Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I went on down to the Audubon Zoo

The newly-reopened Audubon Zoo's comment on Katrina. If you're reading this blog, nothing hear really needs any explanation. Except maybe those black boots. Who the hell in Louisiana wears black rubber boots? Not any Cajuns I know. They must belong to one of them contractor fellas. Photo courtesy of Cade Roux.  Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Renovation or Redevelopment?

A real estate think-tank with ties to prominent local developers released its proposal for the future of last week, including suggestions that local power be turned over to a reconstruction authority appointed by people outside New Orleans.

While the Urban Land Institute proposal included a laundry list of positive goals for the recovery of New Orleans, including a focus on "sustainable development", pre- price buyouts of condemned housing, and "equitable redevelopment" (defined as providing returning residents sufficient resource to rebuild in place or relocate in develop-able areas), the suggestion that the city is not capable of managing it's own affairs stuck out prominently.

ULI called for is the creation of a Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state-chartered corporation with broad authority over the city's finances, including authority over all recovery funds, the city budget, and taxation. The proposed seven-member panel would have only two locally appointed members, with three to be named by the President and two by the governor. The mayor and city council would each be allowed one seat to fill.

GOP Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge has proposed a similar corporation, controlled instead entirely by the federal government.

The ULI panel also called for reforms in local government, including the consolidation of the metropolitan area's levee boards, and the appointment of an Inspector General and a Board of Ethics with oversight of the city's government.

For all of the failings of New Orleans' government, it is ironic that--at a time when Americans are dying to try to bring democracy to a devastated Iraq--the ULI would propose the imposition of a non-democratic super government, largely appointed by outsiders, in New Orleans.

The report Moving Beyond Recovery to Restoration and Rebirth: Urban Land Institute Makes Recommendations on Rebuilding New Orleans, was released on Nov. 17 in a presentation to members of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The recommendations were the result of a month of site visits and work, including a week-long visit to the Hurricane -ravaged city by 50 ULI specialists in urban and post-disaster recovery just prior to the report's release.

The plan outlined a strategy for reconstruction, starting with the least damaged areas on the highest ground, and calling out the most severely flooded areas for possible conversion from residential neighborhoods into green space. The Times-Picayune headline on the report was Rebuilding should begin on high ground. That story says:

Tackling what is certain to be the most controversial aspect of any rebuilding plan, the contingent from the Urban Land Institute said Friday that the city should use its original footprint, as well as lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, as a guide in determining what areas are most logical for redevelopment.

The group went so far as to draft a color-coded map of the city showing three "investment zones" the city may want to follow. The first zone included the high parts of the city, like Uptown and the French Quarter, which panelists say is ready for rehabilitation immediately. The second zone highlighted the mid-ground, which the panel suggested is also ready for individual rehabilitation, with some opportunities to put together parcels of land for green space or redevelopment.

The last zone, which included some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods, needs additional study, but could have the potential for mass buyouts and future green space, the panel said. Those areas include most of eastern New Orleans east and Gentilly; the northern part of Lakeview; and parts of the Lower 9th Ward, Broadmoor, Mid-City and Hollygrove.

The proposal divided the city into three different recovery zones: the historic city of high land, an intermediate zone ready for recovery in some areas and redevelopment in others, and a third zone

Presumably, these "develop-able areas" would fall into the plan's zone two, between the historic high ground and the ground sub-zero neighborhoods of catastrophic flooding.

There is nothing terribly surprising in the plan, even the creation of a recovery corporation with the powers and funding necessary to facilitate rebuilding. The ULI is not the first to propose the abandonment of some flood-prone neighborhoods. Notably, Louisiana State University author and geographer Craig
Colten has suggested the same before the ULI began its work. His views widely published by CNN, National Public Radio, the Washington Post and newspapers around the country.

The laudable statements on reform, sustainable development and equitable redevelopment--with repeated references to brining back the people of New Orleans to participate in the city's reconstruction--sound like a prescription for a successful recovery.

The lingering question, in my view, is this: how will redevelopment of the areas most severely damaged proceed, and what will such redevelopment mean to the character and future of the city?

Most people in know what renovation is, whether you're the person picking the new shutters or the person hired to hang them. Renovation is a process of taking a place worth saving for its grace and beauty, for its historic and cultural importance, and making it new again. Renovation is not simply repair. Renovation is something that adds value.

Renovation is precisely what New Orleans needs: preserving the critically important parts of what makes it a cultural and architectural treasure, while tearing out those parts that are damaged and threaten the long-term integrity of the structure.

Renovation is a word the ULI uses liberally in its presentation. Another well-used word is redevelopment.

Most New Orleanians also know what redevelopment is. Redevelopment implies tearing down and starting over, replacing what was or what is with something new. Redevelopment was the fate of the St. Thomas Housing Project in the Irish Channel in Uptown New Orleans.

