We listened as they went around the room reporting on the decimation and post Katrina problems of health care, housing, dealing with the “feds” and myriad other topics critical to life in New Orleans; none of these topics had any happy anecdotes. Worse, the trends were not favorable. Complicating the somber reports, there were very few facts available that could be used for prudent decision-making or to measure improvement and hope as things turn around.
I was invited by Dean Whittaker of Whittaker Associates here in Holland, a leading economic development consultant, to spend a week in New Orleans with Greater New Orleans Inc, the regional economic development arm for New Orleans and the ten parishes around the city. Hurricanes and evacuations are not new to the region. The season runs every year from June to November. We had a chance to sit at the vortex of recovery activity with the senior policy makers in the region and to make small offerings for recovery and development in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in North America.
It will be decades before New Orleans recovers to its former state and it may never happen. The wonderful people we met were working in the face of overpowering adversity to make a difference. Many of our neighbors here in Holland and from around the country have volunteered to go and help in the recovery: a wonderful, national display of charity, care and concern for others. But the problem is vast and the data does not exist to even measure the devastation or provide a basis for a comprehensive redevelopment plan. Poor estimates are all we have. The sobering event for me was the drive around the neighborhoods most affected by Katrina and Rita. Neighborhoods of poor and wealthy; nature did not discriminate between economic strata. It was the markings painted in bold stokes on each of the estimated 250,000 heavily damaged homes showing the date of inspection by FEMA and the Homeland Security, which continually attracted my eye. Among those marks was the circled number in the center, the one that gave a count of the bodies found inside or the possibility of a body in the house; a sobering remembrance of the true wrath of the storms. Even the good news of a zero left a chill inside of me.
New York benefited from Mayor Rudi Giuliani; like him or not, he became the hero of 9/11.The personification of leadership in adversity. New Orleans does not have the larger than life hero. The stories, published and televised, seemed to show worst part of humanity not the pulling together of citizens that were wide spread in New York. I am convinced there were many Good Samaritan stories left unreported like the parish council president who commandeered a ferry to pick up those stranded in their homes.
The citizens in New Orleans had another adverse set of post-storm circumstances to contend with: FEMA and The Army Corp of Engineers. New Orleans finds itself in limbo, stalled in the process of redevelopment as the Army Corps of Engineers held up the necessary documentation that would permit rebuilding. The T-shirt shops are rife with obscene references to these federal entities.
There are lessons here. I experienced at least two. The first is the role of volunteers over bureaucracy. One afternoon we were driven around by an articulate, well- educated African American, young professional man employed by the Christian Reformed Church World Relief Committee, Tronn Moller, a person raised in New Orleans. Anyone connected with this young man must feel very good and be proud as he works to connect needs of the displaced with leadership in the community. The afternoon with Tronn was a vivid reminder that any reconstruction of the area required able, young professionals like teachers, doctors, nurses and dentists without whom the any recovery effort is problematic without vital services being performed for those returning. The real reconstruction need here is about people, relationships and community. Second, by its clear absence in New Orleans, I was reminded of the importance of leadership, particularly a strong state and local government and the lack of effectiveness in the federal programs, which are remote from the local problem.
The future is unclear in New Orleans. It all depends on leadership and how people work together; it’s a little like jazz down there on the levee. I am convinced that jazz will still be played, but we do not know what it will sound like, just as the outcome for the region.