Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Katrina: Two Years On

On the morning of the 29th of August 2005, one year ago today, Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. I have written a great deal here about this storm, in addition to the all too often overlooked Hurricane Rita. On this second anniversary, it is appropriate to take stock of what has happened since the landfall of Katrina.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things is that, even after all this time, new victims of the storms are still being found. Although it is now becoming increasingly rare, every now and again there will be a report of yet another body being found that was missed in previous searches. Fairly recently, a body was discovered in a bath. In the last year though, probably the most high profile victim of the storms of 2005 has been Governor Kathleen Blanco. She has announced that she will not run for re-election. Her unpopularity in the aftermath of the storms made this a political necessity that even the power of her husbands political machine could not overcome.

As for people who were directly impacted by the storm, recently released figures suggest that there are still around 40,000 people living in those notorious FEMA trailers in the State of Louisiana. This number is likely to have to shrink soon, now it has been discovered that the trailers themselves may not be fit form human habitation, due to noxious chemicals. Who knows what indignities FEMA and other agencies will manage to visit upon those who have to be displaced, yet again.

Those displaced by the storms are not just located in Louisiana though. There are an estimated 70,000 people who are living outside the State who still want to return. These figures come from The Louisiana Recovery Corps.. Although these numbers are distressingly large, they also do not convey the full impact of the tragedy the occurred in Louisiana in 2005. They do not include the people who have decided not to return to Louisiana, scared off by the high price of accommodation and the now shocking murder rate in the City of New Orleans. In all likelihood, the full extent of the human tragedy will never really be known. It has been severe though.

In the City of New Orleans, although the Katrina anniversary shows like to emphasise how much better things have got, it is important to realise that such perspectives only appear when the City is viewed from certain angles. Sure, the French Quarter, which never flooded is now hosting groups of drunk tourists as before. However, what these optimistic views miss is the rest of the City. Consider the case of the Lakeview area. Before the storm this was a relatively affluent area. Unfortunately, it flooded badly. Now, only about 25% of residents have returned and are rebuilding. Many more of the buildings remain untouched since August 2005. Things in the much poorer Ninth Ward of the City are, if anything, a little worse. So, do not be fooled by the upbeat affirmations of the news anchors. There is still plenty of suffering and tragedy around and about the City of New Orleans.

This being said, it is also the case that not everyone has done badly in the aftermath of the storms. There has been a great deal of money promised to help rebuild the City of New Orleans. Unfortunately, a good deal less of this money has actually appeared. The rebuilding funds are supposed to be administered by The Louisiana Recovery Authority. Needless to say, although the claims to the Authority have been many, the actual payouts have been few. For the most part, the Authority specialises in issuing upbeat (though implausible) press releases and inventing ever more complex and Kafkaesque procedures that people making claims have to follow. Although the actual storm victims have not seen much benefit from the activities of the Authority, the consultants that have been hired to administer the funds seem to be doing very nicely.

The other two groups who seem to be doing rather well in the aftermath of the storms are developers (often from out of State) and property speculators. When Congress passed The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, the idea was to encourage rebuilding in the areas of the Gulf Coast that were devastated by the storms of 2005. One provision in this Act created so-called 'Go Zones'. In a Go Zone, the Act provides for a bonus depreciation of 50% on construction projects that started after August 2005 and completed by the end of 2008. What this means in practice for developers is that for every $10 Million Dollars they invest, they will receive a tax credit of approximately $5.3 Million Dollars. Thus, as a result of the storms, there has been a rash of speculative development. This has produced a veritable bonanza for both developers and property speculators.

One unfortunate side effect of all this construction activity is that there are now plenty of big box stores, yuppie condo developments and unnecessary student apartment complexes being built. The presumed goal of this Act, to provide housing for ordinary displaced residents and those in FEMA trailers, has seemed to have been forgotten as people have used the Act to get rich(er) quickly. So, while there is plenty of expensive property for those with large bank rolls, the normal working people are rather less well served.

Another curious feature that has appeared since the storms is the 'pseudo-survivor'. These are people who were never really too badly affected by the Tempests, but had to put up with a few people staying at their house, for a few days. They can now claim to have PTSD and all sorts of other, high improbable afflictions, while garnering support for their 'bravery' from people elsewhere in the US and around the World. When this is done on blogs, this kind of activity is especially distasteful.

So, what has been learned since the time of the storms in 2005? The first lesson is that outside agencies, be they consultants, or the Federal Government cannot be trusted. The people who have really made the recovery efforts as successful as they have been are just regular people. There are the church groups who have volunteered their time and labor. There are the neighbours who have helped one another out. These are not people with mission statements, or fancy web sites. They are just people getting stuck in and getting the job done.

Fairly recently I heard a tale from someone who had wanted to come down and spend some of their holiday time working. They contacted a national organization, who should have shown interest in their skills. To their amazement, this organization required them to make a cash donation, in addition to paying for their own accommodation and food, before their application would even be considered. So instead, they bought a tent, got in their car, and went looking for people who needed some help. It did not take them long to find folks who welcomed the assistance. Thus, it seems that the conclusion after two years must be something like 'trust people, not organizations, when it comes to surviving and recovering from Hurricanes'.

In closing, I want to share an amazing video I found on YouTube, that was taken during Hurricane Katrina by the Vaccarella Family of St. Bernard Parish. The video is quite long (circa 10 mins.), but worth watching. It shows the water level around their house rising to the level of the roof as the storm surge arrived. It is some amazing footage, not least because it shows the efforts of people helping one another out, both during and after the storm.

Finally, let us not forget the many people (how many, we shall probably never know) who lost their lives during the Storms of 2005. Let us hope that the rest of this years Hurricane season remains quiet in the Gulf of Mexico.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correction: The Louisiana Recovery Authority secured the federal dollars and designed the programs for spending the money. It DOES NOT administer the programs, as you say here. The programs are administered by other state agencies, which must grapple with endless amounts of federal red tape to access the funding needed for rebuilding.

3:15 AM  

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