Katrina at 11 Years

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Orleans    On the Katrina anniversary this year, I’m flying out of the country for two weeks to work in the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a no-fly, must-be-home day because there were commemorations, volunteer projects, and other events that noted the progress or lack of it in the years since Katrina inundated New Orleans. Katrina is in the news now only as a reference point and warning since climate triggered 1000-year rains have recently flooded parishes from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain across from the city up the river to Baton Rouge. It’s fair to say that Katrina has been off of the front pages for some time, and now is off the back pages as well.

So, how is New Orleans doing eleven years after the storm?

In the last year a hospital opened in eastern New Orleans for the first time, and the first project in the rebuilding of healthcare in the center of the city came with the opening of the new Veterans’ hospital. That’s good, and the expansion of Medicaid finally with the election of a new governor, the first Democrat since the storm, will mean a lot to the city and the state’s lower income families.

The schools are finally on a countdown to unification after their seizure by the state after the storm and the ushering in of the largest charter school experiment in the city. The schools will finally be under the democratic control of New Orleans voters soon, though the business and charter industry is moving rapidly to control the elections. The teachers’ union, decimated by firings after the storm, is organizing again and faced two more elections this year. There was a move finally by the state to equalize support so that some of the charters, many accused of not supporting special needs children but getting a premium for more advanced programs, are screaming in opposition to the new equity in the funding formula.

The slow, slough of rebuilding and downsizing public housing is still underway, and the crisis in affordable housing is still so intense that 80,000 can’t come home, even if they wanted to do so, because there’s no place for them. The major influx has been younger and whiter. A good example of the skewed public policy was the awarding of tax credits to a developer taking over an old school property in Treme to build more affordable housing for…artists. We now will have four housing complexes for artists while public housing is still half-done. There is in-fill construction in some of the older neighborhoods like Bywater that didn’t flood, but graffiti and anti-gentrification vandalism created the opening of the old public market as too upscale for the food desert that remains in the 9th ward.

The police have announced a training program that tries to reshape the culture of the department so that officers will act rather than conceal when they see their fellow officers involved in ethical breeches. The police department reassigned all of its community-beat police because of increased crime.

There is street construction everywhere, but there are estimates that it could take another $9 billion to put the city surface roads in safe condition. Neighbors noted that a project on Galvez has been stuck in a rut for a year now with water so deep when it rains, people fear drowning. A streetcar line though is scheduled for completion from Canal Street to Elysian Fields.

I should talk about jobs, but there’s not much to say really.

So, eleven years on, we’re moving in New Orleans, that’s for certain, but still it’s too often two steps forward and one step back, and that’s where there’s progress. Sadly, there are many areas that are just plain stuck.

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Volunteers May be the Only Good Thing to Hit New Orleans after Katrina

DSCN0432New Orleans    Opinions are divided on the New Orleans so-called recovery after Hurricane Katrina, and it is more than a glass half-full, half-empty situation. Talking to Vanessa Gueringer on Wade’s World, her articulate anger still rages, and listening to her describe how her community in the lower 9th ward has had to fight to win the fulfillment of every promise to the area, it is impossible not to agree. There are many in the city who are ready to evacuate if they hear the word “resilience” even one more time.

Presidents Obama and Bush have now visited along with the current and former HUD secretary and a host of others. I listened to the disappointment expressed by neighbors and colleagues that President Obama didn’t double down on his commitment to rebuild. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been everywhere enjoying his Mardi Gras moment. Former Mayor and current head of the Urban League Marc Morial was more sober, releasing his report on the state of black New Orleans, where the short summary is: bleak with little change or hope.

DSCN0424-1 DSCN0423-1 DSCN0422-1The one place where almost everyone can find agreement is in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of organizations who have come to the city over the last ten years as volunteers to help in any way they can. Appropriately,  even the City of New Orleans and Landrieu somehow understood this universal consensus and got behind the effort. People of good will from around the world made a difference to New Orleans in some way shaming our own government for its inaction, inequity, and racism. And, what better way to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina than by organizing a humongous volunteer service day.

The volunteer goal for the anniversary was 10,000 people and for a change almost the same level of preparation and support is going into the affair as you find during Carnival season, which until this anniversary is the New Orleans benchmark for volunteer extravaganzas. Hosts of nonprofits were recruited to the effort. Individual projects by Tulane University and Xavier University were subsumed into the overall city campaign. ACORN International is hosting 100 volunteers at the ACORN Farm. A Community Voice has 100 volunteers canvassing the Upper 9th Ward, and Southern United Neighborhoods (SUN) has another 100 in the Lower 9th Ward. It’s all in!

