Springfield One year ago a tornado cut a 6 mile swatch of destruction through Springfield, Massachusetts, and I was meeting with labor leaders and other activists at the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO offices to discuss the comparisons between New Orleans and Springfield in the rebuilding. It was depressing in many ways because even after 7 ½ years since Katrina, it is amazing how little we seem to have learned. More unnerving was reading the Rebuild Springfield plan written by many of the same consultants that had collected millions in New Orleans and how little they had to offer and how much they seem to virtually fabricate from the New Orleans experience: it was like reading about both a Springfield and a New Orleans that I didn’t know.
Best practices held up from New Orleans by Goody Clancey and others including the Tulane neighborhood health centers without any recognition that New Orleans still had not recovered hospital beds, Brad Pitt’s unsustainable Make it Right houses in the Lower 9th which are not replicable there or anywhere else, and neighborhood networks that are foundation funded fronts that practically speaking don’t exist on the ground. Over and over again the Springfield plans spoke of input that no one could verify on dreams that no one could realize. Tenants having problems with landlords were advised to seek volunteers and read about a tenant rights’ flash card costing $10 a piece also with roots in New Orleans – bizarre! Over and over again there were plans with no funding and only the flimsiest idea of where the money might be. Talking about economic development, the plan read like a Richard Florida piece on recruiting young techies to try out an old mill town’s bar scene. The biggest economic recommendation was to upgrade the economic development agency. Just pathetic! No wonder people were mad and disappointed, and ready to join with ARISE to protest city officials about being left out.
Over and over again I watched heads shake in agreement both during the labor and activist meeting and later at the Odyssey Bookstore talking about my book, Battle for the Ninth, and the experience of New Orleans. The organizational capacity was not on the ground, the ability to move people quickly to recover despite elite and business interests and to move political mountains wasn’t there. Opportunities were lost and people were hurt.
One question kept nagging about how we could do better next time, and my answer was inadequate. No one believes it can ever happen here. What does it take to realize it always happen to someone someday, so why not be ready?