Mired in New Orleans: One Year After Katrina

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Mr. Colten, Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography, Louisiana State University, is author of An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005) and is completing a history of the hurricane protection system in southeast Louisiana.

News crews are converging on New Orleans to gauge the city’s status in the long recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They are planning town meetings and panel discussions, as local organizations organize music festivals and other forms of commemoration of the calamity’s one-year milestone. One of the observations I am hearing already is why has so little been accomplished in a year? Why is the city so completely mired in the mess left by Katrina? These are valid questions, and ones that has been on the minds of New Orleans’s residents and exiles and others throughout south Louisiana every day since August 29, 2005.

While it will be easy to argue mismanagement of state and federal funds, political corruption, moral turpitude, or ineptness on a gargantuan scale, such accusations cannot expose the underlying circumstances that allowed a powerful hurricane to overwhelm a system designed to withstand its winds and waves. Without the floods, there would have been considerable wind damage, but not the long-term evacuation of at least half the city’s pre-storm population and extensive water damage over nearly 80 percent of the city’s territory.

Inundation and displacement are key reasons restoration is not farther along. While the media probe for the reasons, the landscape before them tells the story. With its population dispersed and such extensive damage, the city and individual property owners have been able to make only modest progress. Indeed, FEMA’s key advisory about the post-hurricane floodplain came only in April – and it is only advisory. Many other actions hinged on this guideline. State programs, such as the Road Home funding to help home owners salvage equity from their damaged property only cleared the legislature in July. Provision of electricity and water is still spotty, thereby inhibiting the return to certain neighborhoods. Robert Kates and others, including myself, have compared the New Orleans response with time lines from other disaster recoveries and found that at eleven months out, New Orleans is more or less on pace.

Perhaps the more telling question is what were the historical circumstances that allowed a powerful hurricane, but one arguably within the design range of the levees, to overwhelm a massive and expensive hurricane protection system? I may not be able to provide a complete account, but I have been scouring through historical records for much of the last eleven months to unearth the critical decisions, social conflicts, and funding issues that shaped the levees that surrounded New Orleans and its suburbs last summer. Several aspects of the hurricane protection history stand in sharp contrast to reporting from a year ago, and one can anticipate similar discontinuities between popular accounts and historical events as we pass the storm’s anniversary.

Many of us from this part of the world received an email that circulated last fall. It contained a series of photographs that depicted the massive flood protection works in the Netherlands and those near the mouths of the Thames as gleaming sophisticated public works. It also had pictures of the failed levees along the canals in New Orleans. The basic question posed was, why couldn’t we envision and build comparable devices to protect a major city. Few in the media explored the initial plan for hurricane protection proposed on the eve of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and approved by Congress within weeks of that storm. This plan, know as the “barrier plan,” would have included levees along the peninsula that nearly separates Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico. At each of the two openings, the Corps of Engineers planned to install massive gates that they could close when a hurricane threatened to push water from the gulf into the lake. By preventing the build up of water in the lake, engineers predicted, the gates would reduce the flood threat to properties behind levees that were also part of the plan. In the face of local opposition to the barrier plan, the Corps argued vigorously to retain these gates in the plan. Following a court order in 1978, that called for a more complete environmental impact statement and put construction of the gates on hold, the Corps dropped the barrier plan. In its place, the federal engineers adopted the “high level” plan in 1984 – which called for higher levees.

Some editorial writers and bloggers who did uncover the shift from the barrier to high level plan gleefully harangued “environmentalists” for causing the city’s destruction by forcing the shift in the protection plan. These writers incorrectly presumed it was only environmentalists who opposed the barrier plan and doomed the city to a watery fate. Environmental organizations were among those who took vigorous steps to force the Corps to reconsider, but they were not alone. Residents on the north shore of Lake Pontchartain feared that the levees and gates across the eastern end of the lake would divert storm surge into their parish and drown Slidell and neighboring rural areas. They also expressed concern that the gates would limit the development of ship building and oil fabrication operations on the north shore. Political leaders and business interests jointly resisted the plan. By no means was the opposition limited to environmentalists. They were joined by commercial fishermen who challenged the barrier on the grounds that it would damage their livelihoods by altering the habitat of the marine life they caught from the lake. In addition, major shipping interests effectively vetoed the addition of a third barrier in the much maligned Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. They feared it would interfere with the movement of ocean-going ships into and out of the Port of New Orleans.

