Cover

WHY THEY'LL BE BACK

So much for those predictions of the city’s grim future, write CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE

September 19 2005
Cover

WHY THEY'LL BE BACK

So much for those predictions of the city’s grim future, write CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE

September 19 2005

WHY THEY'LL BE BACK

Cover

So much for those predictions of the city’s grim future, write CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE

BARRY PETERSON and his family lived on what New Orleans locals call “the ridge,” a bit of high ground—two or three feet above sea level—near City Park. When the levees fell, first one to his east, then another to the west, he had more time than most to contemplate the future. “I watched the water run down my street and fill up the bowl. Then it started coming back up to me.” So the 5 8-year-old sheet-metal worker gathered his elderly aunt, his sister and her disabled husband, and headed for shelter at a nearby university. It was a couple of hot, thirsty days until a boat came to pick them up. Still, they were better off than Peterson’s brother Kerry in low-lying Chalmette,

BACK TO NEW ORLEANS

a few miles downriver. The water started rising around his house while the storm was still howling. “He was lying flat on the roof clinging to the stink pipes,” says Barry. It was a helicopter that plucked him to safety.

The Peterson clan is now gathered in Baton Rouge, busy with the day-to-day struggles of life as refugees, filling out forms, trying to access their bank accounts, getting new prescriptions. But Barry and his siblings, born and raised in the French Quarter, have only one ambition: to get back home and start rebuilding. “Atlanta got burned to the ground and they rebuilt it. San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake, and it came back,” he says. “It will

be the same with New Orleans. We’re one of the most unique cities in the world.”

If there’s going to be a permanent exodus from the Crescent City, the Petersons won’t be part of it. The ties of history and community hold fast. Those who would write off New Orleans should take note. Already, the initial predictions about the city’s grim future are proving to be about as reliable as a Bourbon Street tarot card reading. It took a matter of days, not weeks, to repair levee breaks, and start pumping the flood waters back into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. Progress was swifter than authorities had dared hope, with the flooded portion of the city reduced from 80 to 60 per cent in just one day. Water service was restored by mid-week—a crucial advantage for firefighters battling blazes—although it may still be months until what comes out of the taps is safe for drinking, bathing or cooking. In Houston, where officials had been prepared to house refugees in the Astrodome until December, 1,200 people a day are leaving for rental accommodations, and the stadium shelter is now expected to close in the coming week.

Predictions by Senator Barack Obama (D—111.) and others that hurricane Katrina

Katrina | >

will fundamentally alter the country’s demographics, by prompting a mass exodus of poor blacks from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to other locales, may also be premature. While refugees are finding emergency shelter and aid in places like Houston, the welcome mat isn’t necessarily out. Gov. Rick Perry has declared the state full and started airlifting refugees to Utah, Michigan, Oklahoma and New York. School boards are expressing worries about the cost of taking on displaced students. Even Barbara Bush, the President’s mother, has suggested that there are limits to charity. “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas,” the former first lady told National Public Radio after touring the Astrodome. “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” It’s not exactly a backlash, but as the weeks turn into months, there will be increasing pressure on the federal government to find a permanent solution. And a rebuilt, renewed New Orleans is already emerging as the favoured option.

But even as Congress approved an additional US$51.8 billion for the stricken area, on top of US$10.5 billion already on the way, planners and social scientists were casting doubt on the idea of fixing the place up— or repopulating it once the last ton of mud had been trucked away. One declared New Orleans “a dead city,” adding, “Who in their right mind is going to want to build there besides the federal government?”

If history is any guide, the intangibles that create and nourish a city as old as New Orleans will bring people home, says Robert Olshansky, a planning expert at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Olshansky has studied the recovery efforts in several disaster-stricken cities around the world, and says evacuees tend to be tugged homeward by factors like family and culture, things that outweigh qualms about danger, or the years of back-breaking work needed to re-establish themselves. “The city still exists in these people’s minds,” he says. “There are still social networks and economic networks, the things that really make a city. All those things are kind of floating in the air, waiting for their physical home to re-manifest itself.” Olshansky cites Kobe, the Japanese city levelled in 1995 by an earthquake, as an example: some 6,300 people died and 400,000

evacuated, living in temporary shelters outside the city for months. Dire predictions followed, as they did after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. But after their initial shock and grief, residents in all three cases returned en masse to build pretty much the same city that was there before. “There was a reason for those communities to be where they were,” Olshansky says.

For all its shortcomings, New Orleans is also a city with a distinct raison d’être. It’s a gateway port to the U.S. South. It’s a regional economic centre, a polyglot social hub and a legendary tourist destination. Those factors alone seemed to stir the White House, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the city’s defence last week, prompting a string of brave pronouncements about building New Orleans “bigger and better” than it was before. The bravura sounded strained, but as the water swiftly receded, it did become possible for homeowners to imagine their property once again becoming useful and, perhaps in some distant future, regaining its value.

For many victims, this is a best-case scenario, not least because, despite the billions

in government aid and charitable donations, there is no guarantee survivors are in line for compensation like that given to families of Sept. 11 victims. This runs counter to another popular assumption that has taken hold in recent days: that the mere scale of the disaster, and the apparent tardiness of the rescue, necessitates payouts to survivors. Bolstered with fat cheques, goes this thinking, evacuees would settle somewhere safer; a pumped-out, rebuilt New Orleans would be left sitting empty.

