New Orleans, a year after Katrina

Posted in Cartoons, Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 31 August, 2006

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans Mar 28 2006

A tale of two crises: Lebanon rebuilds, New Orleans waits
By Joyce Chediac
August 23, 2006

In the Middle East, after a month of Israeli bombing, the people of Lebanon are digging themselves out from the rubble and struggling to return to their homes. In the United States, a full year after Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans are still fighting to do the same thing: return home.

It might seem odd to compare the two. After all, Lebanon is recovering from war, and New Orleans from a natural disaster and broken levees. But this is only the superficial story. A look at the New Orleans relief effort and its aftermath shows that poor people’s right to return home has become just as much a battle there as it is in Lebanon.

In the United States, the New Orleans relief effort was spearheaded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington’s disaster relief arm. In Lebanon it is being organized by Hezbollah, the grassroots Lebanese resistance movement that George W. Bush calls “terrorist.”

Which group would you want conducting a rescue effort if you lost your home? Let us see how the relief efforts compare.

The rescues

In New Orleans, the people who could not self-evacuate the city, including the sick and people too poor to afford cars, were left to their own devices when the waters rose. Many of the most vulnerable drowned in their homes.

The tens of thousands of old, sick and infirm people who the city encouraged to gather in the Superdome until the storm passed were left there for five days. They had no medical attention, no sanitation, little water and food. Many died. Some 3,000 other flood survivors stranded at the Convention Center suffered the same fate.

All day the television networks showed footage of people stranded on roofs waving hand-made “help me” signs, and others in the Superdome begging for water and medicine for dying seniors. Yet FEMA head Michael Brown said he didn’t realize the extent of the crisis until four days after the levees collapsed. Then he took another four days to rescue the survivors.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah, the force fighting and defending the villages, at the same time started helping the population as soon as the Israeli bombing began. The Lebanese resistance provided the ambulances and scores of searchers who pulled people from the rubble. They helped organize getting tens of thousands of refugees to schools, public parks and private homes. (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 16)

In Beirut alone, Hezbollah organized 10 mobile medical teams that cared for 14 schools each, in two-day rotations, helping 48,000 people. Another 70,000 were treated in houses by other professionals.

In a Hezbollah kitchen near downtown Beirut, volunteers prepared 8,000 hot meals a day—part of a daily total of 50,000 they distributed across Beirut, reported the Monitor.

In New Orleans, families evacuated from the Superdome and the Convention Center were scattered all over the country. Parents were sometimes separated from children. Some didn’t know if loved ones lived or died. Three months after Katrina hit, 6,500 people were still unaccounted for, and more than 400 bodies still unidentified, according to the National Center for Missing Adults.

In Lebanon, within 24 hours of the Aug. 14 cease-fire, Hezbollah had set up a hotline to help refugees, and so refugees could connect based on their place of residence, according to Lebanese TV. (

In the Superdome, bodies remained for four or five days in 100-degree heat. Relatives standing vigil were forced to abandon the remains during the evacuation, sometimes at gunpoint. Bodies were left in flood waters, many to be discovered by loved ones returning home months later. Evacuees who had lost everything could not afford to bury their dead with dignity. Grieving relatives sent to different states could offer each other little comfort.

After the cease-fire in Lebanon, finding and burying the dead with dignity became a priority. The resistance immediately began digging out bodies buried in the rubble and identifying them. Remains were held for burial until the family returned. Mass funerals were held, paid for by the resistance, so neighbors could comfort each other and lean on the communities’ strength. On Aug. 18, a caravan of cars made its way from one service to the next. Said Shiite cleric Sheik Shoue Qatoon, “It was decided that we would schedule the funerals so that we could all attend them all.” (AP, Aug. 19)

Scattered in hotels around the country, without jobs or sources of income, New Orleans refugees were offered by Washing ton a maximum of $2,000 per family to live on. That was enough for a hotel room for two weeks. Even then, the media launched a racist campaign claiming to expose “cheaters” who were “misusing” the tiny sum. In December, New Orleans’ displaced people were given 15 days to leave hotels, with no further provisions made for them.

The right to return

On Aug. 14, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he would give money for “decent and suitable furniture” and a year’s rent to any Lebanese who lost a home in the war. Beginning in the very poorest community of Dehiya south of Beirut, the resistance is distributing $12,000 per family, a huge sum in Lebanon where monthly rents average $300. (New York Times, Aug 16)

A year later after the New Orleans flood, “thousands of people are living amid ruins that stretch for miles on end. … All you see is debris, debris, debris. … The reminders of death are everywhere.”(New York Times, June 21)

Little to nothing has been done to rebuild the Ninth Ward. This majority African-American community is filled with rubble, coated with mud and mold. Advocates point out that much damage, such as advancing mold, could have been stopped if the area had been cleaned early on. Many residents would have gladly organized their own cleaning brigade, but they were banned entry for the first four months after the flood.

