Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 28, 2009

Is this what resilience looks like?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 28, 2009


An Illustration from AD: New Orleans After the Deluge

On August 29, four years ago, Katrina made landfall at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.   The next several days — and months — demonstrated how natural disaster can interact with human decision to cause catastrophe.

While what happened in New Orleans is only part of the story, it is an especially compelling chapter.  It was not the raging storm that wreaked the worst  havoc.  Katrina did, however, sweep away a forest of fig leaves.  It was no longer possible to obscure the long-term consequences of  corruption, short-sightedness, and naked self-interest.

After a troubled and agonizingly slow start, New Orleans is in recovery.  A report released earlier this week by an urban planning firm finds, “By all measures, New Orleans continues to grow. The city has recovered 77% of its population and more than$10 billion in new investments is underway. New businesses are emerging within the film and media industries, and the Health Care and Tourism industries are expanding.”

The New Orleans Index, a project of the Brookings Institution, provides a fabulous data-set and acute analysis of what has happened in the four years since.  Some highlights:

  • New Orleans has 65,888 unoccupied residential addresses.
  • The number of households receiving mail in New Orleans is now 76.4 percent of the pre-Katrina number, up from 49.5 percent three years ago.
  • Ongoing investment in recovery has softened the blow of the recession.  Among the 100 most populous urban areas, the New Orleans had the sixth lowest unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2009.
  • Housing prices for the New Orleans metro region fell 0.3 percent from first quarter 2008 to Q1 2009. This compares to a  6.9 percent average decrease for the 100 largest metros across the same time frame.
  • FEMA has obligated $900 million for infrastructure repairs in Louisiana since last July, bringing the total to nearly $7.8 billion, of which 58 percent has been paid to localities.

At the end of July the project directors for the New Orleans Index offered, “Residents and leaders are eager to get beyond ‘disaster recovery’  to implement bold plans for creating a sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous city and region. Locally, key moves are creating the foundation for transformation to meet residents’ long-term aspirations.”

Last Sunday, the Times-Picayune ran a largely laudatory story of the Obama administration’s support — and strategic shift — related to recovery.  The reporters, Jonathon Tilove and Bruce Alpert, note that in the, “first six months of (Obama’s) term, half his Cabinet has visited the Gulf Coast, with 19 senior administration officials making a total of 30 trips to the coast, 20 to Louisiana.”

The reporters interviewed a number of local leaders. “In the view of Paul Rainwater, who as the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority is the state’s chief hurricane recovery adviser, the Obama administration has exhibited an understanding of something fundamental about Hurricane Katrina that the Bush administration never did: that this was not another disaster, but a catastrophe beyond ‘anything anybody’s ever seen before.'”

“They appreciate that recovery is recovery and that it doesn’t always fit into a nice, neat package of rules, it’s a messy business, and it’s tough, and if you really want people to come back you have to look at it in a different way, ” he said.

Jed Horne, a writer living in New Orleans claims, “At its most interesting, New Orleans has become a laboratory for its own reinvention and perhaps for the reinvention of other cities as well.  We have made real strides toward reshaping government, the school system included. We have the opportunity, if we don’t blow it, to get health care and public housing right. Our very travail has made New Orleans a magnet for people from all over the country with a sense of adventure and a will to make a difference.”  (Oxford American, September 2008)

This shift from victim, innocent or complicit, to hero for others to follow is — while fraught — an amazing transformation.

Rebecca Solnit has written a new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that examines “extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.”  She looks hard at the aftermaths of Katrina, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 explosion of the SS. Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbor, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and 9/11. What Solnit finds is remarkable and recurring resilience.

In an interview with Rumpus Solnit explains, “What is kind of beautiful about Katrina is that even though the media and officials (were) working hard at telling us everyone in New Orleans was a monster, in the immediate aftermath more than 200,000 people invite displaced strangers into their homes through hurricanehousing.org and an uncounted horde go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to give, to love, to be in solidarity, and to rebuild–a moment like Freedom Summer magnified a thousandfold. It matters, and it’s deeply moving.”

