Katrina 10 Years On

It Was New Orleans’ Musicians—Not Its Politicians—Who Saved the City Post-Katrina

The money may have come from Washington, but 10 years after Katrina, the city’s true rebirth came from within.

08.23.15 4:01 AM ET

As the media descend for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is a robust city with a booming $800 million film industry, a burgeoning digital economy, rising real estate values and a solid growth curve. The population is approaching 90 percent of the 457,000 people who lived there when the place nearly drowned on international television starting August 29, 2005.

Washington saved New Orleans with a financial lifeline, at least $19.5 billion from FEMA alone, as the New Orleans Advocate reports. The money came slowly in the early years, the spigot quickening in the five years since Mitch Landrieu became mayor. The Rockefeller Foundation contributed $6.5 million for citywide planning. Congress also allocated $9 billion to assist under-insured residential owners in the Road Home program, a grant process that became a byzantine scandal.

Private investment followed the flow of federal dollars. The business district is becoming an upscale residential neighborhood. The city’s rebirth shows in building projects, streets that are cleaner than at any time in living memory, a robust scene of music clubs, restaurants, and art galleries.

New Orleans is the American city with the deepest African identity. The shadow-story of the rebirth is the resilience of musicians, artists, and tradition-bearers who came back, against the odds, when it was a shattered mud town in fall 2005. Culture is the life force here, a powerful current of memory and rituals that proved vital to the city’s resurrection.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks about New Orleans emergence as a model of urban renewal and economic recovery 10 years after Hurricane Katrina at the National Press Club on August 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States, forcing more than a million people from their homes and tragically taking more than 1,800 lives.  Katrina remains the most devastating and costliest natural disaster in our nations history.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks about New Orleans emergence as a model of urban renewal and economic recovery 10 years after Hurricane Katrina at the National Press Club on August 18, 2015 in Washington, DC.

The life force springs from a history of blacks, many of them poor, whose music and folkways had a shaping role in the town’s unique identity, even by melting pot standards. That culture came to the city’s rescue in its worst crisis, only to face political incompetence and sleazy scheming of a social Darwinist tilt. The city that was 67 percent African-American in 2005 is about 59 percent so today.

Two narrative lines—a cultural resurgence crucial to the city’s return, and the early role of inept, or cynical officials in response to the flood—have registered in several films and books that open a viewfinder on the post-Katrina narrative. The culture that returned to a broken city ended up, as cultures will do, spotlighting episodes of political betrayal.

In the last few years, the architecture and roots culture became a magnet for young people, reversing years of brain drain. Mayor Landrieu inherited a dysfunctional city and proved a catalyst in rebuilding infrastructure with funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, charting a new urban path.

Landrieu’s efforts followed an aching half-decade of blunders by Mayor Ray Nagin (now in a federal prison) and cynical ploys by state officials and lesser lights at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who engineered a big new hospital in New Orleans. The $1.2 billion University Medical Center replaced Charity Hospital, a 14-story art deco tower built in the Depression on the muscle of Senator Huey Long. Charity is a rust-stained hulk awaiting redevelopment. Alex John Glustrom’s documentary Big Charity provides an outline of one of the great boondoggles of recent American politics, a scheme that wasted mountains of federal money, more on which directly.

Media coverage of Katrina altered American politics. After the initial disaster coverage, journalists seized on a story of man-made error—the levees buckled because of flawed design and maintenance by a federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers. A hurricane expert at LSU who raised this issue forcefully and eloquently, Ivor van Heerden, co-authored a bestseller, The Storm, and was fired by LSU, fearful of jeopardized federal contracts.

The massive damage to an urban area seven times the size of Manhattan became an issue for Congress because of the Army Corps’s failure: 80 percent of the city was submerged, an average of 4 feet, trashing thousands of homes. Footage of people on rooftops and the squalid conditions in the Superdome showed an American city reduced to a Third World backwater.

Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin leaves the courthouse after being found guilty on graft charges in New Orleans, Louisiana February 12, 2014. A federal jury on Wednesday found Nagin guilty of accepting bribes and trading on the public trust during the critical years of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin leaves the courthouse after being found guilty on graft charges in New Orleans, Louisiana February 12, 2014.

As the country that put men on the moon failed to rescue people in a flood, President George W. Bush’s ratings tanked. Mayor Nagin made the mistake of placing hope in Bush for a swift recovery. A former cable TV executive, Nagin was traumatized by the storm and came out of it with no rebuilding plan as he waited for Bush’s handlers to move on Congress.

For weeks after the flood, National Guardsmen patrolled the ravaged streets as most of the city was off the grid, dark at night.

On September 8, 2005, the Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, Richard Baker, crowed cynically: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

That night, jazz composer Wynton Marsalis replied indirectly on a PBS interview with Tavis Smiley, scoffing at “the incompetence in our government, in terms of how politicians try to polarize everybody.”

Already, volunteers from churches and civic organizations across America were sending people to New Orleans. “The poetic truth is that Americans are coming to save lives regardless of race and class,” said Marsalis. “We see white people are devastated too.”

Marsalis organized a September 17, 2005, PBS telethon that flew several dozen displaced musicians to New York for a hurricane relief fundraiser.

Trumpeter Marlon Jordan, who ended up in a Birmingham hospital after four days on his house roof in New Orleans East, made the trip to New York. So did clarinetist Michael White, out of Houston, after losing 4,000 books and 5,000 CDs at his home in Gentilly. Many other musicians who played the PBS program would go back to upended lives.

Six weeks after the flood, the Hot 8 Brass Band played a memorial jazz funeral parade for the chef Austin Leslie, who had died in Atlanta; the city was in shambles, most of the residents yet to return. As other musicians came back to play in reopened clubs, when not digging out, art galleries, and restaurants in dry areas also reopened, facing huge losses.

Most of the population was still displaced when Nagin convened the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, with help from the Urban Land Institute, to forge a plan. As filmmakers and videographers combed the dead neighborhoods, Marsalis raised funds for a BNOBC report documenting the impact of music and culture on the economy.

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“Our first objective is to get the talent pool back,” Marsalis told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re not going to let our culture slip away.”

In Bury the Hatchet, Aaron Walker’s film on the return of several Mardi Gras Indian leaders, the most powerful scene follows Alfred Doucette, Big Chief of the Flaming Arrows, walking beneath an interstate overpass, a strip packed with dead cars, trashed by vandals. Doucette is a master carpenter, his stunning costume art a leitmotif of the film. “They could have moved these cars and cleaned up under this bridge,” he says, disgust dripping. “Look, they got people’s clothes all over the ground. People trying to live in these cars!”

The dead cars were a campaign issue in 2006 when Nagin ran for reelection, touting a “market driven” recovery for a city barely breathing. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Nagin told a small crowd, with enough TV cameras present, that New Orleans would remain a “chocolate city.” Playing the race card offended whites; but displaced blacks in Atlanta, Houston and Baton Rouge, especially those stuffed in the miserable FEMA trailers, got the message: Nagin would stand up to The Man.

“When did we begin to lose faith in our ability to effect change?” Wynton Marsalis said a few hours after Nagin’s comment in a speech at Tulane. “As we have seen our money squandered and stolen, our civil rights trampled, and the politics of polarity become the order of the day, we have held no one accountable.”

As the mayor’s race heated up in February 2006, and with the Bush White House trying to shield documents on its Katrina response from Congressional investigators, Marsalis the jazzman did what politicians had thus far failed to do: He put money into the hands of musicians, artists, museums and cultural institutions hammered by the flood. The PBS Higher Ground concert yielded $2.8 million for individual grants of $15,000 to the likes of clarinetist Dr. Michael White and others who lost homes and intellectual capital. Several museums got $100,000 each.

