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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Charters Don’t Change School Segregation

New Orleans   In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans public schools were hijacked through a state takeover that made the city the largest charter school experiment in the country. A special grant from President George W. Bush became an offer too good for the state to turn down as it muscled aside the publicly elected school board and set about redesigning the school system. Where the charter movement had been stopped in the past by requirements for concurring votes by the system, the parents, and the teachers, the union was broken and the takeover was complete.

There were a number of claims for what this takeover might mean. Most of them have not been met, including improvements in test scores and student performance. A proposal to turn over the last five non-charter schools to a newly minted charter operator was suddenly withdrawn, preventing the system from now being 100% charterized. The school board is gradually replacing the state recovery district, so there is hope for local control once again.

One claim though that the charter-boosters had maintained as a premise for their bold experiment is that the school system under their control would be more equally integrated by race and income. Making the whole city open-admissions was supposed to be a workaround for residential segregation in this majority African-American city. On that score the experiment has earned an F minus.

This must have been a bitter pill for the Tulane Education Research Alliance for New Orleans to report since Tulane and its then president had been huge backers of the charter movement including funding one school, essentially for their own staff and professors. The report indicated the following:

  • High school segregation increased for students who were African-American, Latino, low-income or learning English.
  • White students were just as likely to be concentrated in particular schools as they were pre-Katrina.
  • The typical low-income student is in a school that is 78% low-income, which is 6% worse than before the storm.
  • Before, Katrina, only one high school was less than 80% black out of 125 campuses, now with far fewer schools, six are less than 80%.

Most devastatingly, the district was 92% African-American before Katrina and is now 85% African-American, in spite of some significant demographic changes in the city. Tellingly, private and parochial schools enroll a majority of the city’s white students. Parents simply did not buy the charter’s claim and elect more diverse schools. They continued to self-segregate. This is not a surprising pattern, but more the norm. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, according to the Times-Picayune, has repeatedly found that charter schools are “generally more segregated than public schools.” Penn State researchers have found that black and Latino students “tended to move into charter schools that were more racially isolated than the public schools they left.”

Charters still seem mainly about privatization and imposed ideology. The notion that they increase diversity based on income and race seems to just be a cover story, and is certainly not proven out in New Orleans or other cities to date.

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Please enjoy Shelly Fairchild’s Mississippi Turnpike. Thanks to KABF.

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