Swept Up In The Storm: Hurricane Katrina’s Key Players, Then And Now

28 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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. 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.Washington — President Obama says New Orleans is “moving forward” a decade after hurricane Katrina dealt it a devastating blow, and has become an example of what can happen when people rally around each other to build a better future out of the despair of tragedy.

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.Our caravan of military vehicles and SUVs carrying first responders from all over the country rolled stop-and-start along a dark Interstate 10 from Baton Rouge east into what felt like a war zone.In the field of journalism, “shoe-leather reporting” refers to on-the-ground reporting: stories that emanate from homes, streets, schools, corner stores, and casual conversations. “Parachute journalism,” by contrast, occurs when a reporter relatively unfamiliar to a place or issue swoops in for a story—sometimes with the speed and detachment of a military operation. 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.

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. 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.

Obama was clearly energized by his visits, at one point breaking into a song from “The Jeffersons” sitcom after meeting a young woman who calls herself “Wheezy.” He stopped off for lunch with some local young men at Willie Mae Scotch House. “Not long ago, our gathering here in the Lower 9th might have seemed unlikely,” Obama said in speech excerpts released in advance. “But today, this new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city and its people, of the entire Gulf Coast, indeed, of the United States of America. 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. The city has become a flashpoint in the national debate over not only charters but a host of other overlapping issues: Teach for America, school closings, a relentless reliance on data and standardized testing—and just about every major reform reshaping urban education across America. 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. Moreover, Katrina’s location of final landfall — where the hurricane’s eye passed the shore — was near the border between Mississippi and Louisiana. One of the biggest lessons learned from Katrina is that local, state and federal officials must work hand-in-hand from “day one” on disaster preparation, response and recovery, said Brent Colburn, the former director of external affairs for FEMA and a former chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. “Before, there was this idea that if a city was overwhelmed, a state stepped in.

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? But they won’t get the most illuminating answer from the parachute reporters who lack the time, wherewithal, or desire to immerse themselves in the community and its 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. Furthermore, New Orleans was on the left side of the eye at that point — and in the northern hemisphere, hurricanes are most dangerous to those who lie on their right side (relative to the storm’s path of motion). These reporters’—not to mention pundits’—tendency to focus on quantifiable results, including test scores and graduation rates, is valid and important, but less meaningful when unchecked by the on-the-ground realities that complicate and contextualize the numbers.

That’s because the storms rotate counter-clockwise, meaning that on the right side, “the motion of the hurricane also contributes to its swirling winds,” as NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division explains. We’d already spent a week in FEMA training in Florida and another few days waiting out Hurricane Rita before being assigned to Task Force 83, a group of about 300 first responders, mostly firefighters, who’d come to help.

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. 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. When I covered New Orleans schools between 2007 and 2014, my reporting experiences that most profoundly challenged and complicated my understanding of the successes and failures of the city’s schools (and, yes, there are both successes and failures, despite recent coverage that might suggest otherwise) could not have transpired if I had parachuted in.

But the drive in that first night, a day before residents were allowed back into their city, was a sobering reminder that we were entering something for which none of us was prepared. Years later, two examples still resonate with me—and illustrate a few of the things still lacking in our national understanding of New Orleans’ charter schools. 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. In the spring of 2010, I followed a principal as he canvassed door to door in the city’s 7th Ward neighborhood, trying to find fifth-graders interested in enrolling in the new charter middle school he would open that fall. 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.

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. 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.” “A lecture on climate change would do nothing to improve upon what we are already doing,” Jindal told Obama in a letter Wednesday. “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.”

But they all declined or said they would not be able to give the teen much in the way of special education services; he talked nonstop when excited and punched his hand when frustrated. Even a stronger storm than Katrina would presumably have most of its water stopped by the new protection system, even if some waves and water might overtop the walls.

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. 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. Miami’s worst recent hurricane, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, was a Category 5 at landfall but also a very small storm, so most of the severe damage came from winds, not waves. “As bad as it was, Andrew could have been worse,” notes a recent Miami Herald retrospective, observing that “an expected storm surge bringing a wall of water over Miami Beach and Key Biscayne never materialized.” Tampa, meanwhile, was praised two years ago in the local Tampa Tribune for its “blessing” in not having been hit by a major storm in 92 — now, 94 — years.

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. 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. 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.

Rising seas, and the potential for stronger hurricanes in a greenhouse-gas enhanced world, also raises the risk further, as MIT hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel recently argued. 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.

But the incident taught me not only about the challenges of reaching, and serving, students with severe special needs in the decentralized New Orleans school landscape. 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. So if Katrina taught us just how devastating a hurricane can be, it should also teach us something else — there must be no end to vigilance and readiness, because there could always be an even worse one out there.

It revealed the deep-seated disempowerment and distrust felt by a whole community of people—a distrust and disempowerment that could lead a mother to keep her son out of school for years. 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. KIPP, which operates nearly 200 charter schools nationally, aims to educate low-income children of color through a structured, often discipline-heavy, approach. At the evening meeting, the principal described the school’s strict rules for comportment and behavior (an approach that is often described as “no excuses”): prohibiting students from rolling up the sleeves of their uniform shirts, putting a student on a “probationary contract” after a single suspension, instituting a “no idling” policy throughout the building.

We wear so many hats through life, and I’m usually most comfortable in my role as journalist — looking for stories, questioning authority, digging for truth beneath layers of politics and bureaucracy. 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. Shortages in food, water and other supplies grew — along with perceptions of the federal government’s indifference, compounded by missteps, mishandling and miscommunication.

To hang that up for a month (the Tribune gave me a leave of absence) and become part of the story would feel strange, but I knew I had to go. “It was such a strong feeling that I had to be there,” Tina Borgeson, of Manteca, Calif., told me. 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. One group of firefighters from a Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana — at first reluctant to work with four women — taught us how to operate chain saws to clear debris.

Of course, parental attitudes are more nuanced than can be captured in a single evening; and support for many of the strictures eroded when the strict discipline failed to produce a safe and orderly learning environment at the school. 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. We encountered New Orleanians as they emerged from their homes for the first time since the storm, telling stories of rising water, darkness, gunfire, the overwhelming fear that they’d die.

We listened as they talked themselves back into the present, realizing that — perhaps — life would carry on and then, invariably, springing to action to offer us, the relief workers, a glass of lemonade. We endlessly debate the overall “worth” of various institutions—from “no excuses” charter schools to teachers unions—with a political or ideological framing. 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. These citizens’ voices must ultimately rise, unfiltered, to the forefront of public consciousness in order to bring about the radical change we need in this country, change that includes the creation of more schools that can help lift families out of poverty. But until that day, I hope for journalists who will wear out their shoes, or at least their rental-car tires, in an effort to tell those peoples’ stories.

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. 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.

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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