The New Normal

Walking along the Algiers levees facing downtown New Orleans, Malik Rahim stops at a huge dent in the pavement that he thinks came from a crashed barge during Hurricane Katrina.

"See there," points out Rahim, a Black Panther with grayed locks who has been a community activist since the 1970s. "That's not going to hold water back if we have another major storm." Rahim, a founder of Common Ground Relief, a collective of volunteers formed after Katrina to revitalize New Orleans, sees the levee damage as an opportunity to put local people to work on repairs. People from the neighborhood come regularly to Rahim's house, which is less than a mile away. All of them are African Americans looking for work, which Rahim seems to have readily available in the form of gutting and rehabbing abandoned houses. Common Ground has relied purely on donations and foundation grants and has accepted no money from the government.

"Look at these guys," Rahim says. "You don't see one of them drinking or doing drugs. But they all got one thing in common: They're unemployed."

Many of the hundreds of community- and faith-based organizations that have opened since Katrina have, in fact, done so without significant government help. Instead, throughout the Gulf Coast region, philanthropies and corporate and individual charities have supplied funding and resources.

Call it the "think hopefully, act locally" model. These groups have restored and provided supportive, affordable housing while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) fumbles funding for these needs. The new organizations also have provided specialized help for the homeless, those with special needs, and the burgeoning Asian and Hispanic populations. Many have also taken up work that's outside their normal mission, like wetlands and coastal restoration. Philanthropy has enabled them to do that.

The New York Regional Association of Grantmakers reports that 145 philanthropies from New York alone awarded over $325 million to 950 nonprofits in 38 states that are doing Gulf Coast recovery work. Of those, 612 are based in Gulf Coast cities. Foundations have made their rules more flexible in order to provide more relief and resources as Congress and insurance companies remain slow with assistance.

The new flow of private resources, of course, is dwarfed by the public money -- but the federal funds were released initially with no deliberate speed. As of Feb. 29 last year, of the $6.6 billion FEMA allocated to Louisiana for infrastructure, Orleans Parish had received less than $800 million, which was about 35 percent of the $2.1 billion targeted for them. New advocacy and philanthropic activism have filled funding gaps while trying to hold government more accountable.

Before Katrina, FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would call a compromised levee adequate, and there would be enough despondency in the communities to suppress second-guessing. Now, such a determination isn't made without community members asking questions, seeking alternative expert opinions, and using tools from their community organizations to declare for themselves what is adequate. This is what's been referred to along the Gulf Coast as "the new normal."

***

Recovery has been a sore issue for much of the Gulf Coast: In Mobile County, whole neighborhoods remain pummeled while $24 million of Alabama's Katrina recovery Community Development Block Grant funds will go toward building a sewage plant. The $10 million initially awarded for housing covered only 200 of over 1,000 houses needing work. In Gulfport, $600 million of the money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that was supposed to go toward rebuilding houses in Mississippi has been redirected by Gov. Haley Barbour for an expansion of the Port of Gulfport.

However, in New Orleans, recovery has been a better study in democracy. The money has been slow to arrive, but civic engagement has helped produce real benefits for communities -- as determined by them.

Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans accommodated this engagement mostly due to political necessity. To get re-elected in 2006 he needed residents' support. On Sept. 30, 2005, he announced the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB), which worked with residents (including the displaced) to develop a master recovery plan. The city needed this neighborhood manpower since its own staff and resources were being depleted -- less than a week later, Nagin was announcing 3,000 layoffs due to unfulfilled requests to the state and federal government for funds.

On Jan. 11, 2006, Nagin unveiled reports from BNOB's urban planning committee all urging massive citizen involvement. On Jan. 17, the commission presented a working plan toward recovery, which divided the city into 13 neighborhood planning districts, each of which were to submit its own recommendations by May. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush created the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding with about $66 billion in working capital from Congress.

The state's Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) handled allocation and disbursement of those funds, most of which went to insurance payments and short-term emergency assistance. The LRA's Road Home program received $2.8 billion of the funds. By the office's own admission, it erred in having overly centralized control. By November of that year, 77,000 home-owners had applied for LRA assistance, but only 28 checks had been distributed.

Concurrently, there were rampant resident complaints about house demolitions, which seemed to come randomly and unbeknownst to the owners, often with little advanced warning. The city also could not move ahead with its recovery plans until FEMA released flood-zone maps showing where rebuilding could take place.

The city was able to start moving forward, though, when it produced its Unified New Orleans Plan, bankrolled in large part by the Rockefeller Foundation, an extension and implementation of the plans that came out of the BNOB recovery plan. It was hailed as one of the largest democratic exercises in the country for allowing thousands of everyday citizens citywide to supply tremendous input through public meetings and votes on the city's future.

