Hurricane Katrina left wake of destruction – and ‘shocking’ legacy of fraud

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A decade after Katrina, investment and innovation pour into New Orleans: ‘We’ve become trendy’.

The images continue to haunt: storm surge from Hurricane Katrina pouring through gaps in failed flood walls, rapidly rising waters, desperate New Orleanians trapped on rooftops. US President Barack Obama visited New Orleans Thursday to praise its people’s “extraordinary resilience,” 10 years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the “Big Easy” and shattered Americans’ confidence in government.NEW ORLEANS — Nearly three years on, Tom Lowenburg still regards the transformation of his hometown newspaper the way a jilted lover would regard his ex — with a mixture of nostalgia, bitterness and regret. “They chose to decimate their publication,” says Lowenburg, a local bookstore owner who grew up here. “News is important to a community, especially this one.

In the aftermath of the massive devastation Hurricane Katrina left in its wake and problem-plagued emergency response efforts, presidents and government officials from both parties promised that things would be different going forward. “America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on our television sets,” Barack Obama, then a senator and presidential hopeful said two years after the storm ravaged the region “America failed them again during Katrina.“They treated us like we were part of the developing world,” said Wisdom, 43, chief executive officer of TurboSquid, which was founded before the storm. “The response we often got was, ‘We’ll invest in New Orleans, but we’ll treat it like it is Estonia.”’ Today venture-capital funds with more than US$1 billion are lining up to provide money for entrepreneurs, and philanthropies, including the John D. and Catherine T. During one of U.S. history’s costliest and deadliest hurricanes and its aftermath, a colorful cast of characters was catapulted onto the national stage. Obama traveled to Louisiana to mark the rebirth of a city eulogized by Tennessee Williams as the “last frontier of Bohemia,” but which in August 2005 became a nightmare of death and looting.

Later, Obama is to speak about the city’s recovery from massive floods and its potential for future growth as citizens work together on rebuilding the city and their lives. “You are an example of what’s possible when, in the face of tragedy and hardship, good people come together to lend a hand, and to build a better future,” Obama is expected to say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House. “The project of rebuilding here wasn’t simply to restore the city as it had been. We cannot — we must not — fail for a third time.” He promised assistance to help rebuild the local economy, schools, homes, hospitals and roads, restore the wetlands and improve access to public transportation. Welcoming Obama at Armstrong International Airport was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential candidate, Senator Bill Cassidy and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The president’s first stop on a visit marking the storm’s 10th anniversary was Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America and an area that experienced significant flooding during Katrina. A far lesser, but still lingering, punch came in late 2012 when Advance Publications, owner of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, launched a bold strategy to arrest the paper’s financial freefall. And for the most part, according to disaster response and public policy experts, Obama has kept many of those promises — aided in part by funding efforts that began under his predecessor, former president George W.

New Orleans has rebounded from the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, as tourists and tax collections near pre-storm levels and property values rise to new peaks. With the swiftness of a cloudburst, Advance laid off 200 employees, including about 15 percent of its news staff, and reduced publication of the daily paper to Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Graduation rates have risen to 73 per cent in 2013-2014 from 54 per cent in 2003-2004, and the percentage of students who are proficient on all state tests for all grades increased to 62 per cent from 35 per cent. That message “would resonate more with the city’s white residents than with its black residents,” said Michael Henderson, of Louisiana State University.

All at once, New Orleans, a city that celebrates tradition and quirkiness in roughly equal measure, became the largest in America without a daily newspaper. Strong local support for Obama and his Democrats will prevent a backlash, even if his message “does not fully mesh with many residents’ own views or experiences,” said Henderson. Advance’s strategy has drawn the attention of publishers around the world, all of whom have the same question: Is this the way to ensure that newspapers survive in the digital age?

Sisco/UPI/Landov hide caption Among all of the people who gained national prominence in the wake of Katrina, the rise of Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ first-term mayor, was the most meteoric — and his fall, perhaps the most precipitous. Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops or inside the Superdome or the convention center dominated the news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level. The Category 5 storm hit Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, with maximum winds of 125 miles an hour, according to the National Hurricane Center.

On Sept. 1, 2005, during an on-air call to a New Orleans radio station, his frustration at the federal government boiled over: “Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here. As the state’s largest paper in recent decades, the Picayune (the name refers to a coin from the city’s early Spanish days) developed a well-earned reputation as the scourge of Louisiana’s rascals and rogues, from the legendary Huey Long to Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. It’s too doggone late,” he said. “Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.” Nagin won re-election in 2006, but never regained his popularity. Henry, as well as “cadaverous smokers, hopeful novelists, skirt-chasers, functional alcoholics and one eccentric spinster who wore her hat indoors,” as Bruce Nolan, a 41-year veteran of the paper, wrote in 2012. In Washington, it meant passing laws aimed at approving flood insurance provisions and improving federal response and assistance, among other measures.

Rating analysts had no way to predict when or how quickly the people and the tax bases would return, said Steve Murray, senior director with Fitch. “This had never happened before to an American city,” Murray said. “It was so unprecedented to have such a dislocation of the population.” State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy pushed the state to approve about US$200 million in borrowing for local governments to cover service on outstanding debt until their tax revenues recovered, along with additional matching funds. T-P employees proudly wore T-shirts reading, “We Publish Come Hell and High Water,” And so Advance’s announcement of a print cutback and “digital-first” approach in October 2012 was particularly stinging. You didn’t see that pre-Katrina.” “We’ve gotten much better at the response piece and the preparedness piece,” Colburn said. “We need to get much better at the recovery piece. It may have been 10 years ago for the country but for the people in Louisiana they are still feeling it.” New Orleans was a city of “haves and have nots” struggling under the weight of economic disparity long before receding flood waters revealed stark differences in the neighborhoods that were most impacted. Advance, based in New York, said it wasn’t selling. “It was like a death,” says Anne Milling, 75, a longtime philanthropist and civic leader who helped organize opponents of Advance’s plan. “Everyone here depended on the T-P.

