The thing that people too often forget about Hurricane Katrina

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A closer look at New Orleans post-Katrina.

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.The first was from Interstate Highway 10 a decade ago when she, her spouse, kindergartner and large extended family fled New Orleans in several cars packed with their dogs and three-day’s worth of clothes.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.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.

NEW ORLEANS — The despair uncorked by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago quickly became a symbol of so much that was wrong with America — stark racial and economic inequality, government’s inaction in the face of enormous social problems, and a deep sense of vulnerability and lack of preparedness for the next disaster. 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. 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.

That dark moment helped propel Barack Obama into the White House because it seemed to reinforce his hopeful argument that the country deserved a better future, and that he embodied that future. Welcoming Obama at Armstrong International Airport was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential candidate, Senator Bill Cassidy and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

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. 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. On Wednesday, the organization released its “State of Black New Orleans: 10 Years Post-Katrina” report and I got a chance to speak with McConduit-Diggs about New Orleans’ recovery over the last decade. “The report isn’t intended to take away from the progress the city has made,” said McConduit-Diggs, 38, an attorney. “We want our city to be back and great and better than before. Obama will look to contrast that troubled initial response with more successful efforts to resurrect New Orleans: An allegory of what happens when government gets it wrong, and what happens when government gets it right. “What started out as a natural disaster became a manmade one –- a failure of government to look out for its own citizens,” he is expected to say. It’s a collective sense of accomplishment when you consider the things we’ve been able to do since Katrina.” But, she said, you have to go beyond what’s touted — beyond the new and improved roads and levees and remodeled airport; beyond the shiny new hospitals, libraries and schools; beyond the commercial development and new housing stock.

That message “would resonate more with the city’s white residents than with its black residents,” said Michael Henderson, of Louisiana State University. The recent series of high-profile police shootings of black men, and the protests and riots they spawned from Ferguson to Baltimore, have underscored how resistant to change many of the problems remain. “We’re at half time,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial, the city’s former mayor, in an interview this week. “No one goes in at half time and pops a champagne cork.

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. 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. The Education Department has invested over $100 million in Louisiana since 2009, while the administration both green-lighted roughly $500 million in funding to rebuild New Orleans’s Charity Hospital and spent almost $1 billion to build a new Veterans Affairs Medical Center nearby. “I can’t remember a time where I reached out to the administration on something and they didn’t eventually find a way to say, ‘Yes,’ ” said former senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who helped spearhead the fight for federal recovery funding. “If it wasn’t an immediate ‘yes,’ they searched every nook and cranny of the government and looked under every policy document to find a way to say, ‘Yes.’ ” New Orleans has made several concrete gains, including a strengthened education system and revitalized business sector.

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. We’re leaning forward in a way we didn’t pre-Katrina,” Colburn said. “It was a wake up call that (the federal government) needed to be a more active partner in all three pieces.” Katrina was also the first major disaster to strike the United States after FEMA was made part of the Department of Homeland Security. 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.

But it must still confront a persistent series of societal ills — some of them new, others decades-old — including a high illiteracy and unemployment rate as well as a battered transportation system. New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing. “Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. 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. 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. There has been a 55 percent drop in available transit service, and Tulane University estimates there are 26,000 young people aged 16 to 24 in the city who are neither in school or employed.

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. 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.

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. In Washington, it meant passing laws aimed at approving flood insurance provisions and improving federal response and assistance, among other measures. Fifty-two percent of the city’s black men of working age don’t have jobs. “We have to figure out how to not only create economic opportunities, but provide technical skills so these men aren’t coming in at entry level positions,” McConduit-Diggs said.

In interviews this week, top officials said the Katrina experience has changed the way the government conducts its disaster relief business: It now provides disaster funds without demanding buildings be replicated without changes; it is easier for groups to draw on volunteers for help; and new federal construction projects must adhere to stricter flood standards that take climate change projections into account. Chris Christie getting out and pushing public to heed warnings,” Colburn said of the New Jersey Republican’s urging to residents to take shelter before Hurricane Sandy. “President Obama urged people to listen to public officials. 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. 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.

Donovan recalled that years after Katrina, he was with Obama on Air Force One discussing how to help communities rebuild after Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast in 2012. In 2014, it was 73 percent. “That’s a gain and we have more students enrolling in college,” said McConduit-Diggs. “Our challenge is that we haven’t seen much growth around college-degree attainment.” In 2005, the average daily prison population was about 6,000 inmates, compared to about 1,900 now, she said. Their favored approach was very much a Katrina-influenced strategy, which prompted the president to remark: “This is exactly the kind of thing I was elected to do.” Though he does not boast a close cultural affinity to New Orleans, he has made the city’s post-Katrina recovery a central part of his administration’s urban policy and environmental portfolio. Days after Katrina hit, when he was still serving as a senator, Obama went to Houston with former presidents Clinton and Bush to visit survivors of the storm. 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.

Also, a pretrial services program makes recommendations to judges regarding whether someone who has been arrested should be detained. “We’ve made a significant difference in working to improve community-police relations,” McConduit-Diggs said. “We know it’s a big challenge. Bush’s administration had ignored New Orleans residents because they were black, a notion that had become so popular that rapper Kanye West blurted out during a telethon to help Katrina survivors, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” “The ineptitude was color blind,” Obama said. “But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check into a hotel on safe ground.” In rebuilding, Donovan said, “You have to pay special attention to the lowest income and most vulnerable,” because they are the ones who always suffer the most from disasters. “He does not state this in terms of race,” said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. “He sees this as, ‘Let’s demonstrate what America can do, not just what we can’t do.’ ” Darren Alridge, a 24-year-old teacher’s assistant and after-school counselor at YEP, is among those who received help. 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.

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. 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. 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. McConduit-Diggs realizes that when you look at the city from a different viewpoint, one that offers a more high-definition picture, the result is a hard but necessary dose of reality. “We have significant challenges, but if you look at what we’ve done so far, you know we are a city committed to being here and being better,” she said.

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. The future president’s decision to add hot sauce to the house gumbo before tasting it prompted a sharp rebuke from the restaurant’s owner, Leah Chase.

Shortages in food, water and other supplies grew — along with perceptions of the federal government’s indifference, compounded by missteps, mishandling and miscommunication. 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.

She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998. Yet it struck me that most of the tensions the struggling school experienced that year were sociological rather than ideological: They concerned the challenge of bringing together people of different races and backgrounds (most of the families were low-income and black whereas most of the teachers were young, white, and middle-class) around a shared vision of what education can and should be. 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.

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. 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 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. 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.

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