Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.

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Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

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