Katrina in Texas

Submitted by Nicholas Graber-Grace on Tue, 08/31/2010 - 5:04 pm

Over half a million people left New Orleans and moved west in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reports now estimate that up to 300,000 New Orleans evacuees moved into Houston, Texas, swelling that city’s population by up to 10%. Just two days after Katrina forced thousands into the Louisiana Superdome, Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley announced that Texas schools would be opening their doors to the New Orleans youth. Other reports echoed this sense of welcome and camaraderie. Former first lady Barbara Bush famously led the suggestions that many of the displaced wanted to stay in Texas.

Within months, that happy welcome had worn off. In March of 2006, Newsweek and Bloomberg joined others in reporting a rising crime wave in Houston that was expected to develop in other cities. The spike was directly linked to the influx of evacuees. Houstonians reported feeling conflicted between pride in helping those in need and angry at a perceived drain on their city’s resources. As FEMA set up permanent relocation plans for tens of thousands of the displaced, vitriol continued to increase. Marking the four-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, radio talk show host and Texas A&M University alum Neal Boortz had this to say about evacuees living in the Lone Star State:

Houston has slowly acknowledged, Katrina evacuees pushed up Houston’s rates for some crimes, particularly homicide, not just the raw number of offenses. Houston’s post-Katrina crime surge is an extension of the pre-Katrina violence of New Orleans’s criminal underclass…. Since Katrina, Houston police have identified New Orleans evacuees as either suspects or victims (or often both) in more than 30 Houston-area homicides. Of an evacuee population of 175,000, this works out to a per-capita annual murder rate of about 34 per 100,000, well above Houston’s pre-Katrina rate. News of violent murders committed by and against Katrina evacuees has created a bit of a backlash in Houston.

Such reports continued to gain traction, spurred by a reliance on stereotypes, readily-available anecdotes, and a general lack of data. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union, effectively summarized this trend in his statement: “It seems like there was more crime, and the officers talked about it, but I don’t have any actual data.” He was interviewed in response to a January, 2010, article that reported, “Contrary to much popular speculation, only modest effects were found on crime” (Varano, Schafer, Cancino, Decker, & Greene, 2010). In their study of Houston, San Antonio, and Phoenix, the authors analyzed nearly three years’ worth of criminal data that bookended Katrina’s landfall. They found insufficient support for claims that crime rates increased as a direct result of the displaced population, noting that:

Effects were neither widespread (across all crime categories), nor pervasive (across the three cities). This suggested that local circumstances, coupled by the volume of displaced persons being absorbed by any particular city play a role in increasing crime, and that disaster planning and relief efforts should be cognizant of issues of “over-saturation” in the capacity of receiving communities to adequately adjust to such disasters. Equally important was the idea that those displaced were not a criminogenic mob to be “blamed” for crime increases. (p. 47)

In presenting much-needed research on the real effects of Katrina evacuees on their adopted cities, there is a reminder of the need for perspective. Despite early hostilities, there is still potential for a positive resolution between the old and new residents in Texas. As most participants have come to accept their new situations, there are signs of change and improvement. Politically, the relocations should at least help Texas gain greater political clout, as the added population is expected to bring greater voting power to what is already the second-most populated state. Perhaps some of that added clout will support changes in how the federal government handles environmental displacement in the future.

And what about the future of those young evacuees Commissioner Neeley so readily welcomed into Texas schools? Apparently it was a good thing they wanted to stay in Texas. In April of this year, the Texas Education Agency released a report noting that evacuee students have begun to outperform their native Texan peers on state assessments.

Louisiana, Economic Stimulus, and the National Debt

Submitted by Scott Wylie on Sun, 08/29/2010 - 7:48 am

On September 15, 2005, an article on Forbes.com quoted veteran federal budget analyst Stanley Collender, who argued, “For at least the next six to nine months, Katrina-related expenses, and anything barely related to it, will get paid and get paid quickly… The deficit is now even less of an issue in Washington than it was before Katrina.”  Only two days later, Arizona Senator John McCain was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cautioning, “We also have to be concerned about future generations of Americans. We’re going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country.”

The debate about deficit spending and the reconstruction of New Orleans foreshadowed later debates about economic stimulus and the “reconstruction” of the United States’ economy following the collapse of the housing market and the onset of the Great Recession.  In 2009, the New York Times called Louisiana a test case in federal aid, noting that the unprecedented injection of $51 billion in reconstruction money following Hurricane Katrina had yielded positive results in the state.  Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, pointed out that the money spent on construction had attracted contractors from around the country, noting, “You take 10 million a day you didn’t have otherwise in your general fund, you can generate a lot of energy in your economy.”