In Lebanon, on Aug 14, the very day of the cease-fire, while Israel was withdrawing its troops from Southern Lebanon, there were reports that hundreds of Hez bollah members spread over dozens of villages across southern Lebanon began cleaning, organizing and surveying the damage. Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble. Roads blocked with the remnants of buildings were, just a day after a cease-fire began, fully passable.

The actions of both the Bush administration and key corporations indicate a determination to stop the African-Americans of New Orleans from returning to their communities.

In September, the home insurance giant Allstate refused to reimburse New Orleans homeowners who had flood insurance policies.The company claimed the homes were destroyed by the wind, not by flood. (MarketWatch, Sept. 20, 2005)

In October, the Bush administration reneged on its promised to provide thousands of mobile homes as temporary housing for returning refugees. (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2005)

After promising New Orleans federal housing loans to repair and rebuild, it became apparent that no special loan provisions had been made for victims of the flood and that the White House was pushing for hurricane disaster-recovery loans at a higher rate than any other administration in the last 15 years. (USA Today, March15)

Regarding public housing, in a thinly veiled racist attack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in April that only the “best residents” should be allowed to return to public housing. (USA Today, April 25) And in June HUD, which had previously reported that it had 7,381 public apartments in New Orleans, now said it had only 2,000, and would demolish the rest.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, a Hezbollah spokes person announced, “We have full information on all the buildings that have been destroyed or damaged. … “we will either pay for new flats or rebuild the buildings that were destroyed.” (, Aug. 19)

Representatives of Jihad al-Binaa, Hezbollah’s construction arm, are touring the south to assess the damage and start repairing and rebuilding. (Beirut Daily Star Aug. 22)

And what of those who could not wait, but have returned home in the devastated areas of the south before essential repairs have been made and services restored?

“There are people from Hezbollah coming regularly to check on us and give us bread and other basic items,” said Mohammad Bazih, 30, from the village of Baakline. Residents of Zabqine, where tobacco is cultivated, told the press that Hezbollah was providing them with basic services. (Beirut Daily Star Aug. 22)

See also: For Whom is New Orleans Being Rebuilt? City Demographics Radically Altered With Many Black Residents Still Unable to Return (Democracy Now!, August 28, 2006)

 Whoopsi Gras

Click here to watch Mark Fiore’s cartoon reflecting the US government’s response to post-Katrina New Orleans

New Orleans: One year on
The Economist
August 24, 2006

With heartbreaking slowness, America’s capital of good times is starting to revive

THE city of New Orleans is famous for putting a blithe face on things. So perhaps it did not seem odd to the newly re-elected mayor, Ray Nagin, to suggest last month that the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina would be marked by a comedy show, a party at the Masquerade bar and a fireworks display.

It will not happen. For the fireworks, had they come, would have illuminated a streetscape that still looks largely as it did in November, when the last of the water was pumped out. The hurricane flooded three-quarters of the city, killed more than 1,500 people and scattered many of the rest to the four winds. To those there now, Mayor Nagin’s proposal was a bad joke.

Katrina may have made landfall a year ago, but nearly every story in the Times-Picayune still revolves around the storm. A recent front-page feature on the new quarterback for the Saints, the city’s football team, drew one reader to complain about the paper’s lack of gravitas. In response, another wrote that it was high time to notice something other than misery.

But it is hard. Katrina’s mark is everywhere. It still affects the way the city runs: the patchy mail deliveries, the frequent power cuts, low or non-existent water-pressure. In apparently tidy streets it shows in unkempt yards and a brown line on house walls. Most flooded buildings have been gutted, their interiors stripped to the frame. But others, from which the owners simply fled and never came back, are now foul nests of mould in which squats, sometimes, a non-working refrigerator full of year-old food. The city council has passed a law requiring anyone who owns a house in New Orleans to clean up by August 29th, the storm’s anniversary, or have the property seized. There is no sign the politicians mean what they say.

People at least are coming back. More than a third of the owners of flooded homes have taken out some sort of building permit from City Hall, signalling that they intend to live in the city again. (In one state survey of 2,500 Katrina evacuees, 57% said that they were “somewhat” or “very” likely to return home eventually.) Many of these permits seem to be simply “placeholders”, pre-emptively obtained in case the city or the state start to toughen up the building rules. But plenty of the permit-seekers are also starting to rebuild.

In upper-middle-class Lakeview small, obsolete homes are being cleared away. Brand-new and larger structures are often replacing them. Pontchartrain Park, the first subdivision built for upwardly mobile blacks in the days of segregation, is packed with temporary trailers as residents patch up their modest ranch houses. Farther from the centre of town, some of the smarter parts of the vast, suburbanised section of the city east of the Industrial Canal have also bounced back.

Generally, those districts that have recovered have done so in spite of government. Public assistance has been slow. Wealthier sections have returned more quickly, mostly because homeowners were more likely to be fully insured and had other resources to tap even if they weren’t. Mixed-income sections next to the high-and-dry part of town—“the isle of denial”, as locals call it, most of it along the Mississippi River—have shown signs of life, both because they suffered lighter flooding and because they are next to thriving areas. Neighbourhood loyalty has also helped. Broadmoor, a mixed black-and-white district in the low part of the old city’s bowl, which took in about eight feet of water, organised impressively when officials said that it might be converted to parkland.

