Katrina Journal: What Needs to Be Done in New Orleans Now

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Mr. Bischof is a professor of history and director of CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans; in the wake of Katrina he is a guest professor of history at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge during the fall term of 2005.

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Thinking about New Orleans these days always produces ambivalent feelings and a jumble of emotions. Some parts of town (Uptown, French Quarter) begin to look normal even though a lot of businesses are still closed and people not back. Other parts continue to look totally blighted ( Lakeside, Gentilly, 9th Ward) and one does not know when and whether they’ll ever come back. While you see a growing number of people back in town going about their business, one can read stories every day about those people who died in the disaster. It is hard not to get heartsick when you read how a mother in Chalmette drowned in the surge wave with her arms around her quadriplegic son – a son that she had taken care of for 30 years after an accident – because the ambulance service did not evacuate “special needs” as it was supposed to. Imagining their final hours is hard to contemplate and there are thousands of stories like that, though some who suffered similar abandonment survived.

Remember conspiracy theories after 9/11 (the government bombed the twin towers)? Disasters of Katrina's magnitude inevitably produce wild conspiracy history. Given the reality of the abandonment of mostly poor black New Orleansians during the storm, conspiracy theories seem to find very fertile soil among African Americans, including some of their leaders. The Reverend Jesse Jackson seems to think New Orleans does not want its African Americans back (and there are actually white landlords that do make noises in that direction). So he bussed a few hundred in himself, only most of those he brought were apparently NOT from New Orleans but people looking for a job. The Reverend Louis Farrakan tops conspiracist thinking with the charge that the “U.S. military” was seen to drop charges to dynamite the levies and flood the city and produce “mass murder” among citizens of New Orleans. He puts the burden of proof on the federal government that they were not mass murderers. Farrakan even bests Oliver Stone when it comes to dark conspiracies of the “military industrial complex” against the American people.

Public finances are in shambles locally, regionally and nationally. Mayor Nagin told the City Council that the city has money to pay the (much reduced) workforce until March 2006. The State of Louisiana has budget shortfalls of 1.5 billion dollars and probably more. Health care and higher education are not protected by the state constitution. So guess where the cuts will be coming first? The President in Washington is finally releasing 17 billion of the 60+ billion earmarked by Congress for post-Katrina relief but mainly to rebuild federal facilities and roads – still no talk about bailing out the hard-struck health care and/or education systems. Senator Landrieu now openly nails President Bush with charges of being more generous to Iraq than to Louisiana. Clearly, the Gulf Coast can’t be rebuilt in the long term without massive federal relief. The triple punch of Katrina, Rita and Wilma has created such a need for federal aid in the entire Gulf Coast region that Washington is overwhelmed (as if Iraq, “Plamegate”, and the failed Miers Supreme Court nomination were not enough to handle at one time).

The politics of advisory panels is interesting to observe and tells us a lot about the narrow-minded approach Louisiana politicians take to rebuilding. The Mayor and Governor have both appointed blue ribbon committees to advise on the larger issues of rebuilding. Predictably, these committees are an assortment of Nagin’s and Blanco’s friends (an obscure University of Louisiana-Lafayette fundraiser), local dignitaries (the Archbishop of New Orleans), university presidents (Tulane’s Cowan on Nagin’s commission and Xavier’s Francis chairing Blanco’s), plenty of business people (the State’s panel is heavy with oilmen and the mayor’s thick with local developers and financiers); both commissions are short on nationally known figures (Walter Isaacson on Blanco’s) and leaders in the culture field (Wynton Marsalis on Nagin’s). Why not put some top-notch national and international experts on such committees, like the best people from the big national philanthropic organizations, engineering and city planning fields? What do the bonanza of oilmen and the absence of cultural figures tell us about the priorities of Blanco’s reconstruction authority? Governor Blanco clearly emerges as the Louisianan “professional politician” most overwhelmed by Katrina -- even before the storm hit. A columnist in the local paper suggested snatching former governor Edwards with a Coast Guard helicopter from federal prison to come and relieve Blanco.

New Orleans will come back but no one knows how long it will take. Among the big issues of rebuilding the city are: will there be federal funds rolling into the city soon to begin building a levy system that will withstand a category 5 hurricane? What parts of the city may have to be abandoned because they can’t be protected against floods? What elevations will homes that are rebuilt require to get insurance protection? Which insurance companies will abandon the area because they no longer want to take the enormous risks? Will businesses come back and which ones and will they blackmail the state government to get tax breaks before they come back? Will developers find a heyday in the city abandoning strict building codes in and around the historic French Quarter? Will the unique historic housing stock of New Orleans vanish as flood-stricken old houses are torn down and are rebuilt without historic preservation in mind? Property rights are sacrosanct in Louisiana as elsewhere in the U.S. So lawyers and legislators are coming up with ideas about “usufruct rights” and “recovery corporations” for the government to acquire tens of thousands of blighted properties. No one dares to tell the people of Eastern New Orleans and the Ninth Ward that probably big parts of those districts can’t be salvaged and won’t be protected by levies in the future.

All of us associated with the University of New Orleans have been taking pride in our leadership bringing back the university only six weeks after Katrina – the only New Orleans area institution of higher learning up and running again. While the campus is still closed due to mold mitigation and cleaning up, UNO was relaunched from its Jefferson Parish Center on October 10. 7,000 of 17,000 UNO students are enrolled in classes on line, while another 1,000 students are taking regular classes in our satellite facilities in Jefferson Parish and the North Shore. UNO and the universities obviously will play a crucial role in the rebuilding of the city. Why not play a more prominent role “below radar” in the long-term planning of the future of New Orleans too, while the mayor’s and governor’s commissions jockey for the limelight?

UNO’s partner institution, the University of Innsbruck, had a “jazz brunch” fundraiser in Innsbruck a few weeks ago and raised enough money and more to host eight UNO students for the fall term in Innsbruck – and this after the Tirol has been hit by terrible floods just a week before Katrina. Now the University of Graz in Austria offers eight semesters free of charge for UNO students who want to come and study and the University of Munich another five slots for New Orleans students. Good things are happening everywhere to give people hope here too. As Randy Newman said at a recent New Orleans fundraiser at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, “human kindness is overflowing.”

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