Monday, August 4, 2014
This August marks the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating collision with the Gulf Coast. New Orleans, of course, did not suffer the direct hit that submerged and leveled the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but the hurricane’s historic tidal surge overwhelmed a poorly maintained and engineered Orleans Parish flood protection system. Lake Pontchartrain’s brackish muddy waters poured through gaping holes in flood walls and levees and submerged 80 percent of the city.
The disaster’s immediate aftermath has been described in thousands of blogs, maps, documentaries, songs, books, articles, and deeply disturbing pictures that are seared into the collective American consciousness. The shockingly poor government agency response at every level has earned “Katrina” a place not only in the American political lexicon, but also in international discourse, alongside “Waterloo”, “Watergate”, and “9.11.” For the past nine years, however, an equally compelling but far less “photogenic” story of long-term recovery has unfolded – glacially at first, then haltingly, and over the past four years at a steadier pace. The flood waters inundated the city in just hours, but the long-term recovery has proceeded as a kind of community development ‘trench warfare’, advancing one street and one block at a time.
Nine years later there are still neighborhoods that show only a faint pulse of life amid boarded houses, car-eating potholes, and jungle-like yards. These are particularly the lower income neighborhoods with pre-storm populations that were predominantly African American. These include neighborhoods such as the Upper Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward. At the same time, the redevelopment slog that has characterized the long-term recovery has been the catalyst for instances of remarkable investment in, and revitalization of, moribund neighborhood commercial corridors.
Many of the law teachers and development practitioners reading this entry have one or more former students or protégés who have sought out opportunities over the past twenty years in New Orleans or Gulfport, Cedar Rapids or Grand Forks, Tuscaloosa or Galveston, or most recently New York City, New Jersey and Detroit to work with federal, state, and local government agencies and, perhaps even more important, with non-profit and philanthropic organizations who often spearhead long-term recovery and revitalization efforts. The next couple of New Orleans dispatches are intended to serve less as a land use travel log than as a discussion of what
happens during a community's long-term recovery as well as the key skills and proficiencies that our students must have in order to contribute to rebuilding cities. It is no coincidence that non-profit and local government executives point to legal capacity and sophistication as critical and also troublesome components of New Orleans’ long-term recovery. The refrain not infrequently heard is that ‘we lost thousands of dollars’ or ‘weeks of time’ because a developer did not challenge an informal government interpretation of a federal regulation that turned out to be incomplete or based solely on anecdotal experience from a disaster in another jurisdiction. There is no substitute for learning how to read and carefully analyze agreements, local code provisions, or federal regulations.
Over the next few weeks, there will be at least two more dispatches from New Orleans. The first dispatch will be from the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (“O.C. Haley”), which begins just a football field’s length from the edge of the New Orleans' Central Business District (CBD) and travels southwest towards the Central City neighborhood, which prior to Katrina reported some of the city’s highest poverty and crime rates. You can follow along by entering the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard and O.C. Haley Boulevard into your favorite mapping application.