Part V: "Shrinking" Government and Drowning New Orleans

Author: 
Polydactyl
Original Publication Date: 
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Editors' Note: On the first year anniversary of Katrina, Louisiana resident and writer, Polydactyl reflects on her in-the-moment journals and diaries to remind us of what it was like in the eye of the storm.

In the previous four parts of this series, Polydactyl described howKatrina and her forgotten step-sister Rita affected her and her own. In this last Part, she looks at effects on the wider economic, governmental, and judicial structures.

Louisiana Gulf Culture as we know it is gone.

The economists say that it will be more than 10 years before there is housing sufficient to repopulate NOLA to pre-Katrina levels. The culture loss becomes the economic loss becomes the political loss. Louisiana will probably lose at least one seat in the House of Representatives after the census and have to endure another round of gerrymandering redistricting.

October 31, 2005
Posts on New International Times

Louisiana, the state and the businesses operating in it, have teetered precariously on the edge of financial ruin for decades. When the insurance companies, the banks and federal assistance all fall apart at the same time, it is difficult to maintain any sort of optimism.

After Katrina, the Red Cross initially offered housing assistance directly because even though this was part of FEMAs core of responsibility, it was not happening fast enough because of bureaucratic foot dragging or whatever. Now that people are in transitional housing, they face being evicted because the Red Cross has washed its hands of housing responsibility and FEMA hasnt picked up the ball.

I have to admit that I did not know the word, diaspora until now.

There was an obvious outflow of people from south Louisiana, both during Katrina and again with Rita. A great number of those will not be coming back. Some dont want to and others would, but ill fate, foot-dragging and all out corruption are getting in the way.

[Author's note: In Part IV of this series, I described my tour of Lakeview. As part of that tour, we stopped by one of the attorneys home. What follows is how I described it .]

]The attorneys home was flooded to just above the 1st floor windows and was full of nasty mold. There was some roof damage and a few broken windows as well, but it was structurally sound and the second floor was by and large in good shape. The Corps of Engineers was tasked with inspecting homes and determined that it was uninhabitable. So, it was posted as such and as a result, it was not certified for a blue roof under the FEMA program. Much foot-dragging later, the insurance company was not able to do a site inspection or any remediation to the roof or windows. Then came Rita...tons and tons of rain and wind then took out all of the second floor.

As of October 31st, the insurance company has still not made a field survey nor been able (or inclined) to determine what was Katrina damage and what was Rita damage. Given that the flooding on the 1st floor was due to a breech of the levee system, they are disinclined to pay out anything. [Editors Note: See Cyrus Duggers commentary Nationwide is On Your Side, Unless You Are a Katrina Victim for updates on the Catch-22s of coverage.]

The govt subsidized flood insurance is no better. There will be a decades worth of litigation for every homeowner that had anything other than wind damage.

In the meantime, there is no cash flow to begin repairs. Everything is coming out of pocket at a time when price of materials and transportation is sky high and of limited availability. When you do get anything out of the insurance companies, it doesnt meet actual cost. The banks are not writing personal or small business loans over $5K right now and that isnt going to get any one down the road to recovery. It is all very chicken and egg.

The governor has called for a special session of the legislature to complete a massive 77 point agenda within15 days.

What I am hearing on the local news shows and radio forums is that none of the federal money is going to come through until after the first of the year. The State doesnt expect to have any bond financing or other monies in place until mid-December, 2005. For most small businesses that is going to be too long a stretch to withstand before going under, and when the jobs go, so do the neighborhoods.

I have a hard time envisioning a meaningful recovery in the short term. There will be a recovery, but it will include a disproportionate amount of non-Louisianians taking advantage of a downed system.

Fortunately, there are some die-hards who manage to see the light in the face of darkness. This example is the LTE by the Fiery One that ran the following Sunday in our local paper. How she manages to stay upbeat is beyond me. One year later, we lost one attorney to a return to his homeland in Canada, two others are still making over 4 hour round trips daily to their new homes in Lafayette and Baton Rouge, another is separated by 10 hours and hundreds of miles from his relocated family and is slumming in a shared rent apartment with half a dozen other guys.

The beginning of November found me still frustrated with the hurry-up and wait aspect of a stalled recovery and asking the question, Gulf Coast Recovery--Are We Committed?

In his speech to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans on September 15th, 2005 Bush said:

It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces - the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moments notice.

As he stood behind that podium, shirt-sleeves rolled up, even the roar of the generators providing the unnatural lighting could not drown out the shallowness of his promises:

And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.