St. Thomas was a neighborhood desperately in need of help. The classic "bricks" housing project apartments were dilapidated to the point of condemnation. The neighborhood itself was described this way in a quote from Broderick Bagert, Jr., published on Whereyatnola.com:

"Of the 2,785 people who lived in the St. Thomas Housing Development in New Orleans before it was demolished for redevelopment in 2000, all were poor. […] The population density of the development was over 400% higher than that of the surrounding neighborhood. Most nearby through-streets came to a dead-end at St. Thomas. The rate of violent crime in the complex was 722% higher than that for the city as a whole, in a city that topped national statistics for violent crime per capita. […] St. Thomas, in short, was a typical American ghetto."

As of the 2000 Census there were still some 2,957 residents in the census tracts associated with the St. Thomas Housing Development. But as of August 30, 2001 1393 units (of the 1,429 that were counted in the 2000 census) were demolished, according to data published by Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Today, a redevelopment project called River Gardens has replaced the St. Thomas Project. The project began when developer Joe Canizaro acquired 70 acres of property at the west end of the revitalized historic Warehouse District. To Canizaro's rescue rode historic renewal leader Pres Kabakoff, whose development company Historical Restoration Inc. had redeveloped numerous prominent local properties such as the D.H. Holmes and American Can Company building projects.

The primary obstacle to extending the Warehouse District redevelopment out to meet the historic Garden District was the St. Thomas Projects. Kabakoff's HRI stepped in with a plan called River Gardens, to use a mix of public and private dollars to tear down the St. Thomas housing project, and build a new mixed-income neighborhood in its place

Where 1,500 mostly poor families lived, only 200 affordable housing units were built, according to New Orleans activist Russell Henderson, in an on-line posting attacking the ULI.

Kabakoff told the online publication Where Y'at that inclusion of more than about 30% affordable housing would drive away "market-rate" residents. Without a substantial portion of new residents willing to pay market rents, the project would fail (or simply convert itself back into the ghetto it sought to replace).

“If you have it dominantly affordable, then the market-rate is afraid to come in. My research says about 70 [market-rate]-30 [affordable]. And with 30% affordable (mothers with children), you are pushing the envelope. But I think with good management and design, you can make that kind of mixture work.”

Henderson points out in his posting that most of the residents of St. Thomas were relocated from the high ground of the Irish Channel out to the lower Ninth Ward, the St. Bernard housing project, and New Orleans East: all areas that were substantially flooded.

By Mr. Kabakoff's reckoning, no more than 30% of reconstructed housing can be affordable, with the rest going at "market rates". What is unclear in the post-Katrina period, is what market rates will be in a city where the habitable housing stock has shrunk by 40%.

Canizaro and Kabakoff are among the leading lights of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Canizaro helped bring the ULI into the process, and Kabakoff won an award from the group for the River Gardens initiative. Both men stand to profit handsomely by any redevelopment efforts in the city, as they did by the redevelopment of the St. Thomas area. (See this detailed analysis for some details on the cost accounting of the St. Thomas redevelopment.)

What is troubling about the approach of the two developers and the ULI is the idea that profit must drive the process, that what can be done to rebuild the city will be an outcome of market forces. The experience of St. Thomas tells us that--even with the leverage of federal dollars to make it possible--the outcome of market-driven redevelopment is the displacement of the working people of New Orleans.

What do we do, then, with the ULI's recommendations? First, everyone concerned about the city must agree that transparency and honesty must govern all levels of government in the reconstruction process. That means not just the city or the state, but also FEMA and the Department of Defense, which continues to hide most of the details of the no bid contracts awarded in the immediate aftermath of the storm. We should not, however, replace local democratic government with hacks and profiteers the likes of those appointed to run FEMA or rebuild Iraq

Second, the government (and only the federal government can afford this) must ensure that those who lost their homes are compensated at pre-Katrina rates. Resources must be made available to make it possible for those who choose to return to rebuild. And the city should put in place rent controls to prevent profiteering and to make sure that the housing provided is affordable to returning local workers.

Third, redevelopment should be done on a not-for-profit basis rather than be treated as an opportunity for a handful of individuals to cash in. When President Bush addressed the people of Katrina in September, he stressed the primacy of market forces. We have seen how well his vision has worked in the reconstruction of Iraq, where select corporations grow rich on no-bid contracts, and water and electricity are still just a promise. Instead, all rebuild efforts should be refocused on the survivors of Katrina.

Tulane Law Professor and activist Oliver Houck has proposed an alternate vision, one that dovetails nicely with the best of the ULI’s proposals. In a Nov. 3 Times-Picayune editorial republished on-line by the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition, he argues for a citizen-centric effort modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps from the Great Depression.

One scenario has developers move in, bulldoze and rebuild. It's easier,
en masse, to start from scratch. The labor comes from elsewhere. The anchor stores come from elsewhere. The result could look a lot like elsewhere too: condominiums, gated communities, new-towns-in-town. We already have a few. The phrase is that we are going to rebuild better than ever. Whether it's still New Orleans is question.

Unless we do something different, this scenario is inevitable.

