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!


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


The Arrogance of Newspaper Monopolies

New Orleans  Here comes another report from guinea pig land.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become ground zero for some bizarre and sometimes unfortunate social experiments, like the fact that we are the largest charter school laboratory in the country.  Just because we have proven we are resilient does not mean that we will put up with just anything, as we are now proving over the last year with our humbling of the hometown newspaper, the Times-Picayune, and its now long gone monopoly.

            The Picayune, owned by Advance Publications, said it was making money, just not enough, so before the margins they were sending out of town to their owners got slimmer, they were just going to stop being a daily paper and cut down to only three per week.  If you wanted news on the other days, god help you, you could try to find it on their notoriously clunky website that was always jumbled up to mimic the appearance of what used to be a grocery store special insert when the paper published a Thursday edition rather than only gracing subscribers by offering Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday papers.  Given that access to the internet is hardly 50% in this very poor city, I knew from the beginning that Advance was essentially writing off the city and abandoning any pretense of its role in proving a community service to the citizens, especially since they offered nothing until woefully late in the game to bridge the digital divide.

            The arrogance of the monopoly as David Carr, the media columnist for the Times, has termed it, reached too far though and besides stiffing the citizens, upset the elites and disgruntled virtually all of their “at will” reporters and columnists many of whom were laid off or ran for other jobs as they smelled the rot of the sinking ship.  Eventually the Baton Rouge Advocate got their act together and added 22,000 subscribers in the city and now has sold themselves to a New Orleans businessman who has hired yet more of the Times-Picayune vets.  The Times-Picayune without apology or real explanation is now countering in this coming “newspaper war” by announcing that it will add a tabloid paper sold on newsstands for 75 cents, the same as their regular paper, that will not be home delivered.  I’m not sure who this is supposed to make happy, certainly not the backbone of subscribers?  Oh, but they say, the subscribers can read the tabloid on-line for free.  Yeah, well, thanks for nothing again, guys!

            The Lens, an on-line source in the city, ran a follow-up piece the other day on how citizens have adapted.  They interviewed and photographed the “morning table” at our Fair Grinds Coffeehouse  about how they were adapting.  Essentially, our regulars, who have wide ranging opinions on almost everything, said they had “moved on” from the Times-Picayune.  They read the Advocate sometimes, and were rooting for them.  They read the Times-Pic sometimes, but the paper itself had taught them that they could live without it.  That’s an interesting insight, and I will bet money that that is what the owners of the TP are going to find with their tabloid effort now.  I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to buy it when I’m in town.

            Neither paper now does the job well.  The Advocate to their credit does a much better job on state business and politics and editorially is not as obnoxious and know-it-all as the Times-Picayune has always been.  The Times-Picayune just seems to be adrift.  The far right point-counterpoint columns between James Varney whose audience must be a couple of people living Uptown and some Republican Tea Party folks in the far suburbs face off with the one African-American columnist Jarvis DeBerry.  Most of the columns are simply off-putting and the point of views predictable and boring. 

            The far right Koch Brothers are supposedly potential suitors for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.  I wonder if they won’t find some surprises in store for them as well.  These mind control experiments rooted in the arrogant assumptions of monopolies all look good on paper, but in practice, people vote with their feet and their quarters, and are not so easily force fed something they didn’t want in place of something they had felt they needed.  There are a lot of lessons in these failed experiments, but I don’t have as much confidence that people are learning them very well.

Newspaper Monopolies Audio Blog


LSU and Louisiana Silence the Truth of Corps of Engineers’ Levee Failure after Katrina

New Orleans   Seven and a half years have ticked off the calendar since Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  At this point it is widely conceded, common knowledge, and general consensus that the heart of the destruction of New Orleans came from the “catastrophic structural failure due to pressure bursts” in the words of Ivor van Heerden, who at the time was deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) at the main Baton Rouge campus.