There were countless other historical conflicts between federal, local, and state authorities as the Corps planned and constructed the massive system that was unable to resist Hurricane Katrina. Huge delays due to demands by local business interests were common. One of the longest delays followed objections by West Bank business and government officials to the Corps’ proposed levee alignment in 1972. In a land where levees and drainage works define the development footprint, local interests desired the Corps to push their levees farther from the river and into the backswamps. The more land that the levees encircled, the larger the parish tax base. When the Corps did not satisfy development proponents with revised alignments in 1979, the parish voted to take over the levee building task itself. After it completed an environmental impact statement in 1984, the Corps rejected its application to destroy wetlands. Eventually, the parish turned the task back over to the Corps after delaying the process for five years. Hurricane Juan in 1985 produced minor flooding on the West Bank and highlighted the costs of conflict and procrastination.

Other factors also disrupted the completion of the hurricane protection project. Threatened and real budget cuts accompanied each conservative administration in Washington. In addition, the environmental circumstances where the levees rose presented unrivaled challenges. Lacking bedrock or even firm soil, construction took extraordinary lengths of time. As the engineers devised means to deal with a difficult setting, they had to conduct trial runs – which took years to evaluate in some cases. In 1976 and again in 1982 the federal government critiqued the Corps for falling behind its original 1978 projected completion schedule and allowing the budget to balloon. On the eve of Katrina, the projected completion date for the 1965-approved hurricane protection system was 2015. Even without having to deal with the scale of destruction produced by the 2005 storms, the Betsy-prompted protection system had become a half-century task.

As the media converge on New Orleans for the Katrina anniversary, some will ask why much of the city is still uninhabited and why provision of basic city services is fragmentary. I would ask them to look at the pace of other urban restorations after major storms. When considering the scale of the disaster and the extent of the damage. The uncertainty of flood insurance requirements, funding from state and federal programs, and the great dispersal of the city’s population have significantly hindered restoration. While there is ample opportunity for corruption and ineptitude to interfere with progress, one must not forget the scale of the calamity and the protracted response after Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

While a political culture of conflict and corruption will affect the city’s future, the ongoing response to Katrina is mired in a landscape bound together by complex historical factors that are as powerful and pervasive as the personalities at work in that landscape today.

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    K JONES - 9/14/2006

    Hello all!
    In essence, this posting is a call to others who might hear me and a sort of "wish list" for my "mission."

    I am on my way to New Orleans, or I suppose I should say "Back to New Orleans."

    Why am I telling EVERYBODY?

    Might be because I do not get why we have an entire city that this country has...FORGOTTEN ABOUT??

    Might be because I had no clue, and I am one of those who try to pay attention to things even after the news stops. I feel the need to run yelling through the streets because if I didn't know New Orleans was still in a complete state of destruction then a lot of other people don't know either.

    Let me tell you my story and leave it at that.

    I am just a regular kinda girl, been in the business of real-estate investing for a lot of years (decades, actually). I had not had so much as a 1 week vacation since about 1982.

    There was never any time to leave my desk..never a place I could find to "lay down the ball"...always people needing something right now TODAY.
    In case you are wondering, I am "sharing" this fact with you to try and illustrate how "strange" it was for me to suddenly be 700 miles from home.

    One night, I went to sleep.

    I rolled over and found myself standing on a bridge overlooking New Orleans.

    Now, we all know I am not really saying I went to sleep and rolled over and found myself on a bridge in New Orleans...it just SEEMED to happen that way.

    A sequence of events over the course of a few days landed me on that bridge.

    What I saw was......BEYOND AMAZING.

    I am going to do my best to stay off of my soapbox in this email and just speak the basics (for now).

    I do have to ask you all one question though.....How can there be an entire city, especially one like New Orleans, SO TIED DOWN BY BS AND GOVERNMENTAL RED TAPE THAT A FULL YEAR LATER IT LOOKS LIKE IT HAS NOT BEEN TOUCHED??

