Day 10: New Orleans, Brad Pittville and rebuilding continues 7 years after Katrina

Alberta will likely never face a disaster or evacuation on par with what New Orleans experienced seven years ago with Katrina, but every single year we do face a test to our emergency response efforts. Flooding, fires, tornados, blizzards are just part of our annual reality in Alberta. The Walsh/Irvine flooding, the Slave Lake fire, the Pine Lake tornado are just some of the reminders of the potentially deadly power of nature, and how important it is for governments at all levels to be able to work with communities and NGOs to coordinate an effective disaster response.

Meetings in New Orleans are centred around this theme. There has been an incredible amount of learning that took place from what went right and wrong during the Katrina storm, in which more than 1,800 people lost their lives. The stunning part of visiting a city like New Orleans is how remarkably normal life seems to be. The city had about 488,000 people pre-Katrina, 180,000 people in the year following Katrina, and about 355,000 people today. Anyone who thought this city would not be rebuilt and might not return to the same populations as before is being proven wrong. The French Quarter – their popular tourist zone – was on high land, about 6-7 feet above sea level which is why as a tourist you’d never know what hit this city just by walking around downtown.

But in many ways life is still not normal for many residents. I met with Council Member Kristen Walker – who helped rebuild low income and seniors acccommodation through the non-profit housing corporation Rebuilding Together. In the process she established a salvage store to use original Cypress wood, brick, doors and other recovered materials in the reconstruction. Diverting material from the landfill was one of the reasons for this, cost effectiveness was another (much cheaper to clean a brick for 10 cents and resell it for 90 cents than to bring it in new for a few dollars). But she would also write on the materials the address they were salvaged from, which allowed people buying the materials to feel reconnected with the communities they lost. It sounds like it was a powerful experience for everyone.

But all is not normal. In the district she represents, with 53,000 people. there isn’t a grocery store. Imagine that? In my new hometown of High River, population 13,000, a third major grocery store just opened up. Streetlights aren’t installed and working in every place they should be. There are no swimming pools and the library just opened. As a measure that the rebuilding is far from over, she is attending a ribbon cutting or ground breaking on new construction projects nearly every  day.

In meeting with the Lens, a brand-new non-profit daily investigative journalism webzine, we talked about the challenge of rebuilding the New Orleans school system in the wake of Katrina. There were 128 schools and 65,000 students in the public school board pre-Katrina. The school system was completely wiped out – it ceased operations “indefinitely” in the wake of the storm and has today been virtually replaced by a system of charter schools (there are 4 schools being directly operated by the public board). There are challenges (only about 2/3 of the schools are performing as well or better than they were before) but the Sci Academy is one charter school that does not have selective admission and has received national recognition for its success.

We also met with Sandy Rosenthal – a self-decribed “mom turned advocate” in the wake of Katrina – who has spent countless hours understanding what went wrong in the construction and management of the levy system that led to its catastrophic failure. There is lots of blame to go around – particularly at the US Army Corps of Engineers – though there is much praise for the Corps post-Katrina efforts. To put some numbers around the cost of delay: The 1965 plan called for a levy construction that would have cost $728 million. A cheaper, modified plan was built in the ’80s and was lauded for allowing the project to save $100 million on construction costs. Estimates of the losses due to Katrina were $27 billion. The Corps spent $14 billion post-Katrina to rebuild the new levy system. The numbers speak for themselves, don’t they?

The last part of the trip was a brief tour of the “lower 9″ – the ninth district that received the lion’s share of the media coverage and was among the most devastated districts from the storm. Rebuilding efforts were stymied by the fact that many of these homes were passed down through generations without proper legal title being registered. Providing money for reconstruction of course, hinges on providing of proof of ownership. There are still some very tricky issues this city will have to face in the not-too-distant future. Reconstruction funds came with a condition that the homes be rebuilt within 3-5 years. Coming up on the deadline there are thousands of families that used the money to pay off credit cards and mortgages, or buy new cars, and did not rebuild. What will the government do about the broken agreement? No one quite knows yet. But it creates major additional costs for the city to be providing services when so many derelict properties lie among occupied residences: maintaining landscaping, policing, providing community services, and so on.

Here are some pictures of the lower 9th. Keep in mind, every vacant lot used to have a home.


Here are some pictures of Brad Pitt’s development – referred to by the folks I spoke to as Brad Pitt-ville. Note the lack of basements, stilts, and eco-friendly features.