Clearly there is still much to do.  The GCR & Associates report also found, “There are pressing challenges the city must face to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. These include the large number of blighted and aban­doned properties; the lack of affordable housing for many low income renters; the loss of more than 80,000 jobs in the metro area; and lingering concerns about the robustness of the region’s hurricane protection system. As the region shifts into a more active rebuilding period, it will be increasingly important to monitor critical investments while continuing to address the issues of poverty, poor education and lack of job opportunities that will inhibit long-term growth.”

Katrina, and certainly its aftermath, was a catastrophe for New Orleans.  There was a sharp break with what had gone before. Full recovery is not possible.  But there is the potential for something different than recovery, even something more… perhaps redemption.

Looking for what this might tell us of resilience, an excerpt from a poem by New Orleans poet Kalamu ya Salaam:

We are achievers, strivers, climbers, those who visit the summits

               regardless of the roughness of the mountain

               we have prepared ourselves to climb

               despite hurricanes and hard times

               we have disciplined ourselves to keep on keeping on


Additional background:

FEMA: Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office

Louisiana Recovery Authority

City of New Orleans Recovery Plan

Hope, reality collide in post-Katrina New Orleans (Associated Press)

Wetlands restoration needs to move faster (Times-Picayune)

Good Times for New Orleans tourism are rolling (USA Today)

Post-Katrina poll finds mixed results (Council for a Better Louisiana)

Entrepreneurs take to Big Easy (Wall Street Journal)

Help citizens help themselves (Times-Picayune)

Blight dims post-Katrina optimism (Fox News)

Residents struggle to rebuild homes in post-Katrina New Orleans (Southern Studies Institute)

Praise for Obama on Katrina (Associated Press)

The State of New Orleans: An Update (New York Times, Op-ed)

Four years after Katrina, a mix of progress and inertia (USA Today editorial)

Katrina remains cursed by rumour, cliche, lies, and racism (Rebecca Solnit writing in The Guardian)

AD: New Orleans After the Deluge (including online graphic documentary)

AD:  New Orleans After the Deluge  (NYT Book Review)

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

August 28, 2009 @ 6:35 am

You missed a few of the recent reports , including a negative report(see http://www.southernstudies.org/) and an important report from the Brookings Institution, which has carefully maintained an index of NOLA recovery for 4 years.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 28, 2009 @ 6:50 am

Ms. Rubin:

Thanks for pointing to the SSI report. I had not seen that. I have added it to the “front page” to help others find it. The Brookings work is referenced and linked in my post — along with a couple of other important resources — but I did not repeat in my (increasingly) long list.


Comment by William R. Cumming

August 28, 2009 @ 8:50 am

First to throw some cold water in the light of day on the 4 years mark after Katrina. And then to analyze from a different posture, more positive.

Note that Plaquemines Parish extends over 200 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Second the high ground in the Parish is the federal highway system. Still a unique culture.