In December, Edward Blakely, a veteran planner of major urban-recovery projects, was announced as the "recovery czar" for New Orleans, but arrived stirring controversy. In April 2007, he was quoted in The New York Times referring to New Orleans residents as "buffoons." He also boasted he would soon have cranes covering the skyline, but no such visual emerged even well after a year into his tenure.

The first clear and consistent signs of restoration came in 2008. By November, over 600 public works and infrastructure projects in New Orleans were near shovel-ready status, with many actually completed. According to a Brookings Institution report, by July 2008, money had been awarded to almost 115,000 homeowners, although the average amount issued dropped to $58,688 from $72,669 in July 2007. And $411 million in Community Development Block Grant and FEMA funds were finally approved by the City Council to assist people on the ground doing the rebuilding. Much of this progress was made possible by the residents' own influence and urging.

***

Gulf coast groups had been organizing and agitating the government into action before Katrina. When 2004's Hurricane Ivan exposed flaws in the city's evacuation plans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans, an advocacy group for low-income and homeless families, was in meetings with the city helping to draft contingency measures for the next big storm.

No documented plans existed then for evacuating the estimated 130,000 people without cars, in hospitals and hospices, or otherwise unable to evacuate. After a worst-case-scenario simulation was presented to Mayor Ray Nagin and his staff in 2004 -- a digital Category 3 hurricane named Pam -- UNITY executive director Martha Kegel proposed contracting with school boards, Greyhound, and charter companies for use of their buses during an evacuation. Nagin's staff verbally agreed. But no contracts were drafted and nothing was implemented.

When Katrina arrived, three days into the crisis Nagin couldn't even locate the keys to the Regional Transit Authority buses, as reported in Douglas Brinkley's book The Great Deluge. While in the upstate shelter to which she was evacuated, Kegel remembers seeing school buses filled with Plaquemines parish residents pulling up, led by the parish president Benny Rousselle. She found out later that no scripted plan was in place. "They had no contracts with the schools or anything," Kegel says. "They just did what they had to do to get out of there."

One exceptional display of leadership came from Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, head of the Joint Task Force Katrina that was created when FEMA proved ineffective. He arrived in New Orleans the Thursday after Katrina struck with thousands of troops and little tolerance for nonsense. With 25,000 people cloistered in the Louisiana Superdome and another 50,000 spread around the drowned city on rooftops, Honoré came when numerous rumors were circulating about flood victims "looting," raping, and killing. Many armed soldiers from the Special Weapons And Tactics police force and the private-contracted security force Blackwater -- who were supposed to be there on rescue missions -- had their guns pointed at citizens.

But contrary to the lawlessness that was reported, Honoré, commanding general of the Army's 1st Division, determined the area "a zero-threat environment." He shouted at soldiers to lower their weapons and appeared as one clear reminder that the armed forces were there to protect, not police, the people.

***

In the months after Katrina, recovery money came slowly, if at all. Homeowners were denied claims by insurance companies that faulted "deferred maintenance" -- repairs allegedly needed before the hurricanes -- or that said homes suffered from wind damage, which isn't covered by flood insurance.

A Brookings Institution report published in March 2006 states that the Army Corps of Engineers still hadn't razed any severely damaged houses in New Orleans. FEMA had determined that roughly 50,000 houses suffered major damage, but as of March 2006, they had issued just 16,000 building permits. A report from the National Academy of Sciences published in September of that year states that the "emergency post-disaster period" for Katrina "appears to be longer in duration than that of any other studied disaster."

When people finally began returning home, many African American renters encountered Jim Crow?like racial discrimination. On Web sites like katrinahousing.org and nolahousing.com, postings read: "not racist, but white only," "to make things more understandable for our younger child we would like to house white children," and "we live in a redneck country here, especially in my neighborhood, and blacks are frowned on."

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed an administrative complaint against the Web sites for violating the Fair Housing Act. It was just the beginning of dozens of legal complaints that would pile up in Katrina's aftermath. The Jeremiah Group, a coalition of faith-based organizations throughout New Orleans that had been doing activism around housing since 1993, felt a surge in capacity.

"We have always been able to pull people together," says Jacqueline Jones, the Jeremiah Group's lead organizer. After Katrina "did it escalate? Yes. The numbers of active and core members have increased tremendously."

"Just before the storm, we were having huge fights with the city over affordable housing," says James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "There was this huge drive about getting people who would be affected by this to show up at City Council meetings to talk about this and advocate on their own behalf."

After Katrina, "They started showing up at every meeting and workshop and were telling their elected officials what they needed and how they needed it."

This new aggressive civic participation fortified Perry and urged state legislators to finally activate the Louisiana Housing Trust Fund, which was enacted in 2003 to create housing for low- to moderate-income families. It had no money until after Katrina when Perry's army convinced the legislature to deposit $25 million into the account. The new civic activism scored again when UNITY, after three years of campaigning, convinced Congress last summer to allocate $73 million for 3,000 rental units from the state's Road Home program, most of which will go to the homeless and disabled.