There is another scenario. Say we were to look at 50,000 unemployed New Orleanians, and probably double that number of shotgun houses, raised cottages and not-so-raised cottages that are badly damaged but capable of being raised and rehabilitated. Then we put the two together. We create a New Orleans Conservation Corps. They restore the city.

We need training centers and apprenticeships. We need to make employment of New Orleanians by private companies a condition of those companies receiving federal loans and contracts.

Most importantly, task forces of this Conservation Corps must be made available to low-income residents to raise and repair their homes at reduced rates, perhaps for free.

It would be like the local housing rehab program called Christmas in October, only these workers would not be volunteers. They would be a new work force.

This is what the city truly needs. The recovery should not become primarily an opportunity for well-connected developers. It should be an opportunity for the survivors of Katrina to restore a national treasure and, in the best American spirit, make it over where they must so it is not just a museum treasure but a living city, rescued from neglect and put on proud display to all the world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Beware the FEMA Trailer Guy

My sister received an unsolicited offer of assistance from FEMA yesterday. Or so she thought. Like everyone else in the city or the diaspora, she is highly suspicious of anything the government promises. So when, out of the blue, a smooth talking gentleman called her unsolicited to offer her a trailer, she was suspicious.

Unlike most survivors, my sister has run telemarketing boiler rooms before, had learned the finer points of pitch and patter from masters. She caught something in the conversation that most people would have missed.

First the caller asked solicitously how she was doing. Was she OK? Did she have a place to live? How were her other family members? (She is the registered FEMA recipient for the household of her and my mother. FEMA grants assistance to households, not individuals. My sister, like many people in , stays by her moma's).

When he extended the offer of a trailer, she said, no, her previous residence was on the seventh floor of a large apartment complex. She did not think the management would be receptive to her dropping a trailer into the parking lot. Thank you, she said, but no.

So, you're not in your apartment, Mr. Smooth asked. No, she said. I have another place to stay.

So, he asked, you're staying with friends or family?

This was the point at which her natural suspicion of phone solicitors, and FEMA's well earned reputation, came into play.

No, she said. I am not. I am subletting.

This was an important answer. Like most Katrina survivors, she had applied for the immediate assistance grant. Like most, she was not clearly instructed that it would only be able to be used for housing assistance, and must be spent entirely on rent. But she had heard, subsequently, that FEMA was already hounding some people who had spent the money otherwise, trying to get their $2,000 back.

When she called me to relate this story, she was understandably angry. Some days, people back home I talk to are angry, some days they are depressed or in tears, other days overjoyed that some familiar place or person has reappeared on the scene. They are an an emotional roller coaster that someone like myself, gone 20 years and 1,200 miles from New Orleans, can only try to understand.

The anger of this telephone call was not of that sort. It was timely and appropriate. Having been a telemarketer, she knew that most of the distraught population of New Orleans and the diaspora would fall into Mr. Smooth's sympathy patter. They would not catch the real reason for his call.

There are no trailers, unless you're in one of the last of the shelters and about to be deported to Baker, La. The real reason for the call was to audit how she was spending the immediate assistance grant. The monumental dishonesty and callousness of Mr. Smooth, and whoever had organized his calling campaign, had my sister on the edge of rage.

As it should.

So, if you get a call from Mr. Smooth, be careful what you say. If you let on that you had to spend some of that immediate housing assistance on, say, food, or a second pair of underwear, be prepared for federal marshals to appear at your home sometime soon and demand--if not the entire amount in cash, then at least that you turn over that ill-gotten pair of shorts.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Katrina's Chemical Legacy

Could the initial fears that the flood waters of were a toxic gumbo be overblown, as later reports seek to suggest?Is the government keeping the results of air, water and soil tests from the people of ?

There were dire initial predictions about the result of flood waters mixing with the latent pollution in any large American city. A University of Florida professor suggested here that pollutants that typically contaminate urban runoff would be concentrated in the standing water that covered the city for weeks.

"What we see in New Orleans is that when you put a lot of water in contact with the urban environment, all the potential contaminants that stayed around in that environment are now back in the water;definitely, to our horror," Professor John Sansalone said.

And in a widely quoted story in the days right after the city was flooded, Environmental Protection Agency expert Hugh Kaufman said not only were the floodwaters dangerously polluted, he suggested that the federal government was suppressing the information.

This story was quickly squelched by government assertions that the initial reports were overblown, and a search of Google News finds little coverage following the reports of early September.

The American Chemical Society rushed out a report in early October, based on research at Louisiana State University, stating the flood waters "were similar in content to the city's normal storm water and were not as toxic as previously thought." This report was picked up my the major media.

MSNBC did cover a hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 6, where the same concerns were expressed, and ran another story Nov. 9 discussing environmentalists concerns.

In the first story, senator's questioned whether the people of Louisiana were being given the information they needed before returning. The EPA report in question stated:
Samples of floodwater and sediment in the Gulf Region have shown high levels of bacteria, fecal contamination, [heavy] metals, fuel oils, arsenic and lead. Air monitoring has shown high levels of ethylene and glycol. EPA said the results are snapshots that can quickly change.
Ongoing results of EPA testing can be found here.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network didn't merely rely on EPA and other government results. They hired their own testing group, which found "community members should not have been allowed to return to the areas where they could come in contact with the contaminated sediments." The results can be found here.

