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Lessons From Hurricane Katrina Might Not Stick

A worker walks past a pile of debris from floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas.
David J. Phillip/AP

As the country cleans up after Tropical Storm Harvey, there are lessons to be learned from another major storm of the past: Hurricane Katrina.

Among those lessons is the importance of the undocumented workforce.

“New Orleans would not have come back, any city would not have come back from Hurricane Katrina, without the contributions of undocumented workers,” said national security expert Juliette Kayyem on BPR today.

Kayyem explained that in 2006 and 2007, the recovery effort and rebuilding efforts were well underway.

“[There were] not enough American bodies to do the jobs,” she said. “That’s great news. Building is good. People get paid. Small businesses get moving.”

Despite the boost to New Orleans that resulted from the rebuilding effort, Kayyem said the government made a crucial mistake — making too much room for outside contractors to do the work.

She explained that the government favored speed and set up a regulatory system that favored out-of-state companies.

“You want the mom and pop shops, because you want those people working. They’re going to hire their neighbors. What you saw in Hurricane Katrina was the Connecticut construction firm moving in,” she said. “You don’t want that.”

Kayyem explained how President George W. Bush loosened rules about checking IDs for workers in the wake of Katrina, which she said was consistent with his views about comprehensive immigration reform.

In contrast, she called Texas’ immigration politics “hypocritical.”

“They all come out and say they hate undocumented illegal immigrants — someone like Ted Cruz — but you can’t find a single mayor, Republican or Democrat, either [body] of state legislature, anyone, who’s a proponent of the wall or who wants to get tighter on immigration,” said Kayyem.

For Kayyem, Texan representatives are making a mistake in not harnessing the power of undocumented workers.

“The lesson [from Katrina] is actually really something that we should take to heart right now,” she said.

National security expert Juliette Kayyem is the host of the SCIF podcast, founder of Kayyem solutions and a contributor to WGBH and CNN. To hear her interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.

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