Tag Archives: katrina

Driven out: Housing crisis looms in flood-stricken Louisiana

With an estimated 40,000 homes damaged by deadly flooding, Louisiana could be looking at its biggest housing crunch since the miserable, bumbling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.

People whose homes were swamped by some of the heaviest rains Louisiana has ever seen are staying in shelters, bunking with friends or relatives, or sleeping in trailers on their front lawns. Others unable or unwilling to leave their homes are living amid mud and the ever-present risk of mold in the steamy August heat.

Many victims will need an extended place to stay while they rebuild. Countless others didn’t have flood insurance and may not have the means to repair their homes. They may have to find new places altogether.

“I got nowhere else to go,” said Thomas Lee, 56, who ekes out a living as a drywall hanger — a skill that will come in handy. His sodden furniture is piled at the curb and the drywall in his rented house is puckering, but Thomas still plans to keep living there, sleeping on an air mattress.

Exactly how many will need temporary housing is unclear, but state officials are urging landlords to allow short-term leases and encouraging people to rent out any empty space.

“If you have a unit that’s an old mother-in-law suite and you can rent it out, let us know,” said Keith Cunningham, who heads the Louisiana Housing Corporation, the state housing agency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose very name became a punchline during Katrina, said it will look into lining up rental properties for those left homeless and also consider temporary housing units.

But FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate gave assurances that the temporary units won’t be the old FEMA travel trailers — a reference to the ones brought in after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that were found to have toxic levels of formaldehyde.

The flooding that has struck the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas has left at least 13 people dead.

More than 30,000 have been rescued, and at least 70,000 have registered for federal disaster assistance.

At the height, 11,000 people were staying in shelters, though that had dropped to 6,000 by Wednesday.

For the foreseeable future, home for Carolyn Smith, her husband, two grown sons and a family friend will be a 30-foot travel trailer supplied by a relative. It has one bedroom, a sofa-sleeper, four bunks and one bathroom.

It sits in the driveway of the home she and her husband lived in for 48 years in Denham Springs. Nearby lies a pile of stinking debris pulled from the flooded, one-story wood-frame home.

Smith and her husband are both in their 70s and on fixed incomes. She said she’s not sure how they will make it in coming months as they try to rebuild the house, which took on more than 4 feet of water.

“We’re starting over again. From rock bottom,” she said. “At our age that’s kind of rough.”
In a sign of the housing crunch, Livingston Parish officials are talking with FEMA about getting temporary housing for emergency and rescue workers. An estimated 75 percent of the homes in the parish of 138,000 residents were a total loss.

Those with flood insurance will be in a much better place to begin rebuilding — but there won’t be many of them.

Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said that only 12 percent of the homes in hard-hit Baton Rouge were covered by flood insurance, and only 14 percent in Lafayette.

Across the flood-stricken area, many residents said they weren’t required to have flood insurance and didn’t have it, since nothing remotely like this had ever happened before.

“My father’s owned this place for 70 years. Never seen it like this. We never thought we needed it,” said Chris Bankston, owner of an auto parts place in the Livingston Parish town of Albany where workers were shoveling debris.

Water crept into his parking lot Friday night, and by Sunday his gasoline pumps were covered. Floodwaters had never come within 200 yards of the place before, he said.

FEMA said more than 9,000 flood claims have been filed with the agency.

Anyone with flood damage is eligible for FEMA aid of close to $33,000 — far less than many people without flood insurance will need to repair and replace their damaged property. The maximum payout under a home flood insurance policy is $250,000.

Joseph Bruno, a New Orleans lawyer who is a veteran of the Katrina insurance wars, fears the greatest needs could be borne by elderly residents who paid off their homes and weren’t required by their bank to carry flood insurance.

Ronald Robillard, 57, and his 65-year-old brother, William Robillard, have been living next door to each other in Baton Rouge homes owned by the older brother. Since both places flooded, they have been sleeping at a shelter at night and cleaning up the homes by day.

William owns the homes free and clear. He doesn’t have flood insurance to pay for the repairs but isn’t waiting for any government aid.

“I figure by fixing it up one room at a time, we’ll be fine,” William said.

“If they give us help, fine,” Ronald added. “We ain’t looking for a handout. Just a hand. That’s a true statement.”