In early November, the Dallas Morning News reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning "one of the biggest environmental cleanups ever attempted: scraping miles of sediment laced with cancer-causing chemicals from New Orleans' hurricane-flooded neighborhoods."

Some areas were clearly contaminated by flood waters. The Times-Picayune reported earlier this month that 1,700 homes in the vicinity of the Murphy Oil Co. refinery in St. Bernard Parish are unsafe to enter without protective gear.

Other areas may also suffer from incidental release of toxins by or into the flood waters. The Agriculture Street Landfill is a 95-acre Superfund site on the National Priorities List of highly contaminated sites requiring cleanup and containment.
Houses and buildings that were constructed in later years directly atop parts of the landfill.

Residents report unusual cancers and health problems and have lobbied for years to be relocated away from the old contaminated site, which contains not only municipal garbage, but buried industrial wastes such as what would be produced by service stations and dry cleaners, manufacturers or burning. This area was among those flooded by Katrina.

Another flooded neighborhood plagued by chemical residue from the past in Treme, just north of the French Quarter. Neighborhood activist Randall Mitchell told the Louisiana Weekly newspaper in 2004 "they should be saying to the people of Treme that cancer is pandemic in your neighborhood."

No news reports discuss the impact of the flooding of Treme, which has a former pesticide plant and a number of dry clearing sites.

The real question is this: if the floodwaters were not as toxic as EPA asserts, why is the Corps of Engineers proposing to move tremendous volumes of topsoil and residue? What is Katrina cough, which plagues nearly everyone who has returned to the city? Is the government about to repeat the mistakes of Ground Zero in Manhattan, where the health risks were suppressed while thousands toiled at the site to remove the debris and search for the dead?

The health recommendations of the National Resources Defense Council at their Katrina site, which includes recommendations that people wear respirators in the city and plastic chemical suits while working in previously flooding buildings, is disturbing.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Waking the Dead

Today on National Public Radio, the issue of the missing of finally broke into the national media spotlight.

In a piece titled Return to New Orleans in the story titled Return to New Orleans on the Morning Edition story list, correspondent Cokie Roberts and host Micheal Iskeep had this exchange.

Roberts: "There's still 4,000 people missing. It's an incredible number two months later..."

Inskeep (interrupting): "That's more people than died in the World Trade Center."

Roberts is a native of and the child of retired U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs and Hale Boggs, the congressman who died in an aircrash in Alaska decades ago.

This is the first indication of the scope of the missing, and the link to the size of the 9-11 disaster, that I've seen in two-and-one-half months of reading every line I can find about Katrina and New Orleans.

As reported here earlier, respected groups such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children continue to report up to 7,000 missing post-Katrina. Based on the Mississippi experience with the state's official missing list, as many as 14% of those may be dead.

That would be at least 1,300 unreported deaths.

Roberts did not indicate the source of her figure of 4,000 missing in the NPR piece.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Utopia on the Bayou

Cities are incremental growths, accreting in place with the same slow and erratic perfection as stalactites and stalagmites. Few if any fulfill the vision of their founders. Once peopled and with the passage of time, they take off in ways governed only by the chance meetings of people on the city’s streets, as chaotic and precise as crystals.

in many ways has wiped the slate of clean. Utopian ideas of how to reconstruct the city are almost inevitable. Some are well meaning, and meant to address hundreds of years of social and economic inequity through a better distribution of housing and services and income. Others intend to eliminated the poverty and crime by eliminating the perpetrators, and the victims who were often the perp's neighbors and of the same color and class.

While the Audubon Place crowd has been quiet after Jimmy Reiss’ national embarrassment in the Wall Street Journal, the latter approach is well underway In spite of the return of the I-9 regulations, requiring workers prove their legal status prior to employment, a Latin workforce with dubious papers continues to flood into the city. These workers offer the Audubon Place crowd a workforce as docile and diligent as a chain gang of prisoners under close guard. The only thing lacking is my great-great uncle astride his horse, watching over the plantation field hands as he did at Stella in Plaquemines Parish almost a hundred years ago.

Some members of the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition call for equally radical changes on behalf of a more progressive vision. One document circulating proposes abandoning what it calls the “backswamp”, namely those parts of the city that were unsuitable wetlands at the city’s founding. To replace the tens of thousands of homes that would displace, a utopian city of dense housing—built to the highest Green standards of environmentalism and affordability—would be built on land on this historically proven high ground.

There is nothing wrong with a utopian vision, but we are not preparing to build utopia. Instead, we are concerned with resurrecting a living city. A vision of abandoning the backswamp (read, everything north of the L&N line, and east of the Industrial Canal, and perhaps parts of mid-city itself like the Broad Street basin) are not likely to happen. Such a city would require the construction of an entirely new levee protection system interior to the existing one, rather than augmenting or reconstructing what is already in place (which mostly held against a catastrophic storm surge).

