In the 12 years since Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, claiming the lives of more than 1,800 Americans and leaving hundreds of thousands of homes in splinters and whole communities decimated, America's learned a great deal about managing the devastation of these natural disasters.
But as the latest hurricane barrels across the Gulf Coast, dumping a lethal and unrelenting downpour of rain on Texas, policy makers in Washington are poised to forget one of the clearest lessons from our government's turbulent experience with Katrina.
Indeed, the popular federal program that deployed some 40,000 young national service volunteers to the Gulf region in the chaotic and pained days, weeks and months that followed Katrina's havoc is, once again, in jeopardy of losing funding.
Deployed to the hardest-hit areas of the region, the young people of AmeriCorps trained, coordinated and led hundreds of thousands of community and faith-based volunteers that did the back- and heart-breaking work of dredging the Gulf Coast. AmeriCorps members helped to save Mississippi.
In an era of gross government waste, the narrow cost of the AmeriCorps program was money well-spent. It was money that assisted more than 3 million survivors, allowed some 4.4 million meals to be served, and more than 15,000 homes to be rebuilt or repaired.
And today, stirred by the same patriotic spirit that beckons many of our nation's sons and daughters into military service, these young people have deployed to Texas. Then, as now, they had our back. Now, as Congress readies new appropriation legislation that will determine the program's future, we need to have theirs.
AmeriCorps, a federally administered program that marries the volunteer spirit of young people with federal and privately-matched dollars, supports the work of more than 3,000 community, faith-based, and non-profit groups like Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club, and Teach for America. It similarly enhances the federal government's preparedness and response efforts through its FEMA Corps, which deploys volunteers for a 10-month disaster response tour.
In Mississippi alone, national service volunteers are serving their country at more than 450 sites, tutoring school children, ministering to the needs of veterans and their families, providing health services, and working to stimulate economic development.
This year, the Corporation for National and Community Development, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps, will invest $20,120,000 to strengthen Mississippi communities, leveraging an additional $4,660,000 in other resources. For every dollar spent on national service in my state, Mississippians will reap nearly a 4-to-1 return to the taxpayer and society.
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Unlike so many federal programs, Congress created the Corporation for National and Community Service to be a public-private partnership and to be accountable to the states.
CNCS grants, which marry public and private funds, support existing community and faith-based nonprofits in a manner that is almost exclusively determined in some way by governors. Fully three-fourths of all CNCS funding is controlled by governor-appointed state service commissions.
In a few days, lawmakers will return to Washington from summer recess and begin the messy work of considering legislation to fund the federal government's many programs and obligations. Washington may have forgotten the role that AmeriCorps played after Katrina, but my friends and neighbors won't soon forget. And I suspect neither will Texans.
Haley Barbour is a founding partner of the BGR Group. He is a former governor of Mississippi and a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association and of the Republican National Committee.
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