Katrina’s 8th Anniversary and the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   Even in New Orleans we have been saying for years that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and even the recovery has fallen off the front pages, but on the 8th anniversary, even in the local papers you have to search for any mention of the storm, and elsewhere the date is passing unnoticed, even though the aftermath of Katrina’s wake is still ever present here.

            We are noting the date in our own way though. 

Two years ago when my book, Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster  , told the story of successfully preventing large parts of the 9th Ward from being forced into a return to cypress swamps, I was clear that the work there had hardly begun.  Now at the 8th anniversary hardly 25% of the population in the lower 9th has been able to return and driving through the area is rough roads and a checkerboard of mown lots which are owned by the City of New Orleans by default from the Road Home program and overgrown and abandoned lots from owners still in limbo.   Six years ago, ACORN completed the construction of the first new homes in the lower 9th on Delery Street, and now at the 8th year mark we are signing the papers on what will be the purchase by ACORN International of four lots adding up to one-half acre at Law and Delery right down the block where we will develop the ACORN Farm.

            The ACORN Farm will be a sustainable organic operation growing fresh produce and over time hopefully citrus, bananas, and more for residents, members, and farm associates with a direct marketplace through the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse for its primary sourcing and to its customers for any surplus production.  Yesterday on the eve of the anniversary we began conversations with Sankofa, another urban agriculture project in the lower 9 and a farmers’ market operation, on locating their greenhouse on the ACORN Farm where we can all benefit.  There’s talk about chickens.  We are studying about bees and producing our own honey.   This is where another chapter starts for the future.

            I talked to the ACORN Farm neighbors on the same block.  One is in Gonzales near Baton Rouge.  His house sits empty across the street.  Next door to the farm is a metal building where he once stored the equipment for his lawn maintenance business.   He wishes he were not driving a truck for someone else now.  When I asked about the building, he is still unsure about his future plans.

            I understand him fully.  Only now have I finally made a plan with a friend to work with me in January next year to finally rebuild the decking on our now long fishing camp. We’ll put a tent up and a shed.   A new camp would just wash away again, but it will be fun with a smaller footprint in an uncertain future.   A map in the current National Geographic postulated that by 2100 on current models with melting ice caps and climate change, seas would be up 5 feet and we would be underwater along with all of Florida, the East Coast cities, Houston, and more.  We could buy waterfront property now in Pine Bluff and wait for the water to reach us.  Meanwhile a $25 billion debt in flood insurance without Congressional action could make anything other than a tent pitched on some pilings at our fishing camp across Lake Pontchartrain only possible for Wall Street bankers with fat wallets.

            Katrina and a full recovery can fall out of focus, but the aftermath and shock effects are still in front of us everywhere here and reverberating around the country.



Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area