Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New Orleans: One year after

[Hurricane] Katrina made its second landfall at 6:10 a.m. CDT on August 29 [2005] as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 km/h) near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana. At landfall, hurricane-force winds extended outward 120 miles (190 km) from the center and the storm's central pressure was 920 mbar. After moving over southeastern Louisiana and Breton Sound, it made its third landfall near the Louisiana/Mississippi border with 120 mph (195 km/h) sustained winds, still at Category 3 intensity.

[Think Progress Katrina Timeline]

NOLA.com (Times-Picayune):

When the shock began wearing off -- when the scenes of New Orleans under water had become accepted as fact instead of nightmare -- the anger set in. Who to blame for the disaster Hurricane Katrina visited on the city?

Many turned with hostility to the Army Corps of Engineers, which had planned and built the defenses that collapsed. Others raged at public agencies and officials, saying they should have been more vigilant. Some pointed to environmentalists as the culprits. Still others -- most living far from New Orleans -- blamed the city's founder for choosing to build below sea level in the heart of hurricane alley.

They all can claim a slice of the truth.

In their search for reasons why it all went wrong, experts published encyclopedic works already considered classics of forensic engineering. But none produced "the smoking gun" that one person, agency, policy or decision was responsible for the more than 1,600 lives lost during the costliest engineering failure in history.

Instead the consistent thread to all of the reports is that the recipe for this disaster is a long list of decisions reacting to each other over a period of years until they form a whole.

Yet certain moments in any history are critical, and this one is no different.

When pressed, the experts agree there were choices and decisions that, had other courses been taken, could have significantly limited Katrina's impact on the area, including changing disaster into inconvenience.

And they start truly at the beginning.


Bureaucracy and a lack of money are slowing the rebuilding of New Orleans nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina's landfall, Mayor Ray Nagin says.

As the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches on August 29, the city still is struggling financially, despite billions of dollars in congressional appropriations, he said.

"The misperception out there is New Orleans is wallowing in dough and we have money coming out of our ears," the mayor told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.

But little of the appropriated money has reached the city, Nagin said. The city is still waiting for federal officials to approve much of the $1 billion requested for essential infrastructure, he said.

Bill Quigley:

New Orleans is still in intensive care. If you have seen recent television footage of New Orleans, you probably have a picture of how bad our housing situation is. What you cannot see is that the rest of our institutions, our water, our electricity, our healthcare, our jobs, our educational system, our criminal justice systems – are all just as broken as our housing. We remain in serious trouble. Like us, you probably wonder where has the promised money gone?

Brookings Institute:

One year after Katrina, New Orleans is showing signs of early rebirth. The housing market is beginning to turn around and increased business and visitor travel have helped bolster the region's tax base and economy. But the majority of indicators are troubling, pointing to much-needed progress in basic city services, infrastructure, and affordable housing for workers in order to boost market confidence and move the region's economy affirmatively forward.

New York Sun:

President Bush says the American government has committed more than $110 billion to the recovery of the Gulf Coast, declaring last month that "we've got a plan" for the hurricane-battered region.

Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina struck, progress on that plan is hard to discern in New Orleans.

Fewer than half the city's hospitals are open. Thousands of homes stand deserted within miles of the Marriott hotel where Mr. Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, Michael Leavitt, last month pledged to help build a health-care system as a "light to the world." More than 85 million gallons of drinking water are leaking into the ground each day. Mangled cars, mounds of debris and broken traffic lights mar the half-populated city.

"Everybody that goes down there says the same thing: ‘My God, it's just so empty, so devastating,"' Senator Landrieu, a Democrat of Louisiana, said in an interview. "The most important thing the federal government could have done is to just come to terms with how bad it was, to come to terms more quickly with the magnitude of it, and respond appropriately."

Less than half the $110 billion in federal money that Mr. Bush touted has been spent, and much of it went to immediate relief efforts after three hurricanes hammered five states last year. The rest has been subject to bureaucratic delays, political wrangling, and, in some cases, mismanagement and fraud.

Rude Pundit:

On most of the homes of Lakeview, a large middle-class "neighborhood" that is in the north part of New Orleans, bordering Lake Pontchartrain, as well as on the gorgeous, old homes that line Canal Boulevard heading south, there is a conspicuous line, like in the bowl of an unclean toilet. Chances are, if you are standing on the ground next to a lined house, that line is above your head, whoever you are, however tall you are. Because, see, when the eastern levee wall of the 17th Street Canal gave way, water poured in. A few blocks away, the western levee wall of the Loudon Avenue Canal, which borders Gentilly, gave way, too. The coursing waters of the lake flowed out of the funnels, heading towards each other and then south. By the time all was said and done, Lakeview was the lake, under at least ten feet of water.

