The Forgotten Ward Saturday, Feb 16 2013 

The Lower Ninth Ward was among the last parts of Orleans Parish to be settled. And along with areas like Lakeview and Gentilly, it is among the last areas of the City to be repopulated in the wake of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. In fact with a population about 25% of its 2000 population, it is dead last.

The first time I ever entered the Lower Ninth was in March 2006, just  months after the flooding caused by the breech of the Industrial Canal. It was the first time anyone, including residents, was allowed to reenter this devastated neighborhood. I had come down for the first time to help with the cleanup, but I was totally unprepared for what I was to see. Nothing that I had seen on television in the wake of the flood could reflect the total, widespread destruction that I saw. Homes flattened and carried away by the rushing waters. Concrete slabs left behind; somber tombstones for homes, for communities, and for neighborhoods. Among the rubble were vehicles, household furnishings, children’s  toys and medical equipment, the forgotten detritus of a once vibrant community.

Lower Ninth, May 2006.

Lower Ninth, March 2006.

It was so total that I felt something meaningful had to happen. A lion’s share of the City’s deaths were from this neighborhood  The damage was so unspeakable. Truly something had to be done quickly and decisively to correct this travesty.  But, the people of the Lower Ninth were left to wait…elsewhere.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2007.

I’ve gone back every year since then, accompanied by students from the University of New Hampshire. I always take them back to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, the spot where I first remember standing. I remember that day in 2007, once the students had wandered off to view the devastation. Nearly two years later. Nothing. Rubble had been cleared only to be replaced weeds. I sat on a stoop that once had been occupied by parents waiting for children to return from school. Hot tears of anger and sadness welled up. To this day, I don’t think I can separate the two.

Former President Bill Clinton,
Lower Ninth Ward, March 2008.

A year later, in 2008, we encountered news crews, Brad Pitt, and former President Bill Clinton. Make It Right Nine was underway and over the last few years, change is noticeable, but it is not enough. It is a fine demonstration project highlighting sustainable building, but given all of the money that has poured into New Orleans, it is but a token. Thousands are forced to live elsewhere and, to this day, the Lower Ninth is but a shadow of its former self.

This was made clear about a year ago, when the New York Times Magazine chose to publish a large article on the Lower Ninth under the rather insensitive title of “Jungleland.” Written by Nathaniel Rich, it began by emphasizing the neglect and accompanying decay. If the writer had every witnessed the rural infestation of kudzu, the rapid overgrowth would not have proven such a spectacle. For a community so ignored, the incursion of wildlife, vegetation, dumping, and crime should not have surprised anyone. Neglect does that. And facile sensationalism is not the answer.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.

Me at Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.
Photo by Sonja Loeser.

Thankfully, a community activist named Jenga Mwendo responded to the content and tone of Rich’s article. She takes him to task for not going after the root cause of institutional and governmental neglect; the many millions that have poured into New Orleans have not helped the most vulnerable. Former Mayor Ray Nagin, who allowed the bulldozing of the projects elsewhere, had little time for rebuilding the Lower Ninth. And while current Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been more responsive, his efforts have shaded towards removing blighted properties and paving streets (many of which were not paved before Katrina). Where was the support for former residents? Where is the housing or direct housing aid necessary to bring residents back.

Image from the Nedw York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

Image from the New York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

As Mwendo point out, aid was non-existent in the aftermath of the flood. Post-Katrina aid benefited those whose property was worth more than those in the Lower Ninth. In addition, government at all levels moved slowly to provide the amenities necessary to support the community. They had to fight for schools, libraries and city services. And to this date, the nearest grocery store is miles away in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. She points out that reporters, like Rich, need to peel away institutional neglect, longstanding racism, and the toll of longstanding poverty to truly understand why the Lower Ninth is where it is at today. Much good is happening, from Brad Pitt’s homes, to urban gardening, to sustainable development, but more help is needed for the community to come back, even to half of what is was before.

This year, My class and I will be working in the Lower Ninth. And I’ve done this long enough to know that as satisfying as it is, it is but a drop in the bucket. However, I am happy that we can contribute what we can to the rebuilding and development of this too-long neglected community.

