With rhythm and reverence, New Orleans marks 10 years since Katrina

29 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Rebirth and resentment in New Orleans.

ON THE “SLIVER by the river,” the stretch of precious high ground snug against the Mississippi, tech companies sprout in gleaming towers, swelling with 20-somethings from New England or the Plains who saw the floods only in pictures. New Orleans was devastated first by an act of God in Hurricane Katrina, then, and still more significantly, by a failure of men and their government, as levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers gave way in just the ways experts had long warned. A new $1 billion medical center rises downtown, tourism has rebounded, the music and restaurant scenes are sizzling, and the economy has been buoyed by billions of federal dollars.

And in contrast to other disasters, when well-oiled response machinery kicked into gear, politicians and bureaucrats at every level proceeded to let down their constituents. But on the porch stoops of this place so comfortable with the cycles of death and decay, they still talk about living in some kind of Atlantis-in-waiting.

Predictably, the grim consequences of the disaster and its aftermath were borne by the city’s most vulnerable, and predominantly African-American, residents. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slashed and snarled into New Orleans, on Aug. 29, 2005, newcomers take their juice with chia seeds and buy fixer-uppers, and longtime locals fret that the city is no longer theirs, that it’s too expensive and might lose its soul.

In Biloxi, clergy and community leaders were to gather at MGM Park for a memorial to Katrina’s victims and later that evening the park will host a concert celebrating the recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency drew widespread criticism for a slow, disorganized response that bordered on incompetence, and its poor communication and coordination with local and state authorities. Katrina’s force caused a massive storm surge that scoured the Mississippi coast, pushed boats far inland and wiped houses off the map, leaving only concrete front steps to nowhere.

The neighborhood was one of the bastions of black homeownership in America when water burst through floodwalls on one side, pushing houses passed down through generations off foundations and trapped residents on rooftops pleading for help from passing helicopters. In the Lower Ninth Ward and in eastern New Orleans, the shells of houses wrecked by Katrina still rot in the humidity, caved-in roofs and teetering walls sharing blocks with homes that got put back together, lifted onto concrete stilts, and reinhabited.

The neighborhood still has some of the lowest rates of people who’ve returned after the storm, but they will be having a daylong celebration to mark the progress they have made. Yet the city’s very survival as an inviting and vibrant space has made it into a symbol of resilience, an inspiration for other places savaged by nature’s whims and man’s mistakes.

Fugate, unlike his much-maligned predecessor Michael Brown, is a former director of the Florida Emergency Management Division and has extensive experience managing disasters responses, particularly hurricanes. In addition to the former president the event will feature performances by the city’s “Rebirth Brass Band,” award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien and Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias. Until 10 years ago, the agency had to await a governor’s request for federal aid before jumping in. “One of the most important improvements we’ve made came as a result of congressional action to authorize FEMA to deploy resources to states before a presidential declaration request has even been made,” says Ted Okada, the agency’s chief technology officer. “If FEMA believes that a situation will require a presidential disaster declaration, we’re now authorized to expend funds out of the Stafford Act to prepare. The long-term impact of the conversion of its schools to an all-charter system and the decision to demolish large public housing developments in favor of new mixed-use housing will be debated for years. By pre-staging resources such as water, generators, and staff, we’re able to faster mobilize response efforts.” FEMA hasn’t faced a test quite like Katrina, but its ability to move quickly has changed how it responds.

In a series of events in the week leading up to the actual anniversary, the city has held lectures, given tours of the levee improvements and released a resiliency plan. The final task, of course — the one without which all the other gains could prove futile — is ensuring that the levees hold, God forbid, next time. But the people who now populate the city aren’t necessarily the ones who fled it. “The Chocolate City” that the bungling and corrupt Katrina-era mayor, Ray Nagin, famously described in the wake of Katrina is still majority black, but its African-American population has shrunk by nearly 100,000 — to 59 percent from 67 percent. A post-Sandy audit by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, gave the agency top marks. “FEMA prepared well for this disaster, overcame operational and staffing challenges, quickly resolved resource shortfalls, made efficient disaster sourcing decisions, and coordinated its activities effectively with State and local officials,” concluded the report. Buying that house in a neighborhood that embodies the African-American culture of New Orleans, a place where they send off the dead from Charbonnet Funeral Home with trombones and trumpets, high-stepping and buck-jumping, came with a tangle of emotion for Jen Medbery, a child of Connecticut.

