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.

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Hurricane Sandy Rapid Response from Occupy and Others

New Orleans   In The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, The Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, published last year, I had added the Lessons appendix as more and more community-based organizations sought to meet the challenges of the unexpected natural disasters that are cropping up all around us, whether in the US, Indonesia, or Japan, way too often given the crisis of climate change.  One of the clearest lessons we had learned in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was the incalculable value of volunteers.

It’s interesting, and important, to once again watch after Hurricane Sandy, in the largest city in the USA, how once again even there in the bounty of our harvest, so to speak, the quickest response in many difficult areas has been once again by volunteers.  The corollary to the lesson about volunteers seems to be that activists, often mobile with flexible or casual jobs, and a healthy dose of altruism, politics, opportunism, and tech skills seem to be an important spice in stirring the volunteer gumbo.  The Occupy Movement, which is no longer a movement, but has evolved into a loose network of activists with sporadic energy and capacity in various areas of pursuit around the country (and I mean this sincerely and in the most positive way possible!) seems uniquely able to fit this bill.  I had been hearing over the last two weeks some buzz about Occupy Sandy, being coordinated in New York City by a handful of Occupy Wall Street veterans and the energy of newbies looking for a way to be effective.

The New York Times ran a huge hooray for Occupy Sandy.  After Hurricane Katrina, we thought our coup was just getting something up on our website asking for (and receiving!) help in that long ago time of seven years ago before-Facebook.  The tech ingenuity of the Occupy Sandy crew is simply hats-off stunning!  They use Google maps for directions and drop-offs.  They were shrewd enough to get on-line on wedding registry sites for donations, which is drop dead brilliant.  And, proving again another “lesson” from my list, they have been able to use their national and even international network of “groups” and activist contacts to great effect, reportedly using a team of activist volunteers in London to keep the various facebook and other sites fresh and current.  They may not have an organization, but they certainly still have mad skills.

I’ve been proud to see the regular postings and exhortations from New York Communities for Change, the former New York ACORN, which has long had a membership base in the Far Rockaways, and the fact that they have been on a regular supply run to support their members who are still battling Sandy.  New York ACORN was a constant ally and advocate in ACORN’s Katrina work, even bringing Bloomberg down on his private jet to visit with our members in the 9th Ward, and organizing survivors from New Orleans who ended up in NYC.   It is good to see how hardwired the experience was then and how it continues to instruct the work now.

There are problems in the activist-volunteer post-disaster work, even at its best, which we may be seeing in Occupy Sandy.  I recently read The Fight for Home:  How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back by Daniel Wolff which focused heavily on the many ups and many downs of the Common Ground effort after Katrina.   The Common Ground Clinic operation in Algiers on the West Bank of the city which was not flooded by Katrina rightly earned Common Ground huge respect and support.  Sometimes dealing with their later efforts in the 9th ward were more challenging, since ACORN members didn’t always see eye-to-eye with some of the activities and practices of this more off-beat operation.  The book details the leadership problems of Common Ground which became somewhat notorious when one of the key architects of its operation later came out in Austin as an FBI informant causing havoc near and far.  I didn’t need the reminders of the more difficult experiences since the same guy had occasionally showed up in bizarre circumstances in ACORN’s office on Elysian Fields (shown twice in a recent Treme show incidentally).  Another time, I had just come into downtown from the airport and had to turn around immediately with organizers of New Orleans ACORN to pull the daughter of old friends and comrades out of a wildly sketchy and dangerous crash pad being run by Common Ground in a rough, unlit, unlocked part of central city.

The point being that as good as it all can be, the rough ledger of “by any means necessary,” here-today, gone-tomorrow can also leave many rough edges, and lots of local residents and well meaning volunteers, hanging a long way from high and dry.   We need the protocols and practices to build long term programmatic and progressive response to disaster that build our organizations and our political capacity, and volunteers and activists are a crucial part of these formulas, but in applying the immediate bandaids, we also need to be constantly vigilant that we are also providing the long terms cures and solutions.

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