Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

A second disaster: Why recovery in New Orleans made things worse for many

Updated Wednesday 19th March 2014

Thinking Allowed hears why Vincanne Adams believes that the military-heavy response to Hurricane Katrina brought about a second disaster for the people of New Orleans.

Laurie Taylor:
Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana Creative commons image Icon locosteve under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Katrina aftermath in Louisiana Hello. My first visit to New Orleans was back in the late '70s and I was a delegate then to the American Sociological Association's Annual Conference. It didn't really begin well. The American reception committee had misinterpreted my gender and for a complete day I wandered from session to session unknowingly sporting a large badge that announced me as Ms Laurie Taylor.

But what was worse really was the feeling that as long as I attended the conference I was missing out on the street life outside the hotel. So I promptly gave up my comfortable room and went out on the town. And my luck was in. I found a great bar full of wonderful characters who laughed at my accent, told me the best jazz venues, plied me with Dixie beer, and at the end of the evening even found me – even found me a sofa bed that was in South Rampart Street. Well I lived like that for the rest of my three or four days stay. I came to love the sheer variety of the people who'd made New Orleans their home. Which was why I suppose I felt particularly saddened – particularly saddened by the terrible events in August 2005, the time when Hurricane Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States struck the city costing the lives of nearly 2,000 people and causing $81 billion worth of destruction to property.

Now even though at the time the details were sometimes sparse, it was still possible to gather from domestic news bulletins that something had gone seriously wrong with the post-disaster recovery efforts… but I hadn't realised quite how wrong until I began to read a new book called Markets of Sorrow, Labours of Faith, New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

Its author is Vincanne Adams, Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of California in San Francisco. And when I spoke to her recently on a line from that city I began by asking why she'd chosen to characterise the post-Katrina events as a 'second-order disaster'.

Vincanne Adams:
The second order disaster in post-Katrina New Orleans I define as what happens when we let the market driven governance that has taken over in the United States take control of the recovery process. So it's what we might call the privatisation of the safety net. If you look at the first disaster – the hurricane itself – one of the reasons the floods happened in the first place, after the hurricane, was that there was a revolving door relationship between military sub-contractors and the government which failed to protect the cities from the floods. The same kinds of revolving door relationships were deployed in the aftermath which actually ended up delaying recovery immensely. So we witness a kind of privately organised publicly funded bureaucratic failure.

Laurie Taylor:
We've got a clip here from BBC News, this is back in 2010 Vincanne, it's a reporter talking to Linda Jackson, an African American resident from New Orleans lower ninth ward, that was the area I think hit hardest by the flooding when the levees broke. She's describing the devastation that was left.

Linda Jackson:
It was something that I never thought I would see here in America. There was nothing here.

Interviewer:
And if we walk up what's left of this street you can really see there's a driveway here where there's no house anymore, it's all grown over. It doesn't look like you've had much help here to get this place back in order.

Linda Jackson:
No that's why I keep asking, you know, where's the money? Is this a dream, should I wake up and find this place the way it was?

Interviewer:
And historically this was one of the first neighbourhoods in New Orleans that African Americans were allowed to build their own homes.

Linda Jackson:
Exactly. And own their own property, yes.

Interviewer:
So we're five years after the storm now and this place is, as we can see, desolate, overgrown.

Linda Jackson:
I'm hoping five years from now that we will be standing in front of houses instead of a jungle because this is home. Ninety percent of the people that evacuated are still displaced – this is all they know, this is what they want to come back to.

Laurie Taylor:
Vincanne, perhaps you'd like to pick up on that – the people who couldn't go home or couldn't get back home after the disaster.

Vincanne Adams:
Yeah, this is really a tragedy – the lower ninth still has not come back, I would say, maybe 140 homes last time I counted have returned. Many of those families could not show title on their home because they had inherited their homes from their grandparents, plus there was a consistent under-valuation of homes in these African American neighbourhoods. So really in the end the only people who came to rebuild in that area were the faith based volunteer grassroots organisations that sprang into being.