The Rude Pundit hadn't seen Lakeview the last time he visited, stopping then at the ghost town that was/is Mid-City. A year after the hurricane, the woman driving the Rude Pundit around told him, "At least the streets are passable," and that was true. We could drive up and down the miles and miles of streets where the storm's wreckage was still blatantly obvious. Yes, many homes were gutted, many more were for sale whatever state they were in, about one out of every twenty was rebuilt or in some stage of rebuilding, and so, so many were untouched since the storm, with a year of lawn overgrowth in the neverending Louisiana heat. Outside one home, the front lawn was filled with piles of pill bottles and packages, obviously tossed for lack of refrigeration. And across the street a small bulldozer flattened the earth around a plot of land where the home had been completely torn down. (They do not have basements in New Orleans.) There was one crew working to clean the streets this Saturday.

"There's rats everywhere," said the woman, as the Rude Pundit insisted that he cross one of the lawn jungles to look inside a house. A machete would not have been inappropriate. The door had obviously been hacked open by an axe, although the visible outside of the house bore none of the fluorescent spray paint marks that told you whether or not there was a body there. Even up the steps of the porch, the feces-colored water line was up to his chest.

Inside, the house looked like the waters had only just receded, except, of course, for the tell-tale mold and mildew that infects so many of the homes here. The Rude Pundit pulled up his shirt over his nose so he could breathe. The furniture, which was senior citizen-chic, was tipped over or shoved aside, mud was still caked in corners, and on the walls of the living room, the water line stopped less than a foot from the ceiling. If someone stayed behind in the that house for the storm, they got to endure that submarine film horror of the water rising and rising, wondering if it would stop before the breathing space ended. Flyers strewn on the floor and stuck to the door offered services for gutting it, hauling it all away, rebuilding. The flyers were being overtaken by mold.

"How was it?" asked the woman driving.

"It was someone's home," the Rude Pundit sighed, trying not to sound melodramatic, but wondering how one could help it since, for many, many thousands of New Orleans residents, it was.

[More Rude Pundit here, here, here, here]

Talking Points Memo reader LB:

80% of the city was destroyed. This includes huge sections of New Orleans East and Lakeview, home to middle/upper middle class families of all shapes, sizes and colors. Our tax base, if you want to be mercenary about it.

I drove through a few sections of Lakeview yesterday, for the first time in a long time, and they look much the same as the Lower Ninth. Recovery is spotty at best. Huge, huge areas are still utterly destroyed. The infrastructure is shattered. The 'planning' process would be a joke if it existed.

I point out these places for a couple of reasons:

1) if places like The East and Lakeview cannot recover, neither can the city;

2) These are the places that huge portions of the US would have recognized as looking/feeling/being exactly like the places they live. And I would like them all to understand that they, too are in danger. Hurricane/Earthquake/Terrorist Attack/Structural Failure of some dam - our government appears to have neither the ability nor the national will to help them if disaster strikes.

[TPM's After the Levees blog]

Paul Krugman:

The Bush administration likes to talk about all the money it has allocated to the [Gulf Coast], and it plans a public relations blitz to persuade America that it’s doing a heck of a job aiding Katrina’s victims. But as the Iraqis learned, allocating money and actually using it for reconstruction are two different things, and so far the administration has done almost nothing to make good on last year’s promises.

It’s true that tens of billions have been spent on emergency relief and cleanup. But even the cleanup remains incomplete: almost a third of the hurricane debris in New Orleans has yet to be removed. And the process of going beyond cleanup to actual reconstruction has barely begun.

For example, although Congress allocated $17 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for Katrina relief, primarily to provide cash assistance to homeowners, as of last week the department had spent only $100 million. The first Louisiana homeowners finally received checks under a federally financed program just three days ago. Mississippi, which has a similar program, has sent out only about two dozen checks so far.

Local governments, which were promised aid in rebuilding facilities such as fire stations and sewer systems, have fared little better in actually getting that aid. A recent article in The National Journal describes a Kafkaesque situation in which devastated towns and parishes seeking federal funds have been told to jump through complex hoops, spending time and money they don’t have on things like proving that felled trees were actually knocked down by Katrina, only to face demands for even more paperwork.

Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.

But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.

Paul Hill:

As a former New Orleans resident with fond memories of this great city, I was horrified as I drove in one year after Katrina. On the outskirts, the fields of dead trees and boarded-up buildings barely hinted at the shocking scenes to come.

New Orleans’ nickname is “the city that care forgot.” Today, I would call it “the city that capitalism forgot.”

Many restaurants are still shut down in the French Quarter. The devastated Ernest Morial Convention Center is open only to a tenth of its capacity. Downtown, I saw new and old office buildings boarded up. Some of the grand old department stores along Canal Street are shut. The old NAACP building is closed. Oddly, the gambling casinos by the Riverwalk are fully operational.

I drove through the famous Garden District. The Tulane University Center and dormitories were boarded up, with reconstruction ongoing. Many houses in the area had signs of damage.

The population is now less than half of the pre-Katrina number.

I drove out to the Lower Ninth Ward. None of the streetlights were working. All businesses along St. Claude were boarded up.

The Lower Ninth Ward, a major cultural center, is the home of world famous artists and musicians. Due to its geographic separation, rich multiracial and multicultural working-class heritage, and governmental neglect, residents have developed a history of activism.

The Martin Luther King Elementary School for Science and Technology housed a branch of the New Orleans Public Library, the first full-service library in the ward. It provided an array of adult classes including GED, reading, math and computer skills.

As I arrived at the school, Doris Hicks, former principal, informed me that I just missed a rally of 300 people “demanding that they open the Martin Luther King Jr. School and library, which have been closed since Katrina.” Heaps of rubble were piled in front of the school, with more visible inside.

Hicks told the disappointed crowd that the Louisiana Department of Education planned to relocate the school temporarily “sometime after Labor Day” to an old building that people described as “rat infested.” One official expressed the hope that the school would reopen in January 2007.

Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Nation:

One year. It's been one year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. One year since the levees broke and the city of New Orleans drowned. One year since the poor people of New Orleans stood on their roof tops with signs that screamed "Help Us," but help didn't come until, in too many cases, it was too late.

First year anniversaries are meant to commemorate the dead and ease the grief of the living. If Hurricane Katrina had only been the worst natural disaster in American history, we could do that. But it was also one of the worst failures of political leadership--before, during, and after--in American history. And so the politicians involved have spent the past year spreading the blame around to avoid answering the question crucial for any type of healing: Why did it happen?

In HBO's magisterial When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee performs a levelheaded autopsy of the disaster. And his answer is that the political leaders did not care enough to respond quickly enough to avoid the tragedy. Governor Blanco cared more about the appearance of being in control than she did about the situation in New Orleans. And President Bush cared more about fundraisers and the concept of state rights than he did about the situation in New Orleans to preempt the Governor and send in the military before the food, water, and medical supplies ran out.

As if to underline this point, Bush used this time of mourning for New Orleans to make an impassioned appeal to continue aid for a place he cared about enough to preemptively invade: Iraq. Does the President of the United States care more about the people over there than he does the people here?

brandon (Flickr photoset):

New Orleans nearly one year after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina remains devastated. Large areas of the city are without reliable power, water, food, or adequate shelter. For the few that remain in affected areas, FEMA trailers exist as new neighborhoods in abandoned retail parking lots. Generations of families have lost everything but their stories.

The silence and inaction from our U.S. government, insurance companies, and mainstream media is predictable, yet no less appalling. The responsibility then falls on citizens to help New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and everyone else affected.

New York Times:

One of the best snapshots of how New Orleans area residents were scattered by Hurricane Katrina may come from the post office. Since the storm struck last year, more than 270,000 households have filed change of address forms, including about 200,000 that still listed an address outside New Orleans and its surrounding parishes on July 1.

Current population estimates vary, but most put the city's population between 200,00 and 250,000 down from 480,000 before the hurricane. Estimates suggest that tens of thousands have also left nearby parishes.

[Map showing where Katrina's disapora ended up]

Chris Kromm / Facing South:

New Orleans remains a city of contrasts, often along race lines. Boosters note that nearly half the city has returned -- which is a low number, given the resources pledged to rebuilding the city. But the important point is that the city's pain is not equally shared:
The oft-given statistic in the press is that about half of New Orleans residents have returned. But that's a misnomer in some ways, said Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Lura Cayton.

