Obama Speaks in New Orleans 10 Years After Katrina

28 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Beyond Katrina: 7 Portraits of Grit and Determination.

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. It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, when the levees failed and the city flooded in one of the worst natural disasters in American history.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.President Barack Obama is in New Orleans Thursday to meet with residents of the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, as the city prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the storm that took nearly 2,000 lives and caused billions of dollars in damage.

But the city and its residents have rebuilt in the decade since, and that resurgence has been captured on film for a new six-part docuseries marking the anniversary. 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. He cautioned, though, that “just because the housing is nice doesn’t mean our job is done.” Obama planned formal remarks later in the day blending the same themes of resilience and renewal that he drew from encounters with the sturdy residents he met along Magic Street and at other locations. 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. New Orleans, Here & Now brings together six filmmakers connected to the city, highlighting stories from real people living in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

It was to build a city as it should be – a city where everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like or how much money they’ve got – has an opportunity to make it,” Obama is expected to say. Recently, a full two weeks before the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, she wrote that she couldn’t handle the reminders showing up in her timeline. “I’m going to bow out of FB for a while until the ten-year anniversary of Katrina/the Federal Flood is past,” she wrote on August 16. “I hope everyone gets through it safe & sound & that when or if your PTSD makes you feel sick, someone gives you a hug or a cookie.” Be good to your New Orleans (and Mississippi and Gulf Coast) friends right now. Reflecting on the improved surroundings, Obama declared, ‘The fact that we can make this many strides 10 years after a terrible epic disaster, I think, is an indication of the kind of spirit we have in this city.’ He is scheduled to deliver a speech at the newly opened $20.5 million Andrew P.

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. That includes an oyster farmer, a brass band, a quartet of high school seniors who were just 8 years old when Katrina hit, and New Orleans native Tiffany Junot’s path to becoming the World Boxing Council welterweight world champion. Be aware that the last thing many of them want is one more post that says, “If you read ONE story about Katrina, it’s this one!” Realize that hashtags might be viewed as trivializing their experience.

The storm caused major damage to the Gulf Coast from Texas to central Florida while powering a storm surge that breached the system of levees meant to protect New Orleans from flooding. She served on a recovery agency created after the storm. “Katrina was more than just a natural disaster, it was in every way a personal tragedy,” she said. “It has taken us more than, I think, 10 years to finish up some of the recovery. 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. Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops, inside the Superdome and at the convention center dominated news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level.

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? In his planned speech, Obama said Katrina helped expose inequalities that long plagued New Orleans and left too many people, especially minorities, without good jobs, affordable health care or decent housing and too many kids growing up in the midst of violent crime and attending inefficient schools. 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.

The setting for his address — a new community center where the water once stood 17 feet deep in the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward — spoke to the stark contrasts that remain. 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. 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.

The area is filled with vacant lots where houses used to stand, so overgrown that local residents sometimes refer to it as the wilderness and worry about snakes hiding in the grass. His house in Lakeview, eight blocks south of Lake Pontchartrain and farther below sea level than the lowest point in the heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward, was a sodden ruin.

It was caused by human failure, by multiple breaches in the city’s federally built surge protections. “There are some things we can’t be prepared for,” says my best friend, Chelsea. “But there are some we can.” We could have, and should have, been prepared for Katrina, she says. 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. 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.

Harold Washington, 54, a military retiree studying at Tulane, said the city is “better than it was.” But he was sad that children are now bused all over town rather than attending neighborhood schools. Bobby Jindal, a Republican waging a long-shot bid for his party’s presidential nomination who told the president that the anniversary is a time to mourn the loss of loved ones, not to espouse ‘the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.’ ‘Quite the opposite; it would distract from the losses we have suffered, diminish the restoration effort we have made and overshadow the miracle that has been the Louisiana comeback.’

I ran the premise past Alexandra: that however “resilient” or “hardy” or whatever words people are throwing around these days to refer to New Orleanians, special care needs to be taken with them, too. 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. In 2014, he was convicted on 20 charges — including fraud, bribery, money laundering and conspiracy — related to contractors seeking city work before and after Hurricane Katrina.

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. 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. Conflict between the Democratic governor and the White House came to a head over a push for Blanco to accept a federal takeover of the Louisiana National Guard, documents released later show. Against fierce opposition, Blanco insisted on rebuilding the Superdome — the shelter of last resort during Katrina — a decision that she and others later called a key decision in the recovery effort. 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. It consumed him in ways that upset his family and disturbed his law partners. “They wondered if I’d completely lost it because of the stress of Katrina,” he says.