Former presidents Bush and Clinton spearheaded a Katrina fund that raised $90 million in the first three months to assist the rebuilding of schools, faith-based organizations, and community projects. The emir of Qatar donated $100 million for Katrina repairs in the Gulf South, of which Xavier University in New Orleans, which was heavily damaged, received $17.5 million for rebuilding.

Dream city visions, and reality

As the Bring New Orleans Back Commission held hearings in fall 2005, architects and planners advocated a smaller urban footprint, letting areas of hardest-hit New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward revert to water and swamp; compensate homeowners, have them move to dry areas, and put an emphasis on new medium-rises.

The plan had a certain logic on paper; but the public hearings, with so many residents displaced, backfired when several people protested the smaller footprint proposed by Urban Land Institute planners. They wanted to return, dig out and rebuild. “The ULI report painted a picture of doom that would beset the city if some of the ‘tough choices’ were not made,” Roberta Gratz reports in We’re Still Hear Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City (Nation Books).

The report was so overreaching, so absent of legitimate local input and disdainful of the democratic process that it served as a startling wake-up call regarding the new elite agenda for the city…

Since half of the city’s residents were expected never to return, the experts opined, the city landscape would have pockets of rebuilt homes and streets with only a few homes surrounded by blight…In fact, 44 percent, 198,893, were back by July 2016 and 59 percent, 267,658, by July 2007.

Gratz writes in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an adversary in her day of Robert Moses, whose impact on New York was exposed in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.

Like many people drawn to New Orleans and its plight, Gratz was charmed by the town, if appalled by the course of the rebuilding politics.

The ULI recommendation of more green space might have worked with a more democratic approach; although the citywide planning process unfolded over several years, Nagin backed away from the ULI report, sensing it would hurt his reelection chances. The vacuum of leadership in the early aftermath shows in the desolation today in the Lower Ninth Ward, and moribund areas of New Orleans East.

In a chapter called “Public Housing and Disaster Capitalism,” Gratz assesses the post-Katrina demolition of housing projects as HUD funded replacement of old low-income units with newer townhouse structures.

Central to this logic was creating better, safer neighborhoods. The old projects were infamous for drugs, crime, and teenage pregnancies. Nagin and the City Council approved their demolition over protests by valid lease-holders in housing project apartments. City officials feared a return of violent crime and social dysfunction.

“Many of these residents were the backbone of the city’s low-wage workforce, especially the hotel maids and restaurant kitchen workers,” writes Gatz. “Contrary to myth, most of the people in these communities worked, although at disgracefully low-paying service jobs.”

Although many poor African Americans never returned, the drug culture and violent crime did so with a vengeance. The New Orleans Police Department was so scandal-ridden that Landrieu, after becoming mayor, requested Justice Department intervention. The city’s fluctuating homicide rate is one of the highest nationally among large cities; Landrieu is one of the rare public officials to crusade on the issue of reducing homicide and black-on-black crime—an issue to make the Republican Congress yawn while standing in line for National Rifle Association money.

Nagin’s 2006 demagoguery on the race issue won enough black support for his reelection. Among the many ironies layered into the post-Katrina recovery saga, the most perverse is Nagin’s second term, secretly shaking down contractors (for which he would eventually go to prison) while stiff-arming poor blacks who wanted to come home.

“I cannot prove the urban myth of a conspiracy to keep poor people from returning,” Louisiana Episcopal Bishop Charles Jenkins, who spoke out against the housing project demolitions, told me in 2008. “But too much evidence points toward someone not wanting the poor to come home.” Jenkins, who launched affordable-housing and health clinic initiatives for the poor, resigned in 2010, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.

What should the city have done in the situation it faced in 2005? How could New Orleans have made a swifter, smarter, more equitable recovery?