Van Heerden made it clear publicly that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was categorically wrong in saying that the levee breach was due to “overtopping” from the hurricane surge, which they were saying at the time.  He went on to say that that along the Industrial Canal that flooded the lower 9th Ward that the breechings “all show plenty evidence of catastrophic structural failure due to bad engineering or bad design or bad construction or bad foundations.”  Subsequent studies by various panels of structural engineers from throughout the United States and internationally have established van Heerden’s early analysis to have been accurate.

In classic “kill the messenger” fashion within months LSU muzzled van Heerden by blocking his ability to speak to the press, pushed him out of his Hurricane Center post, and deep-sixed his contract as a professor at the school.  LSU also claimed none of this had to do with him nailing the Corps of Engineers for the levee failure or the fact that LSU received grant money from the Corps.  Oh, no, they said.  Meanwhile van Heerden was standing on the platform of academic freedom and free speech and showing up on the news everywhere.  After being busted out of his job at LSU, he filed suit against the university and the state three years ago, all of which was scheduled to go to trial next week in Baton Rouge on February 19th, but suddenly last week a settlement was reached.

Thanks to the Baton Rouge Advocate it is now clear that the settlement was suddenly and magically reached when the judge ordered that hundreds of emails and other documents would not be excluded from evidence.  Now that the documents are part of the court record it is now clear that just as van Heerden alleged, LSU officials and state government officials had indeed moved quickly to silence him for his remarks at the breech at the Industrial Canal where hundreds of low income, African-American residents were drowned.

The emails are shocking and their attack on van Heerden was immediately in response to his report putting the responsibility at the feet of the Corps of Engineers.  An official of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources the next day had sent a message to Governor Blanco’s assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority suggesting that the LSU president be advised to “get his staff under control.”  She had then emailed van Heerden’s boss within 26 minutes saying “This is astounding and must be stopped!!”  After van Heerden briefed Governor Blanco for several hours on his analysis of the levee failure, the emails indicate his boss still sucking up Ms. Sidney Coffee on the coastal restoration committee, assured her that van Heerden was not part of the LSU team that had helped the Corps “develop the chief engineer’s report.  So, he does not represent the wider coastal science and engineering community.”  The head of LSU’s Office of Communications and University Relations put a sock in van Heerden’s mouth, but later had to rescind that order when LSU was overwhelmed by media requests, and then when the Times reported that there were on-campus criticism of van Heerden, he wrote the Times claiming there had been no such effort, taking the pattern of lies yet another couple of miles deeper into the hellish hole that LSU and the State of Louisiana had dug around their toadying to protect their measly grant monies from the feds rather than protecting the safety of residents in the 9th Ward of New Orleans or seeing that they would find justice in the future.

LSU and the State seem to have been particularly galled that van Heerden was a showboat.  The judge also ordered last week that van Heerden’s personal financial information, including the fact that he owned a $126,000 personal yacht, be allowed in the court record, which van Heerden had opposed.  Van Heerden was probably afraid that the jury would award him less money on the case if they were offended about the fact that he had done well on the grandstand even though given the hard backside boot by LSU and Louisiana.

I am confident that he this unreported settlement was a big payday for van Heerden, and clearly it should have been, since LSU and the state were guilty as charged.  The venality of relationships between all sorts of institutions, regardless of their claims of mission and principles, and their donors and constant pursuit of funding is so pervasive that it rarely provokes comment anymore.  Everyone seems to simply assume that that is the way it is so perhaps that is the way it should be.  Disgusting!

There is no one in the 9th Ward of New Orleans who cares whether van Heerden was a showboat or a working barge.  Both roll through the Mississippi River in sight of many of the houses throughout the neighborhood on a daily basis.  The riverboats blow their whistles on the calliopes on board.  No one minds, as long as they sail and don’t sink.  Same for this mess.  It’s the message that counts, not the messenger.  Who cares if van Heerden was rich or poor, a loudmouth self-aggrandizer or a humble public servant?  The point should have always been to come to the truth to correct the problem and protect people in the future, and after billions have now been spent on levee protection around New Orleans some small steps have been taken in the right direction.  It seems we still have van Heerden to thank for that and not LSU or some of the commissions and agencies and individuals sworn to protect us, and that’s the worst tragedy here and one that no amount of money will resolve.

