NEW ORLEANS & THE GULF COAST Six Months After Katrina

By Alan Shapiro

 
 
To the Teacher:
 
Six months after Hurricane Katrina the people of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities face huge problems. They range from housing, cleanup and job and health issues to the quality of levee protection. Tens of thousands of evacuees face their own set of challenges, not the least of which is whether to return (especially to New Orleans).
 
The two readings here supplement earlier materials, "Hurricane Katrina Catastrophe" and "The Class & Race Divide in New Orleans & in America," and offer an overview of New Orleans and Gulf Coast problems and what is being done about them. Included are suggestions for independent and small-group inquiry projects and information about opportunities for volunteer work.
 
 

Student Reading 1

New Orleans: 'The Greatest Disaster I Have Ever Seen'

 
"Mr. Bush's motorcade passed by dozens of collapsed homes and overturned cars and mounds of rubble, clothing, toys and furnitureÖ.Laura Bush, traveling with the president, said 1,121 schools in the Gulf Coast had been damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."
ó New York Times, 3/9/06
 
"This is the greatest disaster that I have ever seen, and I've seen many, all over the world. Mile after mile after mile, and not a house standing, not a thing that has been left untouched by Katrina. It's overwhelming to me."
óRev. Billy Graham (Newsweek interview, 3/20/06)
 
 
New Orleans celebrated the Mardi Gras late in February. Although the crowds were smaller and more subdued than in the past, it was remarkable, under the circumstances, that the Mardi Gras took place at all. The circumstances?
 
New Orleans suffered 1,100 deaths as a result of Katrina, and dogs continue to find dead bodies in devastated homes. The Louisiana medical examiner expects another 400 to be discovered. Two hundred others died in Mississippi and other Gulf Coast states. Nineteen hundred Louisiana residents remain unaccounted for. (www.cnn.com, 3/6/06)
 
A continuing health threat exists in New Orleans. It includes "sediment churned up by Katrina's floodwaters [which] is still caked on front stoops, backyards, and playgrounds. What had been goopy muck is dry now, but it is still laced with toxic substances such as arsenic and diesel fuel, both of which can cause cancer and neurological disease..Waterlogged sofas and tattered belongings serve as giant Petri dishes for mold to breed unfettered; airborne spores linger in concentrations so great that entire neighborhoods effuse a pungent, musty stench. Local doctors have reported that many residents are coming in with persistent respiratory complaints, itchy eyes, and sinus infectionsósymptoms, triggered by mold, of what is now being called the Katrina cough." (On Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Spring 2006)
 
The official population of New Orleans as of the 2000 census was 468,453. Most people left the city as a result of Katrina. Considerably less than halfóan estimated 155,000 to 200,000óhave returned so far. Estimates of the city's likely population by August 2008 range between 272,000 and 300,000.
 
More than half of New Orleans homes suffered at least four feet of flooding. Estimates are that less than a third of the people who owned them will return. Katrina severely damaged or destroyed 60,000 owner-occupied homes. Thousands of rental properties suffered similarly. (www.bloomberg.com, 3/6/06) According to the New York Times, more than 200,000 homes and apartments suffered major damage in Louisiana, mostly in and around New Orleans. (3/13/06)
 
The RAND Corporation, a think tank hired by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's rebuilding commission to study the disaster, projected that a number of factors would stymie rebuilding in severely flooded areas, reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune. These ranged from "ongoing confusion about what sort of building will be allowed to continuing uneasiness about the safety of the city's levee system, a lack of capital among some would-be rebuilders, and high costs of labor and materials in post-Katrina New Orleans." Phone calls to and polls of evacuees reveal that the biggest obstacle to returning is lack of housing. (www.nola.com, 3/15/06)
 
