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Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina barreled down on southeast Louisiana, killing nearly 2,000 people in all. New Orleans bore the brunt of the devastation: With 80 percent of the city underwater, its residents faced a failed relief effort. How far New Orleans has come since then depends on who you ask. There are signs of growth, including an influx of young entrepreneurs and a revival in tourism. But for some people, like those still unable to return to their homes, the situation remains grim. And new surveys suggest African Americans have experienced a dramatically different recovery than white residents. A decade after Katrina, we look at the long struggle to rebuild New Orleans.
- Gary Rivlin Former reporter for The New York Times; investigative fellow at The Nation Institute; author of the new book "Katrina: After the Flood"
- Sarah Broom Writer and New Orleans native; author of the forthcoming book "The Yellow House"
- Michael Greenberger Founder and director, University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security: heads a team that advises governments and private institutions on how to respond to catastrophic events; professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
- Michael Hecht President & CEO, Greater New Orleans Inc., economic development organization for southeast Louisiana
Infographic: 10 Years After Katrina
Perceptions Of Post-Katrina Recovery
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Smaller, whiter, more expensive, these were among the descriptions some residents have given of today's New Orleans. In the decade following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the region is felt a resurgence in tourism and has been energized by an influx of young entrepreneurs. But many residents point to a disparity in the recovery.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about 10 years of rebuilding in New Orleans and what we've learned from Katrina, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Center For Health and Homeland Security. From the studios of WWNO in New Orleans, journalist Gary Rivlin and from the studios of NPR in New York is writer Sarah Broom.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you will join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL GREENBERGERThank you.
MS. SARAH BROOMThank you.
MR. GARY RIVLINPleasure.
REHMGary Rivlin, you're the author of a new book. It's called "Katrina: After The Flood." So give us a picture of New Orleans today. How many people have returned and who is it who makes up the population?
RIVLINSo New Orleans was a city of about 450,000 at the time of Katrina. About 80 percent of those people, 380,000 are back. The real tragedy, the real change is that 100,000 African Americans -- there are 100,000 less African Americans living in New Orleans today than at the time of Katrina. And to make the story even worse, there's this growing disparity.
RIVLINIn 2000, the average black middle class family was making $30,000 a year. In 2013, that was down to $25,000 a year.
REHMSarah, you are a writer and New Orleans native. You're the author of the forthcoming book, "The Yellow House." Tell us about the yellow house.
BROOMWell, Diane, you know, when I was thinking about the 10 years since Katrina and the flooding, I thought there's only one thing actually that hasn't changed for me and for my family and the one thing that hasn't or didn't change was my brother, Carl, sitting on the empty lot where our house used to be. And in the essay I wrote for the New Yorker, I call it "Babysitting Ruins."
BROOMBut so much of -- my mother is still displaced. She never received a Road Home grant and really, I meant to humanize, you know, what happened and all the people who are still there, who actually haven't seen very much change at all.
REHMYour brother, Carl, spend seven days on a roof before he was rescued.
BROOMThat's right. That's right. And watching other people rescued and then finally after the seventh day, he was dropped off on the interstate and then made his way around the city. A lot of the landmarks were erased, right? Things were underwater and so in so many ways he was a foreigner in his own city.
REHMAnd turning to you, Michael Greenberger, you head up the Center For Health and Homeland Security. You also head up a team advising governments and private institutions on how to respond to catastrophic events. Looking back at the Katrina response, what do we know today that we didn't know back then?
GREENBERGERWell, there was a failure at every level of government in organizing and responding to the events of that day. And as we look back and talk about it, what bad shape the city is in and to the extent it's recovered, it's not recovered the way people would like it to have recovered. A lot of this was preventable. The most fundamental thing that was preventable was that the levies were built by the Army Corps of Engineer and were totally inadequate to hold back the water.
GREENBERGERBut even leaving that to the side, there was an expectation. There were plans in place that, at all levels of government, the federal government, state government and city government, there would be an organization that would be developed to respond meaningfully to the events. The most fundamental was, ironically, New Orleans had an evacuation plan and the evacuation plan would have had people leaving the city in phases well before the levies broke.