"Some areas are 75 or 80 percent occupied, while others are nearly uninhabited," she said.

The "nearly uninhabited" neighborhoods are those of the poor and working class, largely African-American population that remains locked out because they don't have money to rebuild, because schools haven't been rebuilt, or other basic barriers that make returning impossible.

San Francisco Chronicle:

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as the nation's worst natural disaster. The damage can be counted in numerous ways. Here are statistical measures of its damage:

New Orleans population:

-- Before Katrina: 470,000.

-- After: 220,000 to 235,000.

Deaths attributed to Katrina: 1,695. (1,464 in Louisiana and 231 in Mississippi.)

Katrina's effect: 80 percent of New Orleans lay underwater for more than 50 days.

Buildings destroyed: 78,000.

Debris: 24.6 million tons, enough to fill the city's Superdome 13 times.

Damage estimates: $100 billion, stretching 100 miles inland across Louisiana and Mississippi.

Budget for rebuilding: $110 billion in federal aid, with $44 billion of that spent to date.

Life in New Orleans today:

-- 29 percent of public schools are open.

-- 23 percent of child-care centers are operating.

-- Three out of 11 hospitals are open.

-- Half of the city's bus routes have resumed service.

-- Two phone books -- the white and yellow pages -- now are condensed into one.

-- 250 of 350 miles of levees have been repaired.

-- USA Today poll: 16 percent say their lives are back to normal.

Steve Gillard:

New Orleans still has piles of garbage on the street like a couple of armored divisions ran through the town. It's amazing. They can't even get the crap from the street, much less identify the dead.

The tragedy of New Orleans is way beyond some cheap PR stunt. People, and not casually, call it ethnic cleansing. They can't get the insurance to pay for their homes. Sure, there's progress in downtown, but most of the city isn't downtown.

FEMA didn't fail. FEMA is still failing

That's the thing people don't get. This isn't history, it is current events. The people of the region feel abandoned and with good reason.


[T]he fact is that America broke down during Katrina and that started in the White House and went all the way down the line. [...] Scenes which should have never happened in the US did, and no Washington PR stunt can blunt that. Bush failed, badly, his government failed and is still failing.

Some people may have forgotten. But not New Orleans, not black America.

Update: Digby, including a link to the Institute for Southern Studies' Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

Dan Baum, "The Lost Year" / The New Yorker:

Seven weeks after the storm, Richard Baker—the Louisiana congressman who had reportedly celebrated God’s “cleanup” of public housing—introduced a bill to finance reconstruction throughout the state. In local mythology, the proposal quickly became known as an eighty-billion-dollar buyout, even though the bill stated that federal spending would be capped at less than half that amount. Under the bill, the government would buy, at sixty per cent of the pre-Katrina value, any flood-damaged house or small business in Louisiana that an owner wanted to sell. The government would consolidate the properties and sell them for planned development. Baker’s proposal was big enough to save New Orleans. It would put money and options in the hands of homeowners. And it was tailored to appeal to Bush’s sensibilities—government involvement would be temporary, and about half of the initial public outlay would be recovered when redeveloped properties were sold. The bill made New Orleans the greatest urban-revival opportunity in recent American history, and planners and architects from around the world gathered to help.


On January 24th, New Orleans suffered what Congressman Baker called a “death blow.” Donald Powell, a former F.D.I.C. chief, who was overseeing Gulf Coast recovery for the White House, announced that President Bush would not support the Baker bill. The President didn’t want the government in the “real-estate business,” Powell said. Of the more than two hundred thousand Louisiana homes that Katrina had destroyed, the federal government would pay to rebuild only a tenth, he said: those which lacked flood insurance, were owner-occupied, and were outside established floodplains. Officials at all levels of state and local government appeared to be taken completely by surprise; on the streets of New Orleans, people were visibly stunned.

An official involved in the negotiations with the White House told me that responsibility for handling the bill within the Administration had shifted, from the coöperative Treasury Department to the office of Allan Hubbard, the President’s chief economic adviser. “Hubbard just looked at it as ‘We don’t want to set up another bureaucracy,’ ” the official said. “I’m a conservative ideologue myself, but I think it’s ideological.” Three weeks later, Bush announced that he would ask Congress for an additional $4.2 billion for housing in New Orleans, bringing the total to a little more than ten billion dollars—far from the ten billion dollars a year over ten years that Nagin initially had expected.

