“There is no other cavalry coming. …We are the cavalry.” So says a New Orleans resident in We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, an extraordinary look at the city’s revival in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Roberta Brandes Gratz tells the stories of local people who returned to their homes to take the rebuilding of their city and community into their own hands in the face of bureaucracy and profiteering. Order the book today with a donation to Truthout!
In the following excerpt from We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, Gratz demolishes the myth that Katrina was a “natural” disaster and details the overwhelming failure of the federal government and private contractors during and after the hurricane.
Nothing defines New Orleans better than the Live Oak trees that line its streets, grace its parks, provide shade and shelter during the relentlessly hot summers, and buffer storm winds. The leafy long branches of the curbside trees spread horizontally so far across the street toward each other that they form lush canopies of green, adding an elegant aura to even the most downtrodden rows of houses. The green lasts all winter. In the spring, new leaves emerge as old ones fall; thus the term Live, which distinguishes them from other oaks that remain leafless and dormant in winter. As they grow, twisting and turning in the winds, the Live Oaks gain their strength by anticipating the way the winds blow and adapting to the fierce changes in weather.
In City Park, home to more than three thousand Live Oaks, not one of the two thousand trees lost during or after the storm was a historic Live Oak, reported Chief Development Officer John Hopper: “[These trees] are uniquely suited to our weather and better able to withstand flooding and wind than many other species.”
“The environment of oak trees is something that separates New Orleans from Atlanta or Houston,” observed S. Frederick Starr, noted author of many books on New Orleans. “Most of old New Orleans streets had balconies that covered the sidewalks and the oaks were an extension of the canopy. They made the city’s weather bearable.”
The strength and endurance of the Live Oaks do indeed have a particular significance, notes science writer Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. They are, perhaps, a metaphor for the city itself and the strength of its people. Live Oaks grow in clusters, Benyus points out, and their spreading roots form a deep network connecting one tree to the next. That network holds the extended tree family together. The trees survive so well because they are indigenous to the region. In New Orleans, where they are frequently subjected to fierce coastal storms, they have endured because their twisting branches spread outward as well as upward, leaving ample room for the wind to pass through them. The leaves of the Live Oaks curl up in a storm to let the wind pass by. Their roots spread wide but stay firmly connected to the thick, gnarled parental trunk, lending strength and balance to the branches above.
The city of New Orleans is much like its great Live Oak trees – strong, disaster resistant, and amazingly resilient. Deep-rooted family networks provide a human infrastructure that gives strength to residents and allows them to support each other, while overcoming the failings of governments and financial hardships. Time reveals the city’s strengths just as it has proven the strength and endurance of the Live Oaks, many of which are hundreds of years old. The loss of limbs and leaves from many of the Live Oaks during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita (which, as noted, followed one month later) left the city feeling denuded, with too much sun burning through where shade had once prevailed. But the trees are growing back, leaf by leaf and limb by limb.
Before Katrina, as Fred Starr pointed out in a conversation with me, “New Orleans already had the poorest tree cover of any major city, based on aerial photographs.” For decades, he added, the city has failed at replanting many Live Oaks while the power company, Entergy, unceasingly obliterates many trees. Even worse is what Fred calls “the palm tree phenomenon, a total waste,” whereby the city is planting palm trees – even though they are not native, they fall during storms and they are expensive because they must be planted full-grown. Individuals and organizations such as Parkway Partners sponsor tree replanting but are unable to keep up. This points up an important theme in the recent history of New Orleans: local leaders working to fill the gap left by government.
In no other American city have familial networks remained as strongly rooted to particular neighborhoods, making the history of New Orleans unique. Like the Live Oaks with their strong interconnected root systems, the city’s white, African-American, and Creole of Color families have gained strength from their habitation in well-defined neighborhoods over many generations.