REHMSo what you're saying is that the failure was in the emergency plan itself.
GREENBERGERNo. The emergency plan was fine. The problem was the emergency plan was sitting on the shelves.
REHMDidn't get implemented.
GREENBERGERRight. And what we've learned from this is, you have to do this planning at all levels of government in a real world. It can't be something sitting on the shelf written by a consultant. You have to plan. You have to train your responders and you have to continually exercise to make sure that people know that plan, are trained for the plan and can respond effectively.
REHMWhy was the military not called in immediately?
GREENBERGERThat is a fascinating and fundamental question. There are complicated laws about when you can use the active military in an emergency and the fundamental point is that responses to weather conditions or health conditions are fundamentally under the Constitution, those of the state, but there are important exceptions. And when I was in the Clinton administration, we worked through those exceptions.
GREENBERGERAnd there was a memo lying in the Department of Justice saying in this instance, you can bring the active military in, even if the governor does not approve. The governor, Governor Blanco, told President Bush, you bring the military in, but we're going to run the military, the state of Louisiana. Completely unacceptable, but they spent days...
GREENBERGERBut there was a memo lying in the Department of Justice saying when essentially all hell has broken loose and people don't have their fundamental rights or services, that's when the military can come in. And just think what would've happened if the military, with all its resources, which, by the way, was stationed in Florida and Georgia for days waiting to come it, had come in.
REHMAnd flash -- fast forward to today, Gary. How has the recovery differed across New Orleans?
RIVLINWell, I'll use the comparison of a few communities. You've got Lakeview, a prosperous white community that was completely covered in water after the levies failed. Ten years later, 100 percent back, arguably better than ever if you ignore the lousy streets there. You've got New Orleans East, well-off black community, middle class, professional class, really wealthy parts, it's about 80 percent back 10 years after Katrina.
RIVLINThen, you go to the 7th Ward, the 9th Ward, you know, more working class neighborhoods. The lower 9th Ward is about one-third back a decade later, 7th Ward maybe 50, 60 percent back ten years later and that's the real great tragedy here. It was not an equal opportunity storm. You were more than three times more likely to lose a home if you were an African American homeowner than if you were white and it has not been an equal opportunity recovery.
REHMAnd why has that recovery not been equal?
RIVLINWell, you know, you start with public housing, the Big Four, as they called it in New Orleans, four large housing projects. Some of them got water. Some did not. But they're all shut down. They put fences around them, put up razor wire. They were never reopened. And you know, you wanted the kitchen help, the housekeepers and the hotels back. There was no affordable place to live in a city where much of the housing was ruined.
RIVLINRents went up. Road Home, Sarah brought it up before. This was the largest -- $10 billion program, largest federal housing recovery program in U.S. history and five years after Katrina, a judge determines that it's racially discriminatory, but by that point, you know, favoring white communities over black communities the way it was drawn up, but by that point, there was $150 million left.
RIVLINIt was largely too late to do anything and the die was cast. You know, two-thirds of the homes in New Orleans were valued at $125,000 or less and so Road Home would make you whole, your home's worth $125,000, you got $75,000 in flood insurance. We'll give you a $50,000 check theoretically to make you whole. Well, a contractor costs what a contractor costs. A roofer costs what a roofer costs.
RIVLINAnd so it would cost you $200,000 to rebuild that home, but you only had $125,000 in your hand. So one of two things happened. You said, wisely, I don't have enough money to rebuild and you're still scattered. You're not here in New Orleans. Or a lot of people, they rebuilt anyway. And so I would do these interviews, I would walk into someone's house and, like, three of their five rooms were rebuilt and the other two rooms, the door was closed because they were down to the studs.
REHMWow. So what you're saying is that some people had the resources to rebuild using not only what was provided, but their own resources.
RIVLINWell, they, you know, we all know that there's more wealth, generally speaking, in the white community than the black community so, you know, whether we're talking about savings, rich uncle, generation wealth, so a lot of people in the white community, you know, just started rebuilding. They didn't have to wait for the insurance check or the Road Home check.
RIVLINBut then, the government policy made it harder.
REHMAll right. Gary Rivlin, he's author of the new book, "Katrina: After The Flood."