Should the city be denser, and more pedestrian oriented? I think that is a goal any city should be working toward, a more sustainable way to live, and one that presents a smaller profile to protect with Category Five levees. Such cities and neighborhoods are what drew me to urban living in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Should there be extensive mass transit? The city could not work without the network it had, and that network should be expanded. Should the city be “greener”, consuming less energy in its construction and maintenance. I can’t imagine any major project of new or reconstruction at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the end of the petroleum era that would not be.

However, utopian schemes to create a dense and car-free city of faux shotguns or Marshal Plan apartment blocks are likely to fail. It is as dismal a picture, if you focus upon it hard enough, as any Disney/Hilton Head visions of the city’s business elite. It would not be the city we remember.

New Orleans has flirted with urban utopianism before. I grew up in Lake Vista, which was an urban planners dreamscape of cul-de-sacs, a network of pedestrian walkways connecting the shotgun home-sized lots to grand parkways, all leading to The Center, where we would daily make our groceries like our Gallic ancestors. Instead, everyone bought two of the narrow lots and built their dream homes, the precursors of the McMansions to come. In the early 1960s, my family bought its first second car, and joined the parade to the shopping centers on Robert E. Lee, and out to the new malls of Jefferson Parish, and the Center slowly died. Today Lake Vista is an elite enclave and not a middle class paradise

Platting narrow lots and pedestrian-centered neighborhoods will not force a neighborhood live that way, if there is not a will to live this way. It will instead become the product of the people who pass their lives there, not the dream of the place's designers.

We cannot disconnect the city from its environment, and that environment includes Jefferson and St. Bernard and St. Tammany and St. John Parishes. Some people will chose to live out in the suburban sprawl, for more spacious surroundings or cheaper homes, and will commute into the city. The pattern of suburban sprawl is now almost a century old, and has come to replace the myths of land and space and freedom that the West represented in the nineteenth century. It will be the work of a generation to get most of the suburban residents out of their cars.

Some will continue to choose neighborhoods that continue the pattern of self-segregation of the 1960s and 1970s.. The attitudes that drive this voluntary ghetto building are deeply ingrained in everyone in the New Orleans area. Some of us admit it, and work like alcoholics to live a better life in spite of it. If you think getting people to give up their manicured lawns or a second car will bedifficult, it will be even more challenging to get people who’ve chosen to live in homogenous neighborhoods (whether that neighborhood is in the city or the suburbs) to choose to live in a racially mixed neighborhood in a dense urban environment.

And what of the city's "backswamp"? It’s too late to abandon Lakeview, where people right now are clearing out the ruined sheetwork and cleaning homes they have every intention to rebuild. I can’t but imagine that Gentilly will follow suit. The backswamp will be rebuilt. The people of Lakeview and Gentilly are the middle class professional and technical backbone any vibrant city will need, and we should not be discouraging them. Instead, we should be looking for ways to encourage more people to return and to rebuild.

What then of those who can’t afford to rebuild beyond what flood insurance will pay, or who had no flood insurance, or were the vast population of lower income renters? Where shall they live? The folks of Lakeview are not terribly enamored of the idea of building trailer cities on the Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground, and even less so of subdividing City Park. Some of the animus is clearly racial or classist. You can't escape that message if you visit rebuild_lakeview on Yahoo, and read some of the comments.

At the same time, no one in any neighborhood wants a FEMA trailer city in their neighborhoods. If you look at the experience of Florida, constructing FEMAville trailer ghettos is simply rebuild the city’s housing projects, this time in aluminum instead of brick. These pre-fabricated failures should not be built on Pontchartrain Boulevard, or in City Park. They should not be built in the city of Baker, La., or in the suburban parishes. They are a predictable and entirely avoidable catastrophe, and one the people of Lakeview have every reason to fear.

If you do visit the rebuild_lakeview Internet discussion, you don’t hear just fear or anger. You can hear people who loved their neighborhood, and the entire city. You can find reminisces of people who moved to Lakeview from Bywater or other urban neighborhoods as they started their families, who think fondly of the people of the eastern wards, and worry about their future. People who care not just about their own small piece of the city, but care for the city as a whole, need to be encouraged to become the community leaders. We need their leadership so that in the resettlement we don't make the mistakes of self-segregation, don’t continue to operate on the baseless fears that accompanied the slow march of the black middle class down Paris Avenue in the 1970s, and the retreat of white residents.

There is a strong urge to abandon some parts of the city. Certainly those in the east most exposed to the Gulf of Mexico, are going to require a great deal of protection before they are truly safe. If some areas are to be abandoned, we have to find a way to live together in the land that can be protected today. That might mean turning a (carefully supervised) Kabacoff or Canizaro loose on the Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground, or other open green areas of the city. What is built in such places must be neighborhoods that, while open to all who return, are prepared to be healthy, middle class neighborhoods consistent with those that surround it, and in answer to the dreams of those who have not had such neighborhoods in the past.

