facilities have reopened, tens of thousands of medical records have been lost, medical practitioners are scarce, and Charity Hospital, which had been serving New Orleans’ poor and uninsured for 250 years, remains shuttered.

The “model of redevelopment with social and environmental justice” has yet to materialize for a city whose residents are just struggling to keep their heads above water.  And yet there is hope for this city and its wasteland of unrepaired homes and infrastructure. In his address marking the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama stated his administration’s commitment to stand with victims of disaster.  In particular, he wants to “ensure that the legacy of a terrible storm is a country that is safer and more prepared for the challenges that may come.” He declared “our approach is simple: government must keep its responsibility to the people, so that Americans have the opportunity to take responsibility for their future.” The president also stated that recovery efforts have come at an unacceptably slow pace.

Our new president must be called upon to keep his word. As recovery efforts keep making slow progress, a new federal commitment is needed to rebuild the remnants of a shattered city, the current legacy of a forgotten disaster, which must be transformed into the promise of a safer and more prepared nation. 

In response to the 218th General Assembly’s policy directions, the Presbyterian Washington Office supports the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (HR 2269), which would create a pilot program to partner with resident-led groups and communities in planning, overseeing and administering recovery projects to assist survivors of these disasters. It would provide communities with tools to build resilience against the impact of future disasters and climate change, while revitalizing the region economically and socially. 

The bill would create at least 100,000 prevailing-wage jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced workers on projects reinvesting in infrastructure and restoring the coastal environment. These projects would utilize emerging green building techniques and technologies to address remaining recovery challenges, especially those faced by residents with disabilities, women, internally displaced, minority and immigrant communities.

The president could choose to put portions of this bill’s proposals into effect using his executive authority, rather than waiting for a lengthy legislative process. As part of our collective responsibility to those who continue to struggle with and recover from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Presbyterians are encouraged to support HR 2269 and to urge the president to take executive action to speed the recovery in the Gulf Coast.

At the Episcopal General Convention this summer our brothers and sisters heard from the Director of their Office of Disaster Response of the connection between the parable of the Good Samaritan and disaster recovery in the Gulf Coast.  After the service, Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana said “[rebuilding New Orleans] is not an American issue; it is an issue of racism, poverty and the theological issue of the dignity of every human being.”

Advances In Mental Health Legislation

by Mary Anderson Cooper

The 218th General Assembly of the PC (USA) approved an initiative related to mental health which calls on the Washington Office to advocate for federal legislation to:

  • improve and increase mental health services in under-served areas and among racial and ethnic populations;
  • reduce the rate of suicides among elderly people;
  • create health maintenance systems for those with serious mental illness;
  • improve parity in the coverage of mental and general health care; and
  • increase the Veterans Administration’s ability to care for veterans with mental illness.

Although mental illness is widespread throughout the United States, it has never been accorded either the research dollars or the treatment options available to other illnesses. Insurance programs have routinely discriminated against patients seeking care for mental disorders, either not covering them at all or limiting the types of treatment and numbers of visits to providers in ways that do not apply to physical diseases. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about one American in four (nearly 60 million people) over age 18 suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. Approximately one in 17 suffers from serious mental illness, which is the leading cause of disability in the US for people aged 14 to 44.  A study published by NIMH in 2008 estimates that serious mental illness costs the U.S. economy close to $200 billion a year in lost earnings for people who would be able to work if their illness did not prevent it at least part of the time. This figure does not include losses associated with people who are both ill and incarcerated, hospitalized or not employable because of their illness.

Mental health issues receive very little attention legislatively. Funding for federal research and treatment programs has been notoriously inadequate over the years, especially as it relates to care provided in military and veterans’ hospitals, although this year President Obama did include increased funding in his budget proposal. Recent negative publicity about the mental health plight of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a recent surge in the amount of homelessness and suicide among both service men and women, may help to change that situation; but there is no guarantee that Congress will focus on the issue once the headlines fade, unless there is a public outcry.

An important exception to the usual congressional neglect is the issue of mental health parity, which focuses on reducing the inequities between the extents of treatment available to patients with physical and mental illnesses. A major victory was achieved on this front in late 2008, when President Bush signed into law legislation ending discrimination against people seeking treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders. The measure was included in one of the economic stimulus programs approved by Congress in the last session. The PC (USA) did not advocate on behalf of the larger measure, but vigorously supported the mental health parity provisions.

The legislation — named in honor of two strong advocates of mental health parity, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) — requires that group health plans offered by employers of 50 or more people cover mental and physical health benefits equally. This means that provisions must be the same with regard to lifetime and annual dollar limits, deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance and out-of-pocket costs, frequency and number of treatments, and days of coverage. It also insures
mental health parity for both in-network and out-of-network services.