There are even corporate sponsors. Just as Walmart trucks rolled into the area after Katrina and there were special vouchers for purchases in their stores, Walmart is a big sponsor of this volunteer assault on the city as well. Coordinators got water, peanut butter crackers, and of course blue volunteer t-shirts at pickup points at Walmart stores throughout the week. The blue in the t-shirts, not surprisingly, looks identically like the Walmart blue customers see in their stores, but, hey, what else would you expect, they say Walmart on the back along with sponsors.

DSCN0425-1 DSCN0428-1 DSCN0426-1The volunteers will only work three hours, and given the heat and humidity that surprises so many in late summer in the city, that probably has more to do with public health than public need. They will have lunch and entertainment later at the Superdome. You get it, right, we’re saying thank you, and whether corporate and tacky, or political and boosterism, we all really mean it.

DSCN0429-1 DSCN0430-1 DSCN0431-1For real, this is thanks to all the volunteers that made such a difference and came to help New Orleans. We’re hoping you feel welcome enough to keep on coming until the job is finished!

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Kindle version of Battle for the Ninth for reduced price to mark the 10th Anniversary. 

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Malcolm Gladwell’s Pop Science is Whitewashing Katrina Pain and People

Canadaville

Canadaville

New Orleans     President Obama here’s some advice before you come to New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina: no matter what happens please, please ignore every bit of advice you might possibly get from the author and The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell about what to say about New Orleans and Katrina, and probably any other advice he ever gives you any the future. Recently, Gladwell was cited as one of the wise and rich men and women that Obama was consulting about his future post-Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gladwell has been on a bit of a roll the last number of years as the highly popular author of a number of books that might be characterized as “applied pop psychology” books including The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and others. Don’t tell me you haven’t read anything he’s written or I’ll ask you to give me the address of your cave. I’ve certainly read several. He specializes in pseudo-science stories that act like brain candy. You can’t read them quickly enough and they all seem smooth and sweet until you make the mistake of actually thinking about them and then you’re not sure. Whatever? It’s candy, so what might be the harm, right? Well, having just finished reading his most recent piece, “Starting Over” in The New Yorker labeled “Dept. of Social Studies,” which goes past candy, approaches unmitigated drivel, and then swerves into just plain dangerous, I’m convinced we need to get a petition together to the Secret Service to keep Gladwell as far away from the President as possible. Who knew Canadians could be so diabolical!

The thin reed Gladwell tries to grasp starts by trying to look at Katrina as a social experiment that might measure the impact of mobility on survivor families torn away from their homes by the devastation of Katrina, who were dropped or came to shore in other communities, and how they fared. Ok, that might be interesting, but then he tries to expropriate a seminal study done by economists indicting the United States at large for decades of abandoning urban America and perpetuating inequality by pretending the only thing under that shell was the issue of mobility, rather than disinvestment, racism, a deteriorated and mean-spirited social safety net, deindustrialization, and tax policies that have stagnated most of us while creating the super-rich. I could go on.

And, Gladwell knows he’s treading on dangerous ground throughout the piece. He tries to act like Katrina was bad news and that he would not have been riding with the business interests and social elites who were avowedly trying to whitewash the city, but unfortunately he wears his neo-conservative, neo-liberal biases on his sleeves. Implicitly, he totally supports every effort to prevent families from being able to return home from closing the schools to denying rebuilding funds to providing no healthcare. He pretty much sees the economy and population of New Orleans as a horror. He rationalizes this with a pseudo-science argument that the odds of lower income families “moving on up” are better in Houston, which he insults by calling it the “Salt Lake City” of the south, because the odds are slightly better that someone might crawl out of poverty, so darned are they lucky they were in a hurricane, surrounded by water and dead bodies, separated from family, friends, community and culture so they have a little teeny bit better chance in an economically stratified country to make it out. Spoiler alert: Please remember that there was no real way to read the study as arguing anything other than the odds were almost impossibly low for upward mobility anywhere!

Canadaville

How do you unravel this preposterous pretzel of an argument? We need public policies for cities and their population which create equity, not that forcibly relocate people on buses, planes, and trains. And, those policies need to be applied to every city. If Gladwell, wants to pretend to look at the impact of mobility and social science, it is interesting that nowhere in the article is there mention of Canadaville, a post-Katrina project of his fellow Canadian, the huge auto parts gazillionaire Frank Stronach from Magma International and his 300-family relocation project of lower income families to Simmesport, Louisiana several parishes up the river. Perhaps he avoided that because it is universally seen as a disaster and was abandoned by Magma and Stronach.

Gladwell finally ends his piece saying with this monument to sophistry:

In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.

Balderdash!

Courage is triggered by choice, not a combination of disaster and coercion that for many families continues to this day. The overwhelming number of families still not able to return home are African-American. Where there was choice – and resources – in higher income white families, as has been well documented and even Gladwell seems to acknowledge, people overwhelming came home. On one count after another for lower income families Katrina was a pure and simple devastation that continues to this day. Gladwell would undoubtedly line up in favor of putting the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, supporting pogroms forcing Jews to flee, and any number of outrages in the name of a few percentage points of progress in the by and by, rather than hunkering down and doing what’s right to support widespread progress for all the people where they live, including in urban areas like New Orleans.