Laurie Taylor:
The other part of the second order disaster, I suppose, is the way in which you say it actually exacerbated race/class inequalities which existed before the – before the hurricane struck?

Vincanne Adams:
Precisely. Everyone was made poor by the hurricane, even people who were wealthy to start with, but those who had some resources were able to use them. The poor, of course, were the worst off. So take for example a family that I got to know fairly well – Henry and Gladys Bradley – these were African Americans, they owned their home in a middle class neighbourhood, he was a three time Purple Heart recipient from the war – the Vietnam War – and she was a retired postal worker. They were out of their house for three weeks, it was flooded with up to 10 feet of water, and when they returned they had nothing but the $2500 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave to them and a six by 10 foot FEMA trailer. They had no insurance because when they bought their home they had bought it through what was called the bond for deed sale, which was common for African Americans in the area, where – who couldn't get loans from conventional banks. Because they had no insurance they weren't able to get any of that but even if they had it would have been unlikely they would have gotten any because the insurance companies were being protected by the government. So ironically where the government supported insurance companies' claims that floods were not caused by the hurricane but in fact from the broken levies, they also supported the Army Corps of Engineers claim, that is the government agency responsible for the levies, that the floods were caused by the hurricanes and not from the unrepaired levies. So here is the first instance where we see the government protecting corporations to profit on the disaster.

The second resource for the Bradleys was probably the small business administration loan programme, to provide funding for people who are victims of disaster. But this for them a kind of insult to injury, people like them were already paying mortgages on homes they could no longer live in. So they were being asked to take on further debt to recover and rebuild those homes. This again was a kind of shifting of the responsibility to the victims, while giving banks the opportunity to give government supported loans and again make money on the victims of the disaster.

The third, of course, is a major focus for my book, which is the Road Home Programme. This was the last resource people had. And it was designed to give the amount of money that people needed to make up the difference between what insurance paid and what their home was worth. There were massive problems with delays, lost paperwork, they refused to pay some applicants whilst stringing them along for up to five years. Everyone complained about this organisation as a government bureaucracy but in fact it too had been sub-contracted to a private company. Their shares went from $12 per share up to $33 over the course of their management of this programme. They gave $2 million bonuses in the third year, even while people were still living in FEMA trailers. And of course these long delays produced enormous problems for people – physical problems, emotional problems, mortality doubled in the first two years after Katrina, there were high suicide rates. The Bradleys, for instance, even in year four after they were still waiting to recover, when they were denied Road Home Funding a second time, even after showing affidavits from the homeowner that they bought from that they did own the home. Henry went into his trailer to take a nap and he had a massive stroke, so he was made paralysed from the neck down and his wife then spent the rest of her time taking care of him.

Laurie Taylor:
You argue that in the immediate aftermath of the New Orleans disaster people actually were faced with more of a military than a humanitarian response.

Vincanne Adams:
In the case of New Orleans it's very clear that the revolving door relationships between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was hardened by the merging of what we have an organisation called Homeland Security, that was invented during the Bush administration, and these two were merged two years before Katrina and that gave permission to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring military contractors in in the aftermath of the storm. These organisations were very poorly equipped to handle the humanitarian relief. Military and Paramilitary groups were walking through the streets trying to find people to arrest, they were building makeshift prisons, even while people were still stranded on rooftops in the city. It was very clear that most of the people who were considered looters were people who were trying to go and find resources to supply their families, they had no water, no food.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me bring in my second guest now and he's Phil O'Keefe, Professor of Environmental Management and Economic Development at the University of Northumbria and much of his research has been into the area of humanitarian assistance.

This blurring between military and humanitarian response after Hurricane Katrina have you got any evidence of that happening elsewhere?

Phil O'Keefe:
It's always been there, the very first disaster I worked on in Nicaragua in the early '70s, the US military were very strongly present. Forty seven percent of all aid into Haiti was delivered by the military. And if we come closer to home – Kosovo – the military oversaw all of the work of the NGOs, as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what we have to ask is how can we look at the delivery of humanitarian assistance, which is meant to be universal and neutral, and say how can this possibly be delivered to these standards if the military are involved?