[More information available on all of this through Social Policy Press and my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster.]


Mayor’s Failure on Community Benefit Agreement May Prove His Corruption

Ray Nagin

New Orleans  Big news in New Orleans, a city that decidedly does NOT specialize in irony, surrounds the Mayor of the Katrina years, C. Ray Nagin and whether or not in addition to being incompetent, which is widely acknowledged, he was also corrupt.  The irony comes into play because speculation in the U.S. Attorney’s office, fully reported in the Times-Picayune, is the chances of his conviction on charges likely to be filed at the end of January may turn on his adamant refusal to agree to a “community benefits agreement.”  This is all too, too rich!

Community benefit agreements (CBAs) have become an important part of community organizing in recent years as a strategy to force so-called economic development projects, which are often merely tax giveaways to corporations and the favored few, to actually deliver benefits to residents of the neighborhood and city where they are locating.  In the Nagin-New Orleans case, this situation arose around locating a Home Depot megastore on a pretty bombed out section of Claiborne Avenue in the uptown part of the city.  This was not big time news of a deeply seated community-based struggle as so many of fights are, but largely a political maneuver by a local city councilwoman, often a pain in the Mayor and many other sides, who wanted to hang a community benefits trophy on her wall, which suits me just fine for whatever the reasons, since New Orleans folks would actually get more.  The paper reported in excruciating detail, since all the parties have had to give “secret” testimony to the grand jury and the US Attorney’s office is an information sieve, that the word from Mayor Nagin had come down that in no uncertain terms, he was opposed to the CBA.  In fact there is now a voice mail recording of a call to the Atlanta-based CEO from Mayor Nagin offering to help squelch any community opposition to green light the project.  All of the behind the scenes players folded their tents quickly, since there was no deep community campaign to make the process transparent or forceful, Home Depot got their site and a tax break, and it was business as usual in New Orleans, as it would have been for most cities around the country.

Except for the fact, and the irony is now becoming clearer, that Nagin and his family ended up soon after with a contract to supply stone to Home Depot.  The US Attorney’s case though is anything but airtight, despite having turned several potential witnesses against Nagin.  They now feel if they go to a jury their best chance at a conviction may rest on moving the jury that Nagin’s opposition to the CBA, when it would have meant higher wages and local jobs in the community, will persuade them that there must have been a corrupt motive to Nagin’s opposition to the CBA.

Let that word spread the land!  It is not a matter that Nagin and 95% of all big city majors are so desperate for big box stores that they will give their right arms for any to come around (see all of the Walmart giveaways everyday!), but it is a prima facie case of corruption if they don’t agree to a community benefits agreement!

If Nagin goes down, this could mean 1000’s of community benefit agreements are now suddenly possible!  Clearly they benefit the citizens, so why wouldn’t mayors all agree with the community and negotiate for more?  Nagin may go to jail, but his contribution in fighting against community benefits, could be a huge shift away from neoliberal corporatism in American’s cities!



Mandate Real Equity after Disasters with Democracy

New Orleans   Hurricane Sandy was tragic in every way that one can imagine, but it was also tragic in the same way that all “acts of god” reduce the scale of mankind’s hand in the environment as inconsequential in the face of nature.  In the wake of even larger devastation from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast were protected by some as exotic and unique cultural oddities and roundly condemned by others as fools who tempted fate with every breath and got what they deserved.  Outsiders, and even some insiders, argued that whole expanses of the city, somewhat randomly, should not be rebuilt but allowed to return to cypress swampland and natural selection.  ACORN was accused at one point of “reckless endangerment” for joining our membership in fighting for the “right to return” to their homes and communities, when some felt they should be forced to seek high ground.