On the web

Updates from the White House.

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10 years after Katrina, the new New Orleans has left many old residents behind

Talking about New Orleans a decade after Hurricane Katrina, people here often reach for the biblical, describing an economic and cultural resurrection.

Helped by billions in recovery money, buoyed by volunteers and driven by the grit of its own citizens, the city is enjoying a resurgence. Reforms from schools to policing to community engagement and water management are in progress, buttressing people against the next monster storm.

But in the same breath, people also point to the many left behind. This `New’ New Orleans is whiter and more expensive, and blacks still suffer society’s ills disproportionately, especially in the chronically neglected Lower 9th Ward, a bastion of black home ownership before the floodwalls failed.

“A lot of folks say things are so much better, the economy is so improved, and other people are going to say it is so much worse,” said Allison Plyer at The Data Center, a think tank in the city. “And both those realities are true.”

Katrina swamped 80 percent of New Orleans with polluted water up to 20 feet deep. More than 1,500 from Louisiana died, the National Hurricane Center reported a year later. Hospitals and police were overwhelmed. The economy shut down. Survivors felt abandoned. Many evacuees didn’t return.

It seemed like a death blow for a city already suffering from crime, racism, poverty, corruption and neglect. New Orleans is a national treasure, where African-American, French, Spanish and Caribbean traditions had mixed for nearly three centuries. Could the people who create its unique forms of music, food and fun survive such devastation? Could they thrive?

“We’re still standing,” said Jannis Moody, a young black woman enjoying a free concert featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. “What’s clear” is that the people of New Orleans “are a resilient people.”

Signs of renaissance abound:

The city has recovered nearly 80 percent of its pre-storm population. Most public schools are being run as private charters, and the graduation rate has jumped, although criticism abounds. The old Charity Hospital, a first and last resort for the uninsured, has been replaced by a gleaming new University Medical Center.

Louis Armstrong Airport, where thousands tried to flee in August 2005, now handles more passengers than before Katrina. There are more restaurants. New businesses open 64 percent faster than the national average. Sales revenue this year is up.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a French Quarter mansion and built new housing, part of a wave of up to 40,000 new residents, Tulane professor Richard Campanella estimates. Countless “YURPS” (young urban renewal professionals) and millennials followed the recovery and insurance money to what seemed like a “kind of undiscovered bohemia,” he said.

At Launch Pad, a co-working space meant to foster community, co-founder Chris Schultz said the storm “catalyzed people who stuck around to really care about the city.”

“The city has changed and ultimately we needed to change,” said New Orleans native Brooke Boudreaux, operating manager at the iconic Circle Food grocery near Treme, a neighborhood that calls itself “the Birthplace of Jazz.”

Once catering almost exclusively to black customers, the flooded grocery finally reopened last year, responding to an influx of Hispanics and whites by adding tamales and organic produce to New Orleans staples like Camellia red beans.

The Industrial Canal cleaves the Lower 9th Ward apart from all this. Eighty-year-old Oralee Fields calls it “the wilderness” as she looks out from her porch in frustration at the vegetation overtaking her street. “I had nice neighbors. We all grew up together, children walking home together from school.”

Massive piles of garbage and homes ruined by toxic mold are gone. What remains in the Lower 9th is an emptiness. Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” houses, community gardens and a new $20.5 million community center attest to hard-fought progress. But only one school has reopened, and few stores.

Generations of home ownership worked against the Lower 9th, because many lacked the flood insurance mortgage lenders require, said Sierra Club activist Darryl Malek-Wiley. Reconstruction money matched pre-Katrina market values that didn’t cover rebuilding. A protracted debate over whether to abandon the Lower 9th as livable space slowed recovery.

The city’s black population is down from two-thirds before Katrina to about 60 percent. Those who remain earn half the income of white households. Thirty-nine percent of children remain in poverty.

“When Katrina hit, you got to see the real New Orleans, people who were trapped at the Superdome and the Convention Center – 99 percent poor, black. We don’t have anyone who seems to know how to fix that problem,” said Wayne Baquet, who owns Lil Dizzy’s Cafe in Treme.

With cheap rentals largely destroyed, rents skyrocketed by 43 percent. Public housing projects were demolished and replaced with lower-density housing. Thousands of families remain on a waiting list for subsidized housing. Many workers face longer commutes.