Rainwaters’ appreciation for federal funds was not shared by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  On February 20, 2009, Jindal became the first governor to refuse his states’ share of the $787 billion stimulus bill.  The Washington Times reported that Jindal believed the stimulus would require tax increases on Louisiana businesses that would ultimately discourage further economic growth.  Given that the Katrina-related reconstruction funds had helped Louisiana become the only state in the nation with an increase in non-farm employment that same month, Jindal’s decision to decline an additional $98 billion in economic stimulus seems illogical.  Yet, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin agreed with Jindal that the money came with too many strings attached.  Interestingly, all three are considered potential 2012 presidential candidates.

As President Obama plans to visit New Orleans to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the spotlight is once again shining on the city’s efforts to rebuild.  On August 19, 2010, the Times-Picayune (NOLA.com) reported on New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s claim that the city is now a “laboratory for innovation and change.”  From the article:

Asked whether Gov. Bobby Jindal’s opposition to Obama’s spending initiatives, including his $787 billion economic stimulus program, hurt his efforts to win federal assistance, Landrieu swallowed a sip of water and said, “Are you kidding me?”

The Democratic mayor, who is dependent on Jindal’s support for state assistance, went on to say he has always worked well with the Republican governor, even when they disagreed. But he added that Jindal’s opposition to federal spending “complicates” his efforts.

If Jindal truly has aspirations to become the GOP presidential candidate in 2012, he appears to be banking on the fact that Americans fear deficit spending more than they desire a reconstructed economy, be it in Louisiana or in the nation as a whole.  Ultimately, if the apparent economic recovery holds and we begin to see reductions in national debt, those who supported the stimulus package will reap the political rewards.  However, if we enter a double-dip recession and the economy falters despite stimulus spending, Jindal’s decision to reject the funds may make him a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

In examining the effect of economic stimulus on Louisiana, one is left to wonder:  Is what is good for Louisiana ultimately good for the rest of the nation?  Do citizens outside Louisiana have a responsibility (be it moral or civic) to help their fellow Americans in recovering from Katrina, even as they themselves face financial hardships?  When it comes to the state of Louisiana and the possibility of its governor stepping onto the national stage, these questions will be ever-present in the debate about fiscal stimulus.

Another Human-Made Disaster

Submitted by Nicholas Graber-Grace on Wed, 06/2/2010 - 10:20 pm

It is hard to know what to say about the BP oil spill, except that it is a human-made environmental catastrophe.  As we learn more and more about what BP knew prior to the explosion, it is easy to focus our anger on a corporation that did not take adequate precautions. In some ways, it is Katrina all over again, with arguments being hashed and re-hashed about what BP could have or should have done in advance that might have prevented or mitigated the environmental impact of its underwater drilling.

Regardless of what caused it, the explosion and its aftermath raise questions about our country’s deep dependency on oil and our willingness to permit risky underwater drilling to obtain it. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina exposed a bevy of existing race- and class-based disparities in the City of New Orleans. Katrina didn’t create those disparities – it just made them impossible to ignore any longer. Likewise, the BP fiasco lays bare the terrible environmental costs of our oil-driven economy, most of which are not nearly as visible as the giant oil slick that now covers the Gulf coast.  Even as the Obama Administration has made some efforts to expand green technologies, we are nowhere near where we need to be — as a nation or as a global community — in terms of controlling energy consumption or developing alternative fuel technologies.

We need to channel anger about this disaster into a serious campaign for developing the types of technologies that will make deep sea drilling as unnecessary as BP is now unpopular.  Just as with Katrina, standing by and waiting for the Government (or multinational corporations) to figure it out, is not a tenable option.

One way that educators can contribute to these objectives is by making sure that students are not only taught the  fundamental math and science skills that they will need to develop the green technologies of the future, but also that they are inspired with the creativity and ingenuity that they will need to envision a different world.

Watch Treme!

Submitted by Nicholas Graber-Grace on Wed, 04/14/2010 - 3:23 pm

(written Sunday, April 11)

Sometimes, the more things change the more they stay the same. As we prepare for tonight’s premier of the much heralded HBO series Treme, political blogs were buzzing this past week with the continuing failure of the GOP to deal seriously with the many issues raised by Hurricane Katrina.