Laurie Taylor:
Five years on from this disaster there are a hundred thousand fewer people in greater New Orleans.

Vincanne Adams:
Well that's true, so one of the amazing things that happened in the immediate aftermath of the storm is that people who lived in subsidised housing in New Orleans, let's call it the lumpen proletariat labour class, they revolve in and out of jobs but they never make enough to really certainly own their own homes, there were about seven or eight large public housing units that many of them did not even get flooded but within a week after the storm, the floods receding, the government came in and put up metal plates on the doors and windows and sealed them off and they took the people who lived in them, made them evacuate, put them in essentially what looked like relocation camps outside of the city in FEMA trailers with an armed guard and a barbed wire fence and they left them there for years. These people were never even allowed back into their homes. So the city lost an enormous number of its skilled African American craftsmen and labourers. The city subsequently tore down most of its public housing and built – rebuilt with mixed income condominiums and apartments and they only qualified people who were in the upper ranks of the income category.

Laurie Taylor:
But let's look on the brighter side because there were clearly charitable workers, philanthropic workers, also played a part in the rebuilding and they at least constituted some welcome relief, if you like, from the inadequacies of the for profit companies.

Vincanne Adams:
Absolutely and this is the labours of faith part of the book in which we see the outpouring of enormous numbers of volunteers who arrived to New Orleans to help from all over the world. These were largely organised by faith groups but it wasn't just faith groups and I have to say this is not simply a response to the failure of the market, it is actually built into the market in America since the era of George Bush senior when he called for a thousand points of light to come out and do charity work, let the faith based sector fill in the safety net for the declining support that the government would give to it. So you had two things that happened historically: one was increasing privatisation of public services and on the other hand you have the delivering of large government organisations that are set up to sponsor and give support to faith based volunteer charity work in the United States and this is absolutely what happened in New Orleans. And on the one hand it worked incredibly well – people came in and rebuilt from the group up, pretty much on their own. But the sad part about this is that the very same company that got federal resources to run the Road Home Programme and failed miserably to provide aid to people actually remarketed itself and became interested in – get this – getting government funds to organise faith based neighbourhood volunteer organisations.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me just turn to Phil for a moment. I mean do you recognise this story? I mean the Big Society, if you like, David Cameron's Big Society in operation?

Phil O'Keefe:
Yeah but we don't have the grass root church organisation in such a depth with such a commitment. So you'd have to say that in general when our social services might appear stronger on paper, our community based organisations are considerably weaker than is my experience of the United States.

Laurie Taylor:
Coming to you Vincanne, what would you say are the wider lessons in the post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans?

Vincanne Adams:
If we give the resources to the private sector to do this work there will be an inefficiency of profit that will make it fail even worse. Therefore we need to protect the public sector and it's getting the market of it that really becomes important.

Laurie Taylor:
Listening there to what Vincanne is saying, only recently we've been dealing with ongoing floods in the United Kingdom, now it would obviously be crass to compare the two, I mean we're talking about thousands of deaths in the New Orleans tragedy, but are there any parallels we can draw in terms of the events which led up to both of these?

Phil O'Keefe:
It's quite intriguing because I think we have, as the title of the book says, we too have markets of sorrow and labours of faith. It's very obvious at the present moment that our floods have hit the rural areas. They're very important for votes for the Conservative Party but they're not where Conservative Party invests, the investment in flood limitation to date and the focus of our emergency services will be on London where there is so much more property. There are whole questions about what kind of responsibility we can expect of the Environment Agency when in fact their budgets are continually being reduced. And we too are transferring work from local authority practices to private practice. It is always sub-contracted out for the actual work itself but they have oversight but they have less and less power of oversight as they've effectively lost 25% of their staff since the budget cuts employed by austerity came in.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?