    This city!!!!.....
    New Orleans is an industrial and distribution center, and the busiest seaport in the world by gross tonnage. The Port of New Orleans is the largest U.S. port for several major commodities including rubber, cement and coffee.[citation needed] *****The port of South Louisiana is the 4th largest port in the world.

    Hmmmm 4th largest port in the world...is there a major port anywhere in the world that has no city next to it?? I might have to research that. If I were a betting woman I would have to say I seriously doubt it.


    Everybody got the chance to catch a couple of days worth of Spike Lee, CNN and Fox News during the anniversary of Katrina. For the first time in almost a year "THEY" choose to show you a piece of reality.

    Of course, I have to say...I have a slight problem with their portrayal of the story. The word overkill comes to mind. They made it seem...beyond hope.

    I did not see houses in the streets. I am sure they were there and I am sure SOME still are today. What I saw when I drove from one end to the other, from the bridges and from the streets, was houses that you can see straight through. Not rubble, not houses in the middle of the street, just houses that sat under water for days. Entire neighborhoods, miles and miles and miles, as many exits off the Interstate as you can find, from the beginning to the end. From the "white" neighborhoods to the "black" neighborhoods. Not just houses, apartment complexes, Hotels, Shopping Malls and everything in between.

    From: http://www.hurricane-katrina.org (A wonderful website that I recommend highly!)

    **This is a photograph of a single residence, but keep in mind folks there are miles of houses that look like this. Newsman Danny Heitman of The Baton Rouge Advocate said one journalist he knows clocked 85 miles of this on his odometer.

    I, being a Hillbilly from Tennessee, transplanted in Texas for years and then dropped into Atlanta so hard it made a sinkhole, cannot explain my newfound passion for the City of New Orleans. It just is. I assure you, it wasn't there before "I woke up on the bridge." All I can say is, I "felt" New Orleans. I looked across the city and felt it's pain.....and the pain of the people that had washed through the streets.

    Yes, it looks like a bomb was dropped. Yes, it DOES look like Armageddon rolled through. Yes, those with no real heart will say "leave it, it is done."

    I am sorry for them, for their lack of understanding, their lack of vision.

    Wikepedia says.....

    New Orleans is known for its multicultural heritage as well as its music and cuisine. It is considered the birthplace of jazz.[1]HYPERLINK l "_note-usinfo"[2] Its status as a world-famous tourist destination is due in part to its architecture and its annual Mardi Gras and other celebrations. It is often called the "most unique city" in America.

    Will the most unique city in America be left in ruins?? Left to rot? I don't think so.

    What can WE THE PEOPLE do about the situation??

    To start with, I am looking dead at all of the people who have so much as spoken "Humanitarian Fund" to me over the years. You know who you are and you know the meaning of the phrase. My reasoning is that out of the likely hundreds of people who consistently use this term, surely there is 1 or 2 who "can put their money where their mouth is." If New Orleans is not a prime example of something in need of "Humanitarian Funding" then I obviously do not understand the term myself.

    If any of you would like to do something to help, I will soon be able to provide you with information as to what we propose to do on the "grand scale" in the Non-profit arena.

    Secondly but most importantly, I am calling on all of the Real Estate Investors who have any "gumption" at all. From those of you own a handful of properties, to those who own hundreds, including all of you who play in Real Estate in any capacity, and especially those of you who understand the wholesale market. I am going to keep this simple and put it this way.....If every Investor came to the table and bought one property a piece, we could have a large portion of the city "rehabbed" in no time. If you provide the people of New Orleans with affordable housing and make a way for the families who want to come back, even one house at a time.....you could help make a BIG difference.

    You guys (and gals) buy up everything you can that you think will make a profit. I have personally watched (and participated) in almost the entirety of Atlanta being bought and sold over the last 15 or 20 years. I have watched YOUR activity raise property values by astronomical amounts. I have watched you roll through entire cities (my locals, think Griffin or Macon for a moment). I have watched SOME of you truly make a difference in communities by moving in and taking control. I have watched you give whole communities "face lifts". In a nutshell, I KNOW what you can do. I am calling on you.