“The quality of the housing is definitely not worth the price that they’re charging now,” said Adrian Brown, a chef in the French Quarter who moved outside the city center.

New Orleans capitalized on “the power and the spirit of the comeback,” said Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc., but most of the disaster relief and philanthropy has come and gone. He says the next ten years will likely be harder than the first.

At the Rebirth concert, an upbeat crowd enjoyed a lush summer evening, with kids playing and couples swaying as the Mississippi lapped at the levee.

“You’re not going to recover from the impact of Katrina and be the same,” concertgoer Torrie Jakes said. “Do I mourn the loss of that New Orleans? Yes, but do I like the new parts of New Orleans? Yes, I do.”

Cronyism has consequences

Unfortunately, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it’s disastrous when our leaders assign friends or financial supporters to key positions for which they’re wholly unqualified. Remember Michael D. Brown, who served as under secretary of emergency preparedness and response in George W. Bush’s administration? A Bush crony, he wasn’t even prepared to handle a traffic jam. His faltering response to Katrina amplified its devastation. Bush’s frat-boy shoutout to Brown as alligators swam the streets of New Orleans feasting on the bloated corpses of Katrina’s victims  — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — ensured Brown a prominent place in crony history. 

Forbes Magazine quoted Ayn Rand about cronyism in an article that blasted the more egregious examples in Barack Obama’s administration. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand warns that your society is in trouble “when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors — when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work.”

Gov. Scott Walker must have missed that passage.

Walker claims to be fiercely opposed to government spending. He’s turned down billions of federal dollars and thousands of good jobs to prove it. He’s willing to make his citizens suffer in order to avoid what he calls government dependency and waste.

Apparently, that doesn’t apply to his friends.

In this issue, we publish yet another story about Walker appointing a longtime associate — one who’s hovered close to some of his worst scandals — to head communications for the University of Wisconsin System. Jim Villa’s professional background is in real estate and in handling messy and questionable campaign shenanigans, not in higher education. The position Walker rewarded him with pays $178,000 a year and did not even exist before Villa was hired. It appears to have been created for a loyal staffer who’s kept his mouth shut through all the Walker investigations.

Walker turned down $4 billion for Medicare expansion to wean Wisconsin residents off what he called “generational dependence on government.” Apparently Walker has no such concerns for Villa’s dependency — or that of the many other cronies he’s rewarded.

Walker appointed the 27-year-old son of a lobbyist to head the Commerce Department’s division that oversees environmental and regulatory matters as well as a staff of dozens. The young man had no college degree and little management experience, but he would have been paid $81,500 if Walker had not been shamed into revoking the decision.

Walker appointed unqualified crony Ryan Murray as chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission. That agency has not only failed abysmally at creating jobs, but also has lost millions of taxpayer dollars. Millions literally disappeared while Murray was in charge — more than the budget of some of the programs Walker has cut in the name of thrift. No charges have been filed and the mainstream pro-Walker media has forgotten about it, which is odd considering their editorial boards rail about nothing but deficits and government spending.

Walker’s crony list goes on and on. Last year, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group, named Walker the sixth worst governor in the nation largely due to the audacious extent of his cronyism.

Getting rid of Walker will not end cronyism, which festers like a cancer in both parties. But it’s a virtual crime that all candidates should be held accountable for at the ballot box. 

Katrina drama is Paul Walker’s finest hour

An ingeniously simple setup is cunningly exploited for maximum suspense in “Hours,” a slow-building, consistently engrossing drama set during and immediately after the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Making a most impressive debut as feature helmer, scripter Eric Heisserer graduates from savvy genre fare (“Final Destination 5”) to more mainstream moviemaking with this intense tale of a father’s desperate efforts to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in a hospital abandoned after power is knocked out by flooding.

The late Paul Walker (“Fast & Furious”) capably and compellingly rises to the demands of the role of Nolan Hayes, a loving husband who races his pregnant wife Abigail to a New Orleans hospital when she goes into labor unexpectedly. Onscreen titles announce the extent of the couple’s wrong-place/wrong-time hospital arrival: the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005, just as gale-force winds caused by Katrina relentlessly pummel the Crescent City.