Ed Blakely is an urban policy professor and authority on post-disaster planning who was hired by Nagin in 2006 to guide recovery planning. His tenure proved stormy; he left in 2009 to resume an academic career.

The answer he gave me in 2008 on what should have happened made sense then, and still today: “The state should have fronted the money for infra-structure repair in the $500 million range and taken aggressive action to collect from FEMA. Here, however, there was conflict”—a charitable understatement of the view in Baton Rouge among many legislators who saw New Orleans as a Babylonian outback of crime, poverty and corruption. Another piece of the conflict was Nagin’s bitter, long-running feud with Governor Kathleen Blanco that owed to his narcissistic personality.

Congress eventually acted with an initial $7.5 billion appropriation to help under-insured homeowners rebuild. The Road Home program was a labyrinth of frustration for many homeowners, and “was inequitable from the start,” writes Gratz. “The same shotgun house appraised at $400,000 in the Garden District would be appraised at $75,000 in the Lower Ninth Ward, thereby automatically ghettoizing the house. Since the Garden District didn’t flood, only the shotguns in the Lower Nine would require a hefty new investment.”

The Road Home bureaucracy, outsourced by Blanco to a Virginia company, became a scandalously sluggish, ill-run operation such that the governor saw it in her best interest to not run for reelection.

Road Home was a huge bailout for the insurance industry; but without the program, the majority of middle-class New Orleanians would not have had the resources to return and rebuild.

“Long after Katrina I still had nightmares about an ocean of water pouring down on my house and drowning people,” jazz composer and clarinetist Dr. Michael White, a professor at Xavier University, told The Daily Beast.

“Near the end of the Road Home program I sold my home to the state for a reasonable rate and was able to put a down payment on a new home in New Orleans. While my total losses were enormous and complete recovery was impossible, the Road Home program was a big move toward my finally getting back on my feet when I bought a new home.”

Doing the education reform shuffle

After the flood, Blanco, a former schoolteacher, marshaled support from the legislature for the state to create the Recovery School District, usurping control of many failing schools from the Orleans Parish School Board, a patronage hive plagued with scandals, prosecutions, and failing schools well before the flood. A skeletal version of the old board oversaw several well-functioning magnet schools as independent charters became a new system. Test scores have risen in the schools, which charter leaders, and their corporate and foundation supporters, tout as a script for education reform.

The underside to this story is a power grab worthy of an Ayn Rand novel. Soon after the storm, 7,500 Orleans Parish teachers and school employees were fired; most of them were black, mired in chaos, displaced from their homes when they lost their salaries and health coverage. In contrast, the local universities paid faculty and staff for the “Katrina semester” without students or classes, drawing from donations and endowments. The legislature could have passed an emergency fund for grants to assist the teachers.

The Orleans school board, however, had a reputation for serving bottom feeders like Mose Jefferson—brother of Congressman William Jefferson, he of the famous $90,000 in cash found in his freezer by FBI agents. Mose died in prison after conviction for a sweetheart deal involving a software program for the public schools. Bill Jefferson went to prison for misusing his congressional office in a business deal selling Internet bandwidth technology in Africa.

As the new school system got going, some of the old employees were rehired; but the charters recruited young people from Teach for America. The impact this had on Gregg Stafford of New Orleans is instructive.

Stafford is a trumpeter who leads the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a storied band, and plays in Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty band. Many musicians also teach. Stafford had 16 years as a second-grade teacher, before an approved leave of absence, when Katrina hit.

“When I did come back, it was 2007,” he told The Daily Beast. ”I was upset that they made us take a test to be rehired. They were trying not to hire veteran teachers, but they found places for Teach for America people to live, paying the rent and a sign-up bonus. It was bad the way they treated us, as if we had never taught before.

“My health insurance was cut off right after the storm. I became short-winded after helping my sister work on her house, which took 10 feet [of water]. I had to get checked for bronchitis. A friend—a doctor—instructed me to go to a state [public] hospital in Houma. I had to drive at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. appointment. It was almost 10 o’clock when I finally saw someone.”

