Posted by: coastlinesproject | July 4, 2011

First Decisions in the Wake of Katrina

First Decisions

Immediately after Katrina hit, it became clear that New Orleans had to deal with two interlocking issues — levees and rebuilding. Officials handled the first by jawboning for a $32 billion federal handout to protect the city against a category 5 hurricane. (32) But it was clear that the rest of the United States was not going to shell out that kind of money for levees which had already failed. On October 28, 2005 the administration announced it would just spend $1.6 billion to rebuild the levees back to what they had been before Katrina. This put the rest of the country on notice that the federal government was not prepared to protect every vulnerable city against a category 4 or category 5 hurricane. It also guaranteed that homes rebuilt in flooded areas in New Orleans could be destroyed again in the face of future storms. There the issue rested for several months.
The second problem involved deciding which areas of the city should be rebuilt. Mayor Nagin used a time-honored method to avoid making such decisions. He appointed a blue ribbon panel. The Bring Back New Orleans Commission immediately went to work, hiring a nationally recognized think tank to come up with the preliminary plan. The Urban Institute’s proposal was a well thought out plan that called for rebuilding on the oldest highest ground first, then to gradually work back down to the more vulnerable lower lying areas. Eventually the lowest lying, most vulnerable areas would be turned into parks and wetlands to soak up water in the event of future storms. The plan essentially recreated the early history of building on the city’s natural high ground first. The plan was dead on arrival. (33)
Hundreds of people turned out to shout down the proposals and angry mobs blocked demolition vehicles from removing the remains of condemned buildings. Cynthia Willard Lewis, a representative from East New Orleans told reporters that her neighbors were not going to be shoved to the back of the bus. In response, the City Council passed a resolution that all residents would be able to return and rebuild their homes in exactly the places they had formerly been. Mayor Nagin was nowhere to be seen. He was on vacation in Jamaica, though his office had announced he had to be away on business in Washington. (34)
The Commission had also been talking to Wallace, Roberts and Todd, another planning firm from Philadelphia, that dismissed the Urban Institute’s plan as “planning for failure.” They argued that the city’s future footprint should be determined by the New Orleanians themselves and recommended that the city take a four month moratorium on construction so that neighborhoods could hold meetings to prove that enough residents would return to warrant the rebuilding of infrastructure. Nobody bothered to ask how such meetings would be held while most of the residents were still scrapping by in Houston and Atlanta. (35)
The reaction to this second plan was equally explosive. This time Mayor Nagin supported the proposal for eight days, then withdrew to announce that he was a property rights man and everyone would be invited back to New Orleans to rebuild. The market would ultimately decide which neighborhoods would recover and which would be abandoned. The mayor was sounding so much like a Republican that his opponents started to refer to him by his old nickname, Mayor Reagan Nagin.
The result was instant chaos. It was everybody for himself. Building permits were handed out like candy and the city became a jack-o-lantern pattern of a few individual homes being renovated amidst a darkened background of rubble and abandoned buildings. Thousands of well intentioned volunteers pitched in to rebuild vulnerable homes in exactly the spots where they could be flooded again.
Sean Reilly knew there had to be another way. The former state legislator had given up on politics to return to Lamar Advertising, the nation’s third largest billboard firm that his family had started. But when Governor Blanco asked him to join the Louisiana Recovery Authority he was only too eager to jump back into the fray. The Louisiana Recovery Authority was the state’s counterpart to the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, and would prove to be one of the most effective of the many post-Katrina recovery organizations. (36)
After each meeting of the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, Reilly would patiently explain to the press that the state would not let the city put people back into areas where they could be flooded again. But from his work in the state legislature Reilly knew that the real problem was how the Bring Back New Orleans Commission was run. Too many people used it as a forum for grandstanding. What you really needed was a quiet room where a few people could hash out their differences out of the limelight, then present their plan as a united front.
Reilly shared his concerns with his friend Walter Isaacson, the vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Isaacson was born and bred in the Broadmoor section of New Orleans. In his youth, he whiled away his afternoons discussing books with Walker Percy on the porch of the esteemed southern writer’s home overlooking the magnolia-lined Bogne Falaya River. During the early 1970s Isaacson studied government at Harvard during his winters and wrote for the Picayune Times during his summers, while re-reading his Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. (37)
Time magazine hired Isaacson as soon as he finished his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford and the gifted young writer soon ascended through the ranks to head the magazine in 1995. In 2001 Isaacson was hired as the chief executive of CNN to complete the journalistic hat trick. In the interim he had also managed to author books on the Founding Fathers, Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin. But he never forgot his roots, so when Governor Blanco invited Isaacson to serve on the Louisiana Recovery Authority he readily accepted.
Isaacson’s most important meeting occurred the day after the Administration shot down Louisiana Congressman Richard Barker’s proposal to create a national building authority to buy back flooded homes and sell them to builders for resale.
Isaacson stormed into the White House to meet with the equally tempestuous Karl Rove. It was a meeting of polar opposites. Rove was already ticked off at Isaacson for his repeated charges that the White House disdained New Orleans because it was a predominantly black city. Accusations flew, tempers rose and several hundred cubic meters of high octane oxygen were sucked out of Rove’s West Wing office.