Earlier I predicted that one positive outcome to this terrible Sandy tragedy, since it occurred in New York City and the East Coast heartland of opinion and policy, might be discussion and debate about realistic policy and solutions for communities at the blunt edge of the collective climate change catastrophe.  Michael Kimmelman in his column in the New York Times entered the debate today in an interesting, though ultimately unsatisfactory way.

Kimmelman makes several points about dealing with the impact of the New York City disaster.  He believes “business as usual,” should not be the default mode, and criticizes politicians including President Obama for promising to help people rebuild.  He notes that in a democracy confronting a disaster that there are important issues of equity that have to be addressed, including potentially why gazillions will be spent protecting businesses in lower Manhattan Island and trying to bar rebuilding in the Far Rockaways, some parts of Staten Island, and other barrier locations.

This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.   But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.  So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.

At the same time that Kimmelman seems to “get it,” he veers wildly off the road in crediting anti-democratic formations, think China, and then read the recent article on railway construction in The New Yorker:

Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.

And, then after such a good start at recognizing the issues, even raising the right question about whether or not in dealing with climate change we can “accomplish this in time and fairly?,” he veers dangerously and nostalgically towards Robert Moses, who epitomized autocratic and undemocratic development in a democracy!  He finishes by walking away from the very questions he asks:

Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.” “The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.”   And it still hasn’t.

What a complete barrel of bull we end up with in this short essay.  Hardly reaches any standard of hope for a good policy outcome, including both citing Caro for belling the cat and then rationalizing the “by any means necessary” rationalizations of all developers and self-proclaimed harbingers of “progress.”

And, you wonder why liberals get a bad name?  It’s because they understand the questions fully, and then run from the logic of their answers!

Why not embrace full equity, once you acknowledge the issue?  Part of equity is realizing from the beginning that resources are unequal therefore solutions will be inadequate unless the root imbalances are leveled.  In New Orleans to call for moving everyone out of the Lower 9th Ward (ignoring the blatant racism for a minute that was involved) to “higher ground,” and not reckoning with the fact that higher ground had suddenly achieved premium pricing and no one was talking about covering the bills to achieve this goal, effectively ended the conversation.  When we traveled to Tokyo and walked on areas a dozen or more feet below sea level and saw massive locks and super-levees, it was impossible to ignore that the astronomical values of land in Tokyo rationalized the investment in real protection.  Kimmelman both argues that money is not the problem, and that residents of endangered areas have to embrace “moral hazard,” as the bankers call it for other people rather than themselves, and accept the fact of cyclical destruction and rebuilding.

Why in a democracy does it not occur that if you want to move people out of danger you have to not only provide the full resources to do so, but create incentives and equity in the relocation?  If working class communities like living by the water, why in the name of “civic unity” are they not moved to safer areas near the water?  The answer is partially that it is more expensive and that these areas are too often enclaves of the rich, so we’re dealing with the “not in my backyard” phenomena.  But, either way, moral hazard is a definition in these times of inequity.    Housing projects are homes as well, but sometimes tenants embrace moving if they are really getting better and safer housing.

Thank goodness we have some democratic norms still to force business to be “as usual” until there is a full recognition that equity must be achieved.  Kimmelman proves that the right questions are starting to be asked, but also that we have a long way before we’re still willing to grapple with real answers and humane, democratic public policies.


