I'm sure many of you probably saw last night's edition of 60 Minutes in which reporter Scott Pelley interviewed, among others, Prof. Tim Kusky, Greg Meffert, a city planner, and Mike Centineo, the city's top building official about the reconstruction of New Orleans. The news, of course, is not good.
It also appears that state and local officials had also tried to pressure CBS to postpone this program for fear of losing future investment or funds. Andy Kopplin, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, wrote 60 Minutes requesting that it delay the showing until it discussed the matter with scientists other than Prof. Kusky who have been closely studying the issue. He professed himself satisfied with the show as indicated by Bayou Buzz, yet asked for another show that would describe the restoration and condition of the coastal wetlands. However Time.com, in its "Pulse of America" series, also had a report on the creeping approach of the Gulf of Mexico, and the inability of the Mississippi River delta to support the city for some time:
The upshot is that New Orleans has been sinking as much as 3 ft. a century. That's bad news for a city that is already an average of 8 ft. below sea level. Making things worse: sea levels worldwide are rising as much as 3 ft. a century on account of global warming. The lower New Orleans plunges, the worse it will be when the big one hits.
Then there was the now-famous 2002 series that the Times-Picayune published, including the fact that New Orleans was sinking. Science Daily, quoting United States Geological Survey officials and University of New Orleans scientists in 2000, said almost the same thing, titling its report and New Orleans as "The New Atlantis."
University of New Orleans coastal geologist Dr. Shea Penland and coastal geomorphologist Dr. Denise Reed have spent their careers (combined 40 years) figuring out exactly what is driving this catastrophic condition. Their research has identified the specific problems jeopardizing the future of New Orleans and southern Louisiana. "We have the greatest coastal land loss problem in North America. This is more than a serious problem . . . it's a catastrophic one. We're living on the verge of a coastal collapse," warns Dr. Penland.
New Orleans is sinking three feet per century--eight times faster than the worldwide rate of only 0.4 feet per century. Currently, New Orleans, on average, is eight feet below sea level--11 feet in some places.
Many of the low-lying barrier islands will disappear by 2050.
Well, the big one has already hit. And now we are dealing with the immediate aftermath.
While the city has largely dried out, residents who have returned still cannot receive temporary trailers from FEMA. Many survivors cannot bury their dead. Many are too poor to return. FEMA refuses to assist thousands who are still in temporary shelters, hotels, motels and housing after next Thursday, December 1. And people like 81-year-old Vera Fulton and her family still want to live in New Orleans.
Vera Fulton has lived most of her 81 years on Lizardi Street and returned to her home recently for the first time since being evacuated.
"When they say `storm,' I leave. I can't swim and I can't drink it. So what I do, I leave," says Vera, who has lost her home to two hurricanes.
Vera is intent on coming back. "I don't have no other home, where I'm going?"
Three generations of Fultons, Vera's son Irvin Jr., his wife Gay and their son Irvin, 3rd, live around Lizardi Street.
Irvin says his house is "just flat" and he didn't have insurance.
That's the dilemma. The only thing they have left is land prone to disaster. They want to rebuild, and the city plans to let them.
And most probably, on their own.
Many of New Orleans working poor managed to become homeowners, with homes passed down to children and relatives despite redlining, discrimination, substandard housing, and outright displacement. Some had home and flood insurance, while some did not. Even if they were not homeowners, the same practice was true for those who rented housing, no matter what condition it was in. Many flats and houses in New Orleans were already substandard. They were allowed to totter because of absentee landlords who patched up rather than rebuild or renovate for their black tenants.
For example, my aunt and cousins were forced to patch the roof of the flat in which they lived themselves because their landlord is still MIA or refuses to answer their phone calls. Before Katrina, I knew that someone from a particular family would always be living upstairs from my old address, long after my grandparents--who were the original landlords when they arrived there nearly sixty years ago--had died. Now that tie to the past is broken. I would not be surprised if the old house is bulldozed. The foundation was already troubled, causing the lower level (where my family once lived) to occasionally flood and become uninhabitable. The house, essentially, was allowed to rot from its stairs to its laundry room. Of course, this did not have to happen. It was deliberate, and it was because of where it was, and who was living in or around it.
Asked whether allowing people to rebuild makes sense, Centenio says it is "going to take some studying."
Right now, he says the flood level requirement (the 100-year-flood level) is the law.
Twelve weeks after the storm hit, no one has an answer to where people should go. An estimated 80,000 homes had no insurance, and for now, the biggest grant a family can get from the federal government is $26,200.
Those without flood insurance face an uncertain road ahead, trying to piece their lives and homes back together.
But then again, there is the larger issue. Mrs. Fulton may not have many years left to live. Her house may pass to her son, who lost his own nearby home and did not have insurance on it. Unfortunately, the date of 2050 may have people wondering whether this is worth it. This is where Irvin Fulton, III comes in, if he decides to stay in this house. Because when the outlying bayous, lands and islands off New Orleans disappear, then that means that higher ground in New Orleans will be more at a premium. The 60 Minutes piece showed that for a couple of islands, this has already occurred.