Eventually Rove ended the meeting with the suggestion, “Why don’t you just come up with a simpler plan, something direct to homeowners?”
(38)
Isaacson fumed the whole way back to his office at the Aspen Institute in Washington. But several months later he was able to laugh about the meeting with a reporter from Fortune magazine.

“You know what? In retrospect they were right in the White house. And we were wrong. It was too complicated.” (39)

Isaacson had come into the process favoring a topdown planning solution. But after his family’s home in Broadmoor was slated for demolition he started to think that the correct role for planning officials might be to help neighborhoods decide how to rebuild. It was not just a matter of whose ox was being gored. The Louisiana Recovery Authority had seen that the top down approach did not work. They were looking for a new approach and if Republicans were the ones making the decisions, they might as well back a Republican proposal.
In January 2006 it was Reilly’s turn. He flew to Amarillo Texas to meet with Donald E. Powell, the President’s new appointment to the federal recovery effort. Louisianians had initially been skeptical of Powell. The wealthy Texan had been a close personal friend of the first President Bush and top fund raiser for the second. After their experience with the former head of FEMA Michael Brown, New Orleanians had been understandably skeptical of the president’s political appointments.
But folks in East Texas could have told them differently. They had known Donald Powell as a hard working young kid from a blue collar neighborhood of Armarillo. As a boy he sold chewing tobacco to shopowners, throughout the panhandle, then won a football scholarship and went on to become a Texas banker — a special breed of banker known for their straight talking, no nonsense style.
That style initially landed Powell in a lot of trouble. In one of his first meetings, in Baton Rouge, the new appointee was asked about the federal government’s responsibility to protect people living on floodplains. The wealthy businessman responded with his usual East Texas twang, “Well, when I built my house outside Amarillo, I was responsible enough to buy my own flood insurance.” (40) Even for an audience of polite bankers that was too much to take. Boos erupted. The President had sent them another political crony. Didn’t this guy know the difference between the bone dry panhandle of Texas and the sinking coastline of Louisiana?
Shortly after the well publicized debacle, Powell set out on his own Texas style walkabout. He wandered through the devastated streets of New Orleans in worn jeans and old cowboy boots simply talking to people about their problems. He listened to the maid who made his bed at the Sheraton Hotel and called Senator Ted Kennedy’s wife Victoria Reggie after he learned she hailed from Louisiana. He joined building inspectors looking at high water marks in the Ninth Ward and became so well versed in peoples’ problems that when President Bush visited the Ninth Ward in March, Powell was able to point to specific homes and reel off the woes of their distraught owners.
Powell and Reilly had their lunch in Armarillo at a local eatery with tables bedecked with thin white paper tablecloths. Reilly made the case that if you lived behind a federally warranted levee you should not be penalized for not having flood insurance. In fact the federal flood insurance program didn’t even provide insurance to people behind levees because they were considered to be protected from floods. If the levees had failed the government should be responsible for reimbursing homeowners because the government had effectively promised homeowners that they didn’t need flood insurance. Gradually Powell saw the light.
By the end of lunch their tablecloth was covered with a maze of numbers and scribblings detailing house by house data on the losses suffered in each neighborhood. The final result would not be announced until February but the process had started with two people meeting out of the glare of the media to hash out their differences. In the end it would mean that New Orleans would have an additional $10.4 billion dollars to rebuild homes and businesses through the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Road Back program. (41)

“Just Seconds From the Ocean; Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina” available at a discount to Coastlines supporters.


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