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On Rebuilding New Orleans

Faculty experts weigh in on what went wrong when Katrina hit and how to rebuild to reduce the impact of future killer hurricanes.


by Terry Stephan

When Mary Pattillo, associate professor of sociology and African American studies, went to New Orleans in February to participate in a panel discussion on issues facing the city after Hurricane Katrina, she was struck by what she saw. While parts of the city undamaged by the devastating floods were functioning much as they had before, large sections appeared virtually untouched nearly six months after the devastation.

“In some parts you feel like nothing all that bad happened,” says Pattillo, an Arthur E. Andersen Teaching and Research Professor (“ Chicago’s Messy Mix — Race, Politics, Class and Community,” Spring 2005). “But if you go to the low-lying areas of the city, and of course to the 9th Ward, it is such another story. The most jarring thing is how each house in those areas is marked with an X that the search teams painted. In each quadrant of the X they wrote information, including the date they were there, if they entered the house or not and if they found any bodies. House after house for miles had this kind of disaster graffiti.

“I wondered why there was not any more activity to clean it up and get people back. And I wondered what the hell the federal government is doing.”

That question has been asked repeatedly in the months since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. There is no shortage of opinions on what went wrong, how the region should be rebuilt and what lessons were learned.

For years there had been dire warnings about the vulnerability of the region to a storm of the magnitude of Katrina. A “tabletop exercise” in July 2004 involving agencies from all levels of government game-planned the outcome of a fictitious “Hurricane Pam” that mirrored the actual event in almost all aspects except the projected death toll. And two years earlier the local New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, ran an award-winning five-part series that began: “It’s only a matter of time before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

“A major hurricane in New Orleans was among the top three possible catastrophes, right next to a terrorist attack on New York City and a major earthquake in California, that the government had anticipated,” says Kimberly Gray (WCAS78), associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chemical and biological engineering (see “Good Chemistry for the Good Earth,” fall 2005). “The alarms were raised through many, many channels, but they were not heeded.”

The seeds of much of the problem were sown in the 18th century when French settlers first began to develop the New Orleans area, then largely a cypress swamp. They diverted the Mississippi River to create land for growing rice and raising cattle. When river flooding became especially bad in the early 19th century, “they went on a levee-building spree,” according to Henry Binford, associate professor of history and African American studies. “New Orleans has always presented significant problems having to do with site and having to do with acts of man and acts of nature.”

Centuries of development, erosion of barrier islands and coastal wetlands and ongoing construction of additional levees left the region vulnerable. And on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, it all came together when Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm at landfall, slammed into the Gulf Coast.

The images the world saw in the days that followed were searing: bodies floating in the floodwaters, desperate residents being rescued from rooftops, thousands of people at the Louisiana Superdome without adequate food and water and government officials at all levels seemingly incapacitated by what was happening around them.

Donald Haider, professor of management and strategy and social enterprise and director of the Center for Nonprofit Management at the Kellogg School of Management, attributes the breakdown in systems and responses to two main issues: federalism and bureaucracy. “Federalism begs the question of who does what, who pays for what and who delivers what service or program. It involves power and legal authority in our federalist system. In the disaster-relief area, we have a shared responsibility between city, state and national governments. You overlay who is responsible for what with the Civil War legacy in the South of deference to state and local sovereignty plus Lousiana’s colorful and arcane political structures, and you have big disaster problems.”

He says bureaucratic problems primarily arose out of the decision to merge the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. “FEMA was previously an independent agency that dealt with disasters and national security (civil emergency). Under the most extensive federal reorganization since the 1940s in terms of funding, personnel and separate agencies, FEMA’s independence and powers were substantially curbed, budget reduced and functions made largely coordinative and exhortative. DHS’s mission reflected a new emphasis on preventing and responding to terrorist attacks, not natural disasters. The bureaucratic mess was further complicated by what most regard as a rather inept FEMA administrator.”

Compounding the problems was the near total collapse of the area’s infrastructure. “The winds and water destroyed communications systems so basic to dealing with the situation: cell phones, emergency radio networks, satellite communications,” says Haider. “So there was no clear-cut authority, responsibility or means to overcome these problems through coordination and communications. That spells disaster.”

“People generally take their physical infrastructure for granted,” says David Schulz (KSM74), director of Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute and adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering. “They get up in the morning, turn on the lights, take a hot shower, eat breakfast and go to work all the time confident that a public safety system will be there in case they get into trouble. They have become so used to these aspects of modern civilization that they barely notice them in everyday life. But when all is suddenly gone, life is not sustainable, as they found in New Orleans.”