Jesus wept, Mr. President. What is taking you so long? For all the promises and all the trips which showed you posed, sweating in your shirt-sleeves for the benefit of a photo-op and nothing else, it is only on Monday, November 1st, 2005 that you formed your Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuilding Council

I pity the fool who will have to work hand-in-glove-in-pocket with Michael Chertoff in a new DHS agency that is built on the already crumbling foundation of the Stafford Act. Meet Donald Powell.

Powell's previous expertise rivals heckavajob Michael Brown. Powell was the CEO of a bank in Amarillo, Texas and one of the leading fundraisers in George W.Bushs 2000 selection campaign. A Pioneer. He was appointed FDIC chairman. So now, he joins the gianormous Homeland Security bureaucracy without any previous experience in disaster recovery or master planning. On the other hand, he may fare better than Cheney or Karl Rove, Bushs previously anointed recovery czars.

If nothing else, the Katrina disaster has demonstrated that President Bush reigns over a government that does not believe in government - except, of course, as a device for gathering tax revenues from the masses and redistributing it to defense contractors and campaign contributors, and also for keeping dissenting citizens under surveillance and control. Otherwise, whatever the government attempts to do -- according to the right-wing think-tank gurus -- private individuals, private property, and the free market will always do better.

Tell that to the state of Louisiana that finds itself in a $1 billion dollar tax shortfall through the end of the year, with more grim projections for next year. A state under-served by its insurance coverage to the tune of $3.5 billion dollars.

Tell that to the feisty middle class that is trying to re-inhabit New Orleans and the rest of south Louisiana armed with nothing more than credit cards and good intentions.

Tell that to the employees of the federal government who are looking at having their pay frozen because Congress is unwilling to cut the pork from their own districts, but were all too willing to make promises in front of the cameras in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

After Rita, it seems that the federal government regained the disguise of fiscal conservatism.

No longer online, three articles in the Baton Rouge's 2theadvocate provided relevant information. An October 31st, 2005 opinion piece essentially asked: what are we hearing back?: Last week at the Aspen Institutes roundtable address, members of Gov. Blancos Louisiana Recovery Authority had hoped that Chertoff would have some answers for them or at least be able to provide a status report. Instead, they got a snide and snippy Chertoff who refused to answer specific questions about hurricane recovery, such as the status of community disaster loans. Instead, he spent the bulk majority of his time defending Homeland Securitys response and reiterating that he, and not the President should deal directly with FEMA. That in effect, it is not necessary for FEMA to be a cabinet level position.

Chertoff's position is in direct contrast to that special advisor to Gov. Blanco and former FEMA director James Lee Witt. Witt maintains that the Katrina experience proves that the FEMA directorship needs to return to its former cabinet level position.

A second article published November 01, 2005 discusses another woeful meeting from last week was at the White House where members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority discussed the abysmal failure of the Small Business Administration to handle Katrina related requests. Out of 7,000 loan requests, 600 had been rejected, 68 had been approved and the remainder are unprocessed. There are 79,000 small businesses in Louisiana affected by the two hurricanes and each one represents both the economic and community base of Louisiana. Without the businesses, there can be no viable tax base for the state to operate on and without the jobs, there can be no community. It all boils back down to a need for cash influx and housing. The third tier is storm protection in the form of coastal restoration and levee enhancement, it is not only a practical necessity, but the lynchpin to drive business reinvestment.

A third piece, again appearing on November 1, 2005 pointed out that there have been 311,000 Louisiana residents who filed jobless claims after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and roughly 195,590 or 63% are still living in Louisiana. The states unemployment rate has doubled to 11.5% and in the New Orleans area it is closer to 16 times the normal rate.

This week shuttle bus service has begun between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but transitional and permanent housing are desperately needed in the greater New Orleans area. The closest FEMA trailer park is in Baker, nearly 80 miles away. Municipalities closer to New Orleans do not have the existing infrastructure to accommodate temporary parks and are disinclined to do so. FEMA and Corps of Engineers contract jobs are going to individuals from out of state because of the housing situation. It is far easier to accommodate a single worker than it is to provide housing, healthcare and schools for a family.

There are jobs to be had, but no housing. As Bushs man on the ground Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the Federal Emergency Management Agencyճ Gulf Coast director, said recently: Wed say our No. 1 priority is housing; our No. 2 priority is housing, and after that, at No. 3, wed put housing.

In addition to the limited space to park FEMA trailers in the affected areas is the cruel reality that only 86,000 were manufactured in 2004 and FEMA is expecting 120,000. The residents aka job-seekers and the small businesses that need them cannot wait another quarter much less another year for this to sort itself out.

