Sunday, October 30, 2005

The shadow of the elephant

Dear Mr. Rose,

I read your recent column on The Elephant Men--about the struggle to deal with living after --and felt I had to write to you to tell you this:

The shadow of the elephant is long and dark.

I no longer live in . I left in 1987, and have only returned for periodic visits ever since. I can’t know the pain you and the rest of your crew felt as you stayed and covered the storm. I won’t feel the anguish of seeing my only home post- for the first time, or seeing the somber brown landscape where the brackish lake water has killed every green thing.

But every waking moment—and too many of my sleeping ones—are spent in the shadow of the elephant.

I talk to enough family and friends to know how difficult your life is right now. But I envy you. I have no stoop, and no one to share it with. The elephant sits on my chest at night as I try to get to sleep, after hours of reading or writing, and I toss and turn as if I were trying to dislodge the cat from my side of the bed.

I used to care about a lot of things. I cared about politics, and followed every turn in Washington as only a fierce partisan and veteran of those wars can. Last night, my wife had to drag me away from to watch the fallout of the Fitzgerald investigation.

I can barely keep track of the day of the week, and have to constantly ask my family if it’s our turn to drive the kids somewhere. I haven’t put my boat away for the winter. I skim through the newspaper, and toss it aside. Any wire stories I care about—those about New Orleans or the Gulf Coast—I’ve read hours or even days ago online.

Up here in Fargo, N.D., no one really understands the deep psychic connection people from NOLA have to their home. Fargo is the sort of place where I can hear seed and fertilizer ads on the radio, where many people are at most a generation off the land. People have stayed for a century through the most miserable winters you can imagine, out of their love of the where they live. You would think the people here would be as conscious of the power of place as any imaginary denizen of Yoknapatawpha County, would understand the powerful hold of one’s native place upon a person, but they don’t. I tell people I hope to move back home—to New Orleans--as soon as we can find work and a place to live.

They look at me as if I have just suggested I will move to West Virginia to join the Hare Krishnas. They don’t understand the profound connection, like that of their fore bearers to the old country, people from New Orleans have for their home.

My wife understands enough that, when I suggested move home, she assented almost immediately. We were already talking about relocating, for a lot of reasons. But when I suggested New Orleans one evening last month, I expected her to spit wine all over herself in convulsive laughter. Instead, she said OK, how do we do that? I think she has always understood, even when she chided me for it, when I talked about emigrating to the U.S. from New Orleans, understood why I wanted to put Acadian on census forms, or suggested I should fill in United States-Minor Outlying Islands as my country of origin.

For now she tolerates the dozens of hours spent every week for the last two months at the computer, reading every scrap of news and gossip and blog chatter out of the city and the region, and then digesting it into this blog, my own record of anger and anguish. She understands that this is what keeps me from just climbing into my car with the clothes on my back and driving away to New Orleans wild eyed in the night, to find us a place to live.

At some level, she understands about the elephant.

So for now, I read and post to my blog, and we both scan the on-line ads for any indication of jobs in Louisiana. I look at the real estate ads, and remind myself that the New Orleans housing prices were always ridiculous compared to wages. I try not to think about what large swaths of the city will look like a year or five or ten from now, imagining Lakeview and Gentilly as a city on stilts, or about whether the city will become more like Miami than Port au Prince.

I can’t escape the elephant. I can only try to slay it. I can’t do that from Fargo, N.D., even as I flail away at it online. The only sure way to slay it is to find a way to be a part again of the city, and to have my say and do everything I can to make sure it is something like the city of our memories and dreams.

I hope some day to run into you, and introduce myself. (We’ve actually met a long time ago, at some press club function or other, back when I toiled in the ‘burbs for Guide Newspapers). I hope to buy you a beer, and hear about what it was like in the days and weeks after; to compare where we’ve eaten or drunk famously in the past, and when or if those places have will have returned; to talk about failures of the Saints’ or the anticipation of Mardi Gras or the comical venality of the city fathers.

Homecoming is what will slay the elephant, a reunion of hundreds of thousands of strangers—all of whom know at least one person you went to high school with—who share a bond that the casual malignity of nature or the incompetence of government or the endless miles of the diaspora can never erase.

Mark Folse
Fargo, N.D.
(De La Salle ’75)

Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Tale of Two Cities

While some residents of badly flooded neighborhoods like Lakeview and Gentilly forge ahead with plans for rebuilding, the people of the Ninth Ward take a farewell tour of their ruined neighborhood.

Ninth Ward residents were offered bus tours of the homes ravaged by Hurricane driven floods this week, with many of those quoted in the T-P saying they would not return to the area.

From the window of a Gray Line tour bus, Elaine Picot got her first look Thursday morning at what Hurricane Katrina left of the Lower 9th Ward home she had rented for the past decade.

"I'm gone. I'm through," said Picot, 45, who fled the 5000 block of North Johnson Street before the storm with two changes of clothes and little else.

"No, indeed. Once you been back here and lost everything, you don't want to go through that again."

Strangely, the same story falls into the trap of describing the Ninth Ward as "[a] poor, almost exclusively African-American neighborhood losing ground to crime, blight and neglect long..." Yet the area has one of the highest rates of home ownership among Blacks in the city. Ms. Picot is also quoted as saying she moved to the the Lower 9th in the hopes of finding a quiet spot away from the city's street violence.

The continuing confusion of the character and future of the Ninth Ward isn't the second city the title speaks of. Even as those residents despair of every returning to their homes, other areas of the city are equally adamant that they will rebuild.

At a town hall meeting earlier this week, Mayor Nagin "expressed surprise when a Lakeview resident said some residents of the southern part of that badly flooded neighborhood already are back in their homes and at work on repairs."

That wouldn't surprise anyone who's been reading the posting at the online Yahoo forum Rebuild_Lakeview. Residents there, who had their own angry meeting with officials last week, are busily discussing how their neighborhood can be brought back.

Lakeview is one of the lowest areas of the city, with flood maps placing the elevations below sea level at as much as ten feet. Flooding by brakish lake water through the 17th Street Canal levee breech was extensive, with water reaching the second floor of some homes, residents report. While the standards to which homeowners have been held have not yet been release, Nagin indicated that some residents might have to raise their homes as much as five feet. (There is a presumption that the levees mitigate some of the flood hazard, so that Reconstruction need not be above sea level).

Nagin's surprise may be based in part on what city officials are telling him. In a meeting with residents of another heavily flooded area of the city, City Director of Safety and Permits Mike Centineo, who lives in Lakeview, told residents that he understands their plight firsthand since his home was flooded. If water was as high as the eaves of the house, it's "a no-brainer" that the house is a tear-down, the T-P reports on NOLA.Com.

The most interesting part of the above story about Gentilly is the number of elderly residents who say they want to return. Delia Anderson summed up their feelings: ""I love this town. It's in my soul. It will kill me to leave it."

Friday, October 28, 2005

Bush backs further away from Gulf commitments

Bush Administration officials are not ready to commit to building a levee system that will resist a Category 5 hurrican, A member of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's hurricane recovery advisory team told the T-P on Thursday.

When Bush traveled to in the aftermath of Hurricane , he promised massive federal assistance for the recostruction of the Gulf Coast.

As reported here earlier, the administration had already begun to retreat from, or simply disregard their promises.

Backing away from providing real hurricane protection of the New Orleans is tantamount to backing away from reconstruction. FEMA's flood maps for the city or any flood prone area are mitigated by flood protection structures. The elevation of the levees, for example, governs how high residents must rebuild.

Without elevating the levee system, many homeowners who have sustained more than 50% damage--and that will include wide swaths of the northern and eastern areas of the city--may have to elevate even higher, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of reconstruction.

Louisiana's bickering Congression delegation on Friday agreed that Bush's efforts fall short. Reacting to a plan to re-arrange the existing aid rather than propose additional funds, both Sen. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter found fault.

"The $17 billion in this request falls far short of the blueprint for reconstruction that the president promised the people of the Gulf Coast," Landrieu said in a statement. "We asked for real resources, not an accounting shell game with a wink and nod to possible real commitment down the line."

Bush's plan does call for funds to design a Category Five levee system. But without a commitment to quickly move on levee elevation, the federal government's move to abandon Louisiana to its fate is increasingly clear.

Mayor Nagin expressed his frustration, telling a town hall meeting he had "doubt[s] about how much aid Louisiana will get from the federal government, especially compared with the federal response after Hurricane Wilma struck Florida this week. "What I start to realize is that Washington is very skeptical about helping us," he said.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Evictions the first skirmish in Third Battle of New Orleans

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, Governor-in-waiting Kathleen Blanco's order preventing evictions will expire, allowing landlords to evict tens of thousands of Hurricane survivors, who will have their belongings dumped on the curb.