This past week the Southern Republican Leadership Conference held its meetings in New Orleans, with a long list of top Republican speakers and attendees. According to Ben Smith, a blogger for politico.com, discussion of Katrina and its legacy were conspicuously absent for most of the conference. Here is a brief excerpt from Smith’s April 9th posting:

“A South Carolina delegate, Maryann Riley, mentioned to a New Orleans Republican that she’d been on a tour of the remaining devastation that morning. “‘Oh — why did you do that?’ asked Kim Hasney, the New Orleans GOP activist sitting next to her. ‘We are so over Katrina — move on.’ Hasney said she was pleased the SRLC hadn’t focused on the topic. ‘This city is so magnificent…We won the Superbowl. It’s been five years, and we have come out on top,’ she said. ‘Let’s get past Katrina.’

This is why the production of Treme is so exciting. The 24 hour news cycle and obsession with pop-culture, and even the way History is taught in many schools, have given too many Americans a short memory. As time marches on and the microscope is less frequently focused on the realities of daily life in New Orleans, the national consciousness is ever more susceptible to the thinking of people like Ms. Hasney.

While it would be unfair to expect Treme to tell the full story of New Orleans, it will certainly serve as a powerful reminder that recovery and rebuilding is about much more than new buildings, charter schools, and a Super Bowl win. The reviews indicate that Treme, much like David Simon’s previous work The Wire, will grapple with the real social and economic problems of New Orleans residents. This is important, because while I am indeed amazed at the resiliency of so many New Orleans residents since Katrina, we cannot forget the bureaucratic nightmares and government failures that made a terrible storm even more deadly.

Different kinds of reform: NOPD accountability and the school choice

Submitted by Nicholas Graber-Grace on Wed, 03/31/2010 - 2:04 pm

Mayor-elect Landrieu has said that selecting a new police chief for the NOPD is one of his top priorities as he prepares to assume office on May 3rd. Landrieu has put together a task force of 21 local leaders, and has also enlisted the help of the National Association of the Chiefs of Police to assist in recruiting and interviewing qualified candidates.

Landrieu’s emphasis on instilling a sense of integrity and professionalism within the Department is well placed – just this Monday a second former police officer plead guilty to covering up police misconduct after the Danziger Bridge incident in which the police shot two civilians during Hurricane Katrina. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the top contender for the position, and how effective the new chief is at changing culture within an institution that for years has failed to garner the trust of community residents.  Landrieu would be well served by making sure that whomever he hires has broad discretion to make changes where necessary within the ranks of the department in order to make sure all members of the NOPD are properly trained and committed to acting in good faith toward the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect.

In national news, it was interesting to learn on Monday that the U.S. Department of Education has bypassed Louisiana in the first round of funding through the “Race to the Top” program. Delaware and Tennessee instead will be the first states to receive a chunk of the $100 billion in stimulus money which President Obama has set aside for education funding, with other states eligible to reapply for the second round of disbursements.

Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised New Orleans for educational reform measures taken since Hurricane Katrina, local residents seem to have become increasingly skeptical about the benefits of the many new charter schools for their children. These frustrations were vented Monday as a group of angry parents who want to put the brakes on the charter school conversions expressed their frustration at a meeting of the State Board of Education, calling for a return to local control over schools. In early March of this year the Times Picayune ran a five-part series highlighting what the transition to more charter schools has meant for both families and educators.  In her first installment in the series, reporter Sarah Carr documented the pressure that school choice places on parents and kids by the application process. The article cites a Tulane survey which found that while 90% of parents wanted school choice, only 57% felt they had choices. Perhaps more importantly, Carr documents how more savvy and better educated parents are more likely to be able to navigate complicated application forms and confusing bureaurocracies than lower income families with less education – a problem which would tend to compound educational inequity rather than reduce it.

In a separate article Carr emphasized the concerns expressed by some teachers in New Orleans charters schools about their own ability and willingness to continue working such long hours over the long term.   Frances Geisler, a teacher at the Akili Academy Charter who loves the school, asked: “How good a school are you if you have really strong results but can’t take that model anywhere else because it kills people after two years?”  The problem of long hours and heavy demands on teachers is a national concern about the sustainability of the charter school model, and one that must be seriously considered by Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration as it decides how to allocate “Race to the Top” funds.

Mental Health and Recovery

Submitted by Donald Cimato on Tue, 03/9/2010 - 10:21 pm

It has now been a month since the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl and life continues to revive in New Orleans.  I have spoken with some colleagues in the city and they said that the victory gave the city a shot in the arm as did the Mardi Gras celebration a few weeks later.  Still, they told me of the challenges that the city continues to face:  the slow pace of rebuilding, the high cost of housing, the rise of the homeless population, etc.  They are frustrated that after almost five year the progress that they expected has been so slow.  They are tired and worn.  When I last spoke with the retired Episcopal bishop, Charles Jenkins in 2008, he told me of the mental and psychological toll that Katrina and its aftermath had had upon him.  Others who I worked with in the city told me of the miasma of heaviness of one’s being which lingers far after the hurricane 

The emergence of mental health issues has been steady throughout the recovery and rebuilding phase.  In addition to the feeling of frustration mentioned earlier there have been feelings of abandonment and hopelessness.   Many New Orleaneans feel abandoned because they believe that the city and its plight have been forgotten by the rest of the country.  Even with the promises of the Obama administration and the visit by the President to the city in October 2009, many people are unimpressed with the slow pace of the rebuilding.  Residents are worn down by the daily struggle of life in the city; many former residents wishing to return find that they cannot do so due to the lack of affordable housing. 