REHMAnd joining us now as we talk about what's happening in New Orleans after Katrina, 10 years after -- joining us by phone from New Orleans is Michael Hecht. He's president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. That's an economic development organization for southeast Louisiana. Michael, tell us briefly the kind of work your organization is doing to help New Orleans grow.
MR. MICHAEL HECHTOh, thanks, Diane. Great to be here. Well, there are really two things that we are doing that address directly what you've been talking about, which is a very real issue. One is, we've focused on cultivating a broad range of jobs across a broad range of industries in New Orleans -- some of them are traditional industries, like manufacturing and trade, some of them are new industries, like technology and emerging environmental, managing the environment -- to create a range of opportunities. Because one of the real challenges of the old New Orleans' economy is that it wasn't diversified. It was basically energy or trade or it was hospitality, which are the lower paying jobs.
REHMAnd tell me how you would describe the recovery to this point.
HECHTWell, I think that succinctly I would say it's remarkable progress but not yet close to success. And what I mean by that is the economy before Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans -- people might not know this -- but it had been stagnating for about four decades. And all of the challenges with inequality and unequal outcomes and the divisions across race and class have been here and been existing for at least four or five decades, pre-Katrina, and then before then.
HECHTSo now the economy is doing much better across some macro elements. It's one of the fastest growing in the country overall in terms of population, in terms of GDP, in terms of people moving here. But the challenges that you're describing and that Gary is describing are very real and that is that, as of now, not everybody is yet fully participating in this revitalization.
REHMWell, and that is the question. You've got this inequality in the recovery. What do you think businesses can do to improve that?
HECHTWell, I think there's two things. Obviously, one is by providing good quality jobs. And that's most important. But second, is investing in the fundamentals. And in my mind, that's education. We need to have outstanding, free public education as well as secondary tertiary. And the business community has been very engaged and I think that's one of the reasons why the urban school district in New Orleans is the fastest improving in the country.
HECHTWe've gone from 62 percent failing schools pre-Katrina down to 6 percent failing schools now. Graduation rates up from 54 to 73 percent. College enrollment is from 37 to close to 60. So still a long way to go. But a lot of this has been business as well as civic and also faith-based engagement. Whereas, before, folks just weren't engaged enough.
REHMSo what do you see as really standing in the way of recovery and well-being across the entire city?
HECHTWell, I would argue that until we have a robust and accessible and growing middle class, this recovery is not going to be long-term, sustainable, long-term stable. We're going to get there. But I think one of the frustrations that people feel is that it's difficult to turn around decades of challenges in really just five to seven years. And that's how long we've been looking at this. So the truth is that we're probably 10 years into a generational 30-year project. And so what I say to people is let's keep self-critiquing. Let's keep challenging ourselves. But let's realize that we need to stick with this thing for probably 20 more years before we'll be able to judge success.
REHMMichael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. Thank you so much for joining us.
HECHTDiane, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
REHMAll right. And to you, Sarah Broom, 20 to 30 years might be a bit long to have to wait.
BROOMThat's right. I think that, you know, it's -- of course we have a disparity in terms of recovery because we have a disparity in terms of life experience. And I grew up in New Orleans East and I aspired for most all of my life to the French Quarter, so to speak, you know? I was -- I felt like a tourist in my own city. And all of my jobs in the beginning were very low wage. I was at the coffee shop on Royal Street. I was working in Jackson Square at the ice cream shop. My siblings were working in the French Quarter. We were all taking the busses -- two busses, actually, back to home.
BROOMAnd so, you know, I think, in terms of the actual human beings here who are still around, who are still trying to make a life, who have gone through, you know, in the past 10 years, who've been forcibly displaced, who have tried to resettle, who were abandoned, really, by their own country, who have suffered losses upon losses upon losses. And I think, you know, the question is really how do we change what...
BROOM...for many, New Orleans has been about. You know, I went to terrible schools. You know? I -- all of my childhood friends are dead or in prison. You know? I would love to go home. I've tried to go home many, many times. I've felt that I wouldn't be able to make a life there the way that I can make. And so, you know, it's really important, I think, to remember the human beings, to remember that this is age-old trauma happening. And how do we respond to these very human things that are still ongoing?
