New Orleans, One Year After

Above: composite photo of New Orleans in September, 2005 and today

Exactly one year has passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and devastated the city of New Orleans producing the greatest disaster in American history, at least from the standpoints of its breadth and cost. Here’s a link to my post the day the hurricane made landfall. That morning I wrote:

Most of the damage of the hurricane isn’t caused by the wind but by storm surge and flooding.

This, unfortunately, is exactly what happened.

Five days later I wrote a post on the American historical experience in dealing with and recovering from natural disaster, “Learning From History: the Relief and Rebuilding of New Orleans”. In the post I described the recovery of Chicago, San Francisco, and Galveston from great natural disasters. Here’s how I concluded that post:

The disaster that has occurred in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is enormously larger and will, undoubtedly, be significantly more costly than any of the disasters above. The size of the area affected is hundreds of square miles. We don’t yet know how many people were killed.

There are several key factors that were present in all of the disasters reviewed above:

  • Civil order was maintained immediately (sometimes ruthlessly) even while the disaster was in progress.
  • Reconstruction efforts began immediately and were completely under local (and mostly private) control.
  • Funding for relief and reconstruction was almost exclusively through private investment and philanthropy.
  • Although large parts of all of the cities were destroyed, large parts remained.

None of these factors are true in New Orleans.

New Orleans will be re-built if the people of New Orleans want to re-build it. And if they do it themselves it will be a New Orleans they can be proud of and love. It will be their New Orleans.

If, on the other hand, they wait around for someone else to re-build their city for them, it won’t be the New Orleans they loved. It will belong to somebody else. And New Orleans will be dead.

Now it’s one year later and what I wrote is very nearly as true today as it was a year ago. You don’t need to take my word for it. The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana has produced a report, “Gulf Gov Reports: One Year Later” that is worthy of your attention. The authors conclude the introduction:

Without explicit guidelines from community leaders about what areas will be rebuilt and when, many residents put off making a decision about whether to return, and the longer the delay, the more likely they are to stay where they are. That, in turn, has consequences for any community’s long-term survival.

From the “Summary Analysis of the State of Rebuilding Plans”:

What became clear in looking at the long-term planning efforts in these communities is that unambiguous, decisive leadership, coupled with public input, is crucial. Where that has occurred—Cameron Parish, St. Tammany Parish, Bayou La Batre—there is a rebuilding plan in place and officials are acting on it. That is not to say there is not disagreement, but at least residents and business owners in those communities have specific facts on which to make their own decisions about rebuilding. St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana and Biloxi in Mississippi have plans in the works that need to be finalized. Other cities along the Mississippi coast have begun holding public planning meetings, trying to sort out what residents want versus what city officials realistically can do. The process is moving considerably more slowly in cities such as Waveland and Bay St. Louis, which suffered a direct hit from Katrina, than it did in Biloxi, but it is moving, nonetheless. In the case of Lake Charles, officials still can move forward despite the defeat of their plan, taking the public’s concerns into account as they try to recraft their initiatives.

No such clarity exists in New Orleans, however, and the excruciatingly slow pace of the recovery bears witness to that. Without clear guidelines from the city about what areas will be rebuilt and when, many residents have put off making a decision about whether to return, and the longer the delay, the more likely they are to stay where they are. That, in turn, has consequences for the city’s long-term survival. The problem lies in New Orleans’ long history of political and racial divisions and in the difficulty the city’s leadership has setting aside differences to work together. In addition, there is genuine disagreement over the best way to approach rebuilding the city. The difficulty of the mayor and city council members to work together is a problem that has plagued New Orleans since long before Katrina hit. The storm simply exacerbated the problem. However, the council’s makeup has changed since the storm after elections in May. As a result, there is hope the mayor-council relationship will not be quite so contentious and that with the start of the latest planning process, there will be more cooperation.

The other overarching question that must be resolved in New Orleans is how to approach the rebuilding process. One view holds that every neighborhood should be rebuilt, period. The other contends that it makes no sense to rebuild areas just to have them flood in the next storm. Those involved in the planning process must find a way to set aside enough of their differences to at least reach a consensus on a plan, or this latest effort is likely to stall as well.

And from the conclusion:

Reality has been harsh and the lessons of Katrina and Rita are pointed. Among them:

• Begin the planning for rebuilding as soon as possible after the immediate crisis is over. The longer a community waits to begin, the more likely residents will be to take matters into their own hands, whether that means starting their own planning process or simply moving away.

• Planning and rebuilding efforts have progressed the most in those communities where officialshave pushed the process forward, encouraging citizen input and participation. At the same time, planning and rebuilding have stalled in communities where officials have failed to provide clear direction. Such direction is crucial for residents and business owners trying to make their own personal decisions about whether to rebuild.

• Some federal financial aid will be forthcoming immediately after a disaster, but most of it will take weeks and months to arrive. The wheels of Congress and the federal government turn very slowly.

• It’s all about the housing. Without it, workers cannot come back. Without the workers, businesses cannot reopen and cities cannot provide an adequate level of service, and the recovery will stall.

• Nonprofit organizations are a critical part of any disaster response plan. They have the flexibility, the ingenuity, and the capacity to counterbalance the rigidity of the government response. Integrating nonprofits into disaster planning can only make the response effort that much stronger.

• Some communities will benefit tremendously in the aftermath of a hurricane. State coffers also will swell as recovery spending takes off, leaving elected officials with difficult decisions about the best way to use the additional money.

Over the last year there’s been an enormous amount of posturing and finger-pointing in the aftermath of the disaster. I won’t attempt to recap that here. A couple of things have been lost in the discussions of the proper role of the federal government in local disaster relief.

First, due to a variety of factor including lifestyle issues, history, and Lousiana’s generous Medicaid provisions, New Orleans had become a preferred home for the poor and sick. Indeed, the anecdotes of survival that followed the disaster strongly suggested that people had come from all over the country to New Orleans to live for just those reasons. How prudent is it to attract people in the most fragile conditions of health and circumstance to a city that is itself fragile and prone to disaster? What can or should be done?

Second, our national “first responders” in cases of natural disaster are the military and that’s not likely to change. The closing of military bases over the last generation or so, particularly in urban areas where land is more valuable, has resulted in a situation in which these first responders are ever further from urban areas and, indeed, are increasingly concentrated in a handful of states. It may be time to reconsider the size and funding of our military and the location of military bases taking all of the uses to which we put our military into account.

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