Late Monday, reported that Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese, Acting on a suit filed by community activist groups, issued a temporary order blocking eviction hearings from taking place at the New Orleans' post-hurricane court headquarters in Gonzales.

These renters--who occupied an estimated by 10,000 and 20,00 units, according to a local landlords group--are disbursed to all across Louisiana, Texas, and states all across the nation, and will not be able to contest their evictions or claim their belongings.

Now, with city officials eager to begin rebuilding, those tenants' belongings are keeping precious apartment space out of the market, landlords said. That's space where imported workers could live.

Many of these workers, are reported here and elsewhere, are imported from across the country and include few Katrina survivors. Many are illegal aliens.

At the same time, many of these tenants have been disbursed to shelters and hotels all over the United States, and have no ready way to return to their homes or claim their belongings. With clean up and reconstruction contracts going to out-of-state companies brining in out of state workers, most have no immediate employment prospects in NOLA {even as fast-food restaurants in town are offering $6,000 signing bonuses).

Some evictions have already begun. A trailer park in Jefferson Parish is threatening to evict residents--who were not flooded out--to make way for higher rents offered by FEMA, while renters without leases are facing evictions with no prospects for affordable housing.

Everyone knows the story of the first Battle of New Orleans. Some consider the melee over the riverfront expressway in the 1960s the second battle of New Orleans, while others have used that term for desegregation.

The third Battle of is going to be over whether the free market will do to the historic character of the city's population. Will it affect what amounts to the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans called for by some leaders of the city, such as RTA Commission Jimmy Riess? Or could it leave to a massive upgrade of the city's housing stock for it's poorest workers?

If the latter is to take place, the housing will need to be affordable. Early indications are that, without some outside interference, it will not be. Mayor Nagin caused a stir when, in the above city T-P interview, he suggested that New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward were liable to be uninhabitable for some time to come due to infrastructure damage.

When asked about setting priorities for reconstruction and demolition, he hinted that the future of the Ninth Ward came down to who precisely would take responsibility for its leveling: the local officials or the Corps of Engineers.

The workers of the owner-occupied homes of the Ninth Ward and the tens of thousands of damaged appartments were a key part of the economic engine of New Orleans. These are the people who make the beds and mix the drinks of the tourists and conventioneers the city has come to depnd so heavily on.

For these people--many of whom earned wages just above the poverty line--there is no place to come home to. Scattered across the country, they have no way to contact their landlords and their landlords have no way to contact them. The only way to get into and repair their flooded apartments is by the eviction process.

Part of that process will mean that whatever they did not carry with them when they fled the city will be lost, their belongings added to the growing middens of Katrina rubble and waste. This seems an unavoidable tragedy.

There is third act to this drama, and it will determine whether the ending is tragic or hopeful for these tens of thousands of the dispossed. When the apartments and shotgun homes they rent are cleaned up and returned to the market, will they will be at rents these workers can afford?

If New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward are off limits for the forseeable future, the demand for housing will be tremendous. Left to it's own devices, markets will soar and the people who make the French Quarter and the Convention Center and the Casino work will have no place to live, and so no way to come back to be a part of the rebuliding of the city.

Some have publicly gloated about his, most notably RTA chair and Nagin protoge' Jimmy Reiss, who suggested that a whiter, less poor New Orleans should be the goal. No one can argue with the second half of that. The first half--the suggestion that poverty and crime are an endemic condition of the black population of New Orleans, as if it were a variant of sickle cell disears--is not a view that should be welcome in the new New Orleans.

Mayor Nagin, in a long interview with the Times-Picayune posted online, said landlords were looking at being able to triple their rents post-Katrina, and called for rent controls.

"That is going to be a firestorm. The landlords are going to go out and evict all these people and they’re not here, and put all their stuff out on the streets. Because the economic pressures are so strong for the land owners, that instead of getting 500 a month rent, they can get 1,500 dollars. If the governor would do anything, I’d like to see some type of rent controls going forward," Nagin said.

Nagain also spoke of Katrina as "a great cleansing", not in the sense Mr. Riess means, but in an opportunity to put aside some of the ways of the past. He was speaking of the poor services and corruption thas has plagued local government. I couldn't agree with him more, and would extend it to the views of those like Mr. Riess.

If the people of New Orleans are going to have the ability to return, the city is going to need action. The malign neglect of the federal government cannot be allowed to continue. Deliberate inaction in provoding immediate housing relief inside the city of New Orleans, in my view, differs from the ethnic cleansing campaigns of tribal Africa or central Europe only by degree of ruthlessness, and not by kind.

Currently, tens of thousands of Katrina survivors are scattered around the country in emergency housing programs that can fairly be considered a failure and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Many were quickly moved into hotels and out of shelters, most likely to ease any unrest as the malign neglect and federal corruption in the rebuilding process. Others have been placed out into apartments, some in areas where the FEMA housing assistance payment doesn't make the rent payment.

These resources need to be spent on immediate housing aid inside the city, so that people can return and begin to take the jobs in reconstruction and in re-opened industries at home in New Orleans. Until the federal government takes action to correct this, one can fairly assume that this is not malign neglect but a deliberate program to try to redistribute people away from the city, in exactly the way Mr. Riess and his co-conspirators outlined in the Wall Street Journal
For information about laws regarding landlords and tenants in Louisiana, the Times-Picayune recommended readers go to

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ghost of New Orleans Future

In the Times-Picayune story Florida's past may guide N.O. future, Governer-in-Waiting Kathleen Blanco suggests she will turn to her colleague Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for guidance on the reconstruction of Louisiana after Hurricane .

Mayor Nagin's commission is taking the lead in this tremendous mistake, with high-rise and shopping mall developer Joe Canizaro taking the lead, the T-P reports.

I have discussed the Florida experience before, particularly the effects of free market housing reconstruction and the trailer ghettos of Florida, in an earier post Bricks in the Sticks. Florida's model is one of driving out the existing population-- housing them in rural trailer ghettos--and using the storm in place of the 1960s redevelopment bulldozer.

If both Nagin's and Blanco's commissions are looking to Florida for their model, then Katrina won't be the sole reason for the death of New Orleans. Malpractice on the part of the team charged with saving it will have played a large role.

There is another example, at once encouraging and disheartening. It is the recovery of historic Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. Hurricane Hugo struck this historic coastal city in 1989, damaging three-quarters of the homes in Charleston's historic district.

An article in the Louisiana Weekly outlines ways in which Charleston succeeded in historic preservation of a city (as opposed to buildings), in ways that New Orleans has often failed to do.

However, these preservationists managed to make an important step beyond the achievements of the brethren in the Crescent City...[P]reservation went in different directions in Charleston and New Orleans. Both cities managed to preserve their densely packed historic districts, but while New Orleanians mainly worried about keeping the exteriors of the Creole architecture historic, Charlestonians wanted to maintain the character of the area as well.

They turned the historic peninsula into a "living laboratory." Their strategy was fourfold. First, rather using commercialization to revitalize the area (i.e.. large scale hotel developments), the preservationist coalition drew resident families on the peninsula. They wanted neighborhoods where people cared about their local community and historic aspects of where they lived.

A model for New Orleans? An article from the Charles Post and Courier posted at raises some disconcerting questions, painting a Ghost of New Orleans Future portrait of a town renovated to death.

The area in and around what was once a small walled city has withstood calamities ranging from natural disasters to war.

Now, neighborhoods south of Broad Street and nearby face a more complex challenge: an influx of wealth so sweeping that it threatens to blur the difference between a living city and a museum.

Nancy Hawk has lived for decades at the southern end of Meeting Street, where tourists stroll among majestic homes.

The trouble is, many of those homes sit dark night after night.

"The houses are just empty. It's just depressing. It's sort of a deadening effect," she said. "It really does affect the feeling of being in a neighborhood, of actually being in a living community."

Some offer warnings of what could happen if the trends are not reversed, if Charleston's heart increasingly becomes a part-time playground for the rich.

Frederick Starr, who spoke at the forum and who has studied similar issues in New Orleans, said the changes are eating away at the life of the oldest neighborhoods in Charleston.

"It becomes dead," he said. "If you really want these places to be around in another 300 years, it had better be a living place and not a dead museum."

What happens to derail the Charleston miracle? A long article published by Coastal Heritage magazine, echoes the Post and Courier.

Today’s high-flying beach towns and coastal historic cities are growing wealthier—and grayer. According to 2000 census figures, families with young children fled some downtown Charleston neighborhoods during the 1990s, because housing prices and property taxes became astronomically high.