    There is a very real wholesale market in New Orleans RIGHT NOW. You can buy at a discount, do the work, put tenants in and "make your income." There are multitudes of people who do not want to come back. There are many who have recouped a portion of their equity from insurance and would happily sell the property for the difference because they wish to start over somewhere else. There are many who didn't owe anything on their property at all. I could go on and on, but you already know what I am saying.

    If I have your interest at all, I can provide you with greater detail. All you have to do is ask.

    Let me also add here, if you have EVER thought about investing in Real Estate, we will take you by the hand, teach you the ropes and walk with you every step of the way.

    We are planning to go to New Orleans and try to make a difference. I am going to make as much noise and kick as many shins as I can to try and get the attention we need. I am going to plant both feet "on the ground, in New Orleans" and I am going to raise the roof as high as I can.....In other words, I am going to be my normal persistent, obnoxious self ;-) I very much feel like nothing is getting done because nobody is making enough noise.

    I also have a "team" behind me who's collective experience in the area of Real Estate and Finance is almost immeasurable. To coin a phrase, "this is the kind of stuff we eat for breakfast." We will be providing every service needed. We will have feet in the street locating the properties, Lenders to finance and the management company to oversee. We will oversee rehabs and can provide the contractors. In a nutshell we have the capacity to make this a very pleasant endeavor on all sides.

    Here is my Wish List....Please know that we will only deal with sincere, honest individuals and we will perform due diligence. If you are looking to scam OR if your main objective is to "get rich overnight" you won't like us very much.

    I would love to hear from anyone who can help us make things happen. We need all the Lenders we can get, both conventional and hard money. We need local Insurance Agents, Appraisers, Closing Attorneys, Realtors, Contractors, Builders, etc.

    In the beginning, we will need a Louisiana Licensed Mortgage Broker to work with. Not being supercilious here but I need someone well seasoned in the art of Investor financing. I have done a lot of years as a Mortgage Broker and Sr. Loan Officer and I have spent the vast majority of those years doing nothing but non-owner occupied loans. It is a whole different ballgame from your first time homeowners or your next door neighbors refis. I need experience here, there is no time to teach. I also absolutely need complete honesty in this department AND in the appraisers. I have done all of my years in this business in Atlanta, Ga., often named the #1 city in the US for Mortgage Fraud. I have watched the crooks do more damage than I can describe. I will not tolerate one single elevated appraisal or any documentation at all that is not 100% legit. We are here to help this city, not drag it further into the ground!

    We also need a Mortgage Broker who is knowledgeable in owner occupied financing especially in the area of rehab money. Not only are we going to be in the street locating properties for sale, we are going to attempt to help as many homeowners as we possibly can. Many have been screwed by their Insurance Companies and think all is lost. We need someone who knows the ins and outs of using equity in the property to get them back on their feet. Knowledge of any/all Government money available would be EXCELLENT.

    I have to say that I believe New Orleans is in a state of suspended animation because no one knows HOW to find the money and even when they know where it is, they do not know HOW to ask for it. I cannot remember whether I read it or heard it on TV, but I understand Mississippi is WAY ahead of Louisiana in disbursement of Govt Funding. Why? Because someone in Mississippi knew how to ask for it. I guarantee a lot of the idiotic "Red Tape" can be diminished if you know how to fill in the blanks with the "correct information." Knowledge in this area would be most helpful.

    I need people who have expertise in the area of raising houses. ASAP

    This is an entire city that needs to be rebuilt. This is going to take a collective effort to accomplish. We need people who care enough to get off their behinds and MAKE IT HAPPEN. It is time for the "movers and shakers" to step in and utilize their knowledge and connections to pull New Orleans out of the muck. If we do not look out for "our neighbors" we are just as responsible as the Government that has failed miserably at taking care of it's people. We can all sit around and wonder how this has happened, we can point fingers at people in the Government until we are blue in the face. The truth of the matter is this...when you point a finger, take a step in front of a mirror...it is, in all actuality, WE THE PEOPLE who need to wake up and stop relying on people like this <GUESS WHO?> "so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them." to "rush to our aid."

    I thank you for "listening" and hope to speak to some of you soon!

    Many Blessings,

    Kimberly Jones

    Kimberly Jones
    US Mortgage & Investments
    678-680-7604 voice mail