Stafford finally got a teaching job in 2007 at a Recovery District school.

“I taught for two years and they laid us off to bring in Teach for America teachers,” he says.

He found work at another charter, “teaching second and third grade. Again I was laid off. I lost health insurance again. I was able to get on at Eisenhower. The assistant principal knew me. I went back as a teacher’s aide, making $600 a week—a big cut from $45,000 a year. I got up every morning thinking if the storm hadn’t come I’d be eligible to retire and draw pension. It’s taken me seven years to get to this point [of eligibility.] The 10 years have been really tough, the amount of paperwork is massive. Thank God I had the music, or I would have lost my house and been just about homeless.”

Stafford plays trumpet on White’s post-Katrina CD, Blue Crescent, and is the vocalist on the composition “Sunday Morning,” about church folk gathering for a service under sunny skies.

When the 7,500 teachers and school staff were fired, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $750 million emergency grant to the state, whose education secretary had written: “These employees are very concerned with their livelihood, health insurance coverage, and just being able to cover basic needs.” The state got the money, shafted “these employees,” and awarded $29 million to consultants for mapping a new charter system. A nine-year lawsuit to compensate the school employees won a $1.5 billion verdict, which the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court declined the plaintiffs’ appeal.

Charity and Jindal’s health-care revolution

Ordinarily, the newly uninsured Gregg Stafford would have driven 15 minutes to Charity Hospital, the place of service for generations of poor people and those uninsured. Charity needed renovation before Katrina, but never got state allocations. Only the basement flooded. Doctors, nurses, and military personnel cleaned Charity’s basement and first three floors after the flood; the emergency room was ready in three weeks. In one of Big Charity’s chilling scenes, General Russell Honoré, who oversaw the cleanup, recalls advising Governor Blanco that the hospital could now take patients. But: “I was told that there’s no plan to reopen it.”

The LSU system had long wanted to replace Charity with a new teaching hospital in New Orleans, where its medical school is located; legislators balked at the cost. Charity was already there, if needing renovation—a mammoth structure well built. With the city in ruins, Louisiana public hospital officials immediately asked Congress and the White House for $1.2 billion for a new hospital. At first, they were stiff-armed; but there is a reason why LSU is considered the fourth rail of power in Louisiana.

In a mild coincidence, right after the state refused to reopen Charity, unknown persons gained entry to the facility just cleaned by military and hospital staff, turned on faucets and stuffed drains, causing extensive new damage—all the earmarks of sabotage.

“The FBI contacted me by phone about an investigation when we were still in production,” Big Charity producer Alex Glustrom told The Daily Beast, “but nothing seemed to come from it.”

Because of Charity’s closure, says film editor Tim Watson, “There was no Level One trauma center in the city for 15 months, until the LSU Interim hospital opened. For people in outlying neighborhoods, that meant a 30-minute ambulance ride all the way to Harahan [in suburban Jefferson Parish].”

FEMA regulations allow a local government to use federal remediation funds to replace a given structure with damage at greater than 51 percent. FEMA initially offered $25 million for repair of Charity after the sabotage. “If the state had used short-term money to reopen Charity, it would have hurt the chances of getting full replacement value,” says Glustrom. “So they kept it closed, despite the devastating health consequences.”

After hard bargaining with the state, FEMA agreed to pay $475 million for restoring Charity. Voila! LSU had its down payment and an inducement for legislators in Baton Rouge to belly up to the bar.

According to Southern University of New Orleans sociologist Brad Ott, who has done extensive research on the issue, “As Big Charity was originally constituted, no private operator would have anything to do with it—the administrative reality was too costly. The state bled Charity dry with deferred maintenance. The Louisiana Health Care Authority under [former Governor Edwin] Edwards did that and used a joint commission to say we need a new hospital.”

