On the Line: The future of New Orleans & the Gulf Coast

March 29, 2006

Grassroots organizations of Katrina survivors want a voice in deciding the future of the Gulf Coast after the hurricane. Here, a reading on the rebuilding debate followed by suggestions for continuing inquiry and discussion.

To the Teacher:

Reconstructing New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns is obviously a huge task. Who will decide what this region will look like in the decades to come?
Several official commissions, as well as non-governmental organizations and Katrina survivors, claim a voice in decision-making. At stake is the future of the region and of a unique American city, New Orleans, which is the main subject of the student reading.
Following the reading are suggestions for further inquiry and discussion.

Student Reading:

"Who the heck is in charge here?"

"New Orleans can be rebuilt or so they say. Just ask the mayor's commission. Or the governor's commission. Or, wait a bit, and see if the congressman's commission flies. As this once-flooded city is flooded anew by commissions and subcommittees and study groups, the operative question has become: Who the heck is in charge here?....As New Orleans City Councilman Jay Batt puts it, the federal government will surely play a major role because of the 'golden rule': 'He who has the gold makes the rules.'" (Los Angeles Times, 3/20/06, www.latimes.com)
What will these rules be? That is still unclear. After interviews with 337 of more than 160,000 evacuees scattered around the country, the New York Times reported that "Many expressed frustration about where or whether they could rebuild. 'We're kind of left in limbo,' Mr. [Ralph] Rodrigue said. 'So we can't move forward and we can't move back.'" Two-thirds of the evacuees said their New Orleans home was "unlivable." Some 125,000 homes remain damaged and unoccupied.
"More than two-thirds disapprove of how President Bush and Congress are handling the response to Hurricane Katrina. Almost as many are critical of Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's response and more than half disapprove of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is up for reelection in April. But among Mr. Bush, Ms. Blanco and Mr. Nagin, more people approved of Mr. Nagin's response, by a wide margin." (New York Times, 3/22/06)
Nagin is among two dozen candidates who are running in the April 22 mayoralty election. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other African-American leaders are working to delay it to allow time to reach more voters who are evacuees.
Mayor Nagin rejected his own commission's call for a moratorium on building permits for New Orleans' most damaged and flood-prone neighborhoods. "I have confidence," he said, "that our citizens can decide intelligently for themselves where they want to rebuild, once presented with the facts." At the same time, the mayor warned residents of the lower 9th Ward and the lowest-lying sections of New Orleans East that the Army Corps of Engineers has told him these areas are likely to flood again if hit in 2006-2007 by a hurricane of Katrina's force. Each neighborhood, he said, should participate in any redevelopment planning process. (New Orleans Times Picayune, 3/21/06, www.nola.com)
During this winter thousands of people went to City Hall to appeal rulings that their homes are more than 50% ruined and cannot be rebuilt. An unsuccessful appeal means the house will be demolished "unless the owner can come up with tens of thousands of dollars to raise it several feet above the ground and future floodwaters." Ninety percent of the time an appeal is successful, which means that "city officials are in essence allowing random redevelopment to occur throughout the city," the New York Times reported (2/5/06)
But some groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation Katrina Survivors Network want "the mayor and the City Council 'to tell the truth' about what neighborhoods may perish because public services, such as trash collection and basic utilities, probably won't be available there." (www.nola.com, 3/26/06)
Business leaders and developers want the moratorium on building permits to help in the process they favor of shrinking and reshaping New Orleans. They are continuing to campaign for a plan that, if successful, would provide opportunities for profit but make impossible the return of most of the evacuees, the majority of whom are African-American and/or poor. (Mike Davis, "Who Is Killing New Orleans," The Nation, 4/10/06) According to the Brookings Institution, 80% of the flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans were majority non-white.
The Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, Donald Powell, who was named to that position by President Bush, said, "The President has made it abundantly clear that the vision and plans for rebuilding the Gulf Coast should come from the local and state leadership, not from Washington, D.C." (1/19/06 testimony before a Senate committee)