REHMGary, when you were there in New Orleans, did you perceive frustration among a certain part of the population and a feeling of, yes, we're moving ahead on the part of others?
RIVLINYeah. I feel like, in New Orleans, there's this white narrative and a black narrative. The white narrative, quickly, is we all got together after the storm. We rebuilt. We didn't wait. And now things are better than ever. Our city's better than ever, our schools are improved and, you know, where they live has improved. The black narrative is like, you know, despite this notion we all get together after a crisis -- black, white, rich, poor, doesn't make a difference -- there was a blockade of a bridge to get out, to walk to safety. It was a largely black crowd trying to go through the white suburbs and it was blocked by the police, who had no right to block the bridge but they did it anyway.
RIVLINSo there wasn't this Kumbaya feeling together. Early on, you heard some of the wealthy white business people saying this is our chance to change New Orleans, make it, you know, a less poor city, to seize back control. It was a black controlled city. Within five years you had a white mayor, a white supermajority city council, a white police chief, a white prosecutor, the whites controlled the schools, whites controlled public housing. And so, you know, there's this real frustration.
RIVLINThere was just a series of polls, one came out a couple of days ago from LSU Manship Communication School. 80 percent of whites said that, you know, the recovery is going well, that it's mostly finished. 40 percent of blacks said the same. And, you know, there's this great divide...
RIVLIN...almost every single African-American I interviewed, over 100 for this book, talked about what still needs to be done. Almost all whites I interviewed for this book talked about, the city's looked better than it ever has in their life.
REHMHmm. Michael Greenberger, we all remember President Bush saying, you're doing a great job, Brownie. President Obama is in New Orleans today to talk about 10 years after Katrina. What could President Obama do now that would make a real difference in what's happened there?
GREENBERGERWell, I must say, with regard to President Obama, it's not for a lack of trying. First of all, in terms of the emergency management approach -- if busses had evacuated people, if the military had come in and rescued people, used their medical, food resources, if the levee had been built properly. Why isn't the levee built properly? Because we can't afford better levees. But we can afford $12 trillion to rescue banks as a result of the financial crisis. New York City itself was flooded in Superstorm Sandy, the lower half of Manhattan, because their barriers in the New York Harbor were totally inadequate. And they're going to have to spend $6 billion to improve it.
GREENBERGERBut, you know, the president always talks about infrastructure and wants to improve it. But the Republican Congress is very resistant. In these particular situations, the levees are going to be rebuilt. They will be better. Probably not as well as state-of-the-art that we see in the Netherlands. But you can't turn off protections, which we in a sense did in New Orleans. People insist that the money be made available and spent and taxes are raised. And we basically, not completely, but tend to do the right thing.
GREENBERGERI would also say this for President Obama -- and by the way, it was very true of President Clinton -- President Clinton went through Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He brought his emergency manager, James Lee Witt, to Washington. After eight years, FEMA was a world-class responder agency. And President Bush went back to the routine of putting in political favorites for these jobs. And Brownie had no experience at this at all. President Obama brought the emergency manager from the state of Florida, who ironically, by the way, worked for Jeb Bush in Florida, who is a first-class head of FEMA.
GREENBERGERNow, because of the weather conditions that we are seeing, probably brought on by global warming -- let's not debate what's causing global warming -- if you talk to an emergency manager -- for example, the man who runs the Maryland Emergency Management Agency -- he's going to tell you every week there's a flood, there's a wildfire, there's a hurricane, there's a tornado, there's vicious snow storms. This Emergency Management -- oh, and I should mention, infectious diseases like Ebola that need to be responded to by these governments. And so we are in a constant state of responding to crises.
GREENBERGERI think that President Obama, at least from that perspective, has been responsible and effective. But we need more.
REHMSarah, talk about...
RIVLINCould I defend President Bush for a...
REHM...what your family has experienced up to this point.