Mr. President, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He may sell books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sycophantic apologist for the rich and, sadly, turns out to be a fool.

one of the homes at Canadaville

one of the homes in Canadaville

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Thinking about Cascadia on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

DSCN0401 (1)New Orleans   As the final countdown begins on the 10th anniversary of the August 29, 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation it wrought, and the recovery still in progress, A Community Voice, formerly Louisiana ACORN, and an affiliate of ACORN International, held a “Katrina Heroes” event that was quite moving. Members, leaders, friends, and allies were often hardly able to restrain tears as they got up to speak, received recognition, or helped themselves to a plate of food. They have built a great community through their struggle.

Katrina was a 400-year flood event. The protection at considerable expense in the new levee system for New Orleans is a long way from that level. An op-ed in the New York Times laid out the price for a 500-year protection system. One-hundred billion or so, if done now, with about a quarter of it protecting New Orleans. It almost seems cheap at the price, but do we ever learn?

That question has been plaguing me especially since reading “The Really Big One” in The New Yorker about the impact of the disaster on the Pacific Northwest coast and its population when the Cascadia subduction zone erupts over a 700 mile expanse with impacts from roughly Vancouver down to northern California around Mendocino. The North American tectonic plate is inexorably moving to confront the 90000 square mile oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, which is building up heat and pressure to slip underneath. The earthquake that will follow will be between 8.0 and 8.6 on the Richter scale on the low end to 8.7 to 9.2 on the scale on the high end, and because the scale is logarithmic the magnitude is almost incomprehensible. As reporter Kathryn Schultz writes, “…the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west – losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.” Holy-moly!

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FEMA estimates that “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast” on the west side of the volcanic range of the Cascade Mountain range. They estimate that 13,000 people will die, dwarfing Katrina and every other US-disaster. Another 27,000 will be hurt. One-million will be displaced and FEMA will have to provide food and water for another two-and-a-half million. Been there, done that, and we all know they are unable to handle anything near that. Seattle’s emergency office estimates that there will be 30,000 landslides in that city alone. If you didn’t drop down a hole to middle earth, the tsunami will be the most frightening catastrophe to hit next, and it will move within four minutes of the earthquake and the height could range between 50 and 100 feet. There are 70000 people estimated to live in the inundation zone and they will have between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on where they are, literally in the words of one Oregon official to “run for your life.”

There is a one in three chance that this earthquake will occur within the next 50 years. Those are bad odds. That is like, tomorrow! I can remember reading articles in the years before Katrina about what might happen to New Orleans in a worst case scenario. We did little to nothing to prepare for it. It was every man for themselves. I lived on higher ground. That was not enough for a community or all of the people lost forever or with their lives and families irreparably damaged.

What are we doing to prepare in the Northwest or nationally for a catastrophe that will absolutely happen and won’t be a matter of bad construction by the Corps of Engineers, but part of natural earth movements verified by meticulous science? Very, very little it seems, other than talk about it, and the not even that much talk really.

This is the fire and flood next time. It would seem to me that we would learn some of the lessons of Katrina not only by protecting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but preparing the Pacific Northwest to survive the Cascadia subduction when it erupts.

This can’t just be me saying this.

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Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: Katrina and MR-GO

Barges filled with rock are anchored in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet near Bayou La Loutre on Jan. 30, 2009, ready to start blocking the waterway off from the Gulf of Mexico. The work has since been completed, shutting down the channel.

Barges filled with rock are anchored in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet near Bayou La Loutre on Jan. 30, 2009, ready to start blocking the waterway off from the Gulf of Mexico. The work has since been completed, shutting down the channel.

New Orleans        Almost a decade ago, the first reaction after Hurricane Katrina veered slightly to the east of New Orleans was that the city had been spared.  We had ducked the bullet somehow.  Wind and rain were everywhere, trees were falling, the storm was powerful and vicious, but we would be ok.  By the next morning in the aftermath of the storm surge, levees were breached, and 85% of the city was underwater in a catastrophic disaster.

Despite the clarity of scientific and engineering opinion laying the fault on the levee construction and the Corp of Engineers, efforts to win compensation for flooding victims particularly in the lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, independent of FEMA relief funds, have been unsuccessful.  The maze of lawsuits are confusing, but the Times does a good job of explaining their torturous path:

In 2009, a federal judge in New Orleans, Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., ruled that damage related to the MR-GO canal was different because the canal’s purpose was navigation, not flood protection, even though it was line with levees.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [in New Orleans] initially affirmed that decision and then withdrew its decision and overturned Judge Duval.  The Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

This was a distinction with a difference, because though the federal government is normally exempted from claims resulting from failures of flood control projects, Duval’s ruling on the role of navigation in MR-GO was central.  MR-GO stands for the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet, a more than 75 mile canal used to speed up shipping and barge traffic.

