Nine Years after Katrina

Lower 9th Ward before and after

Lower 9th Ward before and after, credit to Ted Jackson at nola.com

Little Rock       Perhaps the best news in the nine years since Katrina has been that we have not faced another devastating hurricane, as the city continues to struggle to rebuild.  We had a bit of problem a couple of years ago in 2012, but not so severe that it forced widespread evacuation or extensive damage.  Every year that we can get past Katrina is another gift.

            Surveying the changes over nine years isn’t easy.  Many of the positives come with big, fat “buts.”

            Like the fact that population in the metro area is now 93% of what it was before the storm, but in the city itself we are only 78% of where we were before Katrina.  The Census Bureau estimates New Orleans’ population at 378,715 compared to the 2000 Census population of 484,674.  That’s still 100 grand down, and that’s not good.

            We’re growing, yes, but people still can’t find their way home, especially African-Americans.

The Census Bureau estimated 99,650 fewer African Americans in 2013 compared to 2000, but also 11,494 fewer whites and 6,023 more Hispanics. African-Americans still represent the majority of the city’s population at 59 percent, down from 67 percent in 2000.

All of which means we are becoming more diverse, even while we have so many “missing New Orleans.”  We gained 44,281 Hispanics and 6,564 additional Asian residents. The Hispanic population in the metro spiked 76 percent between 2000 and 2013, a rate greater than the nation’s 53 percent growth.

            So the city fathers that wanted a “whiter” city, didn’t get their wishes, even though their policies barred return for so many.  They also didn’t get a richer city because of their continued programs.

            According to The Data Center’s figures:

While the poverty rate in the New Orleans metro declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, it then increased to 19 percent in 2012, such that it is now statistically unchanged since 1999. In New Orleans itself, the 2012 poverty rate of 29 percent is also statistically the same as 1999 after falling to 21 percent in 2007.   Like the overall poverty rate, child poverty in Orleans Parish and the metro area dropped in 2007 but has since increased to its 1999 levels. In 2012, the child poverty rate was 41 percent in the city and 28 percent in the metropolitan area, both higher than the U.S. rate of 23 percent.

No small reason for the continued poverty and stalled return continues to rest on the problem of inadequate and unaffordable housing, because of the double whammy of first the storm and then the recession which rolled back credit availability and made home reconstruction unaffordable for many low-and-moderate income families.  Rents soared after the storm and continue to be sky high.  The Data Center finds that “36 percent of renters in the city paying more than 50 percent of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities in 2012, up from 24 percent of renters in 2004.”

The beat goes on like that.

We did better on jobs and jobs on recovery after the storm than many cities in the recession, but the jobs didn’t pay diddling, especially when so much of the income went for housing.  Higher education is lagging, especially for African-American men, and the charter school experiment has not moved the needle on failing schools.  New businesses are up, but so are sales tax revenues and other taxes servicing a smaller population, so many of these businesses are marginal.  We have more bike lanes and bike trails but can’t seem to fix the potholes in the streets.

Here’s the story in New Orleans.  We’re going to make it, but every day is still going to mean a struggle over a bumpy road.  We’re going to come back somehow and we’ll welcome all the new people, but we can’t escape the heartache for people we miss, who still can’t make it home.

 

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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

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