We met in the aftermath of Katrina, both giving speeches about race and recovery at a fair-housing conference. We attempted our first date during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, but the requisite preparations and family evacuations for Hurricane Gustav made it impossible to connect with each other. On our second date, at President Obama’s inauguration, we co-authored a commentary arguing that his election was possible because the televised suffering of Katrina survivors dramatically changed American public opinion toward President Bush and the Republican Party. We were in love by the time President Obama made his first presidential visit to New Orleans. We took the opportunity to write together again, claiming that the lessons of post-Katrina New Orleans offered a blue print for rebuilding our national economy. Continue reading Lessons from our second hurricane→
It was six years ago today that Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember the dire warnings prior to Katrina. I remember the initial news reports suggesting the damage wasn’t as bad as we expected. Six years ago, I had just moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I was sitting in a rental house exchanging e-mails with some friends in a discussion group. This was a medical discussion group which was made up of people throughout the world. There are approximately 1000 people who participate in this discussion group. It was around midnight when someone suggested that the levees had broken. I looked everywhere. I looked at every single website that I could think of but couldn’t find any information about the levees. Even the New Orleans Times Picayune which, as I recall, had moved its headquarters from New Orleans and most of its staff writers were in Lafayette or Baton Rouge, had nothing about the levees breaking. I remember saying something like we need to stick to the facts and we shouldn’t speculate. The member of the discussion group was insistent that his information was correct. I remember having an extremely sick feeling in my stomach. Over the next several days, we saw a city, a region of the country, cry out for help. For five days there was no response.
Over the last six years I’ve written on Katrina many many times (here, here, here and here. This last one is an interview with James Perry who was running for mayor of New Orleans at the time.) I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from this disaster. I’ve been to New Orleans twice in the last six years. New Orleans is a city that I truly love. New Orleans is a city that is completely different than any other city in the South. It’s not like Atlanta or Miami or even nearby Houston. The only city in the United States, in my opinion, that comes close to the feeling of pre-Katrina New Orleans would be San Francisco. There was something wonderful about New Orleans. It wasn’t simply a great mecca for music. It wasn’t simply one of the best places in the United States to eat. It wasn’t the unique architecture of the French quarter or even the garden district. It wasn’t brunch at Commander’s Palace or the fabulous art shops where we can buy original paintings from national and internationally known artists at prices the 10th of which you’d find in New York or Chicago. It wasn’t the abject poverty or the wealth of the financial district. It was all of this and more which made New Orleans a great city.
The tragedy of Katrina is that it exposed a dysfunctional political system. New Orleans politics has been famously dysfunctional for decades. Louisiana politics is almost laughable. It was nearly impossible to get anything done in Louisiana unless you “knew somebody.” Then, on top of this dysfunctional system you had the Bush administration. You had an administration that actually hated government. You add all of this together and tens of thousands of people suffered needlessly. My conclusion after reading tons of information on Hurricane Katrina is simply that we need to treat each other better.
I found this article in the New Orleans Times Picayune:
In April 2010, four and a half years into recovery, the Census Bureau found that Katrina cost New Orleans 29 percent of its population; Jefferson, 5 percent; St. Bernard, 47 percent; Plaquemines, 14 percent.
Some of those people settled nearby. St. Tammany’s population grew 22 percent; St. Charles Parish grew 10 percent; St. John the Baptist grew 7 percent.
But census takers counted a net loss of nearly 150,000 people who were driven out of a metropolitan area of what was once 1.3 million.
Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a co-author with Elaine Ortiz of “The New Orleans Index at Six,” an annual recovery analysis, said the region has showed unusual resilience in facing not only Katrina, but the 2008 recession and last year’s BP oil spill. (more…)
Update: Melissa Harris-Perry does a great job at summing up the lessons of Katrina.
I would like to say that I will come up with something brilliant never before said about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. I wish that were true. There have been endless books investigating the Hurricane Katrina tragedy from multiple angles. David Brinkley’s book, the Great Deluge, maybe the most complete. New Orleans’s own daily newspaper, the Times Picayune, has done a magnificent job at relentlessly chasing down details. Finally, Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, personalizes some of the pain and suffering.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Georges hit the Gulf Coast in 1998 and narrowly missed New Orleans. This hurricane revealed several problems. City, state and federal officials met in 1999 in order to plan an adequate response. The state of Louisiana formally wrote FEMA and requested a planning exercise in August of 2000. It took four years before the exercise actually happened. In July 2004, Hurricane Pam began. There were over 300 participants in this five-day exercise. Hurricane Pam, by all accounts, was a realistic category three hurricane with sustained winds up to 120 mph. Using simulations from the National Weather Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers, the participants simulated over 20 inches of rain falling in parts of southern Louisiana. The storm surge topped the levees. The simulation assumed that over 300,000 people could not get out of the city in spite of mandatory evacuations. They also assumed that over half million buildings would’ve been destroyed. Over 100,000 people were injured and 60,000 killed. This was serious.
After the simulation, an after action report was filed. The most remarkable thing about this after action report is the number of areas where the letters TBA (to be announced) up here in the report. The report is incomplete. Large responsibilities have not been decided. In football, there is a saying, “You play like you practice.” In this case, the simulation showed huge gaps in our response. In reality, there is huge gaps in our response. In my opinion, any serious look at Katrina must start with a look at Hurricane Pam and the inter-agency problems that Pam revealed.