Tom Wooten’s Disaster Myopia: Too Close and Too Far Away

9780807044636Rock Creek   Yes, I still read Katrina books, even as we are fast approaching the beginning of the 9th year since the storm on August 29, 2005.  Having written one myself, I respect the small fraternity of writers who have tried with varying success to put their arms around the disaster and somehow wrestle lessons from the tragedy.  Reading that Tom Wooten, a relatively recent Harvard graduate had written about flooding disasters in both India and New Orleans was especially interesting to me, so for my wor-cation, I brought both of them to river to read. 

            The first book written with Utpal Sandesara, No One Had a Tongue to Speak:  The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods was a collection of both people’s stories and on-the-ground research about the killer tidal wave unleashed when a dam broke inundating the town of Morbi in the Indian state of Gujarat and killing several thousand easily on August 11, 1979.  Part of what made Untold Story both interesting and important was not simply the colorful cast of characters and their reflections thirty years later, but the fact that Sandesara and Wooten stumbled almost through pure luck into a trove of documents that actually shed light on investigations into the causes of the disaster.  Even thirty years after the fact and far removed from the events, Sandesara and Wooten in that book taught something important.

            Unfortunately, Wooten’s recent effort on Katrina, We Shall Not Be Moved:  Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina is only stories, some from his own interviews, and based on few facts and a fair dose of the author’s own biases and some of his myopia.  Some of his biases I was inclined to share:  the belief in local work thrumping planning, the belief that locally controlled organizations are strongest in a community, and, I stand second to no one in my belief that community organization is critical after a disaster.  Yet, despite how much I wanted to embrace the book, Wooten made it impossible, because his refusal to do the real research, rather than repeat wholesale what he was told in order to paint his just so, pat pictures crippled the book and even the stories of his recovery heroes. 

            For example his stories of the fight for recovery in the Lower 9th Ward are so naive and distorted that I found myself simply shaking my head.  Mainly Wooten wanted to pick sides.  He takes shots at the Peoples’ Hurricane Recovery efforts, which were certainly flawed, but had a place, branding them as outside agenda folks, but turns a blind eye on Common Ground’s work, which was only different because it was better, though certainly as outside.  For some unfathomable and certainly unexplained reasons he takes sides with the efforts of Holy Cross to soak up the Lower 9th Ward recovery dollars rather than sharing them with the rest of the Lower 9th, and does so by gratuitously quoting categorical falsehoods which he certainly didn’t bother to corroborate, simply sourcing them as having come from interviews by others.  One papered over the bitter fight between Holy Cross nearer the River and the rest, and poorer, Lower 9th, as if it were no problem allowing a leader in the Holy Cross area to claim that everyone supported recovery for Holy Cross first, which was absurd.  He quotes Brad Pitt in an another interview, but would have had to do some minimal research to uncover the fact that actions by ACORN members forced “Make it Right” to build outside of Holy Cross and added ACORN leader and longtime L9 resident, Vanessa Gueringer, to the advisory board.  In one quote that is beneath contempt, he uses one of his so-called heroes to take a slap at ACORN that is a complete lie, and I suspect he knows it.

            Wooten believes in outside planners if they are from Harvard and connected to the Kennedy School where he had a fellowship to write this book.   Wooten’s theory of change is that popularly driven and led membership organizations are effective (I guess other than ACORN, though everyone but Wooten acknowledges ACORN’s critical role in the recovery of New Orleans), if they start community development corporations (CDCs) and perhaps charter schools to boot, including his uncritical praise for Edison Schools, which puts him in a small camp.  Of course he also believes in “burnout,” as an excuse for stopping working, so who knows what he really thinks.

            I loved some of the people, and I loved some of his stories.  He ended one chapter on Broadmoor with a quote from Lynda Ireland, a lifelong friend of three generations of my family, who is deeply missed.  I can hardly wait to tell my daughter so she can tell one of her best friends about the fact that her mother was quoted in the book.  I learned things about Lakeview, which I had not properly studied in the past, since the middle to upper-middle income communities have never been my turf.  I gained some respect for one of the Landrieu brothers and might give the Superdome’s Doug Thornton a second chance because his wife seems like good people. 