In another White House meeting last week, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins New Orleans Recovery Team met to discuss the levee situation. According to member Sean Reilly,the presidents advisors agreed to support more money for business bridge loans, Medicaid reimbursements and tax incentives for businesses and individuals, but would not commit to repairs to the levee system beyond their current CAT 3 levels and would not discuss the larger coastal restoration project. A top tier levee system from New Orleans to Morgan City would take years and $20 billion to build, far more than the Bush administration and conservatives in Congress are prepared to go.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about levees, economic development and other issues affecting the citys recovery. In addition to the levee and coastal restoration initiatives, Nagin addressed the need to fix the Stafford Act, to establish tax incentives for local business and provide protections to ensure that local businesses and workers are being fully utilized in the rebuilding effort, restoration or replacement of water and sanitation systems and the development of a minimum funding formula.

Also testifying before the Senate Committee was William Hines, director of the economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc., who said: [W]hile Katrina occurred over two months ago and now seems to be largely fading from the front pages of our Nations newspapers ... [m]any businesses are generating little or no revenue, and struggling to meet & payment obligations... Most regional businesses are still missing over a month of their mail, he said. Without receipt of payment checks, vouchers,[and] bills ... commerce within the region is significantly hampered. He urged that congress address the backlog created by serious lapses by the U.S. Postal Service.[1]

The gulf coast restoration and the rebuilding of the New Orleans and Southwest Louisianas economy is a chicken and egg challenge of epic proportions. Neither city or state or federal is going to have all the answers. But, it is far past time to concede that the federal government could help with a rapid cash influx in the form of loans, tax incentives and grants. There will also have to be a long term commitment to making the Louisiana gulf coast viable for business, industry and the workers that keep them operating.

Just when I think I could not become any more disgusted by the federal response to Katrina than I already am, I find myself stunned by the release of new emails to and from Michael Brown.

The truth is I am paralyzed and sickened to the point that I almost cannot breathe. It would be difficult for me to accurately portray the callousness that is reflected in the emails. But in one, he refers to himself as a fashion god and in another it is suggested that he roll up his sleeves to appear more hard working. His correspondents whine about their fast-food choices and it is revealed that he was planning on resigning over Labor Day until Katrina got in the way. All the while, he is receiving frantic emails (released in October) from FEMAs representative in New Orleans which details hunger, death, depravity and the flooding.

South Louisiana Rep. Melancon has provided an excellent analysis of the emails that have been released so far. A small group of the emails are also available here.

What has been released to date is in stark contrast to Browns testimony in front of the Senate committee. There he indicated that he was in contact with Bush, Chertoff, Andy Card and other cabinet level players as well as the Pentagon. Although over 1,000 pages of emails have been released, NONE of them include emails to any of these senior decision makers. [2]

I guess in a manner of speaking, Michael Brown, while not absolved of his responsibility in all of this, has by virtue of the release of those damning FEMA videotapes been somewhat vindicated. He said that he was hamstrung by an inattentive president and Chertoffs walling off of DHS [3].

 

FEMAs timetable requirement for Louisianas repayments really set me off. After reading for a couple weeks of FEMAs tough talk in every mornings paper, I finally couldnt take it anymore. Writing doesnt come easy for me and to vent that particular anger, I wrote in a fictional characters voice. The piece at, FEMAS NOT My Big Pimp Sugar Daddy: is a long spicey rant not for the tame of heart. Be forewarned before you follow the link.

In that piece, I pointed out that I didnt know anyone from Louisiana that doesnt feel like the state should pay its fair share over time. The reality, however , is that the tax base here has been decimated and we are trying very hard just to take care of our own...to put housing where the jobs are, and create jobs where the houses are. If we have to make deeper cuts into education, we will lose two more generations of Louisianas brightest and our hope for the future.

I also pointed out several things that can be done to help and they are as relevant now as they were a year ago:

" Waive all penalties and interest for the Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas FEMA payments. There is no logic in this immoral co-pay scheme when you consider this is the greatest natural disaster to hit the US

" Establish a reasonable time frame and payment schedule

" Extend the coastal boundary of Louisiana to 12 miles...equal to that of Texas and Florida. This will provide Louisiana with an additional $500 million annually in oil and gas revenues.

" Support coastal restoration of the Louisiana coast...the White Houses neglect of this attributed greatly to the damage wrought by Katrina and Rita

" Support a unified, enhanced levee system for all of south Louisiana...a collaborative effort between state and federal governments to undo the ravages of oil and gas development, take away the provincial in-fighting among parish interests and build the New Orleans system up to a Category 5 protection.

At the same time I was proposing my list around November 18th 2005, Fannie Mae had, since mid-September, a program to provide 1500 homes for the Katrina displaced. For TWO months not a single family in that two month period had been placed under the program by FEMA.

Another of my Katrina diaries concentrated on what disaster the hurricane wrought for justice system in Louisiana Guantanamo on the Bayou.