BROOMOh. So we have been in -- essentially in the middle, in limbo. My mother was displaced and eventually made it to California after the storm. Another sister drove until gas ran out and ended up in Ozark, Ala. I had brothers and family just all over the country. And my brother, Carl, who had actually stayed in New Orleans during the storm, about a year later was in the hospital. He had a problem with his intestines. And during this time that he was in the hospital, the house, our house, my mother's house, my childhood home was demolished. And none of us, I have 11 brothers and sisters, was there to see it go. And it turns out that the letter announcing the demolition was actually delivered to the mailbox of the house that was to be demolished.
BROOMAnd so, in all of this dysfunction, so for the last 10 years or so we've been trying to essentially get a Road Home grant, which is what is due my mother. And it's just been total bureaucracy, you know, things getting lost, suddenly the people who are handling the case changes. And so recently we found out just a few days ago that the guy who had been handling the case at Road Home actually is no longer with Road Home. So we had been leaving voice messages since April on a, you know...
BROOM...the number of a man who's not even there.
BROOMSo I think, for us, it's been really slow. Not very much has happened.
REHMExactly. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Gary, I know you wanted to make some comments regarding the Bush administration's handling of Katrina. Tell me about that.
RIVLINYeah, anything negative you want to say about, you know, the -- President Bush and his administration as far as the botched handling of the rescue that first week -- just to remind people, the storm happened Monday morning. The city almost immediately started flooding. It wasn't until Friday, day five, that busses started showing up en masse at the Superdome where 25,000 people were, another 20,000 at the convention center -- busses didn't start showing up there en masse until Saturday. And it wasn't till day seven, Sunday, when finally it was cleared out.
RIVLINBut the president had a political problem on his hand. In retrospect, his presidency effectively ended with Katrina. He never recovered popularity-wise. But I don't think you could put the failed recovery at the feet of the Bush White House. He took -- it was a Republican-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate -- he took on the House and Senate, which didn't want to give New Orleans much discretionary money. You have to, under FEMA guidelines, pay for ruined buildings, ruined streets, ruined libraries, that kind of thing. But there was a lot of discretionary income. And so that $10 billion Road Home Program, that was the Bush administration putting that up.
RIVLINYou could be a cynic and say the reason he did that is because he had a political problem on his hand and he wanted to, you know, buy his way out of it. But I blame the locals -- the governor, the mayor and other people in Louisiana for the state of New Orleans today, not the Bush administration.
REHMAnd of course, Sarah talked about the Road Home Program. How effectively do you think that's operated, Gary?
RIVLINWell, you know, Road Home, it was announced six months or so after Katrina. It was Governor Blanco, a moderate Democrat -- it was her great plan to, you know, help the people who were drowned out by both Katrina and Rita. Remember, three weeks after Katrina, southwestern Louisiana was hit by a Category 5 storm, you know, Rita, which we'd be talking about 10 years later, except for Katrina. And so this was to make people whole up to $150,000.
RIVLINAnd on paper it made a lot of sense, right? You have insurance money but that's not enough. We'll make you whole up to $150,000. But basing it on appraised value rather than on the actual cost of rebuilding thwarted the whole thing. Early on, the frustration is it was taking so long. I -- that Sarah's family is still wrestling with them 10 years later is just preposterous. I don't know what to say about that. But in New Orleans, you know, everyone's waiting a year, a year and a half, two years. Finally, the checks are starting to come. But then we get to the disparity issue that people in the white part of town were getting much more money than people in the black part of town. And it just -- it was a disaster.
REHMAnd remains so. Michael.
GREENBERGEROh, yes. Absolutely. And, Diane, when we were off air, we were talking. We're seeing this in cities where there are no hurricanes. You know my office in Baltimore. We had the Freddie Gray episode. And those protests were not only driven by adverse police relationships with the inner-city community, but by a failure of education, failure of housing, failure of health care. So you've got to look at the New Orleans situation in the context of what's happening all over the country.
GREENBERGERAnd by the way, we went through a recession in 2008 and we face a Congress that does not want to tax those who can afford to pay greater taxes for these kind of improvements. I go back again to the levees. If that levee had been built properly, we would not be talking about this problem today.
REHMMichael Greenberger of the University of Maryland. He heads a team that advises governments and institutions on how to respond to catastrophic events. And short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to open the phones. First let's go to Cary, North Carolina. Lenny, you're on the air. Go right ahead, please.