Okay here goes! Relatively speaking Alambama and Mississippi have recovered pretty well from Katrina. After all with 15 bright shiny new casinos in an near Biloxi how could that industry not be proud of its comeback. Those of US that regard legally authorized gambling as just a regressive tax of course may differ. And it is interesting that even after a lifetime of study by the most prominent disaster and insurance risk economist at Wharton and U.PA. Dr. Howard Kunreuther, PhD the economics profession is uncertain as to whether the long term for communities suffering a disaster is better than those without one. Personally I believe it is eye of the beholder but since the US has a system of largely free disaster relief that rewards STATE and LOCAL negligence and land use decisions I can see why risk spreading to the taxpayer makes great sense as long as rewards both parties to the same extent. And by the way the first President Bush won Florida in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew even though he lost the national election.
But I must separate NOLA and Louisiana from the impacts of Katrina as a largely natural disaster as in Alabama and Mississippi. Why? NOLA has existed by virtue of federal dollars since the 1927 Mississippi River mainstem flooding. Now levees along both banks of the river south of ST. LOUIS protect to some degree against the main stem flooding. But two things are different about NOLA. First the sources of flooding are not just the main stem Mississippi River and the annual fight to maintain the OLD RIVER CONTROL STRUCTURE is expensive and of course will fail at some point. What is the OLD RIVER CONTROL STRUCTURE? Will the Mississippi in just the last 5,000 years has had its outlet meander from the Mississippi state line to the Texas state line. It will again change its outlet but the OLD RIVER CONTROL STRUCTURE keeps the Mississippi from following its natural tendency to go down through MORGAN CITY and the Atchafalya Basin! If the river does this it would of course leave NOLA high and dry as a port and NOLA is over 150 upstream from the GULF OF MEXICO! Who understands all this hydrology, geology, meterology, etc. it is difficult to know for sure but I guess fewer than 100 people. The USACOE has at least pled NOLO CONTENDERE if not guilty since Katrina to its conflicts and errors over the last 50 years in advising federal, state, and local officials and in fact wasting money. Now it hopes to have 1% annual flood occurrence protection in place by June 2011. Unfortunately that will not protect NOLA from all of the sources of potential flooding. What does this mean of course now? It means that any and all investment in NOLA may well have to be repeated. And by the way the disaster outlays exclude all payments made under the National Flood Insurance Program and that program for the entirety of Katrina paid out almost $21B! I am sure that issue will be studied closely this fall and winter given the very very short reauthorization of the NFIP pending in Congress (passed the House)and the interests of many in trying to develop a catastrophic natural disaster program–although efforts so far ignore land use and other mitigation efforts conforming to the insurance principles of risk reduction, preventing moral hazards, etc. But hey Senators Landrieu and Vitter did successfully blackmail President Obama and FEMA so that Craig Fugate could get on board as FEMA Administrator. The fact that much of the money (over $900) since January 20th, 2009 will probably be the most literal kind of “Sunk Costs) does not seem to bother anyone. But federal programs are political solutions and sometimes the politicians cheer on the proverbial “cutting of the last tree on Easter Island” that Jared Diamond writes about.
Okay now the postive or sort of postive. There are two subjects of national interest in Southern Louisiana and NOLA. Discounting the fact that NOLA was the 38th largest city prior to Katrina (now sure what it is now or will be as of the 2010 census) the disapora of refugees and the failure of the Road Home program may have effectively turned Louisiana into a Republican state. Time will tell. My guess is that Pirate Blood is thick wherever you turn in that part of the world. But to continue,there are two areas of national interest! First, the oil and gas industry. It does not pay much in taxes to Louisiana so that STATE level infrastructure investment is a laugh. Which of course is partly why the pressure on poor little FEMA to fund what the STATE does not. Like certain other states–e.g. California; W.Va.; and territories like Puerto Rico–you really need to understand how important disaster and their federal largess are to the their economies. If KOBE cost the Japanese government $250B after the 1995 earthquake imagine what the “BIG ONE” will cost the US for California.
The second arena of national interest is the Mississippi outflow shipping from PORT of New Orleans. Without this no NOLA. I am sorry but gambling and other “fun” just does not require the existence of NOLA. But oddly since Katrina almost no real econometric studies of NOLA role in these two arenas. But hey most of the shrimp the US eats comes from the Gulf and of course all those baby lobsters–Crayfish–that craweled all the way from Maine still have NOLA and S. Louisiana as the main source.
But as always Mother Nature does not grant variances even if the STATE and LOCALs, Congress and FEMA do! Time will tell.

Comment by Pat Longstaff

August 29, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

In many ecological systems a disaster (like a fire) is necessary for new growth. It destroys built-up resources so that they can be reused in new ways. This cycle has been called Panarchy (book by that name by Lance Gunderson at Emory U)and it usually involves several systems that are linked. When I was in Australia several weeks ago they were talking about the necessity of fires to burn old growth and provide new plants for animals to eat. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the collapse part of the cycle is not fun and can be truly awful, but when the resources are freed up for new uses some pretty wonderful things can happen. The role of government in the rebuilding phase is an important debate. There is some evidence that the best recovery starts at the bottom, not the top.

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