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FEMA Wednesday, Oct 31 2012 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was originally created by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and implemented by two two of his Executive Orders on April 1, 1979. It was created to bring federal assistance, materiel and coordination to emergency situations that were beyond the capability of state and local governments. Federal response would come only when local authorities declared an emergency situation and requested federal assistance. Initially, FEMA was brought in to assist in the response to toxic waste deposits at Love Canal near Buffalo, NY and to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, PA. Both instances showed the promise of the new agency, while highlighting areas in which the responses could have been better coordinated.

New Orleans after Katrina

The agency was not prominent under either President Reagan or his successor, President George H. W. Bush. This neglect was highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated areas of southern Florida south of Miami. In fact, President Bush’s lackadaisical response to Andrew may have led to his defeat in 1992, even in the wake of his success in the first Iraq war. This lesson was not lost on his successor, Bill Clinton.

President Clinton brought in James Lee Witt, who had served as head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Witt revamped the agency to improve the response and mitigation process. This focus on emergency response was unprecedented in the wake of the Cold War when civil defense was geared towards man made emergencies. These efforts were not maintained by President George W. Bush, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11.

Following 9/11, FEMA, which had been a cabinet level department, was subsumed under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security. In 2003, Michael Brown, former head of the American Arabian Horse Association, was appointed to head FEMA. He protested the continued lack of funding of and and attention to the Nation’s emergency response infrastructure, although his protests went unheeded. Then, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

The Katrina experience highlighted the problems of outsourcing America’s emergency response. This along with a distinct lack of leadership ere contributed to the lack of coordination between FEMA and state and local governments. Moreover, the initial response and relief delivery was delayed with disastrous and deadly effect. The lack of preparation and shift to privatization was highlighted further in the aftermath. Local officials, the National Guard, and the military were prepared to collect the bodies of the more than 2000 American citizens who lay dead, but the administration outsourced these efforts to a private mortuary firm. Single-source contracts brought in expensive and deficient “FEMA trailers” which would later prove carcinogenic. I personally witnessed gross waste, as private contractors provided high-priced housing for volunteers who traveled to the Gulf to help in the clean-up. Under the auspices of Homeland Security, these camps treated volunteers from around the world with an atmosphere more akin to a prison camp than volunteer housing. The Bush presidency never recovered from the mismanagement of the Katrina response.

Governor Romney collecting food in Ohio

President Obama apparently learned from his predecessor’s mistake. He elevated FEMA’s profile within his administration and brought in emergency management professional, Craig Fugate, to run the agency. The agency has functioned admirably in responses to catastrophic tornadoes in the Midwest and Deep South, as well to last year’s Hurricane Irene, which left a path of destruction from South Carolina into New England. But that is apparently not enough to prove FEMA’s worth in the eys of many in Washington.

In the past three years, Republicans in Congress have sought budgetary offsets to pay for aiding American communities in need. In addition, their budget plan calls for drastic cuts to the FEMA budget. Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee has called for FEMA’s responsibilities to be allocated to the states or to private vendors. And just today, in response to the millions displaced by Hurricane Sandy, he collected cans of soup. Questions about FEMA funding went unanswered.

Please take notice. We are talking about collective responsibility. We are talking about taking care of our own. Cities without mass transit, communities without electricity, families who have lost everything — this might be us one day. Some critics point to FEMA mismanagement in the past, but if financial malfeasance demanded killing an agency, then the Pentagon should have been closed and boarded up decades ago.

Damge to the Jersey shore from Hurricane Sandy

We should have learned from Katrina; however ideology seems to obscure history, science, or common sense. The people of the Gulf Coast suffered greatly from previous efforts to privatize FEMA’s responsibilities. If we have any sense of of the common good, of what it means to be part of a civilized society, we should reject such efforts at this time. The people of the Gulf Coast were left to die, they were “outsourced” to places far from home, and tens of thousands still wait for their communities to be rebuilt. They have been patient and forgiving to an extraordinary degree. I wouldn’t expect the people of New York or New Jersey to show such understanding. And, as Americans, as caring human beings, neither should we.