"Thousands of acres of homes are just standing in ruins and the pace with which that clean-up is going is bitterly frustrating," said Representative Richard Baker, a ten-term Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, in an interview with Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times. He believes that instead of people living in trailer parks, permanent modular housing could have been built at the same cost. "In the eyes of distressed Louisianans, nobody seems to be making decisions." (www.suntimes.com, 3/6/06) Religious leaders from more than 100 U.S. cities also complained that money for repairing homes and reviving communities is delivered too slowly. (www.nola.com, 3/18/06)
 
The Houston Chronicle reports that 37,000 New Orleans students are enrolled in Houston, Texas, schools six months after the hurricane. (www.chron.com, 3/11/06) Tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees are living in Houston and in Atlanta. Many are scattered around the country. More than 87,100 families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are living in lightweight trailers, many in camps with little to do.
 
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour criticized the trailers before a Senate committee, "They're campers. They're not designed to be used as housing for a family for months, much less years. The trailers don't provide even the most basic protection from high winds or severe thunderstorms, much less tornadoes or hurricanes." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided many more travel trailers than mobile homes because they could be towed to a homeowner's property and dropped into place. (New York Times, 3/16/06)
 
Pre-Katrina New Orleans was 68% African-American—some 312,000 people, more than some 40% of whom were living below the official U.S. poverty line. Many did not have cars to leave the city before the hurricane. The RAND Corporation study stated, "Lack of transportation will also make it difficult for poor evacuees to travel back to the city to evaluate the condition of their former residences and either to begin the process of repairing their homes or to find a new place to live." Currently, post-Katrina New Orleans is mostly white.
 
The Army Corps of Engineers said that repairs on the New Orleans levee system will be completed by June 1, 2006. But independent experts said, "Large sections of the rebuilt levee system will be substantially weaker than before the hurricane hit [because of] weak, substandard materials" in some levee walls. The Army Corps of Engineers disputed this assessment. (Washington Post, 3/6/06) The rebuilt levees are supposed to be able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, like Katrina, but not Category 4 or 5 hurricanes, which have greater wind velocities.
 
There has been competition among the Gulf Coast states for federal funding. Legislators and officials from Alabama and Mississippi, where hurricane damage was also extensive, and Texas, where many evacuees are living, are lobbying to get some of the funds intended for rebuilding Louisiana. (New York Times, editorial, 3/13/06)
 
While New Orleans has received the most attention, other towns and cities on the Gulf Coast "look as though they were hit by a hurricane six days ago, rather than six months," reports the New York Times (3/14/06). In Pass Christian, Mississippi, where "nary a house is standing and bedsheets are still threaded through the trees, the order to boil water only just ended. Its municipal government, like many in the region, is housed in a double-wide trailer. Biloxi [Mississippi] is still a tangle of crumbling buildings, bent signs and silent streets."
 
In Biloxi a struggle is underway to determine whether the future lies "in rows of casinos [and] high-rise condominiums" or in "pedestrian-friendly, historically themed developments where people of mixed incomes share the same neighborhoods." (New York Times, 3/14/06) In New Orleans a major issue is whether rebuilding will take place in the poorest and lowest lying portions of the city.
 
 
 
For Discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. What seem to be the most serious problems facing New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns?
 
3. Why haven't more people returned to New Orleans?
 
 

Student Reading 2

Cleanup, Rebuilding and Business Efforts in the Gulf

 
 
A detailed White House fact sheet on clean-up and rebuilding in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as of 3/8/06 reports the following: (www.whitehouse.gov)
 
  • The federal government is covering the cost of the cleanup through June 30, 2006, and 80% of the non-demolition debris has been removed.
     
  • By June 1, the beginning of the new hurricane season, 169 miles of damaged levees and floodwalls will have been restored to their design height.
     
  • More than 16,000 federal employees are in the region to help with reconstruction and economic recovery. Some $88 billion in federal aid is available for relief, recovery, and rebuilding. Another $20 billion has been requested of Congress.
     
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is working with state environmental officials on handling hazardous debris like asbestos.
     
