Obama, in New Orleans, Praises Results of Federal Intervention

28 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

President Barack Obama traveled to New Orleans on Thursday to meet with residents of the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina as the city approaches the 10th anniversary of the storm that took 1,800 lives.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.WASHINGTON – Hurricane Katrina, one of the most punishing storms ever to hit the United States, left billions of dollars in damage — and a battered landscape ripe for con-artists looking to make a buck off the devastation. Obama spoke about the city’s recovery from massive floods and its potential for 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,” the president said at the Andrew P.

In the 10 years since Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, Gulf Coast residents who lost everything and those trying to help them have had to contend with greedy opportunists who set up fake charities to siphon off disaster relief money, engaged in bid-rigging and inflated insurance claims. 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 free fall. One year after the storm hit, the Government Accountability Office released a report that claimed $1.4 billion in disaster relief payments made by FEMA either broke protocol or were potentially fraudulent. To better understand the city — one so beloved by T+L readers — 10 years later, we asked locals to offer thoughts on the hurricane, its destruction, and the city’s triumphs and failures as it continues to rebuild.

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. Like any romance, there was courtship: I was serenaded by brass bands on Frenchman Street and charmed by the “y’all, come back now” southern hospitality of its people.

Ten years after Katrina hit, people in Turkey Creek still call Dashawn Thompson “the Storm Walker.” As most people climbed to safety, away from howling winds and water, Thompson did the opposite. While the full scope of fraud tied to Katrina may never be known, by 2011, the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force had prosecuted 1,439 people in half the country’s 94 federal judicial districts. Cedric Angeles, the NOLA-based photographer whose images illustrate this piece, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that New Orleans has the most beautiful and deepest soul of any American city.” People don’t realize the mental anguish that we went through in the Lower Ninth Ward. Both agreed that Bush was correct in his response – although the Bush administration was heavily criticized at the time. “I’m one of those individuals that believes that under President Bush’s leadership, we got it right,” Brazile said. “It was slow.

And the FBI says that, of the $80 billion in government funding carved out for reconstruction efforts, up to $6 billion may have gone out to insurance fraudsters. 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. They knocked on doors, going from bungalow to cottage to shotgun house, saving neighbors one by one and carrying them to higher ground. “We would swim up to a window or we would knock on a door. ‘Anybody in there? 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?

On this, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, let’s remember what the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted was “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” All told, more than one million people were displaced and 1,833 people died, including my friend’s father. The need to distribute aid quickly after Katrina – as well as Hurricanes Rita and Wilma that followed — made it virtually impossible to verify every claim filed. In our neighborhood people were always taught to be an active part of the community, to learn how to own your own land, and to be the best that you can be.

I played a small role in these efforts, founding non-profit organization Music for Tomorrow with Jude Law (who I met in New Orleans) that helped musicians return to the city. Requests for reimbursement were routinely rubber-stamped while a program set up by the American Red Cross and financed by FEMA to provide free hotel rooms to those displaced by the storm quickly spun out of control. 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 Klansman David Duke. The 34-year-old told authorities she was so devastated after watching her two little girls — ages 5 and 6 — die before her eyes, she couldn’t eat, sleep, go to work or be in the same room as other children.

Ultimately Katrina really served as inspiration — it inspired people to help one another and pull together, and it inspired artists to be more creative. But there are still problems: The overall poverty rate was 19 percent in 2013 with child poverty at 41 percent; some 36 percent of renters pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent versus 24 percent in 2004; and income disparity between blacks and whites was 14 percent higher than the national average. 1) Angel investing.

Venture-capital investing has surged to $32 per capita last year versus $16 in 2010. “It’s not at the same level as Silicon Valley or Austin, but capital is flowing,” says Benjamin Karp, an angel investor and executive at a medical device company in New Orleans. “I’ve found many entrepreneurs with viable products. Their diligence and courage — at one point, staffers braved the post-storm chaos to distribute copies of the paper — earned the Picayune the city’s enduring gratitude and two Pulitzer Prizes, including one for public service. The talent and entrepreneurial spirit are here, but we need those outside New Orleans to invest here to establish the city as a more significant entrepreneurial hub.” Founded in 2007, Receivables Exchange is a successful New Orleans-based start-up that operates a marketplace in which corporations and investors trade account receivables. Therefore, criminals knew what was going on.” Families hit by Katrina were eligible for up to $26,200 in financial aid, including $2,000 in emergency cash and about $790 a month for temporary housing.

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. There used to be a lot of wild turkeys out there before all the development.” On some of the original Turkey Creek land now sits a Walmart, a shopping strip and an airport. 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. FEMA, which took a public beating for its gross mismanagement of the situation, approved cash and housing assistance to more than 1,000 prisoners who had worked the system.

Graduate students at Tulane University in 2014 analyzed several public companies in the state including Pool Corporation, a provider of pool supplies, and IberiaBank Corp. Everybody is related to everybody,” Thompson said. “In Turkey Creek, you can leave your doors unlocked because everybody is watching out for everybody. You can walk into anybody’s house and they would ask you if you want something to eat or something to drink or if you need to lie down to take a nap.” The community revolved around Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, where on the third Sunday of each month, residents would bring food for fellowship.

My husband and I often sit on the back steps in the morning with our coffee and try to come up with a short list of places we’d move to if “the big one” happened again. 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. 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. Because despite the violence, which ebbed for a while and is now back in full force, the gentrification, and the sad, gap-toothed reality of neighborhoods yet to be rebuilt — this is still a unique city of friendly and interesting people, funky culture, and great food that appears to be on the upswing.

I had to remember the meter and the water lines,” Darden recalled. “I was drinking my coffee that morning and it was a good cup of coffee. [Thompson] said, ‘Man, those people are going to drown in the lake. I said, ‘I better go now.’ ” Thompson came back to his mother’s house and his mother told him that his Aunt Ercill Idom’s house was taking on water.

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. It needed a plug and we took a stick and plugged it in the boat so water would stop coming in.” McLaurin recalled, “We kept going further and further back,” pulling people through the water and into the boat. “At one house, we got to a man who was hanging on a column.

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. Long after Katrina, the storm walker has become legend, and the historically black community founded by emancipated people who built it into a self-sufficient place now is known also as “Turkey Creek, the black town where nobody died in Katrina.” Traditional print ads and subscriptions may be shrinking fast, but they still generate the vast majority of revenue — about 88 percent for the average newspaper in 2013, according to the Newspaper Association. They say Georges launched the paper merely to raise his profile among voters in southern Louisiana, that there’s no business rationale for a second paper, particularly one as small as the 31,000-circulation Advocate. “I may be the flea having sex with the elephant, but I’m having a good time doing it,” he says. “I’m very comfortable promoting the virtues of a locally owned, seven-day-a-week newspaper.” (And no, Georges adds, he has no plans to run for office). I heard them search to blame: “It’s Bush’s fault!” “It’s the Democrats’ fault!” “It’s the Mayor’s fault!” or “It’s the Governor!” I heard political pundits question the validity of rebuilding New Orleans, and I heard things like, “What’s so special about the Crescent City?” My soul screamed, STOP!

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. The passion that stirred in us all defied both Mother Nature and the failed federal levees by creating a better city with more opportunities to share in her culture and where dignity for all was a priority.

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 postgame 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. Jacobs laments, however, that the city has been diminished by a newspaper landscape in so much flux. “People are no longer on the same page,” she says. “There is a loss of civic cohesion, as there is no longer a single, dominant narrative.” More change is afoot.

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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