LENNYThank you, ma'am. I enjoy your program. Thank you for having me. Anyway, my concern is, why should we rebuild anything below a 100-year -- below the sea level, being almost all of New Orleans is below the -- is the 100-year flood plain, and a good portion of it is below sea level.
REHMGary Rivlin, I'm sure you've heard that comment many times.
RIVLINRight, so he is right, 50 percent of the city is below sea level. A great quote is the Mississippi River is so important that it demands a city at its mouth. The problem is, it doesn't leave any room for one. So you could get rid of New Orleans, but then a New Orleans would have to develop. But I want to say to that, so why do we -- why do we rebuild California? It's an earthquake zone. Why in the Midwest? You've got river floods. You know, anyone living along the coast, I'm sorry to say, is living, you know, in harm's way.
RIVLINThe Midwest, we have tornadoes. I mean, there was a grand debate here about do they rebuild the lowest-lying communities. And, you know, the way it was talked about is shrink the footprint. And the geographers and demographers are giving all the reason, and it's just -- it's just impossible. I mean, as they were having the debate, people were already rebuilding. I mean, people weren't waiting for them to complete this.
RIVLINAnd, you know, what are you going to do, destroy a home for a second time because we decided we're not going to rebuild this community? I mean, you know, New Orleans exists, and we need New Orleans. New Orleans is an extraordinary city. And, you know, this idea that we're not going to rebuild it is just preposterous. And, you know, the city is much safer today, at least from, you know, from the threat of storm surge. You know, the $14.5 billion later, it's a very good flood protection system.
RIVLINThe worry is the coastal wetlands that Southern Louisiana is losing 25 to 30 square miles of wetlands every year. That has to stop because the best barrier, the best protection for New Orleans from a flood is the coastal wetlands because that breaks down the storm surge. For every three miles of wetlands, you lose a foot from the storm surge.
GREENBERGERWell yeah, I think New Orleans has an iconic historical role in the history of the United States. And besides that, there's a cultural aspect to it. And I think much of what Gary says it right, that we can rebuild New Orleans and make it safer. The technology is there. They do it in The Netherlands that's overwhelmed by the Atlantic Ocean. And so I think it -- we had to do it.
REHMBut it takes money, and it takes effort. Sarah, how do you feel about our caller's comment?
BROOMYou know, I think always when I think about the question of why rebuild, you know, I think, you know, people have chosen to live in New Orleans, just as people have chosen to live in San Francisco. And so I think people can decide where they want to be, and I think the real question for me is who belongs to New Orleans and who is left out of the city's vision of itself. And I think if we can figure out a way to get to the root of that question, we'll have actually grown.
BROOMBut for me, it's -- you know, people should live where they want to live.
REHMYeah, Gary, have African-Americans been left out of the vision of New Orleans?
RIVLINYes, so there's kind of a fundamental problem that, you know, the high ground was taken by the time home ownership was available to the typical African-American. It wasn't until the '60s or '70s that racial discrimination laws started to come into effects, banks would make loans and stuff. So when we talk about shrinking the footprint, when we talk about the lowest-lying communities, well, guess what? You know, if we got rid of the lowest-lying communities, that would be 80 percent of the black community.
RIVLINSo it's just this really difficult decision. At this point, black New Orleans feels left out. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, who I actually think is a very good mayor, he said back in May, the recovery is behind us. I see it as his mission accomplished speech. And, you know, I'm talking to African-Americans about that, and, like, how do they hear that? Their community is 50 percent back, 60 percent back.
RIVLINAnd he's declaring victory. And it's, like, okay. I guess now New Orleans is West Baltimore, is Detroit, is the wrecked parts of Chicago, Kansas City. We could keep listing cities. You know, that's the problem now, that there isn't any more Katrina money. There's a little bit of FEMA money, there's a little bit of Road Home money left over, but now New Orleans is like much of the rest of urban America, the same problems that -- you know, of blight, et cetera, that you see in cities across the country as New Orleans, and they no longer have, like, well, at least we're going to get hurricane relief money.