  • The Department of Commerce is helping to promote business development through investment opportunities, incentives and counseling.
     
  • The Small Business Administration has approved $5.8 billion in disaster loans.
     
  • The Gulf Opportunity Act is providing funding for demolitions and cleanups, tax breaks and tax-exempt bonds to help rebuild housing, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
     
  • Disaster Unemployment Benefits are going to nearly 400,000 Katrina and Rita victims for unemployment and retraining needs.
     
  • FEMA is providing $6.9 billion in shelter and direct cash assistance to hurricane victims.
     
  • Bills are in Congress to provide for long-term housing needs, social services, health care, education, transportation, power restoration, and fuel needs.
President Bush has requested that Congress provide $4.2 billion to Louisiana for additional housing aid.
 
New Orleans largest employer, Shell Oil, bought $32 million in residential properties in the area of its office building to provide housing to lease to its employees so that those who have lost their homes or apartments can return to the city and to their positions with Shell.
 
But according to the director of economic development for New Orleans, "A lot of smaller companies, and even a lot of medium-sized ones, cannot afford the costs of getting up and back in business." Four of every five businesses are still closed. While 60% of downtown businesses are open, they have only part of their workforce. Mail service is unreliable. Less than half of the flight capacity available before Katrina is now available, a crucial factor in reopening businesses for companies with headquarters in other cities. (New York Times, 3/8/06)
 
 
For Discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. Based on your understanding of the first reading, which of the actions taken so far by the federal government seem to you most important to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as well as to residents who have not yet returned? Why?
 
 

For Inquiry

 
You might ask students to inquire further into questions and issues that have come up during discussions of the readings. Other inquiries might include:
 
  • the nature and extent of the New Orleans levees and the problems associated with them
     
  • the geographical situation of New Orleans and why it is so vulnerable
     
  • the response by federal, state and local authorities to Katrina. The White House and the Republican members of the House of Representatives have issued critical reports on that response. Independent critics have also. What seem to have been the most serious failures by public officials?
     
  • the experiences of some New Orleans residents during and since the hurricane. Sources might include the New Orleans Times-Picayune (www.nola.com). A Google search will turn up many revealing stories.
 

For Citizenship

The Times-Picayune reports:
 
"Thousands of college students who might have spent spring break sunning in Acapulco or on Florida beaches this year are pouring into New Orleans to sleep in dormitory tents or on classroom floors, eat off paper plates and spend a week of vacation hauling foul muck out of homes ruined by floodwaters."
 
These students come from across the U.S.—University of North Carolina, Columbia University, Howard University, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, among many others. The Campus Crusade for Christ has sent 4,400 volunteers, and other religious organizations have provided thousands more. Volunteers are also coming from the Common Ground Collective and other organizations dedicated to social change. (www.nola.com, 3/17/06)
 
Two organizations working to send additional volunteers are:
 
AmeriCorps, an official U.S. organization overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service whose members serve with the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity as well as such other groups, expects to send more than 10,000 young people South "to clean up beaches, muck out houses, clear debris, and restore parks."
 
Those interested in volunteering should contact Sandy Scott by e-mail (sscott@cns.gov) or telephone: (202) 355 2173.See www.usafreedomcorps.gov for further details.
 
ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform) is "a community
organization of low- and moderate-income families working together for social justice and stronger communities." The goal of its Gulf program is "to preserve and rebuild thousands of homes in low-income neighborhoods, even as we fight for a comprehensive building plan. We are cleaning up trash, ripping out drywall and putting tarps on roofs before the winter rains to prevent further deterioration with the goal of cleaning 1,000 homes at a cost of $2,500 a piece."
 
Those interested in volunteering should contact Diana Winingder at www.rebuild@acorn.org or telephone: (713) 875 6069. Those who would like to donate money can make out a check to the ACORN Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund and mail it to the ACORN Institute, 738 8th Street, SW, Washington D.C. 20003. The home page of the organization is www.acorn.org.
 
 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.