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's commission, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (http://lra.louisiana.gov), has the power to make key decisions but includes only one trade unionist and no grassroots black representative. It is dominated by business interests.
Speaking about the suffering that Katrina caused, President Bush said that "some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle—the elderly, the vulnerable, and the poor. And this poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency." (9/16/05)
New Orleans' future is on the line while confusion reigns. Who will decide what that future will look like? Washington "has the gold." But the president calls for "local and state leadership." Mayor Nagin calls for the participation of "each neighborhood." Business groups want a smaller New Orleans.
A collaborative group of non-governmental New Orleans organizations and Katrina survivors has created The People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition (PHRF/OC, www.facebook.com). Its members and supporters are not on officially appointed commissions but claim a role in creating "vision and plans for rebuilding." It also provides help to people who have suffered severely from Katrina's devastation. It is supported by the Vanguard Public Foundation, whose purpose is "to eradicate racism in all its manifestations and promote civil rights, economic justice, gender equality and community empowerment." (www.vanguardsf.org, no longer active)
The PHRF/OC is getting help from a variety of experts. But it has included a cross-section of Katrina survivors to participate in the fieldwork, studies and discussions that will lead by this fall to a People's Reconstruction Plan. In the words of one of the group's supporters, singer Harry Belafonte, "Let us ensure that those victimized by this tragedy will be empowered to actively participate in the reclaiming, the rebuilding and improvement of their communities."
In the words of another supporter, actor Danny Glover, "When the hurricane struck the Gulf and the floodwaters rose and tore through New Orleans...it revealed a disaster within the disaster; grueling poverty rose to the surface like a bruise to our skinÖ.Hurricane Katrina revealed, more than anything else, a poverty of imagination." For the vast majority of people who suffered the most were poor and black. (For background, see "The Class & Race Divide in New Orleans & in America")
Another group, ACORN, is a national organization of working-class people, including 9,000 New Orleans member-families from mostly black neighborhoods. (www.acorn.org/index.php?id=9703) ACORN crews and volunteers are working day and night to repair the homes of 1,000 member-families. Their strategy is to reoccupy neighborhoods in some of the areas most threatened by the plans of those who would shrink the city. ACORN organizer Steve Bradberry said, "It is so obvious that there's a concerted plan to make this a whiter city." (Davis, The Nation)
The pre-Katrina population of New Orleans was 438,000, of whom 312,000 were African-American. Will there be places to live and jobs for the majority nonwhite population? Will "equality and decency" reinvigorate New Orleans? Or will the poor and nonwhite people who once lived in New Orleans find no place for themselves in a newly gentrified and predominately white city?
For Discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why do many evacuees feel as if they have been "left in limbo"?
3. Imagine that you are an evacuee who has not returned to New Orleans but wants to. What considerations would determine whether you would return?
4. Why is the future of the pre-Katrina nonwhite population of New Orleans a major issue?
5. Why has PHRF/OC included Katrina survivors along with experts in its development of a reconstruction plan for New Orleans?
6. What is ACORN's strategy?
7. Why is New Orleans' future so uncertain?

For Continuing Inquiry, Study, and Discussion

The development of reconstruction plans for the Gulf Coast and who makes them are crucial issues not only for the people of New Orleans but also for those in such Mississippi towns as Biloxi, Gulfport and Pass Christian. Encourage student interest in what happens in and to such places and their citizens. Develop with the class a set of questions for continuing inquiry, study, and discussion. Small groups of students might be assigned to follow and to report on developments periodically in connection with each.
Students can find out more about efforts to rebuild through these websites:
For news on Katrina rebuilding, students can check the Times-Picayune (www.nola.com). In addition, Google provides to those who request it daily "Alerts" on Hurricane Katrina news. Anderson Cooper on CNN's 10 p.m. program is often in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast locations and provides frequent reports on developments in them.
See "New Orleans & the Gulf Cast Six Months After Katrina" for additional inquiry suggestions.
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.