REHMAll right, let's go to Harry in Baltimore, Maryland. You're on the air.
REHMYou're on the air.
HARRYOh hi. Well, I have two points. I'll start with the ineptness of what was the New Orleans administration. They had an escape plan for all the people, but they parked the school buses, they had a lot of them, in the first area that flooded, and all the school buses drowned, and eventually the taxpayers had to pay for new school buses. That was really stupid. The second issue is, you've heard the expression you didn't build that, you didn't get rich by yourself, well, the GO Canal cut through all the wetlands, made it possible for shippers to save money because they didn't have to steam up the Mississippi anymore, they could come straight north.
HARRYThe GO Canal ended at the levies to the Ninth Ward. There was a barge parked there. The storm came right up the GO Canal and smashed the barge through the levy into the Ninth Ward, and that's why it drowned.
REHMMichael, can you speak to that?
GREENBERGERWell, yes, there are many infrastructure problems with the way things were when Katrina hit. I think those are fixable problems, but it takes -- it takes money. And we live in a world today where we are trying to assure wealthy people that they don't have to pay their fair share of taxes. What we're finding out from these experiences, you can't live in a gated community and escape wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, terror attacks, Ebola. We need to have not only a physical infrastructure but a personnel infrastructure of qualified, capable people, and we can head off these kinds of disasters.
GREENBERGERBut it's true, in the absence of any focused attention, as the gentleman said, the ship owners got what they needed, but that didn't help the city of New Orleans.
REHMAll right, to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, Lisa, you're on the air.
LISA NICHOLS-HICKMANYes, my name is Lisa Nichols-Hickman. I'm a Presbyterian pastor. And when our church was there to help out eight years ago, every conversation ended with the last -- with these six words, which were don't forget us, tell our story. And I tremble when I say that today because it was so powerful, and I'm so glad for this program, where you're doing just that. And I guess I'd be curious to hear from folks, what's the story to tell, what needs to be remembered in this next decade of continuing to rebuild.
REHMSarah, how do you respond?
BROOMThank you, that's a great question. You know, I think for me, the big story is that this is ongoing. This trauma, this Katrina and the flooding, what happened, these are things we carry in our body. I actually know when the anniversary is coming because my shoulders and my neck don't work as well. I literally feel it in my body. And I know every member of my family does.
BROOMAnd I think, you know, whether there's an anniversary, whether people are paying attention, we're talking about human beings. There are psychological repercussions. There are people who are traumatized, who will never be the same, and so for me, that's really the story, which is every person has their own story, but every person is dealing with it in their own way, and we have to be aware of that.
REHMSarah, I gather your mother is living in your grandmother's house, many miles away from New Orleans.
BROOMRight, she -- my grandmother, who actually died after being moved from a nursing home in Louisiana after Katrina, she left essentially the one house we have in our family, which is in St. Rose, Louisiana, and my mother has been living there. And so, you know, for her, she bought a house when she was 19 years old. She -- this is a woman who was born in 1941, who sat on the back of the bus, who sat on the back of the streetcar. You know, to not have a home is a very big deal for her.
BROOMAnd so around this time, I think those of us who really feel this in our bodies are trying to figure out, you know, what does it mean to be part of this place that treats some of its citizens this way.
REHMIt's interesting, we've had this email from Tom, who says, the Roadblock Home, as it came to be known, offered us all $2,200 to buy our empty lot after we demolished and removed the levy-failure-destroyed Lakeview house that we had paid $178,000 for in 2003. After our valiant but continually thwarted effort of nearly two years to find a way to rebuild, we escaped to Virginia. Michael?
GREENBERGERWell, I would like to pick up on something that was said about the nursing home situation. There were about 1,300 people, somewhere in that neighborhood, died in New Orleans. Seventy percent of those were people in nursing homes. Now, you know, I can say that now nursing homes are very worried about these things and want to have plans that would not allow this to happen, and we do a lot of planning for nursing homes.
GREENBERGERBut what was highlighted in this was the trauma of vulnerable populations. If you don't speak English, if you're a child, if you have a disability, if you're elderly, these things are going to hurt you much more than the general population, and aside from the failure of a general response, there was a complete failure of taking into account, for example, elderly people in nursing homes.
