Feb. 2, 2006 – About two months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, most of the city was still comatose, but a few corners were awakening with stubborn grace. Undaunted by the destruction, the most resilient residents were already hard at work reviving embattled homes, reconnecting with neighbors, and putting down new roots.
In the Vietnamese enclave of Versailles in New Orleans East, the lights came back on block by block, following the people home. Residents had struck a deal with the local utility to restore electricity to the area, beginning with the local church and radiating out to the surrounding houses. The community pressured the company, Entergy, with photographs, names and addresses representing hundreds of residents who gathered regularly for mass and were beginning to repair their damaged properties.
Since the disaster, Versailles residents have been pooling their own resources and volunteer labor to rebuild. Since trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were stalled awaiting approval from the city, residents have commuted from other areas or lived in partially fixed houses in order to undertake repairs. The community is working with an urban planning team to draft a rebuilding scheme for the neighborhood.
"We will be self-determined," said Reverend Vien The Nguyen, who leads the local parish. "And we have our own plans."
In flood-worn communities, natural calamity has yielded to a maelstrom of political tensions and uncertainty. As some displaced residents grow increasingly disillusioned with the official channels for assistance, returnees are relying instead on spontaneity and community solidarity to build neighborhoods from the ground up.
"The city didnâ€™t build neighborhoods in the first place, you know."
Rebuilding on Impulse
Nguyen said that the key to revitalizing the community was peopleâ€™s willingness to return even before the utilities and other infrastructure were restored. He traces this resilience to past experiences with forced migration. "For many of our people, they have been displaced twice in their life prior to this -- from North to South Vietnam, South Vietnam to here," he said. "They are well-experienced in it."
Lance Hill, executive director of Tulane Universityâ€™s Southern Institute for Education and Research, said that ultimately, post-Katrina revival turns on a straightforward premise: "The only neighborhoods that are going to survive are the neighborhoods people go back into and occupy. Very simple."
He noted that in New Orleans, while the scattering of residents and destruction of neighborhoods made it difficult to organize the displaced, "the impulse in the city has always been for people to organize themselves in small groups based on family and community and neighborhood â€“ and to control it."
A similar homegrown recovery is gaining momentum in New Orleansâ€™s Lower Ninth Ward, although that effort remains relatively decentralized compared to activity in the Vietnamese community, in part because it was the last district deemed safe for reentry.
"The only neighborhoods that are going to survive are the neighborhoods people go back into and occupy."
The Common Ground Collective, a volunteer-run organizing and service project, has set up a distribution center, health clinic, home-rehabilitation program and other services in the area to stimulate communities to reestablish their physical presence.
"We have to get people home first," volunteer Michelle Shin said. The aim is to provide returnees with basic resources that the government has not delivered, "so they can collectively have bargaining power as a [larger] population to demand services."
Similarly, volunteers with the antipoverty group ACORN say they have restored about 200 homes in the city since November. The group helped Ninth Ward resident Greta Gladney begin the work of renovating her flood-damaged house as she awaits a response to the claims she filed with FEMA and her insurance company.
Currently, Gladneyâ€™s main asset for rehabilitating her property is a commitment that she and her neighbors made with each other to rebuild their block. Not all residents will want to return, she acknowledged, and some will simply sell off their properties and move on. But either way, she said, "folks need to make decisions." While issues of safety and funding loom large over her neighborhood, the main question is one of self-determination.
Gladney reflected: "The city didnâ€™t build neighborhoods in the first place, you know. â€¦ Individual homeowners will decide."
Rebuilding in Harmâ€™s Way
Though residents are streaming back to New Orleans â€“ which now has an estimated population of over 140,000, or about one-third its original size â€“ returnees hoping to start anew are finding that sometimes government relief can ensnare or even undermine local measures to jumpstart the recovery process.
The designers of flood maps never accounted for the possible failure of the levees either.
In recent weeks, Versailles residents shut down their locally run supply distribution network to make way for an outside, FEMA-sponsored distribution project. But since residents learned that FEMA would withdraw its support in February, the community-based operation will soon have to start up again. In hindsight, Nguyen regrets requesting federal help, viewing the brief intervention as proof that at times, "government decisions can be an impediment [rather] than helpful."
The policies guiding the recovery process are similarly fraught with technical and political barriers. Residents struggling to rebuild are feeling the undertow of two crumbling federal protection systems: the flood insurance program and the levees.
