The Politics of Disaster and Recovery

“In three blocks when we cross through the intersection at the stop light, we will be in a boat,” commented Kathy, a volunteer from St. Charles Presbyterian Church that hosts the RHINO project. Each of our vans had a volunteer who rode with us and provided explanatory information. After gutting houses for two days, it was time to see the big picture. “Because 80% of the city was flooded, with some areas being under up to 20 feet of water, we will remain in the boat for most of the morning,” she continued.

Kathy pointed out her house a few blocks into the flooded area. She considers herself lucky to have lived in an area where the houses only received four to five feet of water. She also considers herself lucky because her husband, an insurance attorney, was able to obtain their flood insurance promptly. It enabled them to quickly restore their home and sell it. They now live on higher ground. Many residents continue to wait for their funds.

I noticed numerous ‘For Sale’ signs and inquired whether out-of-state investors were purchasing homes. “Yes,” Kathy replied. “However, they are not able to re-sell them. They restored the homes, but because the federal government has not established new rate maps, which will set standards on how high a building’s foundation must be, no flood insurance is being issued – and flood insurance is now mandatory.”

As we drove to our work sites, we noticed the ‘bathtub rings’ on houses. “The water was much higher than the line you see,” Kathy explained. When the water in the city and Lake Pontchartrain equalized, the water sat for quite a while before subsiding – inch by inch, leaving the ring.

Every house in a flooded area had to be inspected. The National Guard units indicated the results of their inspection with a red ‘X’. Each quadrant provided different information, including the designation of the guard unit, the date inspected, whether there was gas or electrical problems that needed attention, and whether any bodies were found. Chris Rose, Times-Picayune columnist, wrote in one of his columns that became the book, 1 dead in attic, “Imagine if your life came to that point, and remained there on display, all over town, for us to see day after day.”
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Some houses had additional information about the needs of pets.
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Near the suburb of Metairie, we stopped to view a spot where one of the levees was breached. Signs around town blast the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming they knew the levees were inadequate. An article in the March 25, 2006 Washington Post reported on the results of an independent review panel of the American Society of Civil Engineers which concluded that “the Army Corps of Engineers adopted safety standards that were too close to the margin to protect human life.” Last month, the city of New Orleans filed a $77 billion claim against the Corps for flood damage. A friend who works for the Corp in another state shared the reality of corps funding that has impacted projects across the country. She said that their federal agency has had severe funding cut-backs for several years.

We also drove through the Lower Ninth Ward. Very few houses remain. The force of the water was evident as we witnessed a number of homes that had been picked up as in the Wizard of Oz and deposited on top of another house.
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“Why aren’t there FEMA trailers here?” I asked. Kathy explained that most of the homes in this area had been in families for generations, but few had deeds to prove ownership. Without proof of ownership, the owner can’t get a FEMA trailer.

Hurricane recovery has progressed faster in other areas, where they primarily dealt with wind damage. Much as there was considerable controversy and divergent opinions around rebuilding on the Trade Center site, New Orleans residents also share differing points of view. Towards the end of our week in New Orleans, the city unveiled its recovery plan. While earlier plans had discouraged rebuilding in the hardest-hit areas, the new plan targets 17 “recovery zones” for commercial development, including hard hit areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

The mastermind behind the plan is Dr. Ed Blakely, former dean of the school of management and urban policy at the New School in New York. He led the planning for Oakland following the earthquake. He was quoted in the New York Times as describing the city’s racial factions as “a bit like the Shiites and Sunnis” and the civic elite as “insular.”

And while the politicos continue to debate the future of a city, scores of individuals and groups from across the nation – and even abroad – continue to make pilgrimages of hope that also end up being cultural exchanges.
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I was scheduled to attend a conference in New Orleans in November 2005. I would have flown in, as I did in 1977, and stayed at a hotel near the convention center, wandered the French Quarter and visited Preservation Hall. I would not have visited Uptown, Gentilly, Metairie or Lakeshore. I would have eaten beignets, but never known the delights of Po Boys, étouffée, or blackened alligator tails. I would not have had the opportunity to meet the people who love New Orleans and call it home.

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