In the near-coast areas of the Charleston region, the number of households increased from 1990 to 2000, while the population in those areas fell significantly. Says Barkley: “You have households with one or two members moving in, and households with kids moving out to the non-coastal areas.”

In June, Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s poet laureate, her husband Peter, a producer of films and commercials, and their three children moved from Sullivan’s Island to Mount Pleasant. Maintenance costs pushed them out of their pre-Civil War home, which they sold to pay for their eldest son’s college tuition and other pressing family needs

While the La. Weekly piece touts the successes of Charleston, overall the picture is bleak for the city as a real place of residence. New Urban movement designers propose large developments and seek to bring affordable housing to the area. The historic core, however, appears to have become a ghetto of the rich.

Neither Florida nor Charleston should be the model, but both can serve as a warning as New Orleans considers its future.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Desperate messages go unanswered

Everyone in American should read the pager email message exchanges between Marty Bahamonde, the one FEMA official in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck, and aides to FEMA chief Micheal Brown.

While Bahamonde tried to communicate the urgency of a rapidly deteriorating situation in New Orleans, Brown's press secretary worried that her boss have enough time for dinner at Ruth's Chris in Baton Rouge before appearing on the Joe Scarborough show on MSNBC.

"Just tell her that I just ate an MRE and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome with 30,000 other close friends, so I understand her concern about busy restaurants. Maybe tonight I will have time to move the pebbles on the parking garage floor so they don't stab me in the back while I'm trying to sleep," he wrote.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Chertoff perjures himself on Capitol Hill

Homeland Security Director Micheal Chertoff told a Congressional hearing today that problems with Katrina weren't his fault, because he relied on FEMA expoerts with decades of experience in hurricane response, according to an AP Report on Yahoo News.

Chertoff's statements are flatly contracted by a September Knight-Ridder article (previously cited here as Chertoff, Bush escape the wrath of Katrina.

The article recounts in detail how Katrina response was run out of the White House, bypassing the FEMA profesionals.

A memo acquired by Knight-Ridder shows hat the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."

Given the scale and consequences of his failures, it is unimaginable that his casual (if not delusional) dismissal of the facts shouldn't be punished as perjury.

Be sure to read the article in full, and go to and search for the bylines on this article, in particular Alison Young. She is on many of the Katrina stories out of Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau. These folks should give the Times-Picayune/NOLA.Com a run for their money for next year's Pulitzer.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Federals final retreat from New Orleans

In a must-read LA Times articles headlined Bush Is in No Hurry on Katrina Recovery we learn that President Bush is retreating from his promise of one month ago to help rebuild the Gulf Coast "quickly", taking instead "a cautious, piecemeal approach that even many members of his own party fear will stall reconstruction and sow economic disarray," the Times report says.

Bush has failed to introduce legislation to enact two of this three major initiatives, while the third--job training--the Administration-backed House bill would provide aid to only one-quarter of Katrina's unemployed.

Bush's cautiousness appears to be partly a response to some conservatives' clamor for federal budget cuts to offset aid to the Gulf Coast, the Times reports.

In addition, the scale and complexity of reconstruction pose special challenges for an administration that firmly favors market mechanisms over government action, at least domestically.

With the immediate crisis past, administration officials may be hoping that state and local efforts — and the free market — will relieve them of the thorniest decisions, as well as a substantial chunk of the estimated $200-billion price tag for the region's revival.

Even the master of free market economics Jack Kemp offers says "[w]ith all due respect to the president, things are not going to bubble up from the bottom. There has to be some federal leadership here."

Part of the problem is a revolt in the President's own party over the projected cost of relief and reconstruction. Conservatives in the President's own party are in revolt over plans to simply spend the money without offsets, cuts in spending elsewhere, as explained on this MSNBC report.

As if to swat down Bush's big play about helping the poor, made in Jackson Square less than a month ago, a push is growing to pay for hurricane relief costs for Katrina and Rita by cutting health care for the indigent and food stamps. Louisiana farmers ruined by the storms will appreciate a complementary proposal to cut farm supports. New Orleans' good friend Dennis Hastert is leading the effort for "Operation Offset" to take hurricane recovery funding out of the pockets of the poor.

In a New York Times opinion piece, columnist Paul Krugman asks the rhetorical question Will Bush Delivery? Based on New York's experience of 9-11, he suggests the answer is no.

After 9/11 he made big promises to New York. But as soon as his bullhorn moment was past, officials began trying to wriggle out of his pledge. By early 2002 his budget director was accusing New York's elected representatives, who wanted to know what had happened to the promised aid, of engaging in a "money-grubbing game."

One former GOP officials go so far as to openly suggest that the federal government's neglect of the city (and state's) needs is intentional. A blistering editorial in the Palm Beach Post catalogs the government's continuing failure.

It ends with this quote from Ronald Utt, a former Reagan administration aide and Housing and Urban Development official who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation: "This is not incompetence. This is willful." What else could Americans call the president's bold inaction?

He was speaking about the failure to provide real housing solutions for the hundreds of thousands of displaced, many of whom have been shuttled out of shelters and into hotels. The fact is, the GOP does not want Louisiana rebuilt, at least not before the next election. Too many Democratic voters are out of the state (and the way). And too many big GOP contributors in New Orleans would just as soon not have too many of those pesky if colorful locals return.

I believe the real issue is this: like the federal occupiers of reconstruction, they are finding the pickings post to be thin. The only real loot for the well-dressed crowd is the federal aid, and the usual suspects--Vice President Chenney's part-time empoyer Halliburton, and Mississippi Gov. Halley Barbour's good friends at Florida's AshBritt Inc--are finding their no-bid contracts will be forced out to public bid after a public outcry.

The Gucci looters haven't given up entirely. Governor-in-waiting Kathleen Blanco has appointed her own special commission, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, to over see \distribution of the spoils of reconstruction. It includes such such notable experts as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, GOP strategist Mary Matalin--whose close ties to Louissana may include having once borrowed her husband's LSU rugby shirt--and Essence Magazine editorial director Susan Taylor, who will no doubt make sure that the right sort of African-Americans are encouraged to return. The front window is suitably dressed by chair Norman Francis, the longtime president of Xavier University, who no doubt means well. There is no one here who will cause Jimmy Reiss or the other members of Nagin's own comission to lose any sleep.

Returning Orleanians will be well advised to count their silver when they do get a chance to return and visit their ruined homes. If some is missing, I would not be to quick to blame the gladly departed gangbaners. The bags of the departing federals and their contractors should be closely searched for the missing pieces.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Katrina breaches St. Bernard Levee

Hurricane Katrina breaches St. Bernard Parish Levee at I-510 and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (Courtesy of the St. Bernard Voice) Posted by Picasa

A shortcut to the Gulf, for the Gulf

"This is a problem that's going to be devastating if we have a hurricane. New Orleans and St. Bernard will be destroyed."
--St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez, Feb. 4, 2004 in Louisiana Weekly

In the aftermath of Hurricane , commentators across America continually ask: why would anyone build a city there?

The answer is quite simple, and the rationale seemed as valid in 1718 as it did 250 years later: a shortcut to the sea. Bienville chose his site based on an indian portage that connected the riverfront with Bayou St. John, which flowed into Lake Pontchartrain. From there, it was clear sailing in open water to the Gulf of Mexico.

That portage saved sailing ships days if not weeks working up the 100 miles from Head of Passes, where the channels of the birdfoot delta split off. It provide ready access to the sea for ships that would carry the wealth the Mississippi promised to float down from an immense continent.

The skeletal remains of that traffic on Bayou St. John were still in place in the early 1960s, with the walls of a lock (gates long removed), and a rotating pedestrian foot bridge (which not moved in recent memory) still there. Along the concrete capped seawall near that bridge, the remains of one old pier jutted out into the bayou, and the ribs of wooden boats (ships to our small eyes) were visible at the bottom.

Commerce of any real sort via the lake had long since ceased. But the dream of a shorter path to the Port of New Orleans didn't die.

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet was authorized in 1956 to provide an alternate channel for seagoing ships to the Port of New Orleans. The ships would not actually reach the river, but a new port would be constructed in the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District just east of the city. (There was, and still is, talk of a ship-size lock at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal linking the River directly to the MRGO).

The project was a mammoth undertaking, longer than the Panama Canal by a third, requiring the removal of 60 million more cubic yards of earth than it's southern cousin.

An economic boom was promised, not just for the City of New Orleans, but for adjacent St. Bernard Parish as well.

What St. Bernard received instead was the gradual destruction of the marshes to the north east, wetlaneds that provided many residents a livlihood and others a respite of fishing and hunting after their day in the refineries.