Rather than draft utopian agendas, I want to suggest that a few profound changes should be focused on, ones that have the potential to be transforming. The re-adoption of the construction techniques of the 18th and 19th century might be a start. The new New Orleans should contain homes that are elevated above the most likely floods, and less susceptible to rot and mold. At the same time, the designers of the new city must address the fact that these structures are incredibly energy inefficient. How do we make a home both mold resistant and energy efficient? That is the biggest problem the city faces, and the person who discovers the answer will retire wealthy. Tear down areas (and there will be some) could be condemned and replatted into smaller lots. Rather than be so heavy handed, why not let two neighbors pool their two lots, and make three, selling the third to a new resident. We can make the city denser without massive condemnation or usufruct, if we make the resubdivision attractive to everyone involved.

The city must build the regional mass transit system that once service the city, and which the Regional Transit Authority was created to extend into the suburbs. We aren't going to simply confiscate automobiles or eliminate parking lots by fiat. Instead, the alternative must lure people out of their automobiles because it is more attractive than driving. While rail transit is more expensive per passenger mile than buses, people love the damn streetcars. The tourists adore them. I adore them. The number of streetcar lines, and the frequency of service, should be expanded to make it an attractive alternative for those who live in the core.

The entire transit system must be as extensive and cheap and clean and comfortable as the buses I rode all over town on in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, the transit system must expand to attractively and efficiently move the people of the outer parishes in and out of the city. Transit is really the answer to how and where we should rebuild. I don’t believe we should repeat the mistakes of the later twentieth century, and throw up endless rows of apartment blocks, all in the name of density and reduced dependence on the automobile. If the United States can’t find a way to have green space around our homes, to live in the neighborhoods we chose, and still move away from car-driven sprawl, then we truly have lost the imagination and drive of the past centuries.

In the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition draft manifesto, I don’t see tourism mentioned as an industry. It is not going away, and it will provide the most immediate post-reconstruction employment boost. (See this article by Dr. Marty Rowland, which I found after I wrote this piece), People should not see tourism as an ill, but should see the need to provide housing to go with employment as an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past. The conventioneers and other’s can’t resist the city, and the hotels and other industries that serve them will return no matter what. There is money to be made, and someone will make it.

What must change is the distribution of the income of tourism. Jobs waiting tables and tending bar and cleaning rooms must pay enough to live decently in the city. Such wages would mean that the earnings of the hotels and other venues that return to the city will be less than they were pre-Katrina, and the owners and stockholders will complain. But even with a radically higher living wage, I believe the core tourism industry will come back. It would cost too much to recreate the city’s ambience somewhere else. The hotels will re-open, the conventioneers and tourists will return, and money will still be made, even if the local workers demand and receive a substantially higher proportion of that money.

Bringing back tourism quickly will mean housing workers. It will mean renovating the damaged inner city neighborhoods, and providing housing that the people who work in tourism can afford. It will mean getting the transit system back on its feet ASAP. It will present precisely the opportunities to do, on a manageable scale, what some would seek to do to the entire city were they to wake up one morning a real Rex: build an idealized New Orleans that is still the city of memory.

I have written on this blog of the challenge of Charleston. For all the efforts of the Kabacoff-and-Canizaro types up there to provide affordable housing, families and workers continue to hemorrhage out of the core of the city for more affordable suburbs. The historic district is becoming what New Orleans must not, a winter vacation home for absent, wealthy owners, with dark and childless streets when they are not around.

Rather than propose the construction of a perfectly green and egalitarian city, people should be focused on how to build some perfectly green and egalitarian neighborhoods, one-by-one.

We must focus on a few high profile changes, such as a building codes encouraging historic building practices, and a massive investment in the transit system. Tourism must be gotten back on its feet—with improvements to wages and benefits paid, with all that entails for providing housing and transit and schools and healthcare for those workers--because it is the one sure path to get as much of the city’s prior population back home again.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Incredible Shrinking Recovery

I was reminded by a correspondent of the stirring promises President George Bush made to the people of and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane .

"The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive." Monday, September 12, 2005

"Renewal of this important part of the world." October 11, 2005

"My message to them was, we will support the plan that you develop," Bush told NBC. October 11, 2005

"We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." State of Union Message, New Orleans, September 15, 2005

Lies. All of it lies. As the veracity and honesty of Bush and his administration becomes a subject of national ridicule, the people of Katrina are far ahead of the curve.

Those who are appointed to represent them are already putting themselves in the position of managing expectations and not the recovery.

Vice Chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority Walter Isaacson told the New York Times that Louisiana had overreached in seeking $250 billion in relief. "Louisiana lost its credibility by asking for everything...Now it is our job to say, we have some reasonable priorities for spending and we are going to be sensible and frugal about it."

Apparently Mr. Isaacson, the former head of CNN, hasn't had time to keep up with the newspapers the last few months, and missed the president's comments. Or perhaps he is bound to not give up one penny of his Bush tax relief, just as he would not give up one penny to pay for the war in Iraq. Instead, the Chinese pay for that, and will own our children's lives.

