Twelve Years Since Katrina, and Water Rising in Houston May Teach New Lessons

Houston flooding

New Orleans   A tiny frog hopped out from under the dryer in our kitchen this morning to mark the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the wet water wonder world engulfing us today.

It’s still dark outside though close to 9 in the morning with a steady rain pouring since the predawn from our share of Tropical Storm Harvey that continues to inundate the Gulf Coast and has turned Houston’s bayous into small rivers and whole neighborhoods into lakes. The papers compared the differences and similarities between Harvey and Katrina. We had a record storm surge. They have a record rain that eventually may top 4 feet in some spots and has already equaled the average annual rainfall amount in others.

Local 100 represents school workers, but the schools have all been closed and won’t open until after Labor Day at best. We know from Katrina that some schools, as well as other public and private buildings, may be so damaged that it may be months, not days before they reopen. Where I was supposed to stay tonight in Houston on my original travel schedule reports that they have electricity, but no water, making it a campground of sorts. Chaco and I were going to catch our almost annual Houston Astros game tonight and tomorrow night against the Texas Rangers, but that game is now being played in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Rays stadium. All of my Houston work is now pushed to the end of next week, when we hope everything has dried out and things are back to normal.

We know from Katrina though that the so-called “new” normal is simply an expression that things can never be as they were before. Hearing the New Orleans mayor report that one pump in the city caught on fire and has been taken off line and trying to assure the citizens here on the Katrina anniversary that we can handle 10 inches of water if it falls between Tuesday and Friday is hardly comforting. Of course there is a “but,” as in, but if a rain “band,”as they now call them, stalls over us, many areas are in trouble.

The never normal is now coming to Houston just as it did to New Orleans, but maybe there’s a bigger difference than the papers have listed. Houston is not a majority African-American city, and is a thriving, economic engine throughout their metropolitan area growing great guns. Land is worth more, and there is more wealth. New Orleanians saw that in the response and welcome of the Houston to our refugees.

Looking for a silver lining to this climatic catastrophe, perhaps Houston will marshal the will and resources to grab the bull by the horns and finally do something different to prepare for the next time, rather than refusing to learn – or afford – the lessons of this time. Breaking out of the denier mode and forging a new path would be a gift in Houston for all Texans, and for all of the rest of us it would also show the direction and force us to follow.

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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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