While everyone waits for the rebuilding to be completed, the mental health needs of the community need to be addressed.  With the rise of the homeless population, mental health needs are on the rise.  With the lack of medical facilities, minor and major mental health issues are often ignored.  With limited beds for psychiatric care, the jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health facilities.   

Despite these problems, some help is on the way now that the federal government has begun to provide aid for a new hospital to be built to replace CharityHospital which had functioned as one of the main hospitals in the city that had traditionally served many of the most vulnerable residents of the city.  Still, this will take time.  It may be good news thatNew Orleans has become an incubator for new ideas about education but it is surely not good that the same cannot be said about the medical infrastructure and its treatment of mental health issues.

WHO DAT! Saints win Super Bowl; Mitch Landrieu’s election ushers in a new era

Submitted by Nicholas Graber-Grace on Tue, 02/9/2010 - 3:44 pm

This was certainly an eventful weekend for New Orleans.  Mitch Landrieu was elected Mayor on Saturday, and, on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.  Each event is being hailed as symbolic of a new future for a city just a few months shy of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Much has been made of the metaphor of the New Orleans Saints as a healing salve for the Big Easy. Founded as an expansion franchise in the NFL in 1967, the Saints were a perennially moribund franchise, failing to win a single post-season game for their first 23 years of existence. One of only a few NFL teams never to play in the Super Bowl, the Saints made an inspiring run in 2006, coming within one win of the Super Bowl.  For many in the city, Katrina helped to forge a unique bond between the city and its team, with the team’s triumph lifting the collective spirits of all New Orleanians and launching Mardi Gras festivities a week early.  It is a wonderful story, and, without question, the Saints have played an important role in restoring the the morale and swagger of the city – and just about everyone outside the state of Indiana was rooting for the Saints to win.  However, we must remember that the realities of neighborhood blight and poverty and the uncertainties about redevelopment plans (including gentrification) did not disappear with the hoisting of the Lombardi trophy.  Governor Jindal, President Obama, and the newly elected mayor have a great deal of recovery and reform work still ahead of them. So, before we get too excited, let us consider just a few things that the new mayor will have to grapple with.

As recently as last November, a study from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center found that 41% of all New Orleans renters spend more than half of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities. On the bright side, the proportion of renters to homeowners has declined since Katrina, meaning that more people in the city own their homes. Nevertheless,  these statistics can be misleading because the increase in home ownership is partially attributable to the decision by many of the poorer Katrina survivors that they either cannot or do not want to return to the city.  Statistics show that the median family income for the city has increased, but figuring out exactly how incomes have shifted within the African American community specifically is more tricky. In May of 2009, ridership on New Orleans public transportation had reached only 43% of its pre-Katrina level.  This suggests that, while much progress has been made, there remains a great deal of work to be done – work that is contentious because it requires difficult decisions about how to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward. And, then, there is education reform, a hot button political issue in a city that now has more than 60% of all public school students attending charter schools, a development which led Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to remark last week that Katrina was the best thing to ever happen to the NOLA education system.  So, while the Saints have reached the pinnacle of sports, playing all season in a beautifully renovated Super Dome, the challenge for Mayor elect Landrieu is about much more than X’s and O’s.

Mitch Landrieu appears well-positioned to lead the city – he is well connected throughout the state and his family is perhaps the most powerful in Louisiana politics.  His sister, Senator Mary Landrieu, recently made headlines by holding health care reform hostage in exchange for $300 million for Louisiana (though to her credit, she did end up supporting the bill after securing some much needed money for her state).   Equally significant is that Mitch will become the first white mayor of New Orleans since his and Mary’s father, Moon Landrieu, left office in 1979.  Racial politics are among the city’s most dicey issues that Landrieu must navigate as he works towards fulfilling his campaign promises.  Many argue that without the demographic changes caused by Katrina, Landrieu would not have been elected (this was his third campaign for Mayor).   Yet while the racial politics of the city are complicated and enduring, they may also provide a mechanism by which historically disenfranchised New Orleans residents can hold their new mayor accountable.  The Mayor elect worked hard to attract African American voters, and should fully realize that he needs their continued support to govern effectively.  Mitch Landrieu consistently called for voters to support him in “striking a blow for unity,” and so the new Mayor will be judged by his ability to deliver real gains for all city residents, particularly low- and moderate-income families still struggling to regain their footing after the storm.