Some three weeks after Katrina made landfall, I referenced the complete collapse of the judicial system in Orleans and the surrounding parishes. There were some 69,000 parolees that were unsupervised, their whereabouts unknown; an additional 7,000 registered sexual offenders in New Orleans alone had been evacuated to localities in Louisiana and elsewhere that did not know their offender status. In the wake of Katrina, 10,000 violent offenders were transported, after a fashion, to other jurisdictions in Louisiana without proper paperwork to identify them, or their crimes. Many, many others under incarceration in New Orleans for lesser crimes were also sent to parish detention facilities farther north. An unknown number released on bond await their day in court.

The firm that I work for does not do criminal representation per se, but does represent municipalities and their law enforcement agencies. This has been a major headache for us, as the accused have been pursuing their rights to a speedy trial or being released without charge. There is a clash ongoing between the tenets of Louisiana law that provides for detention without charge for 60 days on felony charges and 45 days for misdemeanors and outsider's interpretation of civil rights under the constitution.

Obviously, both of these deadlines would have long expired for anyone held prior to Katrina and there have been many arrests in the wake of the storms. There are several issues besides the constant ticking of the clock at hand, namely, the destruction of every court in Orleans parish and all of the repositories of evidence and paperwork. New Orleans no longer has a single functioning courthouse; the main Criminal District Court compound remains shuttered and dark. Court records, the citys two primary evidence vaults, coroners reports and the city crime lab were all flooded. Eye witnesses to crime have been flung across the nation, as have many of the attorneys. Defendants who were out on bond are now located across the country, some of them relocated to states far away with no prospects or means to return if called to make an appearance. And, of the former 1.5 million people that lived in the metro area, only 60,000 have returned on a permanent basis, so there is hardy much of a population to draw a jury pool from.

So, can the state provide defendants with the trial by jury that they are guaranteed by law? It doesnt appear so, but when the state is struggling with so many financial and infrastructure issues, they are trying to walk a fine line in reestablishing law and order. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the state Supreme Court have given prosecutors extensions, which defense attorneys say might be illegal considering that the state and U.S. constitutions guarantee defendants the right to a speedy trial. New Orleans police are patrolling during the day to prevent continued looting, but abandon the city patrols by night. Cases are piling up, both old and new.

Recently, an attorney in our office, representing a local detention center, stood by as the Orleans Parishs chief Criminal District Court judge ordered more than 100 prisoners freed. After reviewing the ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court said 34 of the inmates should be released immediately. The others have to remain in custody until at least Jan. 6 while the district attorneys office considers how to proceed in those cases. But, the DAs office bears an unusual burden in attempting to prosecute cases when the evidence room at New Orleans Police Department headquarters on Broad Street, the crime laboratory on Tulane Avenue, and the basement of the criminal court at Tulane and Broad were all flooded. Much of the evidence has been destroyed.

So, where do we stand on the rights of the criminally accused? Do we extend the deadlines in order to allow prosecutors additional time to make a case sans evidence? Do we hold the accused under the burden of transporting themselves back to the jurisdiction they are charged when it was the government that displaced them? Do we throw up our hands and allow a fractured community to sink further into lawlessness in the name of civil rights? Or do we just concede that you win some and you lose some and like the levees that protect New Orleans, we have to build the legal system over from scratch?

Just this week, other states are taking notice of how the post Katrina Louisiana judicial problems will impact them. In the August 26th 2006 Hoston Chronicle's article Big Easy's court system still in state of emergency, Robert Crowe reports that Houstonian Andy Kahan (Houston Mayor Bill White's crime victims advocate) has said "If you have a mass release of defendants, and some come to Houston, certainly we're gonna bear something."

On the one-year anniversary of Katrina,we in Louisiana arestill drinking the bilge water of the 2005 stormsand now we arefacing storm Ernesto. And after Ernesto? My given name, Leslie, is on the list of named hurricanes and I can only hope that she doesn't come to pass.

ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Welshman, JeninRI, Standingup, Kfred, Vivian, Greyhawk, roxy and cho
about the author: Polydactyl dons her blogger's hat in Central Louisiana between shifts as a wife, mom, cat-herder and computer healer.
photo and song credits: Sheldon Morton, Polydactyl, G. Fesmire/dp design, David Rovics

[1] ePluribus Media fact checker notes that though this quote did appear in a news report, it differed from the text of William Hiness remarks on the Senate website

[2] Fact Checkers note: The 1000 emails released do not indicate whether or not there was phone or fax correspondence.

[3] Fact Checkers note: That is an initiative that began well before Chertoffs time. Right after Bushs 2001 inauguration, radical changes at FEMA started.