The same story points out that the people of New York didn't manage expectations. They demanded results in the days after 9-11, and received $20 billion from Congress in direct aid. While 9-11 was a horrific event, it can't begin to compare to the wrath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. An entire major American city was devastated, and an entire region stretching hundreds of miles along the Gulf of Mexico was laid waste.

Twenty billion for a few square blocks and a few thousand victims, versus what for thousands of square miles and hundreds of thousands of victims. The accounting is clear. The people of Katrina and Rita are not worth as much as the people of New York. Measure in the great scales, they were found wanting against not just the wealthy New York bankers, but were judged to be worth less than the busboys of the Eyes of the World restaurant.

When the president came to the Gulf Coast, he knew the cupboards were bare. The man who could not ask Americans to sacrifice for his war in Iraq was not going to ask anyone to give up a tax break or a choice bit of political pork for people he really didn't care about.

His appointed "recovery czar" David Powell also offers soothing words telling Katrina's survivors to be reasonable. Instead of the promised aid, he speaks of "looking for ways that the recovery might be financed by some private sector (investment) rather than government."

There is no political will to save New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The president's allies came to New Orleans and toured a home in Lakeview. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens told the homeowner "Why would we want to rebuild these homes in an area below sea level?". In Alaska, he said, when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, they relocate the town.

Funny, when the 1964 earthquake devastated Anchorage to the tune of $ 1.8 billion (adjusted 1995) dollars and killed hundreds, they rebuilt Anchorage in the same place, to await the next earthquake. Senator Stevens is lately famous for the most notorious bit of pork barrel spending of this Congress--a $225 million dollar down payment on a $1.5 billion "bridge to nowhere" to save the 80 residents of a small Alaska town the inconvenience of riding a ferry. He will be remembered infamously in New Orleans not only for his insult, but because he fought an effort to redirect some of that money for the reconstruction of the I-10 twin span across the Rigolets.

The president's promises were, to put it generously, empty ones. To put in bluntly, they were lies, knowingly and cunningly told. It is increasingly clear that any relief will come mostly as tax breaks for business investment, and too late for any Gulf Coast business to benefit, for they will all be gone.

Instead, the spoils will go to the carpetbaggers who come to profit from the tragedy, and to their scalawag allies who try to keep down the outrage until the deal is done.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

FEMA prepares the bill for its excellent service

FEMA this week announced it will be sending Louisiana a bill for its excellent service after Hurricane . The cost? Three point seven billion dollars, according to NOLA.Com.

In all fairness, much of that will be the cost of providing up to $26,000 each to the hardest hit households. In and St. Bernard Parish, an estimated 60,000 could be eligible. A news reader on MSNBC on Nov. 5 mentioned this generous payment from FEMA, but neglected to mention that state would be dunned for this money.

The state's entire annual budget under normal circumstances is $18.7 billion. Post-Katrina and Rita, the state faces a $1 billion deficit, with no immediate prospect of recovery of tax revenues anywhere along the devastated coast from Lake Charles to Slidell. Instead, it faces it's own hurricane related expenses beyond those of FEMA.

As Baton Rouge Morning Advocate columnist Will Stenell succintly sums up, there is no future for the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast without massive federal assistance.

Despite the daily criticism by state and local officials of federal help for hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, this is the truth:

The state's future rests squarely in the hands of the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress.

As noted below about the response of the current administration, those are the most frightening words I've read since Sept. 28.

Among his criticisms of the local and federal response is that Senators May Landrieu and David Vitter can't seem to agree on what to do next.. Perhaps Mr. Stenell doesn't find time to read the national pages of his newspaper, but I'll explain it to him: the current partisan leadership in the White House and Congress brooks no dissent. They have decided they can't (or just won't) pay to rebuild the coast. Sen. Vitter has to choose: keep party discipline and his political career, or stand up for his state and be politically ostracized. Apparently he has chosen, like all of the careerists in Congress, his career over the welfare of the people he represents.

All this leads me to wonder: if the war in Iraq is in repines to 9-11 (evidence to the contrary non-withstanding), how is New York ever going to find it's share of the half-trillion dollar cost of this federal service?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Crony King of the Carpetbaggers

The survivors of had hoped President Bush would appoint a proven leader and advocate to oversee the promised reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. Particularly in , where problems of poverty and race complicate the herculean but politically delicate task, names like Colin Powell were bandied about. People wanted a leader, able to marshal the vast forces of federal relief, and an advocate to make sure this time the troops arrived.

Instead, they got a banker. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Donald Powell seems well suited to the task. He was a Bush Pioneer, who raised more than $100,000 for the President election. And he's from Texas. And he has, one U.S. Senator pointed out, no disaster recovery experience.

By all accounts, he is a fair-minded power broker. U.S. Rep. Barney Franks (D,MA), the top House Democrat on banking issues, told the AP he has been impressed with the FDIC chairman's willingness to work with members of both parties.