The presence of outsiders like her “is shifting the dynamic of what New Orleans is,” says Medbery, who fell hard for the city in her mid-20s while teaching at a charter school in the early years after Katrina and now runs an education software company. Five minutes down the road, at the opposite end of Tremé, Dianne Honore, 50, rented half of a brick double across from Louis Armstrong Park a couple of years back. When Katrina hit, social media was in its infancy, people still got a lot of their news from television and radio, and Blackberry and Razr phones were state of the art.

These days, 40 percent of Americans use their phones to access government services, and 68 percent of them use phones to keep track of breaking news events, according to the Pew Research Center. “FEMA must be able to reach at-risk populations that get their information from Twitter and Facebook,” Okada says. “We use social media as a platform to get information out, but also engage in widely distributed conversations. Better situational awareness allows us to improve decision making, leading to better survivor outcomes.” According to FEMA, the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times since it launched in 2011, and the organization has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. Honore, who lived in Texas after being flooded out, just “got gentrified,” six years after coming home, she says. “Some days, you feel like your culture is still drowning.” On the Friday before Mardi Gras, Patrick Comer and 150 of his friends, entrepreneurs all, spilled out of Arnaud’s, a venerable French Quarter restaurant, and onto Bourbon Street.

We use it to gather information not just to push information out to the public.” Other changes since Katrina have helped FEMA disseminate information in creative ways. New Orleans as a magnet for “nieux” business would have sounded like fantasy a decade ago. “It was a very insular community that was scared of new people,” said Tim Williamson, a New Orleans native who runs a business incubator called Idea Village. “The day after Katrina, everybody became an entrepreneur.” KEITH WELDON MEDLEY smiled at first. The change prompted more focused and efficient responses, which are led from the State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, by bringing together local, state, and federal authorities.

And on their shopping list was almost everything that could be had in these neighborhoods — a collection of Creole cottages, shotgun doubles, warehouses, and small manufacturers at a humpback bend of the Mississippi River. During Katrina (and, for that matter, 9/11), first responders often found they couldn’t talk to each other because different agencies had different communications systems. In the evolution of post-Katrina New Orleans, few phenomena have been more striking than the dramatic demographic shift of places such as Bywater from majority black to majority white. One census block group in Bywater dropped from 51 percent African-American before Katrina to just 17 percent afterward; the largest went from 63 percent to 32, according to an analysis of U.S. census data. “You saw all these white people. Obviously they were displacing black people who were here before,” said Medley, an African-American historian who lives in the Marigny house where he grew up.

But the technology has become more common, and authorities work closely with the likes of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search Search and Rescue and its Roboticists Without Borders program to line up the right tools and people for the job. “I feel like when a disaster happens, we’re a dating service,” says center director Dr. The market, which opened in 1875, sold po’ boys and shrimp-by-the-pound in an atmosphere of rotting charm before Katrina; it now houses pricey food stalls. And though the vandals were roundly condemned, they also sparked a conversation about the identity of the city post-Katrina, and particularly about the character of poorer neighborhoods. The technology in these robots has advanced significantly in the decade since Katrina; wireless communication systems are more robust, imaging capabilities more advanced, cameras more advanced. After Katrina, there was a rush to buy up properties in the sliver-by-the-river neighborhoods such as the Marigny and Bywater — anything that didn’t flood.

A top-shelf search-and-rescue drone or robot can reach $70,000. “They don’t want to think of it as a very expensive cell phone or computer that needs to be replaced in a few years,” Murphy says. We’ll always try to put ourselves in the mind of a survivor, whose world extends as far as they see, as far as they can hear, as far as they can walk.” An empty foundation next to a spruced-up place with bright, clean siding next to a sagging wreck with a hole in the roof next to a house with a brand-new deck. But this year, there’s been a spike in violence, and the city registered its 100th murder nearly two months earlier than the year before. “The city, on balance, is far better off than before Katrina,” says the writer Jason Berry, who’s accustomed to the nightly symphony of sirens that has spread beyond the poorest sections. “But it’s still a break-your-heart kind of town.”

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