Ultimately, the parish received a monumental storm surge that rivaled the Pacific tsunami in its destructiveness, as the waters of the Gulf were funneled through the MRGO, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Lake Borgne to the very back porch St. Bernard Parish, and on into the heart of New Orleans.

The MRGO was authorized by Congress to be created and maintained by the US Army Corp of Engineers at a width of 500 feet at the bottom, 650 feet at the surface. The channel pre-Hurricane Katrina had grown as wide as 2,000 feet from the erosion caused by ships wakes, threatening to merge the channel with Lake Borgne. Katrina has completed that linkup, with the channel now open to that lake just east of Pontchartrain and right behind St. Bernard.

Wide swaths of marsh and cypress were killed by the salt water intruction facilitated by the MRGO, which cut through the La Loutre Ridge that previously isolated the area from the Gulf. An estimated 40,000 acres of cypress swamp were lost, leaving a skeletal grey forest standing in open water, and robbing the area of an important barrier against storm surge.

Everyone knew the day of reckoning was coming. When I was editor of the St. Bernard Guide weekly newsapaper, Parish President (then Ward juror) Junior Rodriguez would bend the ear of anyone who would listen about the MRGO, how it was destroying the swamp and marsh behind the parish, and would some day be its undoing.

After Katrina, even Rodriguez told WWL-TV "the force of that water and the wind that drove that water, I don't know if there was a levee that could have saved us from that."

The director of the Port of New Orleans, which has a vested interest in keeping the MRGO open, told the Washington Post "the jury is still out" on whether the MRGO contributed to Katrina's devestation.

Was Katrina an inevitable disaster, lurking in the Gulf and just waiting to destroy a city and a parish that should never have been? Or was this a forseeable and preventable catastrophe, one badly exacerbated by man's own meddling in the marsh environment?

St. Bernard Parish's levees were 17.5 feet along the north, with a second 15 foot drainage canal levee behind that. Could anything have stoped a storm surge that Lake Borgne Levee District manager Bob Turner told WWL he estimted between 20 and 25 feet?

One man in Baton Rouge might know.

Up at LSU, Professor Hassan Mashriqui campaigned to warn people of the imminent danger, showing by computer modeling how the MRGO would amplify storm surges by 20 to 40 percent. "I showed how dangerous that outlet was -- there was no ambiguity," Mashriqui, who came to the United States after a tropical cyclone devastated his native Bangladesh, told the Washington Post in the above cited story.. "And now it's all come true."

With 17.5 feet of protection and a ballpark estimate of 20-25 feet--if accept the the MRGO/Intracoastal Waterway affect added 30 percent to the "natural" storm surge(splitting the difference with Professor Mashriqui)--some quick arithmetic leads to one ready conclusion: if the MRGO had not been there, the storm surge might not have topped the levees of St. Bernard Parish.

Larry Ingargiola, the head of emergency management in St. Bernard, said he knows exactly why only 52 of [the parish's] 28,000 structures made it through Katrina unscathed. "That's where the damn water came -- right up MRGO," he said. "We've been screaming about it for years. I don't know how many politicians I've taken on tours. But there it is."

There has been a grass roots efforts in St. Bernard Parish--it's government voted recently to ask the Corps to close the channel--and in parts of New Orleans. Ironically, the white flight suburb of St. Bernard found common cause with the black New Orleanians who lived just accross the line in the Ninth Ward.

Edwin Doody, a retired mechanical engineer, for the Coalition to Close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Papers have been prepared, and even the Corps of Engineers--accused of not wishing to give up the MRGO--had a study on closing the outlet due for completion in 2005.

The Port of New Orleans and other city officials were not in such a hurry pre-Katrina. They argued that a ship channel needed to be opened from the Mississippi River to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, to provide shipping access to the container facilities built along the MRGO.

That improvement is slated to cost $750 million, and take twelve years. Already, the government spends almost $13,000 per ship to maintain the MGRO, where traffic has steadily dwindled. Only three percent of the port's cargo travels the MRGO, fewer than one ship per day.

Amid all the finger pointing after Hurricane Katrina, it seems clear that a pollyana disregard for how we have altered the coastal environment played as large a roll as mother nature. More than any other change, the MRGO fundamentally changed the hydrolics of the Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne area.

The MRGO was a fuse waiting for a match.

If the defenders of the MRGO--the Corps of Engineers, the Port of New Orleans, and the Louisiana Congressional delegation--if these folks don't immediately move to close the MRGO, we will know where there priorities lie. Keep the MRGO, and abandon St. Bernard, New Orleans East, and the Ninth Ward.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dry at last, dry at last

The Times-Picayune's NOLA.Com site reports that the last of the flood waters is removed from the city.

New Orleans is finally dry after two deadly hurricanes dumped more than 224 billion gallons of water into the city, the Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday.

Hurricane Katrina completely wrecked pump station No. 5 off Florida Avenue in the devastated Lower 9th Ward. To rid the neighborhood of standing floodwater, the corps placed temporary pumps along the Industrial Canal. But the largest of the 10 temporary pumps had only one-tenth of the capacity of a single pump in the station house, said Army Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of Task Force Unwavering.

German and Dutch agencies, along with state and federal authorities, have worked in New Orleans over the past month to drain the floodwater. Gapiniski said pump station No. 5 has been cleaned and sanitized. The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board has hired contractors to repair the pumps.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Forty Years Later, Saving the Flooded City

Flood Street after Hurricane Betsy 

In September 1965, the levees failed.

Over topping from storm surge caused levee failures along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and flooded the Ninth Ward, Bywater, and St. Bernard Parish. Water rose up to seven feet above first floor level (meaning as much as eight to ten feet for elevated homes), causing widespread damage to homes, business, automobiles.

Hurricane Betsy left 81 people dead in its wake, and a city shaken out of its usual torpor.

Today, two of the areas worst affected by Hurricane --Bywater and Holy Cross (the area of the Lower Ninth Ward south of St. Claude Avenue) are two centers of architectural renovation, and examples of community recovery without excessive gentrification.

The Ninth Ward--often portrayed as poor and black (both to some extent true)--has one of the highest rates of home ownership of predominately minority neighborhoods.

How did these areas survive 1965, and what does that tell us about the future of those areas of ?

LSU professor Craig E. Colten and John Welsh looked at Bywater post-Betsy, an area where the Corps of Engineers found some 6,350 homes with as much as seven feet of water above first floor (not ground) level west. . Looking at the same area in the 1990s, these researchers found 76 percent of flooded properties "retain architectural integrity".

Two reason they site were a lack of resources to rebuild prior to the establishment of the National Flood Insurance Program (itself an outgrowth of Betsy's devastation), and the lack of post-storm regulations imposed by NFIP (such as requiring homes more than 50% damaged to be rebuilt above the flood level).

They also cite a conversion of much of the area to rental property, which may have led absentee landlords to invest the minimal amount required to return a property to the rental market.

If Colton's observation about the influence of landlords is true, that might yet hold hope for the large areas of New Orleans that were heavily populated by renters, and heavily flooded.

Colton said this week via email that, while he has not inspected the Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood, preservationists he has spoken with report "the housing
stock on high ground is in good condition. The same can be said for much
of the Bywater which I have visited." He notes that many of the homes in Bywater were elevated above the flood waters that reached the neighborhood.

What about the Ninth Ward? Residents there insist it should be rebuilt, if it can't be saved.

New Orleans, with 20 districts on the National Register of Historic Places covering half of the city, has the highest concentration of historic structures in the nation. That includes the Lower Ninth’s Holy Cross section, with its shotgun houses and gems such as the Jackson Barracks, the Doullut Steamboat Houses and St. Maurice Church.

After World War II, the Ninth Ward became a haven in racially divided New Orleans for black veterans who for the first time became homeowners. It was for the emerging black middle class what Lakeview and St. Bernard were for whites, a place to move out and get a home of their own.

Sixty percent of the Lower Ninth's housing stock was build pre-1960 (pre Betsy), according to the US Census Bureau. It also has a 59% owner occupancy rate, one of the highest in the city. That would indicate that that much of that stock survived the inundation of Hurricane Betsy.

However, the Washington Post reported on Oct. 4 that fire fighters had already begun to red tag hundreds of homes in the neighborhood, indicating they were unsafe to enter, "the first step in a wrenching debate over whether the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt or whether, as some suggest, it should revert to its natural state: swamp".

Many of these red tags are likely to be found in the areas immediately adjacent to the breaches. Wherever the levees or floodwalls fails, the water came through with tremendous force, punching holes through brick homes in Lakeview and floating most buildings off their foundations in the lower Ninth.

