New Orleans is recovering, and offering lessons for Haiti
New Orleans is recovering, and offering lessons for Haiti
February 21, 2010
by MARC CAPUTO
The Palm Beach Post News
NEW ORLEANS â€” The spray-painted X marks from the search-and-rescue teams still mar the dilapidated buildings where the bodies of people, dogs, cats and even chickens were found in Hurricane Katrina's wake.
But new schools, homes, businesses and clinics rise here and there from empty lots in scarred neighborhoods. The city's population has grown to 80 percent of pre-Katrina levels. And the Super Dome is now known as the home of the new Super Bowl champion Saints -- not a sad and befouled refuge of last resort.
More than four years after it became modern America's largest disaster, New Orleans is a city of contrasts that serves as a living lesson of do's-and-don'ts to its distant and shattered Creole cousin of Port-au-Prince: rebuilding is slow, painful, expensive, dynamic -- and a marvel for those who stay.
``You're not going to rebuild a neighborhood or a city in five years,' said Tricia Jones, an activist who, along with everyone else in the Lower Ninth ward, lost her home on Aug. 28, 2005.
``The reality is, it does take long -- longer than you would like. But for every day, there's another house going up. And let me tell you, that's something special when you're driving around. That's something special,' she said. ``That is the healing portion that keeps us going.'
But New Orleans is far from healed.
CASH IS EVERYTHING
Tensions between the rich and poor, white and black simmer under the surface. Fear, anger, frustration -- and hope -- are palpable. Healthcare is a challenge, as are paying the bills or simply driving on the potholed streets or trying to get someone at City Hall just to answer the phone.
Mistrust of government runs thick, though New Orleans wouldn't have been rebuilt without the government.
So far, $52 billion in federal, state and local money has been spent on everything from emergency food stamps to small business loans to homeowner grants, according to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state agency that -- along with the state's recovery school district -- could prove to be a model for reconstruction in Haiti. The LRA has allocated nearly $20 billion more for reconstruction.
Charity groups, whose involvement is crucial, have easily spent a further $1 billion, from church groups to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.
The staggering sums might not be enough, and with the global financial crisis, there isn't much more to spare. Money was already tight in New Orleans, one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the United States which had been losing population ever since the 1960s, when Hurricane Betsy last flooded the city. Haiti's struggles with hurricanes have been far worse, and it's also the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
Paul Rainwater, who oversaw reconstruction as the head of the LRA from 2007-09, said money is crucial.
``First this is about cash, and getting money to people. It's about getting dollars on the ground as quickly as possible . . . so people have confidence you can get back,' he said, noting that it's ``an understatement' to say that Haiti is poor.
BAD BUILDING PROVES DEADLY
The similarities between post-Katrina New Orleans and Port-au-Prince today are striking, even though the scope and types of disasters greatly differ. The slow-moving hurricane killed 1,464 and displaced about 1.3 million people;he surprise earthquake killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 1.2 million.
About a quarter-million homes collapsed in Haiti, just 25,000 more than were damaged in Southern Louisiana. The earthquake produced 60 million cubic meters of debris, just 5 million more than Katrina -- enough refuse to fill 13 Super Domes.
Short-term housing was a mess in Louisiana and is a crisis in Haiti.
After the back-to-back blows of Katrina and Hurricane Rita a month later, many evacuees were exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde in tens of thousands of trailers provided as temporary homes by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The trailers are still in and around Louisiana, and some wanted them sent to Haiti to replace Port-au-Prince's tent cities -- an idea kiboshed by FEMA Director Craig Fugate earlier this month. New Orleans had a temporary tent city of its own take root downtown under Interstate 10 from 2007 to 2008.
Also, the calamities in both cities weren't just natural disasters. They also were man-made, the result of shoddy and short-sighted construction.
The Haitian government failed to enforce codes to ensure buildings were more earthquake proof. In New Orleans, the flood-protection system should have been able to withstand Katrina's wrath, but the flood walls and levees weren't properly built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In the months after the storm, Louisiana had three agencies managing recovery. The result was gridlock before Rainwater, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and Bronze Star recipient who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, took charge.
``There's a correlation with Haiti: Whoever is in charge needs to be in charge. It's extremely important to have one person,' Rainwater said. ``Committee just doesn't work very well.'
GREEN DOTS SPARK ANGER
But government needs to strike a balance between what the leaders want and what the people feel they need. Rainwater and other experts say locals need to have a hand in shaping their recovery, because it helps disaster victims have a sense of control when so much of their world and lives lie in ruins.
Involving the locals can also be less expensive, more efficient and minimize civil unrest and resentment against anyone perceived as an outsider.
That lesson was writ large just five months after Katrina when out-of-town consulting firms, working with local and state governments, recommended rebuilding plans that would shrink the footprint of the city, halt rebuilding in hard-hit communities and turn some neighborhoods -- many of them African-American -- into green-space flood-retention areas. The retention areas were marked with a green dot.
The ``green-dot plan' sparked outrage and was quickly killed.
Robin Keegan, Rainwater's LRA successor and a self-described ``re-local,' said the controversy showed that outside planning help only helps so much. ``We in Louisiana can't even grasp what it's going to take to rebuild Haiti. And I think we can't know what's best for the Haitians. We have to take their lead.'
But some fret that New Orleans might have given too much weight to local sentiments and shunned the expertise of neutral, outside observers who weren't beholden to provincial politics and prejudices.
Miami architect Andres Duany, leader of the ``new urbanism' movement, said government officials continually retreated from good ideas amid objections from a few ``vocal' people.