In the absence of reliable information, the situation in New Orleans deteriorated into a swirl of rumors, exaggerations and sometimes-inaccurate information provided by the media. Stories of rapes and murders spread through the city, adding to an already tense situation and further dividing the city along racial lines. “When legitimate information sources are unavailable, people accept improvised news, weaving what they hear with beliefs from their cultural past,” wrote Gary Fine, John Evans Professor of Sociology, in the Christian Science Monitor last fall. “This is dangerous enough when we are one community, but when we are a society that is divided by race and class, the boundaries can be toxic, bolstering chronic suspicion.”

The flooding hit the city’s poor and minority residents hard. For many, there had been no way out of the storm’s path and few options on where to go afterward. “Katrina ripped an ugly scab off the fact that there is still significant, grinding poverty in this country,” says Schulz.

Eventually New Orleans was evacuated, and there were hundreds of thousands of people in need of shelter and housing. Some moved inland, others were transported by bus to neighboring Texas, and thousands more found refuge in cities across the country. For some these were temporary shelters, but many are choosing to stay.

Greg Duncan, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy and director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research, believes that the cities and towns that have absorbed those New Orleans citizens can learn valuable lessons from a program that began in Chicago 40 years ago. Known as the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, the residential mobility program has helped thousands of African Americans living in Chicago’s inner city to resettle in integrated and more affluent communities.

“The long-term successes of Gautreaux mothers and their children show us that poor, inner-city families can take advantage of opportunities offered by residential resettlement programs,” Duncan, a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, wrote in a piece in the Chicago Tribune last fall. “Government housing vouchers and job training programs helped Gautreaux families stay in their new neighborhoods. Training programs provided job skills that led to self-sufficiency. Housing vouchers enabled families to rent good apartments in the private housing market and to move when and where they wanted.”

Duncan emphasizes that communities taking in families who fled Katrina need to make accommodations for the fact that many of the children will need extra help in school to catch up with their new classmates and may suffer from depression and other problems.

Still, he thinks the situation offers great potential.

“If Gautreaux is any guide, many Katrina families will respond to their opportunities and eventually thrive in their new communities,” he says. “But the path to success will be bumpy for everyone and truly arduous for some. The lessons of Gautreaux can help communities turn an unprecedented natural disaster into new opportunities that will enable thousands of poor families to begin to share in America’s prosperity.”

For those who chose to stay in New Orleans after the storm, and those electing to return, the challenges are significant. Protecting the city from the impacts of another hurricane like Katrina is paramount.

In 1999 Charles Dowding, professor of civil and environmental engineering, was a consultant to Jefferson Parish during a project to renovate canal, levee and pumping systems for parishes near New Orleans. While emphasizing the need “to think big and reject short-term solutions,” he recognizes the importance of immediate and near-term plans. “First they need to complete a short-term fix for the next hurricane season by shoring up the existing levees,” he says.

Longer-term, Dowding believes that historic Orleans Parish will need to upgrade its pumps, move them to Lake Pontchartrain and close off the canals that failed. Neighboring Jefferson Parish, with similar geography, built its pumps along the lake levee with no canal openings and survived the storm with minimal flood damage.

Additionally he suggests placing flood gates across the Industrial Canal connection to Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile, man-made shipping channel that provides a short cut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans. It is believed that the Industrial Canal and the MRGO funneled the storm surge that overwhelmed levee systems east of New Orleans.

Gaining greater control over the area’s disparate levee districts is imperative, Dowding says. It is a cumbersome operation of local levee boards that often have competing interests and in the past have been weighed down by cronyism and politics. After Hurricane Katrina, Congress told Louisiana officials that billions of dollars of federal funds for flood control projects would be contingent on an overhaul of the levee districts. In February the state legislature passed a bill to reform that system that it hopes will satisfy congressional concerns.

Finally Dowding advocates a national debate on the issue of permitting development in areas that are susceptible to the damaging forces of nature. One major consequence is that it creates an insurance issue where all Americans must eventually pay for the misfortunes of those who build there. “People should be induced through incentives to build out of harm’s way,” Dowding says. “Down the road that is the cheaper solution.”

Schulz agrees. “One has to ask the question, what is the role of the rest of the country to protect people from the inevitable and foreseeable consequences of their actions in choosing to build and live in areas which we know are subject to such damage?” he asks. “We’re about to spend $200 billion putting people back under water. I’ve got a real problem with that. Is it the role of the federal government to subsidize people who make unwise land-use decisions? If you want to live on or near the shore in a hurricane-susceptible area, you buy into vulnerability. In New Orleans, with much of the city below sea level, it’s obviously worse. The most vulnerable areas should not be rebuilt, at least not at the current grade.”