In good news, some other heavily flooded neighborhoods are being treated on a case-by-case basis, includintg Lakeview and St. Benard Parish. Early reports that entire neighborhoods and zip codes would be condemned and bull-dozed appear to have been prepmature.

Postings in a Yahoo group Rebuild_Lakeview indicate many homeowners are being told their properties are salvagable. One local resident noted that metal items (he cited a pair of siscors) found in their home did not show the expected rust of an item immersed in salt water then exposed to air. This might indicate that the waters were less brackish than immediately feared.

This has important implications for the integrity of fasters (nails, etc.) and for electrical wiring. If the integrity of the metal parts of flooded frame homes were believed compromised, they might be condemned. Inspection of the electrical wiring is a major roadblock to the restoration of residential power, and the mandatory inspections the city and Entergy call for are hampered by the city's inability to pay inspectors.

And an article by New Orleans author and resident S. Frederick Starr in the New York Times suggests that the oldest homes are those most likely to survive. (By subscription or purchase, here).

"[S]ome of the city's vernacular buildings may prove beyond repair, most--including who neighborhoods now being characterized by politicians and developers as candidates for demolition-can and should be saved.

"In the 19th century, local craftsmen devised structural techniques that allowed houses to stand securely on the city's pudding-like alluvial soil, and to survive in the region's notoriously humid climate, with its insects, termites and mold. [They used] light balloon frames, self-reinforcing structures of two-by-four joists that could be raised above ground on brick or stone piers. For these frames they used local cypress wood, which resists both water and rot, and for secondary woods they favored local cedar, which is nearly as weatherproof as cypress, and dense virgin pine.

"The builders also used circulating air to ward off mold. Ten- to twelve-foot ceilings in even the smallest homes, as well as large windows, channel the slightest breeze throughout the house. And by raising the structures above the ground, builders assured that air would circulate beneath them as well, discouraging termites and rodents.

"All this means that wooden structures in the New Orleans area are far tougher than they may seem. Thousands have undergone prolonged flooding in the past, yet survived. The owners cleaned them up, replaced secondary wood and wallboard, fixed wiring and plastered, and were back in business."

If the older homes of New Orleans prove more resiliant than many outsiders have suggested, and if the waters were less damaging (less brackish and less polluted) than originally reported, then there is hope that we will soon see a very recognizable New Orleans emerging from the flood waters.

As it has done, time and again.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Hanging the survivors out to dry

As the survivors begin to hang out their few posessions out to dry, their property insurers are doing the same, arguing that all Katrina damage is flood-related and that the insurance companies should not be liable for any damages.

A class-action lawsuit against insurance giant AIG, underwriters of the Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan (FAIR), which provides homeowners’ policies of last resort to those who cannot get insurance elsewhere, including many poor people in New Orleans and the surrounding area, was filed Oct. 7 by NOLA Attorney Toni Swain Orrill

This suit joins other filed by property owners in Katrina's path, and Mississippi's attorney's general, are responding to endurance companies attempts to avoid Katrina payouts with lawsuits that have wide ranging implications for the entire country.

Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood has taken the lead in trying to force insurance companies to honor their obligations under hurricane insurance sold in the state.

And in Louisiana, a private plaintiff's law firm has filed a suit against a laundry list of insurance companies and the state's insurance comissioner.

At the core of many of these suits are efforts by insurance companies to avoid any liability from Katrina, by arguing all damage resulted from a flood, and is therefore excluded under homeowners policies, including those that explicity include "hurricane coverage".

The insurance industry argues that homeowners should only be covered by the federal flood insurance program, established in 1968 in response to Hurricane Betsy's disasterous flood on NOLA. However, fewer than half of New Orleans' homeowners had flood insurance, but that's still one of the highest rates in the nation. Only three in 10 in parts of Mississippi and Alabama struck by Katrina had the coverage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says.

Matters are complicated, reports one consumer web site, as many of the insured don't have copies of their policies any longer, which were lost with their other possesions in the storm.

According to a report by AM Best, an insurance-rating and information agency, the US property-casualty industry recorded a $45 billion profit last year and carried a $425 billion surplus over to 2005.

What precisely is the purpose of having a $425 billion surplus if it is not to pay the valid claims of Katrina survivors who suffered damage from the storm?

"To get out of paying claims by arguing that flooding caused the loss and not the hurricane is the moral equivalent of letting a murderer off the hook because it was actually the bullet that killed the victim," Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights Executive Director Douglas Heller said in a press statement.

"While the rest of the country is emptying its pockets to help these victims, the insurance industry is discussing how to pocket more money as victims face financial ruin," said Doroshow of the Center for Justice and Democracy. "This is unacceptable."

In the aftermath of 9-11, the federal government stepped in with a compensation fund to avoid just these sort of lawsuits from victim's families and survivors. It's time for the government to look at doing something similar for Katrina's victims and survivors, in the insurance companies will not honor their obligations.

The alternative is for the survivors of Katrina to seek justice through the courts, and get their due from a jury. This will have a profound and possibly negative impact on an industry which appears to have based it's business model on taking the money from people whom it never intended to pay. Like most pyramid schemes, the outcome--once exposed--is a collapse.

One legal observer thinks many of the insurance will largely prevail.

"[Courts]will honor the "reasonable expectations" of a policyholder even where a "painstaking" reading of the contract would reveal the absence of coverage. This reflects the fact that insurers know a great deal about what people (perhaps subliminally) expect from their insurance contracts; it would be wrong to permit insurers to reap the benefit of those expectations (in the form of premiums), while subtly eliminating the very coverage the policyholder thinks he is buying."

Many will dismiss the Hood and the attorney's as money-hungry lawyers out to rip off the system. If they were that, I suspect they would be working as corporate staff attorneys for the insurance industry instead of fighting for the people of Katrina.

Our current political leadership has tried to convince us that tort law--the centuries old concept that if one is wronged, they are entitled to compensation--is someone at the cause of all of the ills of society.

Perhaps if our society had not lost its civic cohesiveness, substituting a naked "screw your neighbor" greed, we would not be forced to turn to the courts so often.

I say the people of Katrina should get their just compensation one way or another. If it happens to force a shakeout of a morally bankrupt insurance industry or one of the government in Washington or Baton Rouge or on Loyola Avenue, let it happen.

All we want is for the people of Katrina to be given the opportunity to rebuild their lives, in the place they call home.

Footnote -- Here is an interesting list of advice from a set of attorneys specializing in insurance loss and recovery.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Chertoff, Bush escape the wrath of Katrina

In a little noticed Knight-Ridder article of almost a month ago (9/13/05), the Knight Ridder newspaper group details how the chain of responsibility for the failures of FEMA and the federal government leads not to the much-vilified Michael Brown, but to the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.

Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the "principal federal official" in charge of the storm.

[A]ccording to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.

The failures weren't FEMA's, the article suggests. It was higher up the federal chain of command.

Knocke said members of almost every federal agency had already been meeting as part of the department's Interagency Incident Management Group, which convened for the first time on the Friday before the hurricane struck. So it would be a mistake, he said, to interpret the memo as meaning that Tuesday, Aug. 30 was the first time that members of the federal government coordinated.

The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."

The Knight-Ridder reporters Shannon McCaffrey and Alison Young, who contributed to the above piece, also shared a byline on a story detailing how Chertoff, on the day after the storm as New Orleans filled with water, boarded a plane for a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu in Atlanta.

In that story, published four days after the first piece critical of Chertoff, the Homeland Security Director's mouthpieces busily try to shift blame to Brown to reporters who have already exposed that as incorrect in their prior story.

Moreover, the article indicates that at the staff level, FEMA was working feverishly to prepare for the storm, and to respond in its aftermath.

[Security spokesman Russ Knocke] said members of almost every federal agency had already been meeting [before landfall] as part of the department's Interagency Incident Management Group, which convened for the first time on the Friday before the hurricane struck. So it would be a mistake, he said, to interpret the [8/30 Chertoff memo declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance"] as meaning that Tuesday, Aug. 30 was the first time that members of the federal government coordinated.

The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."

Searches on of Chertoff and the byline names shows these article got little distribution. The first did run in Editor and Publisher, so it's not as if the newspaper editors of America were unaware of this dimension of the story.

Instead, we were served the soap opera of the arguably incompetent Mr. Brown versus a congressional committee.

While Brown's competence to lead FEMA based on his experience managing race horses is clearly in question, it is also clear that he was merely the fall guy, meant to stop the probes from reaching higher into the government.

