Over the past week, at the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, almost all of the world's major news outlets have been reporting on the progress of recovery, rebuilding, and healing. The words most often used to describe the progress of New Orleans seem to be "sporadic" and "uneven", so just to get a handle on what is and what is not happening, here's a brief summary of the major issues of the day in New Orleans, with a gallery of links at the bottom for more reading.
The return of residents to the city seems to have slowed, with continued uncertainty about where infrastructure, insurance, and funds will be available in New Orleans. Only half of the original population of the city has returned. The Wall Street Journal reports on the pace of the recovery effort, and how the lack of critical infrastructure is hampering the recovery and rebuilding. The article isn't free, but clearly identifies some of the major issues. The Brookings Institution, a think-tank focused on government, offers a list of indicators to monitor the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and a survey of rebuilding efforts at the city, state, and federal levels. Many of the features below also discuss the state of rebuilding.
In addition to the other existing agencies, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) was created by the Louisiana governor in October 2005 to coordinate planning and coordination of the recovery effort. Authorities like this -- such as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the case of the World Trade Center attacks -- are often formed to focus on particular government projects, to channel federal and state funds, and often, to bypass normal government channels which are considered too slow. NPR has an interview with one of the board members, explaining its mission and priorities.
With no long-term plan in place one year after the storm, much has been made of the dueling teams of architects and planners working for various political and financial interests. The best summary is a recent Times-Picayune article. For those of you scoring at home, some of the agencies and organizations involved so far are the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a real-estate industry organization, and the mayor's own business-led Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) commission, both of which suggested a smaller city footprint based on flood zones; separately, the City Council and the Greater New Orleans Foundation hired different consultants to work with each of the individual neighborhoods to draft their own plans; and finally, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded the Greater New Orleans Foundation (again) money to come up with a single plan, the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). The chief issue seems to be how individual neighborhoods are allowed to plan for themselves; what areas receive infrastructure; and whether the individual or unified plan will qualify for federal rebuilding money. Fighting within the planning process, hopefully, will be resolved by a planning pact that was signed last Monday, also as reported by the Times-Picayune.
The multiple planning efforts -- and a general lack of enthusiasm for their results thus far -- also underscores how far apart individual and official perceptions of the planning process remain. Though it is easy to get absorbed in the various official efforts, the reality is that much of the public apparently remains confused, frustrated, and unable to participate fully in any planning process. A colleague working in New Orleans wrote the following to me:
"District planners are charged with coordinating the neighborhood plans to be folded into a city-wide plan -- by December. The process of selection [of consultants] was flawed.... the idea was to have an inclusive, community-based planning process.... [but] the entire election process was far from transparent. With only a few days to get information out to the public, two days of meetings in a city park (capacity of the room was probably about 300 people), and only a week to gather votes, it was far from inclusive and very confusing to the public" (their emphasis).The deadline for planning to show results is rapidly approaching, because the federal government will begin (or at least, try to begin) disbursing money to individual homeowners for rebuilding, starting this month. In the absence of a coherent or sensible planning process, individual homeowners may vote where and how to rebuild with their feet, money and/or hammers, on an individual basis, and simply ignore a dysfunctional planning process. However, faced with a multitude of different programs and agencies -- such as Small Business Administration (SBA) grants, LRA, and FEMA money -- many individual homeowners remain confused and frustrated with the processes to obtain funds. The Times Picayune also reported on August 28 that the website for the "Road Home" grants was overwhelmed and was taken down because of technical problems.
One interesting aspect of the Katrina coverage is that the media has done a good job of highlighting the gap between the perception of individual homeowners, residents and workers, and that of government officials, because media articles have regularly alternated between human-interest stories at the individual level, and following the inner workings of government at the political level. Much of the original power of the Katrina story came from the incredible disconnect of city, state and federal government officials to the actual events (and suffering) on the ground, a tone and view that persists in the coverage of the rebuilding effort.
Mainstream media, you're doing a heck of a job.... except, perhaps, on environmental issues! One of the biggest stories about Katrina was the vivid interplay between environmental and social issues. What's happening, above all, with the wetlands and levee system? At Grist.org, Michael Grunwald reports that the levee system is being built again for Category 3 protection, and that the Corps are "studying Category 5 protection -- but instead of focusing on New Orleans, [the Corps] seems eager to dike most of coastal Louisiana, which would presumably destroy more wetlands and promote more floodplain development". Recently, as reported by the Times-Picayune, a number of environmental organizations released a report titled "One Year After Katrina: Louisiana Still a Sitting Duck" detailing the failure of the government and planners to address the continued erosion of New Orleans' wetlands that could have, and might still, protect the city from storm surges. However, the reporter goes onto note that:
"Timed to coincide with the media attention on New Orleans as the region marks one year since Katrina made landfall, a news conference on Monday to release [the report] underscored how marginal the issue remains. Panelists from the environmental groups outnumbered reporters, and no national news outlets attended the event at the Jax Brewery in the French Quarter." (Times-Picayune)One important question that I'll comment more on in the future, is why has the environmental dimension of the Katrina catastrophe been so quickly forgotten? As for future hurricanes, hurricane season is being closely watched this year -- just Google "Ernesto", or check out NOAA's National Hurricane Center (NOAA NHC).
The psychological impact of the storm continues to be felt, with surveys reporting a surge in the number of mental issues among Katrina survivors, but with suicide rates flat. The legacy of the storm is also illustrated in the story of one local reporter.
More resources, including first-hand accounts, pictures, maps, and features are below:
Blogosphere on Hurricane Katrina:
Please suggest any pieces or links that you found intriguing, thoughtful, provocative, enraging, different, or whatever, below.
The Age newspaper had this:
Katrina Goes to Washington
(The things a politician will do to get in the papers!)
With the anniversary of Katrina and the devastating flood having come and gone, there may be a tendency for the media to move to other topics, so it is a relief to know that your publication continues to let people know that the recovery is not over. The reconstruction of our residential areas continues, but hopefully the phase that we are moving into includes something a little more second-nature to us - welcoming our visitors back to have the same experiences they've always loved having in New Orleans : eating in our world-class restaurants, visiting our ever-expanding museums depicting the history, art and culture of this fascinating place, hanging out in our architecturally significant neighborhoods, and enjoying it all in the wonderful climate which always returns in September.
All of those things are intact - including hotels both large and small, and B&Bs. Did you know that there are more small hotels(2 to 50 rooms) in New Orleans than any other city in the USA? Being the owner of one, I realize the importance of the return of our guests! What we can offer to visitors now, in addition to a good time - is the chance to do good. By being here, you are helping to save small businesses; if you want to spend a day or even just an afternoon volunteering, we can set you up with that as well. Call it voluntourism!
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