Other experts emphasize the need to find the right balance between technology and nature.

“Technology is taking its revenge by converting catastrophic events into chronic conditions,” says Gray, paraphrasing author Edward Tenner. “Technology does not always rescue us from or prevent catastrophic events. In the case of New Orleans many of our very successful efforts to protect against the flooding of the Mississippi River only made New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes and resulting floods.”

More than a quarter of the barrier islands and wetlands in southern Louisiana have disappeared since engineers began diverting the Mississippi and building levees, she says. “The wetlands provide a natural system of flood control. Channeling a river as mighty as the Mississippi, coupled with rising sea levels, makes the area extremely vulnerable. When you drain New Orleans you cause it to sink, and that’s ongoing. Nature has developed a mechanism where the river floods and overflows and deposits sediment. Flooding and the draining cycle are how the coastal system builds up land. When you put in levees you disrupt that system.”

Gray advocates efforts to restore the area’s natural wetlands. “Without the coastal marsh system the hurricane drove inland with a lot of power,” she says. “The wetlands and barrier islands provide a buffer against hurricanes. They take the hit and dampen the effect of wind and water and waves for inland systems. The wetlands would be damaged (by future storms) but they save inland areas and they tend to re-establish themselves.”

Such a restoration plan exists today. Drawn up by state officials, environmentalists, business leaders and scientists, “Coast 2050” is an ambitious proposal to protect the Louisiana coastline. According to the Times-Picayune it is “a $14 billion, 30-year wish list of flood-control, water-diversion and coastal-restoration programs that would be the largest construction project ever undertaken. The plan is aimed at recreating a historic mix of swamp, marshland and barrier islands by unleashing some of the natural forces that had been bottled up by levees and other flood-control projects in the past century.”

“I think this is a good plan,” says Gray. “The problem is that they need to implement it, and that will take a long time. It hasn’t been fully funded, and it really hasn’t begun on the scale that is necessary.”

It is difficult to predict what a rebuilt New Orleans and Gulf Coast will look like. Officials of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission released a controversial plan in January that anticipated a city of around 250,000 people, about half the population that was there pre-Katrina. It covered issues ranging from land acquisition to reorganizing the school system to constructing a light rail system. It required more than half of a neighborhood’s residents to return or their area will be off limits to reconstruction and new development. But it is basically a series of recommendations, a plan in search of a checkbook.

“In New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast the damage is so pervasive that you need to essentially rebuild whole communities from scratch,” says Schulz. “And there are huge financial and institutional issues here, too. Who pays? How? Collectively this is the largest construction project in U.S. history.”

“Generals are said to fight the last war,” says Haider. “Congress will spend at least two years on Katrina and its aftermath with hearings, reports and recommendations. There is no end to the lessons our nation learned from this disaster, and it will be years before this learning will be fully incorporated into future responses.”

In the meantime, hurricane season starts in June.

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Heavy flooding in the New Orleans area following Hurricane Katrina left houses submerged and families stranded.
Heavy flooding in the New Orleans area following Hurricane Katrina left houses submerged and families stranded. AP Photo/Vincent Laforet (J97)
Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina pour through a levee near downtown New Orleans.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina pour through a levee near downtown New Orleans. AP Photo/Vincent Laforet (J97)
“People should be induced through incentives to build out of harm’s way. Down the road that is the cheaper solution.” — Charles Dowding
“People should be induced through incentives to build out of harm’s way. Down the road that is the cheaper solution.” — Charles Dowding Courtesy of Charles Dowding
“Our very successful efforts to protect against the flooding of the Mississippi River only made New Orleans more vulnerable.” — Kimberly Gray
“Our very successful efforts to protect against the flooding of the Mississippi River only made New Orleans more vulnerable.” — Kimberly Gray Photo by Andrew Campbell
“There was no authority or means to overcome these problems through coordination and communication. That spells disaster.” — Donald Haider
“There was no authority or means to overcome these problems through coordination and communication. That spells disaster.” — Donald Haider Photo by Evanston Photographic Studios
“Katrina ripped an ugly scab off the fact that there is still significant, grinding poverty in this country.” — David Schulz
“Katrina ripped an ugly scab off the fact that there is still significant, grinding poverty in this country.” — David Schulz Photo by Sam Levitan