While passage of this legislation — which takes effect January 1, 2010 — is a great advance, much remains to be done. People who work for small firms (under 50 workers) are still not protected, nor are people who have no access to health care, such as those who are uninsured or ineligible for public health programs like Medicaid and SCHIP (the State Child Health Insurance Program).

As it participates in the current debate over health care reform, the PC (USA) Washington Office will continue to advocate for mental health parity for all U.S. residents and to support expanded and improved care for veterans and others covered by federal health care programs.  These issues will be covered regularly in the Washington Report to Presbyterians, as well as in our Witness in Washington Weekly electronic messages.

The New Jerusalem

by Catherine Gordon

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."                                         
Revelation 21: 3-4

The country of Colombia has been ravaged by a tragic, decades-long violent conflict involving outlawed armed groups, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights. Colombia’s conflict has its roots in a history of social and economic injustice and government neglect. Because of the highly stratified nature of Colombian society, the families of Spanish descent have benefited from the resource wealth of the country to a far greater extent than have the majority, mixed-race population. With few avenues for social mobility, this provides a natural constituency for left wing guerrillas.

At no time since the Spanish conquest has the Bogotá government exercised authority over much of the nation’s territory. Colombia’s guerrillas violate human rights frequently and are feared by most citizens. The paramilitary death squads have operated in the open, resembling private armies more than shadowy groups of killers.  These paramilitary groups are responsible for the majority of the massacres that have occurred in Colombia and have strong documented ties to the Colombian military and government. 

The violence has forced millions from their homes.  There are an estimated 4.7 million internally displaced people moving around within the country, living in terror and receiving no significant aid. 

Unfortunately, the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has equated those who are trying to alleviate the suffering in Colombia by advocating for human rights and assistance for the displaced to “terrorists," insinuating that they are in league with the guerillas.  To the contrary, the Colombian Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported that social activists and human rights defenders are most often the victims of illegal killings by the armed forces and paramilitaries.

The Presbyterian Church of Colombia continues to suffer because of its work for human rights. The leaders of the church continually put their lives at risk in support of the people of Colombia who have been displaced by violence. At the request of our partner church, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) World Mission began an accompaniment program for short term mission workers to accompany and support the Colombian church as it struggles to live out its mission to care for the poor and oppressed.

Since the year 2000, the United States has given more than $6 billion to the Colombian government through a program called Pan Colombia, or the Andean Counternarcotics Initiative. The majority of the aid, approximately 80 percent, has been military aid. The stated goals of this plan were to “regain the citizens’ confidence and recuperate the basic norms of peaceful coexistence” and build “an effective judicial system that can defend and promote human rights.”  While there have been some military gains against the guerillas, the stated goals have remained elusive. Colombia continues to suffer from horrific human rights violations and one of the world’s highest levels of violent displacements of people.

A coalition of human rights and faith-based organizations is advocating for Seven Steps to a Just and Effective U.S. Policy," which include but are not limited to:

  • Using U.S. aid and leverage for human rights and rule of law in order to protect human rights defenders, preserve the judiciary’s independence and end impunity for those who commit human rights violations;
  • Supporting expansion of the government civilian presence in the countryside;
  • Protecting the rights of internally displace persons and refugees as well as Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities and
  • Ensuring that trade policy supports, not undermines, policy goals towards Colombia. The United States should insist on progress in respect for labor rights, especially in reducing violence against trade unionists.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is in the process of expanding the American military presence on at least three military bases in Colombia. Opponents of this move are concerned that the plan will exacerbate regional tensions and reinforce the United States’ predominantly military interaction with Latin America. It may also make it less likely that the U.S. government will take issue with violations of human rights by the Colombian military or government. 

The 2008 General Assembly of the PC (USA) called for"

Reorienting U.S. policies toward Colombia in such a way as to encourage a more equitable distribution of that country’s immense wealth, and to protect the rights of groups threatened by the interests of large corporations, including indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, labor leaders, human rights workers, and many campesinos ... and transferring US support to the growing civil society committed to democracy and nonviolence.

The Assembly also called on the Stated Clerk to write to the members of the U.S. Congress, urging them not to ratify the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, which would have grave consequences for workers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, and the environment.

What can you do?

The 2008 General Assembly:

… called on the members and congregations of the PC (USA) to study the situation in Colombia, diligently pray for the work of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and advocate with Senators, Representatives, and the President of the United States to lay down the weapons of violence and support the nonviolent struggle of the churches and civil society of Colombia and those in the US who stand beside Colombians to end the violence.