The Knight Ridder Washington Bureau is to be commended for their efforts to explore what happened, and who was responsible for the federal failures. It now remains to some other residents of Washington, those on Capitol Hill, to demand a full accounting from those all the way up to the top.

No doubt many will argue we witnesses a failure of a ponderous federal bureaucracy. Instead, what we witnesses, was the failure of a White House for which everything--war on terror, Katrina, you name it--is a political campaign event, to be handled as best benefits the candidate and the party.

Our highest leadership values cronyism above all else, elevating the incompetent but loyal to preside over the division of the spoils. The spoils, as reported here and elsewhere, are the no-bid contracts that will consume much of initial federal aid. (I would note that FEMA, under increasing scrutiny and pressure) is now going to bid those contracts).

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A city of stilts, or a city of dreams?

As the scope of the devastation of the lakefront, central city and New Orleans East begin to reveal itself to returning residents, some hard questions will have to be asked. How to rebuild?

That is not one question. It encompasses how to pay to rebuild, where to rebuild, what sort of houses to rebuild.

A quick glance at the flood or elevation map of the city will reveal that much of the city is to some extent below sea level. Moreover, to counter the flooding from Lake Pontchartrain, one must keep in mind that the lake is typically one foot above sea level, not counting storm surges, etc.

Some areas will certainly be rebuilt, and likely not by the current residents. The Canal Street corridor is at or just above sea level. Combine that with the return of street car service, and there is a strong likelihood that the previous renters may not be returning to those homes. The market is going to bid that real estate up.

To some extent, that is probably good for the city. Given its character as an old city, having a strong inner city population is liable to help fuel the rebirth of the economic core. The biggest question there is what happens to the character of those inner city neighborhoods? What safeguards and inducements will be put in place to ensure that it is rebuilt in keeping with the historic and cultural character of the city?

And what, then, happens to the people who lived in those neighborhoods? What happens to those core-city neighborhoods in the Broad Street basin north of Claiborne Avenue?

It is likely that some areas of NOLA will not be rebuilt, or will not be rebuilt as they were before. Everything I read indicates that much of the lower Ninth Ward areas will be razed and not rebuilt. I think it is likely that Holy Cross might be saved, because it sits above sea level and contains a number of historic treasures, and because at least a fraction of its residents are white, relatively affluent urban pioneers.

But what about the vast areas of more affluent New Orleans that lie far below sea level. One of the most impacted areas was the land north of the Metairie Road/Gentilly Ridge between the 17th St. and London Avenue Canals.

Lakeview in particular--that area adjacent to the 17th Street Canal east to City Park, has completely inundated. Flood map show the entire area lies in a zone marked 1.25 to four meters (four to twelve feet) below sea level. Moreover, these areas are north of the line of pumping stations originally constructed at the city's northern margin. The inundation of the city resulted from the failure of the canals that carry that pumped rain (or flood) water north to the lake, not the primary levees fronting Lake Pontchartrain.

Some thought must be given to rebuilding the pumping stations at the lake's edge, as was done in the later development of Jefferson Parish, reducing the amount of levee/floodwall frontage to improved and maintained.

Beyond that technical challenge, the question is: how will those neighborhoods return. The residents of Lakeview have established an active internet group on Yahoo, where they lament the difficulties of dealing with insurance companies, and pledge to rebuild. The area where I grew up has an online discussion forum for their property owners association, where many people pledge to return.

The neighborhood where I grew up was Lake Visa. (I was born into a house in Lakeview, but my family “moved up” to the affluent Lake Vista address [17 Egret St.] before I started school. Lake Vista was an interesting mix of Lakeview-style middle class cottages from its immediate post-war development, and the earliest examples of the McMansion. It had become, increasingly, the domain of the manse builder, with the newest owners buying up the older homes and demolishing them to make way for their new palazzos.

Lake Vista didn’t start out this way. The children of Lake Vista would sometimes stop into the fire station on Robert E. Lee Boulevard just west of the Orleans Avenue Canal to buy a pop (if we were closer to the fire station than to the neighborhoods small shopping center, or after the local grocery and drug store closed).

The map the fire department had on the wall of Lake Vista was interesting. Because I was an architect's son, I recognized it even at a young age for what it was: a plat map. The original Lake Vista had been platted out into narrow lots, suitable for the working class homes of older New Orleans. It’s designer had envisioned it as a working class paradise of shotgun-style homes built on cul-de-sacs linked to an idyllic network of pedestrian paths and parkways.

Instead, everyone who bought land in Lake Visa bought two of those narrowly platted lots, and began building homes they considered worth of a lakefront address.

Lake Vista (and Lake Terrace and Lake Short), for all their proximity to the lake, sit at about sea level because they were a land reclamation project. No so their neighbors to the south in Lakeview The near total devastation of Lakeview and other low-lying lakefront neighborhoods between the Gentilly Ridge and Robert E. Lee Boulevard offers a canvas of infinite possibilities, some to ugly to consider (such as sitting trailer cities there) and some fabulous and promising.

What then might such plans look like?

Lakeview is the perfect place to start. Much of it is devastated beyond repair. Will it be the stilt cities of lower Acadiana and Grand Isle? That’s not an attractive picture, but it’s possible. Will it look like the raised cottage areas of uptown and mid-city, with the living floors a good six to eight feet off the ground, and the ground floor enclosed for parking, utility space, etc? This would certainly be more in keeping with the character of the rest of the city. It will also be more expensive than just building ranch homes on slabs, or even rebuilding those homes on stilts.

The expense brings us to the real question of concern: will Lakeview continue to be a moderately affluent, white flight enclave within the city limits, when vast areas of working class New Orleans are completely devastated as well? Or can it be the working-middle-class paradise Lake Vista was once intended to be? If we’re going to spend the money to make it storm-safe (or as storm safe as any part of New Orleans can be considered), we will want to be able to house as many people as we can. This should, it must include people from places like the Ninth Ward and the MidCity. It should include housing affordable to those who work in the hotels and casinos and stores of the increasingly ephemeral and tourist-dependent city.

I think that those who must have a standard 5,000 square foot lot and a detached garage and a lawn to mow, these people are going to have to look to places outside of the city to live. It simply makes no sense to spend all that money to protect that much grass. We are going to need to build denser neighborhoods like those of the core city (and those the people who platted the original Lake Vista assumed for the lakefront).

We are going to need to raise those homes without creating a city of stilts, and at the same time adjust the requirements of federal flood insurance to a reasonable elevation. Current, those who wish to rebuild in "A" zone property (which is most of New Orleans), who have experienced more than 50 percent damage, must build above sea level or face vastly increased premiums.

To suggest that New Orleans be abandoned is ridiculous. Some accommodation must be made for the established settlement pattern of 300 years. At the same time, the homes the repopulate Lakeview and similar neighborhoods north of the Gentilly/Cemetaries/Metarie line are going to need to be sufficiently elevated to handle future floods.

And the neighborhoods that receive improved levees are going to need to house more people than they do now. The settlement pattern of the first 200 years of the city: smaller elevated homes on smaller lots, should be the model. Owners should be encouraged to divide their property, possibly pooling two lots to make three, enabling the two original owners to rebuild and sell the third. This could provide a financial windfall to the existing owners to help them rebuild flood resistant homes.

Rebuilders should be encouraged to rescue the raised New Orleans cottage as the model home, and the national flood insurance program should accept covering the lowest level if it is not used for habitation.

Finally, the de facto redlining of neighborhoods should be eliminated. I remember the fear on the lakefront as the burgeoning black middle class marched through the neighborhoods between Bayou St. John and the London Avenue Canal. People who could afford the homes our parents could afford--professionals and business people--were regarded as if the cast of Amos & Andy were moving in next store.

It doesn't matter that they can afford the houses, people would say. You know what those people are like.

Those of us who chose to live in mixed inner city neighborhoods know that the massive self-segregation patterns of the sixties and seventies were based on ridiculous and ignorant fear. Those patterns must be broken if the city is to rebuild. There just isn't enough good land, and there is not likely to be enough money to build Category Five protection everywhere.

Those who choose to rebuild should choose to rebuild together, in homes the reflect the character of the preserved core city neighborhoods. If those choices are avoided or blocked, then I have to ask the question myself: will it be worth rebuilding?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Tangled up in red

A story on American Public Radio about Katrina survivors in Waveland, MS caught my attention, in part because I've always had family there. What stuck out in the story, however, was its report that a gentleman had to ride a bus five hours to reach the nearest Red Cross Shelter.

It's long been an article of faith among those who experienced Camille that the Red Cross was worthless. Katrina has done nothing to improve the opinion of most Katrina survivors.