An Update, Part II

Submitted by Rebekah Judson on Wed, 12/23/2009 - 5:54 pm

How does the recession continue to affect New Orleans? On the unemployment front, newspapers have consistently reported lower job loss rates within the city compared to national averages (The Times Picayune reports that New Orleans gained 1500 jobs in November).  However, a number of recent editorials suggest that the city is still in trouble when it comes to affordable housing. Due to the recession, businesses are significantly less interested in taking advantage of the tax credits alloted within recovery effort legislation for low-income  developments.  As a result, many residents find themselves with ever-shrinking options when it comes to housing.This statistic (from The New York Times) is particularly striking:

With rents so high, no one should be surprised that the homeless population of the New Orleans area appears to have doubled since Hurricane Katrina. A startling census of the homeless by a local social services consortium, Unity of Greater New Orleans, estimates that nearly 6,500 people, many of them elderly and suffering from debilitating illnesses, are living in abandoned buildings.

Clearly, these reports show the need for quick legislative action on low-income housing issues (the authors of the above editorials provide a few suggestions). In addition, they suggest the importance of carefully examining the broader picture of the recovery effort. Though positive reports of limited unemployment may be exciting, they can also gloss over other issues that may need immediate attention. Also: Teaching A People’s History, the great new online curricular component to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History to the United States, has recently featured Teaching the Levees on its website.  Take a look!

An Update: Part 1

Submitted by Rebekah Judson on Mon, 12/21/2009 - 12:23 pm

What’s been happening recently in regards to Katrina and the recovery effort?  It’s been a little while since my last post, so I thought I’d provide a few updates:

In November, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval made headlines  after finding the Army Corps of Engineers ultimately responsible for much of the devastating flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. According to Duval, the Corps failed to properly oversee the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a major channel that had undergone heavy environmental changes in the years before the storm.

While the symbolic value of this ruling cannot be underestimated, as well as the way in which it exposes the Corps to a variety of future claims, it is unclear what the broader effect will be on the Gulf region’s ongoing recovery effort. The New York Times suggests there may be room for appeal in some areas of the ruling, despite Duval’s meticulous handiwork. Others, however, are hopeful. Sandy Rosenthal, founder of levees.org writes in the Huffington Post that the ruling provides an opportunity for the government to revisit existing flood protection legislation, pointing out that a majority of Americans live in areas protected by levees.

Whatever the nature of the ruling’s ultimate effect, it has already drawn some much-needed attention back to the recovery effort and will hopefully continue to spur support.

The text of the ruling is online here.

Also, for those interested in an explanation of how a levee functions, here’s a detailed description from HowStuffWorks.

Coming soon: Housing in New Orleans–the recession begins to take it’s toll.

Obama in New Orleans

Submitted by Rebekah Judson on Fri, 10/16/2009 - 11:54 am

While watching coverage of President Obama’s brief visit to New Orleans yesterday (the first of his presidency), I was disappointed to find little real substance in his remarks.  In fact, having paid close attention to Obama’s mentions of Katrina during his tours as a candidate, the opening to his Town Hall meeting sounded more to me like a campaign speech than a serious contribution to the recovery effort.  Quickly, the rhetoric wandered from a brief overview of the disaster to a few vague mentions of the Administration’s commitment to recovery, before devolving into broad discussion of the national agenda and a closing rallying cry.

Sure, the positivity and presence of the President is undoubtedly appreciated.  But New Orleans at this moment isn’t in need of a “listening tour.” As Obama said, he’s already spent time as a candidate listening and learning in the city.  This visit was, if anything, a squandered opportunity to announce a real concrete initiative, such as a Gulf Coast “czar,” a plan to reopen hospitals, more comprehensive disaster preparedness efforts, or even simply a more detailed description of future plans.Yes, there has been inspiring progress already.

Yes, the recovery money has helped shield New Orleans from some of the pain of unemployment and economic distress felt so acutely in the rest of the country.  However, this is far from enough.  Without a higher position on the Obama Administration’s admittedly bursting agenda, true systemic change and revitalization in the Gulf Coast may prove tragically unattainable.

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Story of the Levees



Teaching the Levees is a collaboration of Teachers College, Columbia University, The Rockefeller Foundation, HBO Documentary Films, Teachers College Press, and the EdLab