Duany, designer of easy-to-build ``Katrina Cottages' as an alternative to the wretched FEMA trailers, unveiled a sturdy pre-fab Haiti house last month.
While the differences between Port-au-Prince and New Orleans are vast, Duany spotted a similarity when it came to housing: Some survivors, especially the poor, don't have the proper documentation proving ownership of their now-ruined homes. That makes it difficult to ensure that government rebuilding grants go to the right homeowners.
Some families in Louisiana who qualify for the state's ``Road Home' rebuilding grants can't get any money to rebuild or sell their ruined houses, which are technically owned by long-dead ancestors.
``New Orleans has a culture of Caribbean laissez faire. There wasn't a great deal of paperwork. People didn't have their deeds,' Duany said. ``The federal government clamped down with an efficient Minnesota-style bureaucracy on a Caribbean laissez faire culture, and the dysfunction was completely astonishing.'
But the vast majority of homeowners got their money. Since 2006, about 126,000 people have received nearly $8.3 billion in Road Home money. The program -- a model of government incentives to build smarter and populate after a disaster -- requires people to elevate their homes, buy flood insurance and add hurricane-hardening devices like shutters. Maximum grants available: $250,000.
Thousands of residents have relied on the help of nonprofits. Actor Brad Pitt's nonprofit is helping construct flood-proof homes in the Lower Ninth ward. Across the Industrial Canal, musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis joined with Habitat for Humanity to build Musicians Village, a community of 72 brightly colored shotgun shacks, to ensure that Bourbon and Frenchmen streets would never fall silent.
Not everyone has shared in the government largess.
Resident Roy Arrigo, whose was flooded with seven feet of water when the 17th Street Canal wall that borders his backyard failed, said he rebuilt with the help of his insurance settlement and his neighbors.
Arrigo said there's a lesson for his fellow man in Haiti: ``You are on your own. Don't count on anybody else.'
The abiding mistrust of government isn't limited to the Corps in New Orleans. Corruption is a constant theme in the city -- as it is in Haiti -- and was the scourge of the school board, where the FBI conducted so many investigations that locals said the agency had an office in the school system.
After Katrina, the state Legislature turned over nearly all school operations and new construction projects to the New Orleans Recovery School District. A charter school-centric state agency, it soon built and rehabbed five new schools -- the only new public buildings in the city, said Ramsey Green, the district's chief operating officer. Buildings that weren't elevated were made like battleships, replete with water-tight doors, interior flood walls and easy-to-clean terrazzo floors.
Green said the buildings were crucial because, like the Road Home program, they lured residents back -- especially families, the cornerstone of a community. ``It showed that government was functioning, that it was here for people,' he said.
``The first thing to do after a disaster,' he said, ``is to recognize how sad people are, to recognize that people are walking around and seeing things they saw every day -- and in some cases their entire lives -- destroyed. And you have to immediately show that, while their lives might not be the same, their lives will at least be here.'
Today, about 35,000 children attend 85 schools. Before Katrina, about 63,000 students attended 128 schools. Green said that at least one non-governmental organization involved in Haiti has approached the recovery school district to ask for help in kick-starting schools in the earthquake zone.
Like school buildings, community institutions -- whether they're Po'Boy sandwich shops or the newly renovated Mahalia Jackson Theater -- are crucial to rebuilding efforts because they create a sense of place. "They're more than just buildings. They're cultural institutions," said Flozel Daniels, executive director of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.
The foundation ultimately helped businesses like Sammy's Deli re-open its doors in the Gentilly neighborhood, where city firefighter Glenn Jordan, 54, stopped by on a recent rainy day for some hardy Louisiana cooking.
"If you lost places like this," he said, "you'd probably lose New Orleans."
Another crucial and difficult aspect of recovery: healthcare.
All the hospitals were closed in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, so doctors got the police to break into an intact social-services buildingto set up a makeshift E.R. Soon, doctors, police, social workers and mental-health professionals were all working side by side, talking to each other about how to make healthcare better, said Dr. Karen de Salvo, chief executive officer of Tulane Community Health Centers.
``We were all thrown together like a gumbo,' she said, ``and everyone's missions started to shift. We had to think about getting people back on their feet.'
That allowed for a revolution in healthcare centered on patients and the community, rather than on hospitals.
Pre-Katrina, the New Orleans area had 17 hospitals with emergency rooms. Today it has 11, but there are now 93 clinics associated with 25 nonprofits for 175,000 patients -- 20 percent of the area's population.
Assuming Haiti can keep and lure back doctors and nurses, de Salvo said New Orleans' neighborhood-based clinics show how to provide good care at a lower cost to the poor.
But challenges in mental healthcare remain, in part because the city is so ruined. About 61,000 properties are blighted or vacant, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Rents have gone up and thousands -- especially those who had trouble receiving Road Home grants -- can't come home.
The Rev. Charles Garrison, pastor of New Genesis Baptist Church in Gentilly, said racial tensions in the town, which preceded Katrina, have intensified for some black residents who feel shut out of the recovery effort and see a "hostile takeover" underway. After all, the area's black population is proportionately declining, a number of black teachers lost their jobs after the state's recovery school district took over and the city this month elected it first white mayor, Mitch Landrieu, since 1978.
Just across Franklin Avenue from the church, Garrison points to a home where a renter is still living without power. A few doors down, a house is still boarded up, a stark contrast to the lush Garden District or the ribald French Quarter.
``New Orleans is known for Bourbon Street, the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, and lots of the city looks intact in those areas,' Garrison said.
``But it's a facade. People are hurting,' he said. ``Everyday, you have to drive past houses that are still boarded up. And on a day to day basis seeing those kinds of things has an impact on the lives of the people. It always will.'