Scandal over their handling of 9-11 funds--when it raised $564 million in it's Libery Fund to aid victims, but only distributed $154 million--did nothing to improve the agencies smell.

However, for most Americans, the Red Cross is the place they turn when they want to make a donation for help. At least, those who haven't tried to turn to the agency for assistance in an emergency.

In media reports all across the country, the anger of Katrina and Rita survivors at the agency is being broadcast nation-wide. In a long story, the Los Angeles Times catalogs the anger of some in the New Orleans area.

This isn't an isolated story. Most of rural Mississippi and Louisiana has not been visited or assisted by the Red Cross. In Hancock County, ground zero for Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the Red Cross opened only one shelter, miles from the victims. The organizations failure led one long-time local volunteer, Betty Brunner, to say she would "never, ever wear the Red Cross vest again".

The NOLA Times-Picayune reports of disastisfaction with the Red Cross there in the story Red Cross suffers post-Katrina black eye.

In the first days after Katrina passed, it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency that storm victims pilloried for its flatfooted response to the hurricane. Then the victims began calling the Red Cross assistance hotline, only to wait hours before they connected with a live voice. Some callers never reaped anything but busy signals and static.

In the days immediately after the hurricane, some parishes were left virtually alone to feed and care for emergency workers and the residents who had ignored evacuation orders. While Red Cross workers began meeting with parish leaders the weekend after the hurricane, the agency did not have boots on the ground in New Orleans until 10 days after the storm. The Red Cross also delayed moving into Jefferson Parish for more than a week after Katrina because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised workers to wait until the National Guard could secure the devastated areas.

"I was a little bit busy to wonder where they were, but in the first three weeks, we were on our own," said Larry Ingargiola, emergency preparedness director in St. Bernard Parish.

The Red Cross is closely tied to FEMA, which will add millions of federal disaster relief dollars to the Red Cross' coffers, even as the group continues to request donations.

The Red Cross has always been closely tied to government, having been chartered by the federal government, which appoints a number of member to its governing board. The blog news publication Raw Story has a good summary of the history of the Red Cross here.

The Red Cross is, for all intents and purposes, and official government charity. Like the government, it largely failed to provide assistance where it was most needed. The Red Cross, like FEMA, has demonstrated it is not up to handling the responsiblity of a major American disaster. Instead, it is a poster children for the cozy corruption of government and private enterprise, where its all about the money and never about the people.

Moreover, all of the donations pouring into the Red Cross now will not go where it is most needed: helping the survivors of Katrina rebuild their lives. The Red Cross has never been about this. It's about immediate disaster relief. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, how will all that money being raised help the people of Katrina?

Will it end up in the same black hole as all the money donated for 9-11 victims?

The LA Times commentary of Sept. 25 about sums up the Red Cross: The Red Cross money pit

The Red Cross brand is platinum. Its fundraising vastly outruns its programs because it does very little or nothing to rescue survivors, provide direct medical care or rebuild houses. After 9/11, the Red Cross collected more than $1 billion, a record in philanthropic fundraising after a disaster. But the Red Cross could do little more than trace missing people, help a handful of people in shelters and provide food to firefighters, police, paramedics and evacuation crews during that catastrophe.

As Hurricane Rita dissipates, let me answer my unpopular question like this: Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international "brand name" relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disasters.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Meet the New Orleanians

The respected Christian Science Monitor casually makes the following statement in an article Post-Katrina easing of labor laws stirs debate of Oct. 4:

At a time when Latino immigrants are expected to form a big part of the Gulf Coast reconstruction labor pool, the Department of Homeland Security has temporarily suspended sanctioning employers who hire workers unable to prove their citizenship, essentially allowing contractors to hire undocumented workers.

"Katrina is producing a large demand for undocumented workers," says Mr. Bustamante, a professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "That's why they're bending the rules. But then once the job is done, it's back in the shadows. The hypocrisy is astounding."

A Los Angeles Times contributor offeres this observation in a piece titled La Nueva Orleans:

NO MATTER WHAT ALL the politicians and activists want, African Americans and impoverished white Cajuns will not be first in line to rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, will. And when they're done, they're going to stay, making New Orleans look like Los Angeles. It's the federal government that will have made the transformation possible, further exposing the hollowness of the immigration debate.

Mexican and Central American laborers are already arriving in southeastern Louisiana. One construction firm based in Metairie, La., sent a foreman to Houston to round up 150 workers willing to do cleanup work for $15 an hour, more than twice their wages in Texas. The men — most of whom are undocumented, according to news accounts — live outside New Orleans in mobile homes without running water and electricity. The foreman expects them to stay "until there's no more work" but "there's going to be a lot of construction jobs for a really long time."

If there is a single working poor southerner in Katrina's path--black or white--who doesn't understand that your government in Washington doesn't care about you--this should seal the deal.

As long as the oil is flowing and the port is open and the tourists come back, well, you might have lived, you might have died. What do they care? Take your $2,000 and shut up and be grateful.

If this is what America has come to, then the American experiment has failed.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Dead and Presumed Missing?

They have stopped searching for the dead. The toll in Louisiana: 972.

Even as FEMA announces an end to the search for bodies in New Orleans, over 5,000 people remain missing after Hurricane Katrina. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists 2,500 children who are missing or can't be matched to their parents. A list from the same site of missing adults runs to 183 pages with 37 names per page. That's 6,750 people

It is disturbing that in 2005 we don't have the ability to match up the missing via shelter registrations, aid applications, or other means.

Why are there between 5,000 and 9,000 people who can't be found?

Why are the employees of Kenyon International Emergency Services charged with handling the dead, sworn to secrecy?

Why was this company, a scandal-tainted Texas firm tied to the Bush family and implicated in illegally discarding and desecrating corpses , hired? (And why is the Florida Sun-Sentinel link to a story about this taken down?)

Why did Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee initially report on Sept. 10 that only 10% of the bodies recovered in Jefferson Parish were attributable to Katrina, according to WWL-TV's Katrina Blog?

Why weren't locked homes broken into and searched?

Has every building been searched, by humans, animals or remotely to determine if there are dead?

How many of the dead escaped through the intentional levee breeches in St. Bernard and the lower Ninth Ward and will never be found?

Why were the affluent victims of 9-11 counted among the dead when they were only missing?

Why are the less affluent and largely black victims of 9-28 disregarded when there bodies can't be found?

Will we ever know the true number of the dead?

If not, why not?

Monday, October 03, 2005

The fallacy of the “Ephemeral City”

In numerous published articles urban affairs writer Joel Kotkin has posited the idea of the Ephemeral City as a model for certain, select urban centers (even as he cautions against trying to apply the idea generally to inner cities).

In the linked article above, he writes: “[A]s we plunge deeper into the millennium, we may now be witnessing the emergence of a new kind of urban place, populated largely by non-families and the nomadic rich…the ephemeral city prospers by providing an alternative lifestyle to a small sector of society.”

But what about the amenity-rich places, the ones capable of appealing to part-time urbanites and sojourning young people? They need to ask an even more basic question about what kind of city they want to become. Art galleries, clubs, bars, and boutiques make these places undeniably fun, but they are not the things that convince the middle class, families, and most businesses to commit to a city for the long term. Relying on the culturally curious, these cities could be destined to become hollow places, Disneylands for adults.

Perhaps most important, an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism, and "creative" functions is ill-suited to provide opportunities for more than a small slice of its population. Following such a course, it is likely to evolve ever more into a city composed of cosmopolitan elites, a large group of low-income service workers, and a permanent underclass--or into what San Francisco is already becoming, what historian Kevin Starr describes as "a cross between Carmel and Calcutta."

This article is a must read for anyone considering the future of New Orleans I believe this is both the mistakes of New Orleans immediate past, and the vision that many of the city’s leaders have in mind for the future of New Orleans.

As the ephemeral-enthusiastic Mr. Kotkin points out on his website, there is a problem with implementing this model in New Orleans. He cites the same example I do, that of the Gaza strip, as a dystopian view of what happens to the people needed to support an ephemeral city.

If we rebuild the city in the model of Pres Kabakoff’s River Garden (an upscale development displacing the affordable if decrepit housing of the St. Thomas housing project with what many would consider a “more compatible” use given its placement between the burgeoning Warehouse District and the Garden District) the question must be asked: who will be the support employees for this ephemeral city lifestyle, and where will they live?

The Washington Post raises this issue in a story today on the Ninth Ward, and the debate over what will happen to some of the worst affected areas.

