Katrina and Maria, More Disaster Anniversaries and Lessons Unlearned

Screenshot of Gwen Adams’ interview on WWLTV https://www.wwltv.com/video/news/lower-9th-ward-13-years-after-katrina/289-8234818

Greenville        In New Zealand we were asked, “How is New Orleans?”  In California, whether Santa Rosa or Sonoma, the question arose, “How is New Orleans?”  Thirteen years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the city, and the question is still important, “How is New Orleans?”  The answer:  better than it was, but not as good as it needs to be.

That’s not a whine, just a statement of fact.  Another new Mayor is now in charge, our first woman, an African-American again, and our first non-native born in a long, long time.  There’s hope mixed with thirteen years of cynicism.  Too many plans have been made without enough progress.

The big local television station reached out for ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, so that they could dig deep into the lingering impacts felt by one of their leaders, Gwen Adams.  They wanted to tell the story through a personal lens, but her organizational t-shirt cries out about how political this is.  Gwen lives within a spit of the levee in the lower 9th ward.  She was a union teacher in the New Orleans Public School System.  She was fired like thousands of others, and despite the fact that she was a former Teacher-of-the-Year in Orleans Parish, she was never offered a return to work.  She was also unwilling to go to work at lower pay, forfeited retirement and other benefits, and no job security or protection for a charter operator.  She is now a sometimes substitute teacher.  She is a great ACORN and ACV leader.  These are the facts.

The facts are also being reckoned with in Puerto Rico almost a year after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria.  The governor there actually apologized, which is a refreshing surprise.  He also announced that the death total is now estimated at near 3000 people compared to the earlier estimates that were hardly one-hundred.  In the same report, the news story mentioned that the death total from Katrina is still not known absolutely.  The governor noted that they had no disaster plan that assumed no power, no highway access, and no communication.  George Washington University in the District of Columbia has been doing a study for them, but it is hard to believe there will be any surprises.

A spokesperson for the Milken Institute argued that the lesson of Puerto Rico is “focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable.”  A survey from Kaiser Health Foundation and others in Texas in the wake of Harvey found that the same populations were still suffering there.  We all thought that was also the lesson learned from Katrina thirteen years ago.

When are we going to be willing to really act on the lessons we keep being taught after disasters?  No one seems to know – or act on – the lessons we keep being forced to learn at the price of suffering and death.

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Hurricane Harvey, One Year Later

New Orleans   Given Houston’s experiences with its own flooding and hurricanes and its welcoming and sheltering of thousands after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it would have seemed safe to assume that if any city could respond well to disaster, it must be Houston.  A year after Hurricane Harvey, the answer is clear:  not Houston either.

I was supposed to be in Houston when Harvey hit, and wisely delayed my trip, going only once reports were in that water was off of most of the interstate, though I found it still lapping the shoulder around Beaumont and Port Arthur.  In Houston, organizers told me of the lack of response in apartment complexes where the residents were largely Hispanic and often undocumented.  Philanthropists were generous, but uninterested in discussing the lessons of Katrina, as if it were ancient history, rather than a still open wound.  Houston could handle it.

And, they have, just not all that well.  There is still no real plan to protect the city in the future.  A $2.5 billion bond issue passed overwhelmingly by an 86% margin, but in dealing with a disaster of this scale that’s almost chump change, and only for the Houston area, while Harvey’s footprint was much larger.

As one of the largest cities in the country, the damage in Houston is not as stark and inescapable as Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans.  Maybe that makes Harvey easier to ignore, if you were lucky.  Certainly, that’s been the case in terms of critical state or federal response.  Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana was as intimately involved in the recovery in New Orleans and Louisiana as the Mayor or City Council was, sometimes making the right decisions and sometimes, making the wrong ones in delaying housing funds and allowing school charters.  Governor Greg Abbott on the other hand has been a virtual bystander in Texas offering little more than bootstrap platitudes and precious little money.  Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both targeted billions for Katrina recovery.  Though it was inadequate, it dwarfs the little that President Trump has provided other than emergency relief and a recovery package that is also supposed to handle the devastation in Puerto Rico.  Harvey may teach Houston and Texas Republicans the limits of what conservative provincialism really means when citizens demand and expect their government to also be responsive to their needs and not just step out of the way.

The recovery has not been equal even when it has moved forward.  A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that 70% of Texans now say their lives are largely normal, “but of the people who reported still being affected by the storm, more than 40% say they aren’t getting the help they need to recover.”  Not surprisingly, the “survey found that those who said they weren’t getting enough assistance were more often African-American, poor and lived in the state’s so-called Golden Triangle area…which includes the cities of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange.”

All of this sounds too familiar.  Given the regular and recurring disasters, worsened by climate change, it’s becoming almost trite to keep asking, “When are we going to learn?”

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