"As a Bush appointee, he's more conservative than I am on some issues, but of all the people that might have been appointed to this job, his choice makes me happier than I expected to be," Frank said. "He's demonstrated flexibility at the FDIC and shown a willingness to listen and allow people to make the case with him."

What this appointment appears to signal is reduced expectations. As noted here but not reported widely, Bush has failed to deliver on his promised plan for reconstruction for Katrina's survivors. Proposals to grant tax relief to survivors who lost much more than their insurance covers have been stonwalled by conservatives in Congress. Mr. Powell's skills as a banking executive will be well suited to the division of the spoils and the reducing of expectations to something modest and profitable.

In a NOLA.Com story from the T-P Washington Bureau, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has thanked lawmakers for their interest in rebuilding the local economy. But in a visit to Washington this week, he also urged them to give displaced residents an even better reason to return: a 50 percent credit on taxable wages up to $50,000. The plan, supporters say, is a direct way of helping residents make the decision to stay in or return to the city.

Asked about the proposal, key lawmakers in the House and Senate dismissed it out of hand. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, summed it up this way: "We've done all the personal (tax relief). This is all going to be business."

Shreveport Republican Rep. Jim McCrery told the T-P fiscally conservative Republicans in the House might view individual relief, such as a tax holiday, "excessive from a policy standpoint." He said he agrees with that.

Like everything else in Washington these days, even the representatives of the victims fall into party line like a bunch of flag waving delegates to some North Korean communist party function. If the R's from Louisiana are putting the word out to temper expectations, then our Dear Leader has noticed that's there isn't a lot of money in the coffers. And so, he is quietly trying to duck with wide-ranging promises made in Jackson Square in September in the wake of criticism of his administration's tardy and inadequate response.

All this weeks news raises the question: with the persuasive culture of cronyism and corruption in Washington, are they capable of being trusted with the response? The answer appears to be no.

The message from Washington is this: you're not as important as the bankers and brokers of 9-11. Perhaps banker Powell can emulate the head of the victim's compensation group for 9-11 victims, and calculate just how much the survivors of Katrina are worth to the nation. Perhaps we will come up with the answer 3/5's as much.

If the government is not going to help, then the people of Katrina will have to do it themselves. Louisiana's Attorney General needs to join his counter part in Mississippi in forcing the insurance companies to fulfill their obligations under hurricane coverage, and seek damages that will bring bankruptcy to the companies that write homeowners insurance in the entire nation.

Not one penny of relief money in local control should go to restore the 98% of Louisiana offshore oil capacity that is still offline. Subtle roadblocks to the recovery of that capacity should be laid, until we are well into the heating season. If they think New Orleans is unimportant, let them think it in the cold and the dark.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Remembering All the Dead on All Saints Day

Today, remembers her dead.

It is a deeply rooted part of the city’s Catholic heritage that Nov. 1 is the day when New Orleanians visit their cemeteries and remember those who’ve passed. When I was growing up, Memorial Day was just another bank holiday. We’d all been to the beach long before the end of the end of May, and calendars back then still carried Confederate Memorial Day listed among the holidays.

So, in honor of the holiday, I want to announced: today the death toll for Hurricane stands 1,055, about where it's been for the last month.

Today, more than two months after the storm and it’s flood, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists over 1,000 children who are missing, or who can’t locate their parents. That's an improvement over the 2,500 the last time we reported a figure, but still a staggering number.

The same organization has a list of missing from Louisiana that runs to 147 pages, current as of 10/14, a list that would total some 7,000 lost souls.

Others lists are just as long. The Times-Picayune’s missing database still lists over 1,000 entries. KatrinaSOS.org lists 1,024 pages at 20 per page of people, half of them missing. That would be 10,000.

Why, in the day of the cellular telephone, the fax machine and the Internet, is anyone still listed as missing?

Some of these missing are just that: people who are not found. Many may not wish to be found, taking the storm as an opportunity to lose a spouse or a family they had long considered departing. Katrina for them was a fresh start, with a nice check from the government to help them on their way. But how many are they? What about the rest?

The levee breeches in St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward and the London Avenue and 17th Street Canal were huge, hundreds of feet long. Water began running back out of the Ninth Ward as early as Sept. 1. Hundreds or more of the dead could easily have been swept back out through the breaches, those of the flood and those the Corps of Engineers made to help drain the east.

Mississippi seems to be working to account for their missing. A Cox Newspaper story reports that of 1,185 originally reported missing, 968 have been "accounted for." It does not indicate how many of the missing turned up among Mississippi's 217 dead. Even applying that 82% resolution rate to the 7,000 or more missing over all, that would lead almost 1,300 unreported dead.

We many never know how many really died. It seems our government, which has built a wall of secrecy around the body recovery effort to rival that of the Manhattan Project, would appear not to want us to know.

I believe they don’t want us to know how badly they failed us in New Orleans, just as they failed us in New York. If the truth were known, that as many and possibly more died in Katrina as died on 9-11, who would they have to blame?

They would have no one to declare war on but themselves.

"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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