Originally a Cypress swamp, the community of 20,000 is overwhelmingly black; more than one-third of residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census. The people of the Lower Ninth are the maids, bellhops and busboys who care for New Orleans tourists. They are also the clerks and cops now helping to get the city back on its feet. It is home to carpenters, sculptors, musicians and retirees. Fats Domino still has a house in the Lower Ninth. Kermit Ruffins — a quintessential New Orleanian trumpeter whose band likes to grill up some barbecue between sets — attended local schools. About half the houses are rentals.

Of the 160,000 buildings in Louisiana declared “uninhabitable” after Katrina, a majority are in the New Orleans neighborhoods that suffered extensive flooding. Mayor Ray Nagin, an African American who worked in the private sector before entering politics, has spelled out plans to reopen every section of the city — except the Lower Ninth. His director of homeland security, Col. Terry Ebbert, said in an interview that most homes in the Lower Ninth “will not be able to be restored.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle he has advised Nagin that “it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward.”

The first question about the Ninth Ward in an Ephemeral New Orleans is this: What is to be done about the employees of the large tourist industry, and other service sectors? As Kotkin rightly observes, and ephemeral city needs these people, and at the same time has no place for them.

Even if you agree that there is room for building a cosmopolitan downtown in the ruins of the old industrial district, what about the people it displaces? After Katrina, what about all of the people that are displaced? A focus on rebuilding the core of the city at the expense of its neighborhoods is doomed fo ail. The native people of New Orleans must be given an opportunity to return, and affordable housing will have to be built. The giant block public housing projects of the post-WWII period clearly failed, and should be swept from the landscape. What, however, can be built in their place?

Much of the housing stock of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods-the shotguns and camelbacks, the raised Creole cottages—were the original affordable housing of New Orleans. Large apartment blocks have never been a part of the city. These are the model we should adopt for the rebuilding of the city. We must rediscover how to build affordable detached or semi-detached (the shotgun double) houses on narrow lots in a high density. We must squeeze more people onto higher land, the land that will be the most valuable in the post-Katrina period.

The market place will not do this. It will, left to its own devices, create an Ephemeral City. It will extend River Garden from Carrollton to Holy Cross. Absorbing the remaining stock of affordable housing on safe land. New Orleans in its current situation is ripe for something like this. By the same token, the city was—in its current site and prior situation--also ripe for the yellow fever epidemics of the 18th and 19th century. It was not, however, something to be desired.

Any plan for rebuilding the city that does not envision a high-density, mixed use city of many detached and semi-detached working people’s homes, with affordable space for neighborhood businesses, should be considered as dead on arrival. The River Gardens ghetto for the rich should be the last of it’s kind to leave the drawing board until we have addressed the real problems of a very real, not an ephemeral city. It should, at least, be the last to receive the sort of subsidized largesse which the New Orleans Housing Authority offered to subsidize construction of it’s “market rate” housing.

Mayor Nagin and his chosen few need to step forward and address in very short order their plan for the return and rehousing and reemployment of the large majority of the city’s residents. (On the Chosen Few, I will note that,--having picked on Mr. Kabakoff--I promise to return to Joe Canizaro so that no one in that camp should feel excessively singled out)
The second question I want to pose is this: Mayor Nagin has announced return plans for every neighborhood except the Ninth Ward. As the Washington Post article points out, many think the flooded sections “should not be put back in the real estate market,” said Craig Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University. “I realize it will be an insult (to former residents), but it would be a far bigger insult to put them back in harm's way.”

If we accept this premise, then I must ask: What about the rest of the core city? will the neighborhoods along the new Canal Streetcar line need to be raised to take full advantage of that new amenity?

What about Lakeview? What about Lake Terrace and Lake Vista and Lake Shore? If its not reasonable to think we will rebuild the Ninth Ward, then why would we rebuild the neighborhoods between the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals, between the Lake and Cemeteries?

The fate of the Ninth Ward may be sealed. I personally do not think the lower Ninth Ward south of St. Claude Avenue will be rebuilt. I think it is possible that Holy Cross and parts of Bywater might be saved, if only because these areas contain a number of historic treasures, and because at least a fraction of its residents are white, relatively affluent urban pioneers.

But what about the lakefront? I will address that in my next post.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Wash Your Troubles Away

The vision of the New Orleans Business Council for a whiter New Orleans received an endorsement of sorts from the Black head of the federal Housing and Urban Development agency this past week.

"Whether we like it or not...New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday. "I wish that the so-called black leadership would stop running around this country, like Jesse and the rest of them, making this a racial issue."

These comments elicited predictable outrage in many quarters. They also resulted in some disturbing responses, including from people I know, who suggested calmly maybe this is not such a bad thing. Initially, I had to walk away from the computer to avoid launching into a blistering response.

The sad fact is, this is in some part true. It's not Katrina, however, that caused this problem. It's decades, if not generations, of social and economic neglect exposed by Katrina.

It’s not clear that all of the working class, black population of the city will want to return. The neighborhoods many lived in were a Clockwork Orange-like horrowshow of drugs and violence. When I advised the middle school student newspaper in the Desire neighborhood, the building I visited resembled nothing so much as a prison. It stood behind a double wall chain link fence half again as tall as an adult, toped with coils of concertina wire, a Green Zone in a desperate Baghdad on the bayou.

I had left New Orleans before the descent into the crack-cocaine fueled killing frenzy of the 1990s. Instead, I lived in Washington, D.C. My last house in the district was halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the drug market where Georgetown basketball star Len Bias bought his crack cocaine, convenient walking distance to either. I could sit in my small backyard and hear the slow motion firecracker string of guns battles, the staccato tempo slowly rising until it was answered by a orchestral wail of sirens. At night, police helicopters would nearly graze the rooftops of our low row houses while the powerful searchlight our yards and alleys.

In both places, I had chosen to live in marginal neighborhoods convenient to my life. I was never really afraid until the 1990s. When I lived in the 1300 block of Esplanade in Treme, I would sit on my stoop and drink three-for-a-dollar beer from Egle’s Pharmacy on my stoop, and visit with my neighbors. When my girlfriend’s cat when missing, I didn’t hesitate to wander back into the hood toward Elysian Fields, to whistle and call and knock on doors looking for him.

I had no illusions about the neighborhoods I lived in. But they were, with proper precaution and a willingness to be a part of the neighborhood, livable.

Something happened in the 1990s to change that. My neighborhood on Capitol Hill Northeast was not much different from Treme’. But suddenly, I was afraid to live there any longer. The petty criminals would no just assume shoot you first and rob you second. It was no longer just a matter of walking down the street confidently and making eye contact with everyone who passed, and keeping one eye over your shoulder. You could die walking down the street just the same.

Junko Partner had gone gansta, and our cities might never be the same.

I left for the suburbs of Northern Virginia.

I can well imagine how those who didn’t have the option of opening the paper, finding a new place to live, renting a truck and moving, must have felt. Trapped, fearful of for their lives and the lives of their children, abandoned to a fate they did not understand, they were prisoners more than any resident of Orleans Parish Prison who previously threatened them.

For these folk, the rising water was a change only in the character of the threat to their lives, not to their basic mode of living.

For too many, the storm was an Act of God of a different sort, a Biblical deliverance through the dire Sinai of the storm to the edge of the land of milk and honey. They will not return to the decrepit projects or crumbling backwater neighborhoods of New Orleans, if they can find decent homes and jobs and schools in Houston or Atlanta.

Will their lives really be better in their new homes? De facto segregation is not something unique to New Orleans. It exists through the South and the rest of the nation. There really isn't much affordable housing in most places, or good jobs for those at the bottom of the education and training pool.

A leg up may help for a few months, but as it becomes clear that a job at Wal-Mart isn't going to pay the rent on the new apartment, will these people be allowed to slip below the surface once again, made to vanish so as not to embarass either the city's fathers or the nation's leaders?

Is that, in fact, the plan, the reason for the disperal?

We need to take a page from the survivors of the Jewish disaspora and the European holocaust.

Never Forget.

Never Again. Starting by not allowing the dispersal as a means to sweep the problem under the rug of history, by not allowing the white Uptown and Old Metarie crowd to redesign a city to their own liking, by not letting the FEMA and administration apologists in general rewrite the history of events and make it about "poor, corrupt Louisiana".

We must adopt the Seder reading to our own uses: Next year in New Orleans.

Only a concerted effort based on the assumption that every citizen of New Orleans has a right of return, an expectation that the government that whisked them away from the disaster will help them to return, that the promises of housing for the survivors will be realized in New Orleans, that all reconstruction jobs will go first to the survivors, could make any difference.

Any other solution is nothing short of an ethnic cleansing, and those who advocate it should be treated with the same contempt as we hold the perpetrators of the violent reorganization of the Balkans.

Next Year in New Orleans.

"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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