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


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


Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City, and Walking the Bridge of the Enjoyment Culture

Lawrence Powell

New Orleans    Speaking in the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Common Space in a book signing event organized by the Faubourg St. John branch of the Maple Street Bookstore, Lawrence Powell, Tulane University professor conceded that when he first agreed to write what he hoped would be 300-400 history of New Orleans in 2006 in the aftermath of Katrina, he was “not bearish on a comeback” for New Orleans.  Pulling a reference from HBO’s Treme, he added that he wasn’t to the point of the John Goodman character, which is a signal for ranting and raving in the doom of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, but he wasn’t that far off.  His surprisingly hot seller, The Accidental City:  Improvising New Orleans, which retells the story of the founding of the city with both a different slant and a 21st century understanding of the inordinate role of economic actors and real estate speculation , along with time itself and observations since the storm, have now turned him around to “cautious optimism.”

The heart of the book goes to finding an answer to the question posed by former House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert after Katrina which essentially asked what fools would locate a city where New Orleans was built.  Powell’s book tells the stories of those “fools,” and the disputes between France, its Francophone wheelers and dealers from Canada, and other countries, John Law, one of the shrewdest economic barons of the early 18th century, and Bienville, which pushed and shoved between what became the city’s location between Lake Pontchartrain through Bayou St. John to the River, and the location preferred by Gulf Coast and other interests at Bayou Manchac between the lakes.  In Powell’s version Bienville “seized the time” to found the city almost 300 years ago (1718), and held on as the Law a strategy of force marching a tobacco based, plantation economy in Louisiana that sweltered and struggled as a business model.

It says something about New Orleans that looking forward could entail so much looking backwards that Powell’s book would create so much interest.  David Carr, the Times’ media columnist makes a similar point in an odd “on this hand and then on the other” vacillating piece today as he discusses the coffeehouse culture of the city and the daily arguments on the news that frequently include brandishing a copy of the Times-Picayune as pointer and potential weapon.  Even in the column, Carr is unable to see which trees warranted chopping or not, since all of his views are blinded by the forest of challenges for newspapers to find a new business model.

Powell more astutely comes down clearly and firmly on the challenges that face New Orleans (and many cities!) rebuilding that are deeply planted at dividing lines of race and inequities of income, jobs, and opportunity.  He left the crowd at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse with a comment that perhaps what he called the “enjoyment culture,” meaning the attractive and addictive life style and joie de vivre of New Orleans might actually be the bridge between these great divides and hold the secret as well to the long term success and survival of the city for the next 300 years.  Readers still moving past the first chapters of The Accidental City were desperately trying to speed Powell up on his work on that next book!

Lawrence Powell talking to the Crowd at Fair Grinds Common Space

The Accidental City