Five years after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the botched recovery effort that followed, Congress has yet to ensure that survivors of future disasters on the Gulf Coast or elsewhere won’t face the nightmare that still prevents tens of thousands of former residents from returning to the Gulf states. The BP oil disaster is further compounding the consequences of that inept response.

Amnesty International’s analysis shows that in New Orleans alone, less than half of the nearly 82,000 units of rental housing destroyed by the hurricanes have been rebuilt. And an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people in the city are currently homeless.

More than half of them lost their homes because of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s housing recovery program’s shortcomings left large numbers of New Orleans homeowners with insufficient funds to rebuild. The people who fled following the hurricanes are known under international human rights standards as “internally displaced persons.” They deserve special protection.

But now, not only are their rights being violated, the region’s demographics are being permanently altered by the government’s failure to help all former residents go home. Low-income areas and communities of color–many with generations-deep roots in the region–are disproportionately affected. The botched recovery program could have helped the most vulnerable individuals rebuild their lives with dignity. Instead, it exacerbated the chronic discrimination and inequality that already pervaded many Gulf Coast communities prior to the storms.

The federal, state, and local governments must be held accountable for this neglect. People whose lives were turned upside down by Katrina deserve a meaningful voice in the recovery effort–especially now, with growing environmental destruction from the oil disaster for which both corporations and governments bear responsibility.

The key to avoiding the mistakes made during the storm recovery effort–and averting another wave of human rights violations–is to amend the federal Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to ensure that human rights principles are at the core of response and recovery plans.

This law outlines the federal government’s response to natural disasters. Unfortunately, it’s missing key human rights components. The act doesn’t conform to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which proscribe forced displacement and protects displaced persons following a disaster and during their return, resettlement, and reintegration.

These principles have been systematically undermined in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita.

The federal government promised to establish a framework to guide long-term responses to future natural disasters. And President Barack Obama established a working group to develop a new framework, although it has yet to be released.

Any framework must put the human rights of the most vulnerable communities at its core–and give the people a greater voice in the recovery effort–to avoid repeating the mistakes made following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Larry Cox is executive director of Amnesty International USA. To take action to press Congress to revise the Stafford Act, visit this Amnesty International website.

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