Generally, the National Flood Insurance Program requires property owners to purchase flood-protection policies and comply with structural safety standards in areas with high risk of flooding. In reality, however, countless homes destroyed by the hurricanes were uninsured or underinsured. New Orleans has registered only about 85,000 policies, indicating that large swaths of the cityâ€™s roughly 200,000 housing units lack flood coverage. Louisiana officials estimate that tens of thousands of damaged homes across the state lie outside the federally designated flood-risk areas.
Outdated federal flood maps â€“ some a generation old â€“ have made it difficult for communities to accurately assess their risks. Insurance purchase requirements and structural-safety guidelines have also eroded over the years due to spotty enforcement and loopholes granted to certain properties.
The designers of flood maps never accounted for the possible failure of the levees either. The Army Corps of Engineers, long criticized for poor maintenance of Louisianaâ€™s flood-protection system, is still scrambling to shore up the levees in time for the next hurricane season.
Fears of future storms are prompting disaster experts and officials to weigh safety concerns against the emotional drive to rebuild, but both factors are clouded by politics.
Vince Ettari, a civil engineer specializing in flood mitigation, remarked, "If the flood-prone areas are rebuilt, New Orleans will simply have a replay of this event every time a section of the floodwalls and levees breaches."
Yet official strategies to keep people "out of harmâ€™s way" will not impact all communities equally. The distribution of FEMA hazard mitigation funding, for instance, could make rebuilding prohibitively expensive for poor communities. Updated flood maps for New Orleans and outlying parishes, due in the coming months, would probably require major structural improvements to raise rebuilt structures above the flood line; such adjustments might effectively price out low-income households.
In New Orleans, the rebuilding plan of Mayor Ray Naginâ€™s Bring New Orleans Back Commission cited safety concerns in its recommendation that the city prioritize less-damaged areas for rebuilding and impose a moratorium on construction in heavily damaged areas, including the disproportionately poor and black Lower Ninth Ward. Local planning authorities would deliberate on which areas had enough returned residents and resources to be "viable."
Immediately, community activists rebuked the proposal as unilateral and prejudicial, charging that some political forces are turning reconstruction policy into a smokescreen for reconfiguring the cityâ€™s demographics.
Gladney, who said a major reason for returning was to be closer to the decision-making process, said: "There are many people who wouldâ€™ve been happy to write off the Lower Ninth Ward before the hurricane... Folks have a perception of the Lower Ninth Ward having been, you know, â€˜ghettoâ€™ and â€˜slum,â€™ and why would we want to rebuild that?"
She countered that the district is in fact a stronghold for black working-class homeowners, and that the rebuilding efforts in more affluent, but comparably damaged parts of the city have faced fewer political and economic obstacles.
William Cummings, an emergency preparedness consultant who served as legal counsel for FEMA during the 1980s, said that the city is rapidly losing the trust of its residents by simultaneously promising to rebuild equitably while floating a seemingly exclusionary rebuilding plan.
"People down there donâ€™t trust anybody, and probably shouldnâ€™t," he said. Cummings suggested that officials "need to have public hearing processes or something open, so that they can listen to what people are saying."
Making Themselves Whole
Steve Kanstoroom, founder of FEMAinfo.us, a watchdog website that advocates on behalf of disaster victims, argued that the government should not make the hardest-hit victims pay for being inadequately protected. "They unwittingly built or purchased in harmâ€™s way as a result of a failed federal program," he said, "and so itâ€™s up to the federal government to make them whole."
Shirley Jackson, a New Orleans resident now living in a FEMA-sponsored motel room in Port Allen, Louisiana, said that displaced residents like herself need some sort of assurance that the New Orleans they return to will not abandon them to danger again. "If youâ€™re going to fix [the levees] â€“ thatâ€™s the only way that youâ€™re going to get most of them back," she said.
But returnees bent on restoring their old neighborhoods say that when it comes to laying the groundwork for resettlement, residents should not simply wait for the government to make the first move.
In Gladneyâ€™s view, post-disaster political adversity will not deter people from reclaiming their neighborhoods. Dismissing the forthcoming flood-safety guidelines as too distant to impact the current reconstruction work in her community, she said, "People really canâ€™t wait a year to make a decision about what to do with their property."
Besides, she said, once a house is rebuilt, its foundations will be hard to shake: "What are they going to do? Tell you to tear it down?"