Post-Katrina, as rust stains tattooed the totemic Charity Hospital, the state pushed ahead on the big LSU hospital next to a replacement underway for the Veteran Administrations hospital. The city under Nagin, and his chief planner Ed Blakely, used $75 million in HUD Community Block Development Grants to purchase land for the VA hospital. Two big hospitals would now go up side by side. A big new medical district. The city’s official recovery plan, guided by Blakely under Nagin, envisioned the hospitals as an integrated facility on a 15-square-block site. But as Wayne Curtis wrote in Preservation Magazine, “V.A. and LSU officials won approval instead for a complex [to] occupy a 27-block site (67 acres.)”

As the sun rose in 2010 over the holy city where jazz began, with thousands of people like clarinetist Michael White locked in dealings with Road Home over his house in outlying Gentilly Woods, the massive MidCity neighborhood whose homes were rebuilt with Road Home money, average grant $59,000—was in the crosshairs for bulldozers to make room for the great hospital.

The city appropriated $3.2 million for moving endangered structures as the new hospital footprint took shape.

The medical footprint involved an estimated 265 houses taken by the state through eminent domain or coerced purchase, according to author Roberta Gratz. What Road Home put back into the city fabric, another crush of federal dollars would remove. Seventy-seven houses were removed to other places; many others, and several businesses sold to the state, were demolished. Gratz’s chapter in We’re Still Hear, Ya Bastards, and the eerie neighborhood visuals in Big Charity, offer a sobering lesson in the state’s great Katrina land grab in New Orleans.

Lawsuits from MidCity business owners, delays and cost overruns bloated the budget of the dream hospital, forcing LSU to scale back its original service plan, and in an embarrassing move, to turn management over to another hospital company before the facility opened this month.

No one knows the full extent of the cost, though a Baton Rouge potentate who knows the deep soil of buried Louisiana money bones told me (not for attribution, a chance encounter—in a bookstore, of all places) “we will be paying for that wasteful thing for years…and…years…and years.”

The blandly named University Medical Center—a teaching hospital without an OBGYN wing—might be seen as the albatross around the neck of Governor Bobby Jindal, now bravely running for president.

Jindal, who was elected in 2007 after Blanco chose not to run, ends his eight years, ineligible for a third term, with state approval ratings hovering at 30 percent.

Jindal is the worst Louisiana governor since the invention of electricity. He joins George W. Bush, Blanco, and Nagin as elected officials hit with Katrina blowback. Jindal got his much later in the game—and as a result of the state’s greedy overreach in its health-care rebuilding plans.

Jindal inherited an $850 million surplus from Blanco, and eight years later, as the legislature met this summer, handed them a $1.5 billion budget hole. Raising taxes, but not calling it that, and shuffling revenues, the political barony performed a short-term wound-stanching effort. To prove his conservative bonafides, Jindal slashed away at Obama and refused to take Affordable Care Act funds.

Jindal’s blunder was to simultaneously push his plan to sell six state public hospitals, using state and federal money to compensate the private companies. That wondrous brand of conservatism collided with costs for the big dream hospital. The fallout to the LSU main campus came in draconian cuts from Jindal, who has done more to savage higher education than any governor in Louisiana history.

In a sense, LSU became a victim of its own overreach, one branch of the system sucking financial blood from the same body of funds provided by the governor and legislature.

The big benefit of that big hospital, adjacent to the VA hospital, is that the new bio-medical district, as it’s called, will be a driver of well-paying jobs for New Orleans and further transform the downtown area, where more knowledge-class workers are moving.

Thus the city may end up profiting by the LSU system’s gargantuan mistake. Whether the hospital one day proves self-sufficient, taxpayers will swallow its losses unto a distant horizon and legislators who abhorred the crime and mismanagement of New Orleans, before Katrina, will hold their noses and allocate funds that will contribute to the city’s rebirth after the federal largess that rebuilt New Orleans is finally gone.