The still-low Lower Ninth
In the shattered Lower Ninth Ward, which shocked the world when its poor black residents were apparently abandoned by the authorities, some progress is apparent. Near the spot where the Industrial Canal first broke, most of the houses that were swept off their foundations and into the street have been cleared. Farther from the break some modest rebuilding has begun, particularly in the historic Holy Cross area along the riverfront.

Early on there were conflicting signals about the future of the Lower Ninth. Conspiracy theories abounded, among them the idea that the poor were being cleared out to make way for high-rent condominiums. They were fuelled by a tendency among officials to treat the Lower Ninth as a special case. (People there, for example, were the last to be allowed to return to their homes.) Talk persists of a plan to cure New Orleans’s persistent poverty by keeping out the poor; and, in general, the poor have found it much harder to return. For those who were private renters, the difficulty stems mainly from foot-dragging by landlords trying to decide whether to rebuild. The city’s infamous housing projects, meanwhile, have been mostly shuttered since the storm.

Only about one in five families living in public housing has been able to return, although activists complain that many buildings were not much damaged. Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (who has made no secret of his preference for mixed-income developments), announced in June that the government would demolish four of the city’s ten complexes, but promised to reopen another 1,000 units of public housing by the summer’s end. It is still not clear how many projects will be replaced.

The poorer sections of town are mostly waiting for the dispersal of $7.5 billion in federal aid to homeowners who did not have enough insurance either to repair or rebuild. The first of the grants, which are capped at $150,000, should be handed out any day. Roughly 100,000 people have applied for them. But Congress took nearly ten months to appropriate the money; and the private company hired to hand it out by the state, which is in charge, says it may take more than seven months to process each applicant. Some homeowners, therefore, will not be able to begin repairs until more than a year and a half after the storm. And with the amount to be done in New Orleans, and contractors trying to juggle as many clients as possible, rebuilding may well be agonisingly slow.

Brighter, but chaotic

This points to one silver lining after the storm. There are plenty of jobs in New Orleans these days. As well as the massive tasks of cleaning and rebuilding, the area’s largest employer, the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, is open and operating, as are the public and private colleges and many of the hotels. (Some 71% of the 38,000 hotel rooms the city offered before Katrina are now back in service.) In the central business district, office and retail space is being snapped up fast. But it is hard to get workers because there is nowhere really to live. Many service industries are crowded with customers and desperate for labour. Burger King has offered new employees “signing bonuses” of up to $6,000, a tactic that has been swiftly copied by competitors.

On August 9th Moody’s confirmed that while the city’s rating was still below investment grade, there were “definitely signs of improvement”. Tourism in particular, the city’s economic backbone before the storm, was coming back. Most comforting, and surprising, city revenues had not decreased as much as feared. The take from the sales tax is about 70% of the year-to-date figure for previous years. And property assessed valuations, which had been expected to fall by half, have dropped by only a quarter.

But the city is much smaller. Dispassionate estimates of its current population range from about 200,000 to 235,000. Before the storm around 455,000 people lived there. The trend was already downwards; in 1960, the city’s peak, the figure was 630,000. Most demographers expect continued growth as the federal aid comes in and the planned residential projects get going, but it will be slow, and they see a plateau in the near future. The Rand Corporation, for example, estimates that the city will reach 272,000, or about 60% of its pre-storm population, in two years’ time.

Before the storm, the city’s three great problems were crime, corruption and poor schools. The new, shrunken metropolis may not show much improvement. The school system is in a state of flux that began before Katrina and is now exacerbated by a delay in the opening of parish (county) schools, but many hope that its new model, dominated by independent “charter” schools, may be an improvement. New Orleans’s sleazy political culture, however, was not washed away by the storm, and crime has been increasing after a post-storm lull. In recent weeks 300 National Guardsmen have been deployed after a spate of gangland-style executions. It is hard to be optimistic about a city that needs Humvees to keep order.

And order, or proper planning, is perhaps what the city needs most. Early on, experts warned of the “jack-o’-lantern effect” that could result from a patchy recovery. Some recommended restricting building, or at least public investment, to the areas with the best chance of coming back.

In the end, however, Mr Nagin declared his support for “private property rights” and declined to restrict rebuilding in any way. The thorough planning process he originally wanted never got off the ground because of lack of federal funding. Without such a plan, some neighbourhoods drew up their own, while the city council had a go in districts that could not afford professional planners.

Eventually, the state and the private Rockefeller Foundation stepped in with help. Thanks to them, “unified” planning has begun, and the latest round of it should be finished by the end of the year. But some decisions should surely have been made much sooner: where schools should be rebuilt, which sections of the sewer system should be fixed, where new parks might be put, and what sort of city should rise from the flotsam of the old.

Living in New Orleans before Katrina was an adventure. It has now become an adventure that many might rather skip.

See also: Hurricane Katrina: A city silenced (The Economist, September 1, 2005)


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