A Placemaking Journal

Katrina ‘Ten Years After’: And the band plays on

I guess it says something about where I am on life’s conception-to-compost journey that the phrase “Ten Years After” evokes a forgettable British group from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But, hey, let’s at least credit Alvin Lee with capturing a timeless sentiment in his lyrics for the band’s 1971 hit, “I’d Love to Change the World”:

I’d love to change the world
But I don’t know what to do
So I’ll leave it up to you

Kinda resonates through the ages, no?

But it also weirdly connects to another, more critical “Ten Years After” meme. This week kicks off the anniversary month of Hurricane Katrina, which walloped the Gulf Coast states on August 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $150 billion in property damage. While anniversary summaries have dribbled into the mainstream already, August will be the big month for looking back and guessing at what was learned.

If you want to get a feel for the drama to come, check out David Amsden’s story in the New York Times Magazine. While not focused specifically on post-Katrina recovery, the piece goes a long way toward preempting celebrations of success for fixing what went wrong in New Orleans. It suggests the abandonment of faith, at least in the short run, in a government’s capacity to perform the most basic responsibility of a government to its citizens: public safety for all.

Crime has dropped to record lows in most major American cities, but New Orleans, where wealthy neighborhoods sit side by side with some of the nation’s poorest, continues to struggle. The persistence of crime today stands as the most dominant threat to the resurgent image the city has had since Katrina.

So in one of those wealthy neighborhoods, the French Quarter, an entrepreneur who made millions in contracts for trash pick-up after Katrina, organized a cops-for-hire service to protect the lives and property of his neighbors. The city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau sprung for at least part of the contract. He even developed an app for that, a Web-based network to assure rapid responses to reports of disturbances in his customers’ vicinity. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu welcomes the help:

‘We have a way here of reaching out to the private sector in everything that’s happening in the city,’ explained Landrieu, who has accepted on his city’s behalf more private grants than any mayor in the nation, including $4.2 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2011. Noting similar arrangements in areas like the city’s sewage department and its recreation programs, he said, ‘It’s a new government model that’s emblematic of what the rest of the country should be doing.’

Which is cool if we’re on board with the idea that reasonable assurances of public safety and other services citizens usually expect from their government hinge on a private company’s ability to turn a profit and on the ability of individual citizens and neighborhoods to pay what the market will bear.

This may not be ideal time in America to make that case, as Amsden’s reporting implies:

Such tensions echoed those expressed last year by Ray Lewis, a retired captain of the Philadelphia Police Department. Lewis joined the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of Michael Brown to bring attention to what he believed was a dangerous precedent being set nationwide by the rise in public-private policing — one that was transforming law-enforcement protection into a privilege of the few rather than a basic right of all. ‘Corporate America is using police forces as their mercenaries,’ Lewis declared.

This discussion is an important one, not only because it comes as part of the tenth anniversary look back, but also because it speaks to the future of planning and governing in our cities and regions beyond the storm zone. Disasters are stress tests.

What experts on disaster recovery and resilience tried to tell us before and after recent catastrophes like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the BP Oil Spill is that communities’ abilities to bounce back after such events depend largely on how well things were working before disruptions struck. That’s a more complex observation than it sounds, because the definition of “what’s working” has all kinds of caveats:

Working for whom, where and under what circumstances? And, most importantly, will what worked in the past keep on working for the next emergency and the one after that?

What shocked Americans glued to their TV sets in the days of flooding in New Orleans was the apparent collapse of immediate response systems. Why aren’t these stranded people rescued? Why did government agencies at every level fail the tests of getting everything back to normal fast?

The leap to finger pointing ducks the more uncomfortable discussion about tiers of of accessibility and vulnerability built into the “normal.” Which had a lot more to do with why those citizens were victims than the frustratingly slow recovery process.

We all know how those tiers work. The upper ones are where opportunities expand for making the most of the way the system is organized. Getting there requires building and investing wealth. Not Bill Gates wealth, mind you. Just enough to assure progress on the path to advantage – the right neighborhood and schools, the option of moving for a better job, enough savings to insulate against unexpected setbacks.

Before the inundation of New Orleans, citizens whose modest relative wealth gave them the option of driving cars or flying planes out of danger. Even more importantly, it gave them reason to trust the system’s warnings of what was coming. Most of those we saw suffering in Katrina’s aftermath were then — and now, it turns out — without those advantages.

Which is why we can expect this month to see a lot of those “on the one hand, on the other hand” analyses — like these two back-to-back paragraphs in a recent study of “The New Orleans Index at 10”:

Ten years after Katrina, the regional economy is embarking on a new path, benefitting from new infrastructure investments, a more diverse set of industry clusters, and an entrepreneurship boom. The region has solidified its commitment to culture with revenues to arts nonprofits now four times the national average. Similarly revenues to youth development nonprofits have doubled, and public school improvements are measurable. Importantly incarceration rates have dropped by nearly half as the city has dedicated itself to reforming its criminal justice system. New Orleanians have worked hard to not only rebuild, but to transform and better their institutions. By many accounts, New Orleanians’ love of their home, high levels of citizen engagement, and dedication to improving their community have been key strengths that have fueled the region’s resilience.

Despite economic and reform-driven progress, however, the poverty rate in New Orleans has risen to pre-Katrina rates and is now a crushingly high 27 percent. In the surrounding parishes, the poverty rate has grown to 16 percent. While white males have seen increasing employment rates, black males have not, and by 2013, black households earned 54 percent less than white households in metro New Orleans. On these and other indicators of inclusion, metro New Orleans is performing worse than the nation and other fast-growing Southern metros. But the most existential issue that New Orleans faces is coastal erosion and sea level rise. Since 1932, the New Orleans region has lost nearly 30 percent of the land that forms its protective buffer from hurricane storm surge, and saltwater is increasingly infiltrating groundwater within the levee walls.

Most of us want to believe that our rights as citizens should not be conditioned on the privileges our wealth affords. So this uncomfortable conversation has mostly been unengaged save for those at the extremes of the political spectrum. Four decades ago, Alvin Lee and Ten Years After saluted in both directions:

Everywhere is freaks and hairies

Dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity

Tax the rich, feed the poor

‘Til there are no rich no more

There’s reason to believe we can make a little more sense of things now. Even before upheavals in the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities forced us to confront the gaps in social and material advantage, the data on inequality were in. And because all those charts on differences in growth in wages for most people and return on wealth for the few reminded lots of white middle class folks of why they felt as if they’re treading water, the topic is now a thing.

We can do better than:

I’d love to change the world
But I don’t know what to do
So I’ll leave it up to you

Ben Brown

This focus on New Orleans is the first of two parts on Katrina recovery at 10 years. The next will be on Coastal Mississippi and the lessons learned from the Katrina Cottage effort.

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