The Face of Disaster Attack in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, Japan


Sendai   We left Sendai at 7PM to visit with families and worker cooperatives along the coast in the wake of the earthquake and the path of the tsunami in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, and now more than 12 hours later on the Shinkansen train from Sendai to Tokyo, I can really only make note of what I have seen, while it is fresh, raw, and painful, then try to sort it out later in hopes of finding sense in senselessness.  As we walked, the usual translation into English for me referred to the tsunami “attack” in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the more I looked from place to place, the more I agreed that this seemed a deliberate assault on people by an enraged and violent Nature.   This was Hurricane Katrina on meth with blood in her eyes.


paper mill at tsunami's edge

We drove past a huge paper mill in Ishinomaki billowing smoke from a half-dozen smokestacks, as we neared the coast, and then turned suddenly on acres and acres of what seemed at first like empty ground.  Slowing down and pulling over, I didn’t need to be able to read Japanese to know from New Orleans that the tall obelisk next to a ramshackle memorial of sorts would indicate the height of the water from the tsunami surge.  At the top it said 9.3 meters or about 30 feet of water that wiped this ground dirty with the debris of houses and people, some still being demolished now more than 18 months after the March 11th tragedy, which killed more than 3000 in this city of over 150,000.  Walking the abandoned streets, I could recognize the numbering system of houses gone and the occasional grace notes of families sending their own messages to the dead and those still alive.  With a crane in the background we looked at the memorial to some children lost in the wave.

high water mark

Standing in front of a school across the road, one of the co-op workers with us told of making it to high ground.  She, like the children, had about a 2-hour warning, but some were lost in the clog of cars desperately trying to evacuate the area and get to the high ground right above us.  Some were lost as they tried to go back and rescue family members and elderly parents.    This would probably be one of many areas where the government would not allow return.  Unlike New Orleans rather than moving everything to landfills, much of the debris was still present in mountains of stacked and broken cars and sloping hills of house debris producing wild sculptures of twisted metal, plaster, furniture and sheetrock.

Visiting with the editor of the local paper in the second floor of their offices, still waiting for repairs, we were able to see the handwritten editions he had produced within one day of the tsunami without electricity or machinery.  I asked why, and it all came down to being a part of the community and knowing that the community needed the news anyway he could offer it.

In town of Onagawa, situated partially along a pretty lake with recovering oyster beds and a pretty harbor where seafood processing had been everywhere, much as it had been in Ishinomaki, the tsunami attack cleaned out the valley below the ridges as if wielding a giant shovel.  Giant bulldozers were still clearing the beach.  Several huge modular housing hunks had been tossed in the air and turned over and were still twisted on the beach waiting to be dismantled.  This area would become a park and not be rebuilt.  This was the third tsunami attack, and 1000 people in businesses and houses, were killed, but nevermore.  We stood on the hospital parking lot on a ridge looking 100 feet down towards the beach, yet we could turn on our heels and see the water mark from the tsunami on the bottom of the second floor of the hospital.

A woman caretaking a shrine in Ishinomaki had honored us by letting us come in and see the footprint of the attacks on this 400-year old structure.  Water had come in at a dozen feet.  Porches and hallways added years ago were now sinking, as was much of the town from the effects of the earthquake and water.  The shrine had been built to manage earthquakes by generations past, but nothing was a match for the tsunami.  We passed a dozen packages of the bones of people who had died in the shrine.  The room had been full but these were the only remains now.   The grounds were beautiful reflecting the resilience of these women.

There were no trailers in Ishinomaki but the temporary housing for 100 in rows in the old playground was about as small.  People had been there for 18 months and supposedly only had another 18 months to go, but there were no hammers ringing out the sounds of new housing.  In Onagawa, we visited an even larger, 3-storey complex in a former ball field which was also “temporary” but no one knew where they would be allowed to go.  There was the typical confusion where the government had paid for the land, and provided new space on higher ground, but there was not enough money to afford rebuilding because the financial gap was still too large.

We saw a dozen people in the community space in Ishinomaki finding laughter in a small dog.  Children were playing the a huge tent in Onagawa having just returned from school around 4pm in the afternoon.  A dog in a small run build near the fence barked excitedly.  The school buses were huge and new, because the children were still afraid I was told.

The attack had been devastating and the signs of death were everywhere with life occasionally breaking the ground like a green shoot hoping for an early spring.

Japanese disaster numbering system

Lower 9th ward in Ishinomaki

temporary housing for 100 families on playground in Ishinomaki

ruins on the beach