New Orleans, post-Katrina, “is not the city it was,” due to tremendous strides in economic recovery, but also because some of the city’s poorest residents no longer live there, said Joseph Trainor, a public policy professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. Blanco’s preparations and response to both the hurricane and the flooding after the levee system failed were marked by communication failures with both Nagin and federal authorities. Moody’s rating now is A3, compared with Baa1 when the storm hit; it said in an Aug. 24 report that the city is financially and structurally better prepared for storms than before 2005. However, there are not only 100,000 fewer African Americans in the city after Katrina, but there are also now more poor black households making less than $21,000 a year, according to figures from the Data Center.

Homeowners who remained or returned to the city have tapped into the $9.7 billion federal Road Home Assistance program to help them rebuild after Katrina. It will generate an estimated 21 per cent increase in spending and support about 11,000 new jobs in the metro area, according to an economic-impact report released last year. However, renters and those looking for Section 8 public assistance have faced high rent rates, a shortage of rental housing and long wait list for public housing. In 2007, the embattled governor — the subject of criticism for her slow response and lack of leadership during Katrina — announced she would not run for a second term as governor and later retired from politics.

A Web site isn’t the same thing.” High atop NOLA.com’s offices on Canal Street, the Times-Picayune’s managers are determined to look forward, not back. Ricky Mathews, its president, and longtime editor Jim Amoss say remaking the paper was a necessity, compelled by the stark facts of the newspaper business.

In a recent interview, she recalled saying, half-seriously, at the end of her term: “If I had known how political this White House was going to be, I might have considered becoming a Republican just to lower the temperature so that I could get all that money (for rebuilding) up front.” Criticism of the federal response to Katrina focused intensely on Michael D. Though they won’t disclose financial details — Advance is privately held by the billionaire Newhouse family — they strongly suggest the combined operations of the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com have been losing money since 2012. “Our company recognized that iteratively changing the business culture was not going to solve the problem,” says Mathews, whose face appeared on mock “Wanted” posters at the peak of the “Save the Picayune” campaign. “We could no longer do it incrementally.” Amoss, a 67-year-old New Orleans native who has run the newsroom for 25 years, likewise says standing pat would have been “like Kodak holding on to the film business” — which it did until it went bankrupt. By 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, the population had rebounded to 384,000, and the value of real estate had risen 56 per cent compared with 2005. In 2011, Brown published a book about Katrina, Deadly Indifference, in which he slammed the Bush administration for making him the scapegoat for their failures to understand the scope and urgency of Katrina.

Its journalists, about 130 in all, work in ultra-modern offices on the 31st floor of a downtown building, with sweeping views of the Mississippi River waterfront. By emphasizing digital news and cutting its print schedule, Advance is betting that it can save money on overhead, such as running presses and fleets of delivery trucks.

Along with Brown, Chertoff became a symbol of the government’s failure to recognize the severity of the situation and a general sense of indifference. After leaving Homeland Security in 2009, he founded a global security consulting firm, Chertoff Group, and is on the board of several defense, IT and security firms, and he serves as chairman of the board for BAE Systems. To get a jump on its rival, the Advocate has hired a number of the Picayune’s former stars, including Walt Handelsman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Russel Honore, commander of the some 22,000 military personnel deployed to assist with disaster recovery, was among those few whose leadership garnered praise — most famously from Nagin, who referred to Honore as “one John Wayne dude … that can get some stuff done.” Honore, a gruff, cigar-chomping, straight-talking Louisiana native, had a few memorable lines of his own. “Don’t get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward,” he told journalists at one news conference who asked him repeatedly about mistakes made during Katrina rather than preparation for incoming Hurricane Rita.

After Katrina, Honore returned to his post in Georgia as the Army’s top trainer of National Guard and Reservist troops for combat, and he retired from the military in 2008. Last year, it added home-delivered “bonus” editions on Saturdays and Mondays during the football season. (It’s not clear whether those will resume this fall.) Advance was forced to add the editions by the Advocate’s arrival, says Rebecca Theim, a former Picayune reporter.

Amoss says the answer is yes, that digital news gathering tools offer far more flexibility and interactivity for readers than a traditional newsroom could ever muster. A 2013 investigative series called “Louisiana Purchased” (conducted with TV station WVUE) exposed numerous irregularities in state campaign spending and won several national awards.

One article, about a Saints player’s post-game tweets, was all of three sentences long. “Neither NOLA.com and the T-P nor the Advocate is as strong as the T-P was right after Katrina,” asserts Leslie Jacobs, a business executive and education-reform advocate who subscribes to both papers. Rick Perry, Houston Mayor Bill White received praise for the coordination and preparedness that welcomed those fleeing Katrina’s destruction. “The civil-spirited can-doism of Perry, White and the entire city of Houston was a high watermark in the post Katrina miasma that had struck the Gulf South,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge. But he won’t say no, either: “We’re not hiding from the fact that we’ve got to constantly work to change our cost structure to put it in line with our revenue,” he says.

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