Many New Orleanians live in mortgage-free houses that their grandfathers or fathers built. They don’t leave them easily. To be sure, other American cities also had deeply entrenched demographic patterns before post-World War II redevelopment policies and relocation choices dispersed families geographically. In New Orleans, however, these patterns proved more resistant to disruption than elsewhere. As documented throughout this book, the resilient nature of New Orleanians is one reason why the recovery of the city, primarily through the rebuilding and revitalization efforts of local residents and community leaders, has been so successful throughout the past decade.
But more than just resilience explains the recovery of New Orleans since the devastation of Katrina – which was a “manmade” disaster, not a “natural” one. As New Orleans writer Randy Fertel told me: “Those are fighting words here if you talk about Katrina as a natural disaster; it wasn’t a natural disaster but a federal flood caused by the Corps screw-up.” On August 31, 2010, a few days after the fifth anniversary of Katrina, author Tom Piazza wrote in his Huffington Post blog:
At first it looked as if New Orleans had been smacked by a hurricane, which, of course, it had. It would take awhile longer for people to understand that the images that halted the coffee cup en route to the mouth . . . were the result not of a natural disaster, bad as the hurricane was, but of a catastrophic planning and engineering failure on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers. Many still don’t realize it. Of course, many also think that Iraq planned the 9/11 attacks.
• • •
The overwhelming failure of the federal government and its myriad private contractors during and after Hurricane Katrina is inexplicable. What compounds the tragedy and prevents the public from understanding what really happened was the success of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bush White House’s perpetration of so many false reports and explanations. As musician, author, radio host, and film and TV personality Harry Shearer asked in a conversation: “How is it the Corps of Engineers screws up time and again and no one gets fired? Nothing happens.”Some myth-busting about Katrina and the immediate aftermath is in order.
Myth: Katrina was a “natural disaster.”
Fact: Katrina has been recognized as the most catastrophic failure in the history of American engineering.
Myth: The levees were “overtopped” by the intensity of the high water.
Fact: The levees collapsed in fifty-three places due to engineering design errors and “were responsible for 87 percent of the flooding, by volume.”
Myth: Katrina was a Category 4-5 hurricane.
Fact: It was a Category 3 when it reached New Orleans and had been anticipated by hurricane simulations a few years before.
Several books since have vividly detailed the storm but probably the best of them are Jed Horne’s Breach of Faith and Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s The Storm.
Horne does a masterful job of setting the record straight on a number of issues: C. Ray Nagin (the mayor of New Orleans from 2002 to 2012) and his emotional outbursts coupled with the delay in his calling for a mandatory evacuation; despite her poor TV performance, Kathleen Blanco (the governor of Louisiana from 2004 to 2008) declaring a state of emergency three days before Katrina struck (one day before Mississippi), ordering the evacuation of the New Orleans Metropolitan area on Saturday afternoon, placing the National Guard and state agencies on alert and then struggling to get White House attention; and FEMA head Michael D. Brown’s total incompetence, his attempt to blame everything on “a ‘dysfunctional’ relationship between unnamed Louisiana politicians [Blanco and Nagin],” and his belated admission that FEMA had sponsored a disaster drill a year earlier during which the entire Katrina scenario – levee inadequacies, widespread flooding, and a high death rate – had been simulated in an exercise called “Hurricane Pam.” Months after Katrina, it was revealed that President Bush had been officially informed of this simulation on the afternoon of the storm. That meeting was taped.
Other failures at all levels of government in the immediate days after Katrina are well documented by Horne and others: the lack of a city evacuation plan, the Red Cross’s no-show, the city’s turndown of offers of evacuation assistance from the four national railroads that pass through New Orleans, FEMA’s delay in requesting assistance and, worse, its outright rejection of free help from corporations, foreign governments, doctors, firefighters from all over the United States, and even regular FEMA contractors (Brown insisted on first setting up a chain of command, making sure that volunteers “checked in” with FEMA and obtained official badges). The hidden agenda, as we will see, was to give lucrative contracts to the right people.