            But unfortunately when you hitch your wagons to stars without any research, reports, or footnotes to give it the velocity to reach the moon you want to see, a crash is inevitable.  Having loved the India book, I was left worrying that perhaps some of what seemed critical there might have been a mirage as well.  Wooten says he loves New Orleans and that now the city is home, and that’s a good thing, so I will hope over time he learns more about his new love and appreciates that like any good, long relationship, the love is stronger when the understanding gets deeper, not when it is all superficial and just another pretty or sad face.

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Hard Choices, Right Process: Deal Making in Paterno, Cairo, & New Orleans

Everyone is Happy with the Decision and Crowds around Candidate Vittorio Lo Presti (middle/blue sweater)

Paterno     After days of discussion sometimes heated and dramatic, the leadership of the La Citta civic movement in Paterno had come to the crossroads where they had to make decisions.  The right-leaning party had chosen a candidate for mayor and attracted some support from the center as well.  This meant that if La Citta could come up with a choice that was attractive, then there was a viable coalition that was possible with the left-party.  Other movements were beginning to announce their lists of candidates for councilors.  A newly organized movement like La Citta needed time to work through its program and get its people organized, but time was now the last thing it had.  The right steps might propel the movement from nowhere to the top, if they could figure out a way to reach consensus.

The leadership assembled in the campaign office and for two hours I listened to what I knew was a serious, well reasoned debate even with my marginal understanding of Italian and an occasional word of translation from my friend and comrade, Paolo Guarnicca, who had invited me to Paterno to help on technical questions and organizational development.  The debate involved classic questions.  Is it important to win or to make a point?  Is the process more important for the organization than choosing the right candidate?  How would any choice be received by the movement’s emerging constituency that wanted change and something different, if an existing politician was supported and the endorsement was not transparent?  Order was required and the speakers went around the room, one after another, sometimes at length and sometimes loudly, but always yielding to the next turn.  Some were adamant for someone new.  Others felt that they had someone who could win in the head of the water society, a lawyer who had joined their movement.  Others worried that he had previously been involved in the right party and the message would look expedient, rather than principled and kill the movement.  Paolo was even suggested as a possible candidate.

Team La Citta: President Biaggio Di Caro, Vittorio Lo Prestion, Paolo Guarnaccia

Finally, Paolo offered a compromise.  Vittorio should be supported but the president of La Citta should be the official bridge to the movement and Paolo should be part of the team as a consultant to the future mayor’s government to implement needed reforms, if he was victorious in the election.  Quickly, it was clear that there was now something for everyone.  A candidate would be on top of the ticket that might be able to win and a sense of a team guaranteeing change that would also be a signal to the left.   The men were ecstatic.  Bonds were formed.  Handshakes and hugs were everywhere, and pictures were taken.  It was the right decision for the organization.  Who knows if they can now do the work to win, but finally they are in position to do so.

Making deals is so difficult after long struggles, when even victory can seem bittersweet and not quite enough to settle the stomach.  Certainly this was true here in the small city of Paterno, but I had the same thought reading the story in the Times of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now preparing to finally call for the military to step out of power on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation as they realize their base is now all of Egypt and not simply their members, long cloistered in secrecy and silence.  If reporter David Kirkpatrick is right, the liberal parties seem to still not be willing to join the Brotherhood on even a call they support, but rather seem to want the Brotherhood to rise and fall on their own steam.  A deal is hard in the middle of a revolution half-won and half-lost.

I looked at a picture sent to me from New Orleans.  Vanessa Gueringer of A Community Voice, formerly New Orleans ACORN, was wearing her ACV button as she put her foot on a shovel along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city dignitaries as they broke ground for a park in the Lower 9th Ward.  Vanessa has been a constant advocate and thorn in the side of the city officials for years about how little is done to rebuild the Lower 9th and she is constantly showing them how half-full the glass is from the residents’ perspective.  Nonetheless, as a great leader, she knows when the situation requires grace and it’s time to put the shovel in the dirt and celebrate a true victory no matter how many times she might have wanted to swing that tool at the nearest city official!

ACV Leader Vanessa Gueringer, Councilman Jon Johnson, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu at Ground Breaking of Oliver Bush Park in Lower 9th Ward

We are often so long out of power that when we win, it is hard to make the deal, no matter how badly we want it.  If the process is right, then the hard choices will be right, too.

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