REHMSo is New Orleans any safer today than it was 10 years ago?
GREENBERGERWell, the short answer is yes, but that doesn't solve the problem of the inequality about which we've been talking. But I think every city is safer today because of lessons learned from Katrina. We're planning better, we're training better, we're exercising to make sure our plans work, and we saw that in Superstorm Sandy, which, by the way, as bad as Superstorm Sandy was, it was nowhere near as devastating as Katrina.
REHMBut surely African-Americans don't feel as safe as the white population.
GREENBERGERBut I can tell you, when you're going, as we did, evacuate the eastern shore, we evacuated everybody, black, white, Asian-American, what have you. One of the great things about emergency management, it's not an ideological thing. Most people who are involved in it want to help everyone, and there is an emphasis on the vulnerable population, the people who can't read English, speak English, elderly people, children. So I think an effort is being made.
GREENBERGERWe're not -- may not be rebuilding the cities to help everybody, but we are trying to protect everybody from these consequences.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Gary, would you say that vulnerable populations are better protected today should another Katrina occur in New Orleans?
RIVLINYes, definitely. The flood protection system is stronger. An earlier caller talked about the GO Canal, that's the MR-GO most people call it, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which, as one scientist at LSU said, a perfect storm delivery system. The arrogance of human beings in the 1950s, they built a canal, shortcut to avoid the turns and twists of the Mississippi River. That has been shut down. That helps.
RIVLINYou know, so positive steps have been taken. You know, the safety problem in the African-American community is a city with one of the two or three highest murder rates in the country. So that's a separate topic. But as far as, you know, a storm, another hurricane, the city is far safer, black, white, rich, poor, doesn't make a difference.
REHMAll right, let's go to Kevin in Nashville, Tennessee. You're on the air.
KEVINHey, thanks for the program. Where to begin? In Nashville five years ago, we had one of the largest non-coastal floods in American history. And one of the things that helped us is local leaders. We had great local leaders who -- and we also had people that didn't wait on the government. They didn't wait around. They started helping their neighbors. I was quite a phenomenal recovery. And one of the things I saw in Katrina is it's easy to blame the Republicans or that the rich people aren't paying their fair share of -- you know, their taxes, which I would disagree with the gentleman who says they're not paying their fair share, but I think what one of the big things that happened is that the local leaders had a meltdown when Katrina happened.
KEVINAnd when that meltdown took place, then the feds have to come in, and that's always an administrative nightmare. And so one of the things that helped us here is we had great local leaders, and we also had people that didn't wait around for the government to come rescue them, they began to help neighbor to neighbor.
KEVINAnd it was quite a phenomenal thing.
REHMOkay, Gary, what would you say to that?
RIVLINI'm really thanking you for calling on me here because I get frustrated. I hear that all the time. Yes, we all watched Mayor -- anyone in New Orleans watched Mayor Ray Nagin unravel. You know, he -- he disappeared when the city needed him. But people didn't wait. You know, I don't care if you're talking about Lakeview, a white community, Lower Ninth Ward or low-income black community, the Seventh Ward, New Orleans East, kind of more in the middle, you know, people started meeting right away. They didn't wait on government, they didn't wait on FEMA, they didn't wait on FEMA to give the elevation maps. They started rebuilding right away.
RIVLINAnd there's this sense of, like, oh, well, the African-Americans were just waiting for the handout, it's not true. It wasn't true. I talked to the people. I went to their meetings early on. You know, there was this proactive effort to start rebuilding. It's a human thing. But there's this perception, like oh, well, the reason the black community isn't back is because they were waiting for the handout. It just wasn't so.
REHMInteresting. All right, last word, quickly, Michael.
GREENBERGERYeah, I would just say in the Nashville situation, you see local leaders doing very well, but behind all that is a lot of federal effort in giving planning funds, training funds, exercise funds, and I think five years ago in Nashville, we were in better shape to respond. There is a broad-scale effort to make things better.
REHMMichael Greenberger, Gary Rivlin, Sarah Broom, thank you all so much for giving us an update on Katrina. And let's hope it continues to improve. Thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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