Who can forget that, finally, three days after Katrina, President Bush cut short his Texas vacation and had Air Force One “fly low” over the drowned city to get a glance of the disaster on his way back to DC. This in contrast to President Lyndon B. Johnson who, forty years earlier, showed up just one day after Hurricane Betsy, said he was there to help, marshaled all kinds of assistance, and then ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to build stronger levees.
But most fascinating of all, as highlighted by both Horne and van Heerden, was the successful strategy, presumably contrived by the “master of spin,” Karl Rove, to make Governor Blanco look indecisive after President Bush offered to “federalize” the Louisiana National Guard – a proposal she considered for three days and then declined since it offered no value. The president’s declaration of a national emergency on the Saturday of the storm actually meant that the federal government was already officially in charge pursuant to the Stafford Act of October 2000. Thus, federalizing further was an unnecessary ploy to shift the focus of failure to Blanco. Mississippi’s Republican governor Haley Barbour was not given the same meaningless opportunity, nor did he ask for it. It was a useless gesture but a good public relations gimmick worthy of Rove. The ploy was officially denied, of course, but then Brown is reported to have told a group of graduate students in New York that someone in the White House came up with this strategy “because Blanco was a female Democrat, but stay out of Mississippi, where Governor Haley Barbour was a male Republican.” At that time, Blanco was the only Democratic governor in the South. Both governors and states were treated quite differently, as van Heerden points out:
In January 2007, Governor Blanco confirmed other reports that Louisiana, burdened with 80 percent of the storm damage from Katrina and Rita, received only 55 percent of federal relief funds. FEMA had given Mississippi, with 31,000 families living in trailers, $280 million for Katrina Cottages, while Louisiana’s 64,000 families living in trailers merited only $74 million.
In fact, if Governor Blanco had agreed to let the effort be federalized, she would not have been able to activate the National Guard to address Louisiana’s needs on the ground. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, passed after Reconstruction and updated in 1981, purposely prevented the federal government from using the Armed Forces to enforce state or local laws. The National Guard was exempt from the prohibition and thus able to enforce laws in its own state. The Coast Guard was exempt because of its maritime police power. As it turned out, Governor Blanco did indeed use the National Guard to police New Orleans after the storms.
The post-Katrina intergovernmental intrigue and corruption outlined by Horne and van Heerden read like a grade-B mystery novel. Few players come out looking good, with some notable exceptions: the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries deploying its flotilla of boats, the Coast Guard pulling people off rooftops in helicopters, and most important, the random citizens in real or makeshift boats picking up anyone they could find in distress. They didn’t wait for Brown’s authorization. The TV images of those helicopters pulling people off rooftops were the most dramatic ones of all. Fortunately, none of the real rescuers sought FEMA’s permission – which probably would have been denied, in any case.
Peter Dreier, chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, noted: “[W]hile government emergency planners scrambled to get relief to stricken communities, the USS Bataan – an 844-foot ship with 1,200 sailors, helicopters, doctors, hospital beds for 600 patients, six operating rooms, food and water – was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, awaiting relief orders.”
And then there were all those politically well-connected contractors who would get choice assignments, fulfilling them with infinitely less efficiency than experienced locals and at great expense, as will be outlined later. The Katrina recovery demolishes the oft-repeated myth that private industry can do things better than government. When they did it better, the price was (and is) unconscionably high.
From a distance, the aftermath of the storm was as dramatic as it was incomprehensible. For those on the outside, the pain can never fully be comprehended. As Horne noted:
For those not caught in the maelstrom, it could be difficult to grasp just how uniquely appalling the first week was in New Orleans. No American city of comparable size had seen anything remotely like it since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The terror attacks on NY had been confined to Lower Manhattan. A day after Katrina, four-fifths of New Orleans was underwater, four times [Hurricane] Betsy’s floodplain , an area seven times as big as all of Manhattan. And the wretched masses huddled at the Superdome and the convention center were only the visible part of a ghost city of homeless New Orleanians – perhaps a quarter of a million in number – now scattered across the nation.