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission continued meeting into March, but its grandiose plans for social engineering now seemed pointless. The failure of Bush to “do what it takes” to rebuild New Orleans was only part of it. Much of what could have been done to improve New Orleanians’ lives, such as land swaps to preserve a smaller Lower Nine, wouldn’t have required a lot of money. It would, however, have required trust and coöperation. But, as the weather grew warm, the vision of a planned recovery slipped away, and an every-man-for-himself ethic replaced it. People began piling rotten wallboard on their front lawns and lining up on the eighth floor of City Hall for building permits.


The decision to rebuild was now in the hands of residents, who, for the time being, wanted only to put things back the way they were. A few weeks after Nagin told me that he was uncomfortable rebuilding in the neighborhood, he attended a similar homeowners’ meeting and announced, “We’re going to rebuild all sections of New Orleans, including the Lower Ninth Ward!”

The last hope for a planned recovery ended a little more than a month later, on April 12th, when FEMA released its long-awaited floodplain guidelines. Instead of ruling out redevelopment in low-lying areas, the agency had essentially left floodplain elevations unchanged. The only new rule was that some builders would have to raise new houses three feet off the ground. Sean Reilly, of the state planning authority—who had hoped that the FEMA guidelines would make rebuilding decisions a matter of safety rather than of racial politics—was incredulous. The three-feet requirement seemed both arbitrary and pointless in an area where water had run over rooftops. He told me that the agency had “simply abdicated” its responsibility. “They took away our moral authority to tell people what to do,” he said. “We staked our authority to move people to higher ground on the maps.” Instead, authority had devolved to homeowners. The latest plan from Blanco’s commission was to give homeowners the pre-Katrina value of their homes—up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—minus any insurance settlements or FEMA assistance they’d already received. The pre-Katrina value of many New Orleans homes, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, was far less than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—too little to buy a house elsewhere in the city. So, instead of encouraging people to move to higher ground, Blanco’s commission ended up doing the opposite: encouraging people, especially those in the lowest-lying and poorest neighborhoods, to stay put and fix up their houses. The state expects to start handing out checks this month. “There isn’t much to be done now,” Reilly said, morosely.


I drove east from the French Quarter, downriver, along St. Claude Avenue and into the Ninth Ward. St. Claude was busy, but when I turned north onto Alvar Street, into the area that flooded, I found myself in a ghost town. As I crossed the Claiborne Avenue Bridge into the Lower Nine. I could see, from the peak of the bridge, the freshly repaired breach in the Industrial Canal. The Army Corps of Engineers had mounded the levee there higher than before, and built along its top a white concrete floodwall that from above looked as thin as paper. Three recent studies of New Orleans’s flood-protection system make grim reading. A University of California at Berkeley study found that the Army Corps of Engineers—pressed by the contrary demands of “better, faster, and cheaper”—had over the years done such a bad job of building and managing New Orleans’s levees and floodwalls that, even with post-Katrina repairs, the city remained in as much peril as before. The corps itself, in a report of more than six thousand pages, acknowledged that it had built a hurricane-protection system “in name only,” and that it had done almost everything wrong, from assessing risk to choosing technologies. An article in the journal Nature found that the city and its levees are sinking into the Mississippi Delta mud much faster than anyone thought. In some places, the authors wrote, New Orleans is sinking by an inch a year, and some parts of the levee system are now three feet lower than their builders intended. In the following months, there was more bad news. Street violence grew so alarming—five teen-agers were shot dead in a single incident one night—that Mayor Nagin had to call in the National Guard to help patrol the streets. As much as two billion dollars in federal disaster relief was discovered to have been wasted or stolen, and last week a survey found that little more than a third of the pre-Katrina population had returned. The fate of the Lower Ninth Ward and the rest of the city remains anyone’s guess. New Orleanians tend to talk about the prospects of another devastating flood in the fatalistic way that people in the fifties talked about nuclear war. They know that they are living under the ever-present threat of annihilation. They want the people in power to do all they can to prevent it. But, in the meantime, there’s nothing to do but soldier on.

[Note: swampytad posts some specific and general objections to Baum's article.]


[Previous unfutz posts on Katrina and New Orleans]

Note: This entry was originally posted at 3:41pm on Monday August 28, 2006. The time and date stamp shown are to commemorate Katrina's landfall just before it hit New Orleans.

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search websearch unfutz

Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
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the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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