I'd like to see New Orleans rebuild, with its predominantly black residents given the right of return, according to a recent Black Commentator story:
African American Leadership Project
& The New Orleans Local Organizing Committee
& The Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers
New Orleans Citizen Bill of Rights'
- All displaced persons should maintain the "Right of Return" to New Orleans as an International "Human Right." A persons' socioeconomic status, class, employment, occupation, educational level, neighborhood residence, or how they were evacuated should have no bearing on this fundamental right. This right shall include the provision of adequate transportation to return to the city by the similar means that a person was dispersed. THE CITY SHOULD NOT BE DEPOPULATED OF ITS MAJORITY AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND LOWER INCOME CITIZENS, and must be rebuilt to economically include all those who were displaced.
- All displaced persons must retain their right of citizenship in the city, especially including the right to vote in the next municipal elections. Citizen rights to the franchise must be protected and widely explained to all dispersed persons. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 should be examined and enforced in this regard.
- All displaced persons should have the right to shape and envision the future of the city. Shaping the future should not be left to elected officials, appointed commissions, developers and/or business interests alone. We the citizens are the primary stakeholders of a re-imagined New Orleans. Thus, we MUST be directly involved in imagining the future. Provisions must be included to insure this right.
- All displaced persons should have the right to participate in the rebuilding of the city as owners, producers, providers, planners, developers, workers, and direct beneficiaries. Participation must especially include African-Americans and the poor, and those previously excluded from the development process.
- In rebuilding the city, all displaced persons should have the right to quality goods and services based on equity and equality. Disparities and inequality must be eliminated in all aspects of social, economic and political life. It should be illegal to discriminate against an individual due to their income, occupation or educational status, in addition to the traditional categories of race, gender, religion, language, disability, culture or other social status.
- In rebuilding the city, all displaced persons should have the right to affordable neighborhoods, quality affordable housing, adequate health care, good schools, repaired infrastructures, a livable environment and improved transportation and hurricane safety.
- In rebuilding the city, workers, especially hospitality workers should have the right to be paid a livable wage with good benefits.
- In rebuilding the city, African-American should have the right to increased economic benefits and ownership. The percentage of Black owned enterprises MUST dramatically increase from the present 14%, and the access to wealth and ownership must also be dramatically improved.
- In rebuilding the city, African-Americans and any displaced low income populations should have the right to preferential treatment in cleanup jobs, construction and operational work associated with rebuilding the city.
- In rebuilding the city, the right to contracting preference should also be given to Community Development collaboratives, community and faith-based corporations/organizations, and New Orleans businesses that partner with nonprofit service providers and people of color. No contracts should be let to companies that disregard Davis-Bacon, Affirmative action and local participation. Proposed legislation to create a "recovery opportunity zone" should specifically include Community Development organizations and minority firms as alternatives to the no bid multi-national companies. Over the last 30 years, such firms have demonstrated their capacity to successfully build hundreds of thousands of quality affordable housing, and neighborhood commercials and businesses and service enterprises.
- In rebuilding the city, priority must be given to the right to an environmentally clean and hurricane safe city, rather than the destruction of Black neighborhoods or communities such as the Lower 9th Ward. Priority must also be given to environmental justice, disaster planning and evacuation plans that work for the most transit dependent populations and the most vulnerable residents of the city.
- In rebuilding the city, priority must be given to the right to preserve and continue the rich and diverse cultural traditions of the city, and the social experiences of Black people that produced the culture. The second line, Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, creative music, dance foods, language and other expressions are the "soul of the city." The rebuilding process must preserve these traditions. THE CITY MUST NOT BE CULTURALLY, ECONOMICALLY OR SOCIALLY GENTRIFIED. INTO A "SOULLESS" COLLECTION OF CONDOS AND tract home NEIGHBORHOODS FOR THE RICH. We also respectfully request that the CBC initiate its own Commission to thoroughly investigate all aspects of the physical and human dimensions of the Katrina disaster.
I don't know whether this right of return could be implemented with the powers-that-be currently in government, and I don't mean just Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco. Some, as you might already realize, are already planning how New Orleans is going to look, and it won't be the same. Supposedly Cokie Roberts, the daughter of the late congressman Hale Boggs, came to New Orleans herself recently, and marveled how few blacks were in the city, much less people. She had always known it to be peopled with blacks. How does the city rebuild and flourish with this kind of future foretold?
If New Orleans is that important to the United States, then the U.S. should marshal its scientific community to come up with a few answers about how to save it. New Orleans is more than just a place where people can party in the Quarter. It is an historic site. The Venetians and the Italians know this; Venice sits out on the Adriatic and its streets have been flooded for centuries, and yet it still goes on. It has a few strategies to fight back the encroaching sea. This was the result of a concerted effort that acknowledges the city's importance. But time is running out for both world cities.
Meffert has some clear feelings on whether the nation should commit billions of dollars and several years to protect the city.
"Is it commit or invest? I mean this is the thing that that people miss. The country has to decide whether it really is what we tell the world what we are. Or are we just saying that? Because if we are that powerful, if we are that focused, if we are that committed to all of our citizens, then there is no decision to make. Of course you rebuild it," says Meffert.
But how to make the impossible possible? We've already committed the sin of being long on vision but short on implementation. And one more false move, either by the bureaucracies and the business community could indeed wreck the city for all time far more than just the elements.