But legal experts point out that the Sept. 11 compensation fund was a one-time program, created by Congress to protect the airline industry from civil lawsuits by victims’ families. In the case of Katrina, Washington, not any private entity, is the logical target of any lawsuits. And the government is well protected from lawsuits under “sovereign immunity,” a legal principle that shields it from litigation over policy-based decisions. Failing to heed warnings about the weakness of the levees, or responding slowly to the crisis, would fall under that heading. In other words, says Kenneth Feinberg, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who administered the 9/11 com-

pensation program, there’s no legal impetus for the government to open up the vault. “There have been plenty of times in American history—hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes—when people couldn’t sue,” he says. “Congress has never stepped in.”

If it did, says Feinberg, it would find itself navigating a political minefield. Would Congress replicate the 9-11 fund, giving everybody different amounts of money, designed to reflect what a successful lawsuit would bring? Or would it give everyone the same amount? The average death claim after 9/11 was US$2 million tax free; can the country afford another such plan for victims of Katrina? “Those are questions the politicians would have to address,” says Feinberg.

Whatever the decision, the cost of rebuilding will be staggering. Estimates of the total bill for the recovery and rebuilding effort range as high as US$200 billion, and the damage caused by the storm could slow economic growth by a full percentage point and cost up to 400,000 jobs, according to government officials. This has some immediate consequences for Bush’s domestic agenda-reforming social security and further tax cuts would appear to be off the table, at

least in the short term. But despite the widespread anger over the White House’s slow response to the disaster, there are already indications that the long-term political fallout will be negligible. A recent CNN/USA Today poll found that just 13 per cent of voters feel Bush is primarily to blame for the post-hurricane troubles in New Orleans; 25 per cent blamed state or local officials. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll had 46 per cent of respondents approving of the President’s handling of the crisis (47 per cent disapproved), which is actually a marked improvement on his job approval ratings, which had dipped down to 40 per cent this summer.

Steven Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, says the controversy over Katrina is hardly a political tipping point. “Politically, the U.S. is clearly a 50-50 country. Half the people love George W. Bush, half the people hate him. And there’s maybe a five per cent variation, depending on what the morning headline is.” Midterm congressional elections are still over a year away, and the long, plodding race to choose the next president won’t really Segin until 2007. Long enough to render the controversy a speck in the Republicans’ rear-view mirror, says Hess.

What won’t be so easy to recover from appears to be the human cost. With the rescue and evacuation efforts nearing completion, the focus has shifted to the massive task of finding and identifying the dead. A warehouse in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, La., 100 km northwest of New Orleans, has been turned into a makeshift morgue, with the capacity to process 144 bodies a day, and cold-store thousands more. FEMAhas 25,000 body bags on hand. Officials plan to photograph each corpse, note distinguishing features like tattoos and scars, and take fingerprints, dental X-rays and DNA samples in hopes of eventually identifying all the victims.

But Dr. Jim Young, a former chief coroner of Ontario who helped forensic teams after

9/11 and last year’s tsunami, and now stands ready to head to Louisiana, says the reality is that many of the bodies will remain nameless. Dental records—if they existed at all for the poorer victims—are likely to have been damaged or destroyed by the floods. Water and heat speed up decomposition, making fingerprints and visual identification more difficult. DNA can be extracted from bones, but investigators will need samples from the victim’s personal possessions or close relatives to compare it with. With close to a million refugees dispersed across more than a dozen states, even drawing up a comprehensive list of the missing will be next to impossible. “The ID process after 9/11 was very sophisticated and very difficult. This is as complicated or worse,” says Young, now a senior adviser to Anne McLellan, Canada’s minister of public safety. “There’s an amazing need for closure, but I think you have to be frank. It’s going to be hard.”

The people of New Orleans are already coming to grips with a host of troubling new realities. And as the long road back stretches before them, they can only hope an inhabitable city awaits them at the end. Marcus Gilmer, 26, watched the pictures of Katrina’s aftermath from his parents’ place in Huntsville, Ala., after the New Orleans software company he’d worked for was washed away. He’ll seek other work up the road in Birmingham for now, he says, but he’s already feeling the siren call of the city where he’d hoped to settle for good. “It might be a year or two. But I certainly hope to go back.”

Gilmer checks off the many people who “made that town worth living in”: singers, drunks, poets, artists, shysters, clowns, rednecks, intellectuals. Not all of them will be able to return, he acknowledges, and a few will refuse if given the chance. But his own spirits soared last week after he heard tell of an impromptu parade down Bourbon Street on Labour Day, a shrunken version of the city’s annual gay and lesbian festival, Southern Decadence, with people marching and playing music as if the flood never happened. “I think that pretty much captures the attitude of the city,” says Gilmer. “They’re talking about going ahead with Mardi Gras in February, too, and you know what? I kind of believe them. Even if it’s a parade going two blocks down through the French Quarter, with kids in wagons, they’ll do it. It’s that kind of place.” ITil