Urbanologist Grades Government’s Response to Katrina With an “F“

“There is no other cavalry coming. …We are the cavalry.” So says a New Orleans resident in We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, an extraordinary look at the city’s revival in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Roberta Brandes Gratz tells the stories of local people who returned to their homes to take the rebuilding of their city and community into their own hands in the face of bureaucracy and profiteering. Order the book today with a donation to Truthout!

Roberta Brandes Gratz. (Photo: Sandra Morris)Roberta Brandes Gratz. (Photo: Sandra Morris)The following is an interview with urbanologist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz about how the residents of New Orleans revived the city after Hurricane Katrina, as a feckless government (in the Bush administration) and profiteers offered nothing but obstacles.

Mark Karlin: What drew you to write this extensive account of how the residents of New Orleans saved themselves from a preventable disastrous flood, a feckless government and economic inequality after Katrina?

Roberta Brandes Gratz: I had written about how cities grow, deteriorate and revive in four books, covering a big assortment of places and issues. Everywhere I have observed, the good things always started from the grass roots, and the wrong things came from above. As I watched the floods after Katrina devastate New Orleans, I wondered which version would unfold here. I had to be there to observe the answer.

Chapter 12 of your book is called “Public Housing and Disaster Capitalism.” How have these two been linked in New Orleans?

New Orleans had the best and earliest public housing built, so good the style was copied later for suburban middle-income garden housing. The major 1940s, barely damaged, brick housing projects were torn down and privatized with new developer-built, public-financed projects. That could never have gotten through politically without the evacuation caused by Katrina.

How would you grade the federal government’s response to assisting residents of New Orleans after the flooding, using a school grading scale of A to F?

F and Shameful. It became nothing but an opportunity to give out outrageous contracts to campaign donors, who kept 80 to 90 percent of the money, paid peanuts to the locals who did the work and carried out poorly the work they were contracted to do.

Who are the Women of the Storm, and how have women been at the forefront of the regeneration of the Crescent City?

Woman have been saving and rebuilding New Orleans since early 20th century, when the French Quarter was threatened with demolition. Post Katrina was no different. The Women of the Storm were one group among many. They marched through the halls of Congress to get the attention New Orleans deserved after Katrina.

How has the racial and economic divide in New Orleans impacted the recovery?

Clearly, the low-income Black community has suffered the most and recovered the least. The same low-wage economy that existed before Katrina continues to stifle the recovery for anyone not already middle-income.

Overall, your book emphasizes how the grassroots ultimately put the city back on its feet. What is there in the New Orleans community that made this happen?

The same thing I have found in communities all over the country: If not impeded by government, local people will rise to the occasion, engage in the process of community rebuilding and improve their collective lives. Government needs to learn to follow the community lead. When it does, success is assured.

You state that “the three-hundred-year-old city has a texture and exuberance seen in no other American metropolis.” What makes it so distinctive as you describe in your chapter, “What Katrina Couldn’t Destroy.”

New Orleans is truly urban: density without excessive height, a street grid unmolested by over-wide roadways and highways, corner stores and small businesses comfortably fitting into neighborhood streets and a less-than-acceptable but surviving streetcar system that has the potential to revive … the reasons are endless, a real model for cities trying to revive their urbanism.

What does the saga of Charity Hospital symbolize?

A tragic tale worthy of the old demolition era Urban Renewal period – a project that didn’t have to happen; a total reviving neighborhood erased, along with 257 houses and 50 businesses; loss of a leading national public hospital; an egregious waste of public funds; and a political process in which not one politician showed courage, and that’s not all. It is the worst post-Katrina tragedy.

In your first chapter, you state “No New Orleans community was more devastated by the hurricanes of 2005 than the Lower Ninth Ward.” Describe the state of the Lower Ninth Ward in 2015.

It experienced one of the worst levee breaches and subsequent flood that rose to the rooftops, stranding many people. After, residents encountered the worst governmental impediments to recovery, received Road Home money – based on their pre-Katrina value – too little for rebuilding and had more ownership legal complications than other neighborhoods and more.

Your conclusion includes the following statement: “Those thousands of small or modest actions taken by New Orlean’s residents – only a sampling of which have been presented in this book – added up to genuine repair and rebuilding that grow bigger and stronger each day.” What can residents of other cities learn from this?

Both New Orleans’ urbanism and its road to recovery described in my book offer myriad lessons for other communities and should be an inspiration for all communities and cities trying to recover from longstanding hard times or a recent disaster. Cities across the country have inflicted great damage on their urban fabric over the years of misguided programs, especially in their downtowns, and have taken many of the wrong routes to recovery, which have not worked. What really works can be found in the stories in my book.