Expressing herself was cathartic, she said, but also tiring. “Having to be so aware of how you feel about something so much, for so long, is exhausting,” she told me from Baton Rouge, where she now works. Over the past decade, the nation’s 1,300 daily newspapers have lost about 25 percent of their revenue and an equal percentage of their daily subscribers, according to the Newspaper Association of America. He called Governor Kathleen Blanco to testify, prodding her to repeat what she’d told a congressional committee: “We would not be here today if the levees hadn’t failed.” The Manganos were acquitted on all counts. 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. Never mind that the offending blue jeans jacket, culled from piles of donated clothing in a Houston shelter, was the only coat the 14-year-old had at the time. 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. Not knowing a thing about the area, or the schools or what was expected of me.” The Williamses were tied to the region through extended family and love of place. Asked if the “digital first” strategy is succeeding, the normally voluble Mathews pauses. “I don’t think you can say that,” he replies. “There’s not a finish line that any of us see in the near future.” Part of the reason may be that Advance’s plans to re-engineer NOLA and the Picayune were themselves disrupted by an unexpected arrival.

Amoss and Mathews dismiss the Advocate as little more than a vanity play for its owner, John Georges, a supermarket mogul who has run unsuccessfully for governor and mayor of New Orleans. 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).

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. In early 2006 Ron Wright was finishing plans to repair his house, which had flooded up to the dead bolt on the back door, when he first heard about the controversial proposal to shrink the city’s footprint. 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. In a 2010 interview with PBS’ Frontline, Compass acknowledged that he made mistakes, but said he was working under intense pressure and difficult circumstances. “I spread a lot rumors, but if I wouldn’t have gave the information that was given to me without being verified, then I would have been accused of covering things up.

A 2013 investigative series called “Louisiana Purchased” (conducted with TV station WVUE) exposed numerous irregularities in state campaign spending and won several national awards. The plan also sounded to some like an attempt to reengineer the racial makeup of the majority black city by turning low-lying African American neighborhoods into green space.

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. When the neighbors on one side threw in the towel, he bought the house, gutted it, renovated it, and sold it. “Some of us had to be the ones who started to bring the neighborhood back,” he says. “It was like-minded people who helped others make up their minds. 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. In another cost-saving move, Advance has announced that it will close its New Orleans printing facility and shift production of the Times-Picayune from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., a move that will eliminate 100 local jobs later this year. Wright now serves as head of a citizens blight committee that patrols the commercial zone to report violators instead of waiting for city code enforcers to discover them.

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. More than 30,000 people with nowhere to go sought refuge there, then huddled in semi-darkness and punishingly humid heat for five more days, as food and water ran out.

As Thornton picked his way past ruined stadium seats and looked up at the gaping holes Katrina had punched in the roof, he wasn’t sure the stadium could be repaired or would be. The project, which cost $336 million in FEMA, state, and NFL funds, would show the world that Louisiana, with its reputation for government inefficiency, could move nimbly. All the tasks involved gargantuan numbers: 16 million square feet of new carpeting laid, 800,000 square feet of ceiling tiles replaced, and 750,000 square feet of drywall installed. In their stripped-down living room, she launched Beacon of Hope, a citizen’s group founded on the simple premise that volunteers working together could get their neighborhood restarted faster than the government could.

To Doug, she complained that the emphasis on restoring the Dome was misplaced. “I would come home, and she would say, ‘Why can’t we focus on putting people back in homes?’ I viewed it differently. The torrent that gushed through the ruptured levee on the Industrial Canal ripped through his house with such force it knocked the structure off its concrete slab. “My goal was to record that original material,” he says. “For the past ten years, I have been trying to pull it out of my head, out of my heart, and get it back down.” Harris, 61, plays bass guitar with a versatile range from gospel to blues to funk.

He still vividly remembers the forlorn face of another passenger—a young black boy, carrying only a plastic bag filled with water and his pet goldfish. This summer he joined five other chefs assembled by restaurateur Dickie Brennan to run an in-house cooking school and train the next generation of chefs at four Brennan restaurants. Ten years after Katrina, Bajeux still occasionally has one of those Katrina moments. “When I talk about the kid with the fish, it makes me want to cry,” he says. “You figure out your priorities pretty quick. As if presenting data was therapeutic for folks.” Before Katrina, the Data Center was a tiny, obscure nonprofit that helped social agencies with grant writing. An “Ask Allison” feature took inquiries on every topic—from federal agencies looking for local population counts to people searching for a missing aunt.

The team mapped schools and clinics as they reopened, publishing them with a “Best Used By” stamp, like the ones on milk cartons, because they quickly became obsolete. In the swirl of misinformation that inevitably follows a disaster, people make major decisions about returning or rebuilding based on rumor, gossip, conjecture. “I told them to look at the data to see if these assumptions were true or not, then put it together so people can then make decisions based on what’s true,” she says.

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