A separate, parallel case on a different legal claim based on the famous “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment was heard by Judge Susan G. Braden of the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington, and in a huge breakthrough she was now ruled that the government must pay for some of the flooding damage attributed to the storm surge coming from the Gulf of Mexico up through the city from Katrina.   Interestingly, the Judge relied on a 2012 US Supreme Court decision, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission vs. United States where plaintiffs were allowed to recover for property damage due to flooding there.

In a sweet piece of worthless revenge, the Judge also lambasted the US Justice Department for “pursuing a litigation strategy of contesting each and every issue.”  Essentially, after almost a decade the judge sent a message to Justice to stop appealing and get ready to tell the government to pay up.   The judge still has to figure out the award.

Lives were changed forever.  Ten years have gone by.  Will a class action now be filed for the thousands of people in St. Bernard and the lower Ninth Ward, both thinly populated areas still in the early stages of recovery?  Bet on it!  Will any amount of money reclaim the lives lived and time spent in the fight?  Bet against that!

MR-GO is in the process of largely being sealed to secure the city.  The fight to rebuild goes on every day, but justice delayed is still justice denied.  And, you know, as we often say, hey, hold on, it’s only money.  That’s the least of the issues.  Let’s get on with it!

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Tie My Hands – Lil Wayne feat. Robin Thicke

Video Created by Rami Hashish.  (Warning . . . Video contains disturbing images of Hurricane Katrina)

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Nine Years after Katrina

Lower 9th Ward before and after

Lower 9th Ward before and after, credit to Ted Jackson at nola.com

Little Rock       Perhaps the best news in the nine years since Katrina has been that we have not faced another devastating hurricane, as the city continues to struggle to rebuild.  We had a bit of problem a couple of years ago in 2012, but not so severe that it forced widespread evacuation or extensive damage.  Every year that we can get past Katrina is another gift.

            Surveying the changes over nine years isn’t easy.  Many of the positives come with big, fat “buts.”

            Like the fact that population in the metro area is now 93% of what it was before the storm, but in the city itself we are only 78% of where we were before Katrina.  The Census Bureau estimates New Orleans’ population at 378,715 compared to the 2000 Census population of 484,674.  That’s still 100 grand down, and that’s not good.

            We’re growing, yes, but people still can’t find their way home, especially African-Americans.

The Census Bureau estimated 99,650 fewer African Americans in 2013 compared to 2000, but also 11,494 fewer whites and 6,023 more Hispanics. African-Americans still represent the majority of the city’s population at 59 percent, down from 67 percent in 2000.

All of which means we are becoming more diverse, even while we have so many “missing New Orleans.”  We gained 44,281 Hispanics and 6,564 additional Asian residents. The Hispanic population in the metro spiked 76 percent between 2000 and 2013, a rate greater than the nation’s 53 percent growth.

            So the city fathers that wanted a “whiter” city, didn’t get their wishes, even though their policies barred return for so many.  They also didn’t get a richer city because of their continued programs.

            According to The Data Center’s figures:

While the poverty rate in the New Orleans metro declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, it then increased to 19 percent in 2012, such that it is now statistically unchanged since 1999. In New Orleans itself, the 2012 poverty rate of 29 percent is also statistically the same as 1999 after falling to 21 percent in 2007.   Like the overall poverty rate, child poverty in Orleans Parish and the metro area dropped in 2007 but has since increased to its 1999 levels. In 2012, the child poverty rate was 41 percent in the city and 28 percent in the metropolitan area, both higher than the U.S. rate of 23 percent.

No small reason for the continued poverty and stalled return continues to rest on the problem of inadequate and unaffordable housing, because of the double whammy of first the storm and then the recession which rolled back credit availability and made home reconstruction unaffordable for many low-and-moderate income families.  Rents soared after the storm and continue to be sky high.  The Data Center finds that “36 percent of renters in the city paying more than 50 percent of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities in 2012, up from 24 percent of renters in 2004.”

The beat goes on like that.

We did better on jobs and jobs on recovery after the storm than many cities in the recession, but the jobs didn’t pay diddling, especially when so much of the income went for housing.  Higher education is lagging, especially for African-American men, and the charter school experiment has not moved the needle on failing schools.  New businesses are up, but so are sales tax revenues and other taxes servicing a smaller population, so many of these businesses are marginal.  We have more bike lanes and bike trails but can’t seem to fix the potholes in the streets.

Here’s the story in New Orleans.  We’re going to make it, but every day is still going to mean a struggle over a bumpy road.  We’re going to come back somehow and we’ll welcome all the new people, but we can’t escape the heartache for people we miss, who still can’t make it home.

 

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