The strongest thread in the whole disaster-and-recovery story was the old-fashioned volunteerism evident at every stage – the barn-raising instinct that is so much a part of the American soul, the instinct to help spontaneously and without compensation. This took on an added dimension in the New Orleans story because strangers overcame historic prejudices of race, class, and gender and simply did what needed to be done. The number of volunteers probably exceeds any other effort historically, and people are still coming to help even now. Horne describes this volunteer effort vividly:
Fortunately, as FEMA brass dithered and dined well, an armada of small craft had begun fanning out over the flooded city. . . . An informal flotilla estimated at 300 craft would work Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans. . . . No one told the self-appointed captains to mass on the edges of the flooded city and launch their boats. No one had to. In a culture built on fishing and intimately familiar with hurricanes, no one needed to say a word. There was a sense of duty in responding to a flood.
Just imagine: All those outdoorsmen and – women of every possible background and occupation dropped everything and figured out how to get their small boats to the places they were needed on the Monday after Katrina, whereas the federal government took until Wednesday to organize the feeblest of rescue efforts and the Red Cross refused to come into the city at all. Wednesday was when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld set up a Katrina Task Force to start the ball rolling. On the same day, FEMA suspended boat operations based on the false notion that the city was too dangerous to enter. That night, for the same erroneous reason, Mayor Nagin ordered city police to stop search efforts and focus on law enforcement instead. How many more would have died without those citizen-heroes is too hard to imagine.
• • •
New Orleanians started saving themselves and their city during Katrina and before any level of government officially lent a hand – and they haven’t stopped since. These “civic leaders,” in fact, are what this book is really about. To this day, they are overcoming government policies and prejudices at all levels, forcing government agencies to do the right thing, organizing new community-based groups, challenging questionable public and private efforts (some successfully, others not), forging new paths to recovery, and illustrating once again that bottom-up, resident-led efforts are the most effective and enduring way to regenerate cities. Their recovery story comprises not just the small victories that added up to big, productive change but also the big failures that made their lives so difficult, and still do. This book is about both the victories and the failures.
This book does not dwell on the many evacuees who did not return. There were those who were unable to get sufficient insurance and enough federal Road Home money to rebuild because the value of their home was based on its pre-Katrina assessment (good for owners with supplemental savings) rather than on its rebuilding cost (bad for those without additional funds). Many injustices derive from this first one. No one could have rebuilt for the amount that his or her home was valued before Katrina. There were those who found jobs elsewhere, paying better than the minimum-wage jobs that New Orleans ever offered. There were those who found neighborhoods and schools elsewhere that were safer and more functional for their children. There were the elderly and infirm who died under the stress of the experience, or who feared returning without access to their church or to the healthcare previously available at Charity Hospital. There were the 5,100 or more public housing tenants whose solidly built projects from the 1930s and ’40s were undamaged or minimally damaged but demolished nevertheless. There were those with special-needs children not accommodated by the restructured charter school system. And, finally, there were those who resettled near relatives and found a stable life and new social networks.
Many reasons explain why some residents didn’t come back. But the more interesting story is about the people who did and their extraordinary individual and collective efforts to rebuild. The official insensitivity, the bureaucratic impediments, the government paralysis, and the blatant inequities could easily have defeated the faint of heart. But not the people who populate this book.
Their story could begin anywhere. I choose to start it in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was little known before Katrina, and much misunderstood, but fascinating in its own right. The story of the Lower Ninth Ward, three long miles from the French Quarter in the city’s most downriver corner, is just part of the larger narrative, but it is a good place to begin. Katrina put the Lower Nine in the spotlight, “rocketing it from local obscurity to worldwide infamy as the most beleaguered urban neighborhood in the world’s wealthiest nation.”
Copyright (2015) by Roberta Brandes Gratz. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Nation Books.