One fight that community groups lost was the struggle to save the "big four" low-income housing projects: St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. Of these, only Lafitte will get one-for-one replacements of the razed units. In St. Bernard, 466 units will replace the 1,300 that existed before it. However, Jim Kelly, a major developer on the Lafitte project, said in a Times-Picayune article that it was the citizens who deserved the credit.

"Now, you can't keep residents from getting in front of microphones and arguing better than or as good as any lawyer I know," says Tracie Washington, who formed the Louisiana Justice Institute after Katrina and labored to keep the housing projects open. "They've learned how to fight for themselves."

It was one thing that so many community-based organizations were forming and accomplishing so much, but without synchronization they were doomed to meet the same tangled fate as the governments they were challenging. Without coordination among the groups, the threat of cluttered and scattered agendas could have added up to rivalry and stalemate. To avoid this, the new activists began coalescing.

Timolynn Sams, an AmeriCorps worker, became the director of the Neighborhood Partnership Network, which links the city's 73 neighborhoods to one another and also with the city government. The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, formed the week after Katrina, has proved an effective connector for the network and other neighborhood-based associations, as well as an intermediary for funds making their way from national foundations.

The Equity and Inclusion Campaign was conceived by the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and formed in June 2007 to see if the swiftly growing accumulation of nonprofits across the Gulf Coast could collaborate and approach Congress as one regional dependent, rather than as a pack of siblings. With regional equity as the guiding principle, organizations from Mississippi and Alabama could finally get the attention they deserved when sold as a package with Louisiana.

When Gustav and Ike hit the Gulf during the 2008 hurricane season, they tested the resolves of not only the Equity and Inclusion Campaign coalition members but also those of the local and federal governments. Mostly, they passed. UNITY, a member of the campaign, worked with the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness for the City Assisted Evacuation Plan. UNITY's staff was in the streets helping police evacuate the homeless and people of special needs and making sure they got to the front of the line when the evacuation buses came. Campaign members from states not affected were in constant communication with members in Louisiana who were, ensuring they had transportation, bedding and kitchenware for the shelters, volunteers, food, and water.

In helping often-overlooked populations, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice was instrumental in persuading Immigration and Customs Enforcement to suspend their checkpoints so that immigrants could evacuate free of fear. It was like the "lower your weapons" command of Gen. Honoré, who now serves on the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation board.

"Nonprofits make a big difference in these people's lives," Honoré says. "But overall, the responsibility of storm recovery should be on the state government in collaboration with FEMA and the federal government in order to have a more active process and to try [to] do it quicker."

Perhaps lack of government responsibility was the reason Gustav was not a total success. While many agree things went well, there were reports of poor, if not inhumane treatment of those sheltered after the evacuation. The sheltering was the responsibility of the state's Department of Social Services. The department's director, Ann Williamson, resigned after Gustav with apologies. In the old normal, having just this one flaw, however major, in a disaster would probably have been good enough. However, Martha Kegel is already working with the state to ensure that next time, the sheltering runs better.

***

The funding for much of this new civic engagement came from major foundations such as Ford, Kellogg, McKnight, Annie E. Casey, Gates, and Blue Moon, with much of it funneled through the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Orleans Recovery Foundation. They've even provided supplemental funding for government.

When the city's recovery-management office needed additional staff, the Orleans Recovery Foundation provided funding for a director of disaster-mitigation planning, which was filled by Earthea Nance, a professor who took a leave of absence from Virginia Tech to volunteer in New Orleans. "I came here for the same reason someone who wants to be a star goes to Hollywood, or someone interested in politics goes to D.C.," Nance says.

If you are someone whose focus is on planning, environmental mitigation, and engineering, then going to New Orleans is "an opportunity of a lifetime," Nance adds. She now works in the recovery office updating the city's hazard-mitigation plan and synchronizing it with the city's master plan.

But while philanthropy has come to the rescue and fostered the growth of both civic and local government action, the new movement hardly absolves the federal government of its duty to help its citizens recover. Even with all that the community-based organizations have done, there are still tremendous gaps that may be beyond their capacity. Despite President Bush's claim on the Larry King Live show that he led a "pretty darn quick" response, there remains a stalemate between what the state and city say they need for repairs and what FEMA says it will consider for reimbursement -- a $1.4 billion gap, according to the state.

"The levees broke -- that was a federal failure," Perry says. "If federal government makes a mistake, they should be held responsible for cleaning it up. They are funded and charged [with] dealing with these kinds of issues, and they have a certain guarantee of funding and ability to do that. But with us and volunteers, there is no guarantee we will be able to continue to respond like this." However, just the fact that Gulf Coast organizations have been able to respond, especially as the wounded themselves, is the triumph of a region that's been written off as poor, colored, and likely not worth saving. Says Nance, "A major part of this recovery has been the recovery of civil society."

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