Abigail dies during childbirth, but the stunned Nolan has little time to mourn. His newborn child is placed in a ventilator, where, a doctor explains, she must remain for at least 48 hours. Unfortunately, when the city’s levee system fails, floodwaters force the evacuation of the hospital. Worse still, the ventilator cannot be moved, so Nolan must remain behind with his daughter until help arrives.

It’s a long wait.

Through effective use of actual newscasts from the period, “Hours” underscores a brutal irony — Katrina actually missed New Orleans, but the levee breaks caused flooding in 80 percent of the city — while establishing the full measure of the threat facing Nolan and his newborn. When the power cuts off and backup generators fail, he must repeatedly crank a backup battery that works, at best, for three minutes between crankings, while scavenging for food and supplies throughout the hospital.

At one point, his spirits are lifted by the seemingly miraculous appearance of a rescue dog. But then other, far less welcome visitors arrive.

A few supporting players (including Kerry Cahill as a sympathetic nurse) are used fleetingly but effectively, and Genesis Rodriguez makes a strong impression with limited screen time in flashbacks. For the most part, though, “Hours” is practically a one-man show, with Walker alone on-camera for lengthy stretches as Nolan passes time talking to his baby, or himself, and dashing hither and yon between battery-cranks while on beat-the-clock explorations and supply runs.

The new father pushes himself to the point of exhaustion and beyond in ways that will ring true, and perhaps profoundly unsettle, simpatico parents watching the pic.

Walker gracefully balances the drama on his shoulders. His character’s situation seems all the more dire as Heisserer shrewdly amps up the tension with Benjamin Wallfisch’s propulsive musical score, Jaron Presant’s nimble lensing and Sam Bauer’s sharp editing.

It’s worth noting that “Hours” was filmed almost entirely inside a former New Orleans hospital that actually had to be closed after suffering massive flood damage in the wake of Katrina. That might help explain the pic’s overall air of verisimilitude, which only serves to enhance its impact.

“Hours,” a Film Arcade release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, violence and drug material.” Running time: 97 minutes.

Court restores verdict in case involving harassed ironworker

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has restored a jury’s verdict that a construction company illegally subjected an ironworker to severe and pervasive harassment based on gender stereotypes.

The ruling came in regards to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity complaint filed against Boh Bros. construction company on behalf of ironworker Kerry Woods.

The EEOC’s complaint said BB superintendent Chuck Wolfe verbally harassed Woods, exposed himself to the employee and made taunting gestures of a sexual nature.

The harassment, according to the complaint, took place during work on the I-10 Twin Span project over Lake Pontchartrain between Slidell and New Orleans in Louisiana.

At the trial, the EEOC presented evidence that Wolfe harassed Woods because he thought he was feminine and did not conform to the supervisor’s gender stereotypes of a typical “rough ironworker.”

A jury ruled in favor of Woods and the EEOC, but a three-judge panel of the circuit court of appeals reversed the verdict, finding that Woods was not harassed because of sex.

The EEOC asked for a review by the full appeals court, which vacated the panel’s decision and reinstated the jury’s verdict.

“We are gratified that the Fifth Circuit recognized ‘the good common sense of the American people,’ as the court put it, and reinstated the jury verdict,” said EEOC general counsel David Lopez in a news release. “We agree with the Fifth Circuit that ‘few institutions are as venerable as that of trial by jury.’”

The majority on the court held, in a first for the circuit, that harassment is “because of sex” if it is based on lack of conformity with gender stereotypes.

The Fifth Circuit also held that the issue is whether the harasser considered the victim to deviate from gender stereotypes, and not whether the victim fails in fact to conform to those stereotypes.

So, the court ruled, what mattered was how Wolfe saw Woods.

“This is a very significant outcome to employees who work in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, which is the region covered by the Fifth Circuit,” said Jim Sacher, EEOC’s regional attorney for the Houston District, which oversaw the case. “It makes unquestionably clear to all employers that if they harass an employee because of gender stereotypes, they are breaking the law.”

The case now goes back to the district court level, where damage amounts must be set. 

The construction company is based in New Orleans and employs more than 1,500 people. After Hurricane Katrina struck the area in 2005, the company worked on many publicly funded rebuilding and expansion projects, according to the EEOC.