New Orleans Two Years Later

I spent last weekend in New Orleans where I participated in an amazing few days of intense (and off-the-record) conversations with thinkers from around the world. Humbling, to say the least.

It was all positive except for a FEMA-led tour of the re-construction effort. We drove and walked through some of the affected areas. Acres of abandoned, shrub-filled land. Loads of wreckage and empty houses. Most upright houses still have markings like the photo here, the numbers referring to the dead bodies found inside. Yellow water lines still mark the sides of houses.

My big question during the tour was, "Where is the re-construction effort?" Where are the people? Trucks? Hammers? Shovels? Where has all the money gone? I expected to hear and see stuff. Instead entire neighborhoods have simply been abandoned.

During the tour someone asked, "Will FEMA have its act together next time around?" Answer: Not really. Louisiana’s emergency preparedness plans are still in disarray. If another big hurricane were to hit New Orleans, we could bet that chaos would ensue.

It’s hard to point fingers. After all, there are a gazillion agencies and people involved — FEMA, local officials, state officials, insurers, volunteer groups, churches, civic activists, professors. True leadership seems lacking.

I don’t know much about the situation in New Orleans. But from my weekend visit I’m not optimistic. If you want to go to the French Quarter and be a tourist, life’s good. If you venture outside a few core areas, New Orleans doesn’t look much different from the photos you saw a year or two ago. And that’s really scary.

10 Responses to New Orleans Two Years Later

  1. Phil says:

    Ben, when you say ‘After all, there are a gazillion agencies and people involved — FEMA, local officials, state officials, insurers, volunteer groups, churches, civic activists, professors. True leadership seems lacking.’, you hit the bullseye.

    True leadership was lacking before the disaster even began. One would think that a leader would emerge since recovery started, but it has not.

    It’s a challenge in itself to lead a small organization with a common culture. Imagine the leadership it would take to work with the thousands of individuals, groups, and priorities.

    I often wonder what lessons are being learned, and by whom. I’m hesitant to see how the next big disaster is handled.

  2. Patron Abidale says:

    This post proves to me that you are a riddiculously naiive individual. What in the world are you doing mingling with “the world’s greatest thinkers”? Quite pathetic.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Patron — “World’s greatest thinkers” were your words, not mine.

  4. krishna says:

    Ben,

    *Where is the re-construction effort?” Where are the people? Trucks? Hammers? Shovels? Where has all the money gone?*

    The apathy probably is because the calamity did not strike bang in the middle of Manhattan. No stock prices tanked, not much lost by way of market capitalization, no big business affected, no delivery schedules missed. It happened to children of lesser God and things can very well wait.

    We are a lot less human than we think.

  5. Jason says:

    I just spoke with someone who hails from New Orleans and was just outside the city for the duration of Hurricane Katrina.

    “Depressing” is the word he used to describe the recover effort — or lack thereof. He views Miami as a haven, for at least here he can see a city that is growing and bustling with activity, whereas in New Orleans miles and miles of land is both deserted and destroyed.

    I agree with Krishna that since New Orleans doesn’t have as great an impact on the American economy as say, New York or Los Angeles, that people seem much more relaxed in spearheading the recovery effort — our government included.

    Having wanted to visit New Orleans for years and discovering the novels of Anne Rice the very summer that Hurricane Katrina struck, it was both heartbreaking and surreal to see so much of what I’d hoped to see go under.

    New Orleans was truly one of the last unique American cities that hasn’t been completely commercialized (hope that doesn’t offend any VCs here!). Be it the French Quarter, Garden District, old Voodoo shops and carriage rides through cemeteries, that city had character that most others could only dream of.

    Hopefully one day, we’ll be able to bring it back.

  6. Lurker says:

    Ben, this post demonstrates the value of including photos in your blog posts. It seems like a small thing, but it makes the blog more pleasurable to read. Your blog deserves a much bigger readership — it is still essentially undiscovered at this point — and posting photos is one tactic to help your blog reach a larger audience.

  7. Jude says:

    So Ben, what would you do to solve the problems? I ask because it seems it would be more productive than reporting on the situation. We’ve had plenty of reports. What could be done to make things better? Oprah built 50 houses–near Houston. Then, of course, being Oprah, she bragged about it. Fifty houses. When I saw people stranded on that bridge, I wanted to rent a helicopter and retrieve them. When I see the ruined houses, I want to pick up a hammer. If we were in charge, what difference could we make? Would it make more sense to spend money on a sea wall or some Netherlands-like effort to ensure that a Category 5 hurricane wouldn’t reflood the area? In other words, build protective barriers first, then rebuild the city? How much investment would it take to rebuild? It seems to me that brilliant 19-year-old entrepreneurs might have more useful ideas than codgy old politicians bound by red tape. How *could* we make it better?

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Lurker — thanks for the helpful feedback!

    Jude — I don’t know enough about the situation yet. Anything I could offer would be commonsensical.

  9. Dave says:

    New Orleans has been a tar-pit of despond for decades, and the people who were displaced, although obviously put in a very difficult situation and losing much or all of what they had, in the long run are far better off wherever they ended up. The city should not be rebuilt, other than the parts that are well above sea level. It was one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the country and the disbanding of its culture should be viewed as a positive development, even as we sympathize with those who suffered.

  10. New Orleans is a great city; I’m a local who still lives there. It has its problems like many other American cities, but it is truly one of America’s greatest cities.

    The devastated areas you visited were probably the poorer areas that were the hardest hit. The reason there’s no reconstruction going on in those places is that the people there had the fewest resources to rebuild, and the “Road Home” program, which was designed to disperse the grant money from the Federal Gov’t, has just barely started doing so. By now, even if those people do get the money, I doubt many are going to be excited about coming back.

    The truth is that most of the residential areas surrounding the city have been rebuilt fairly quickly. They don’t take you there on “Katrina Tours” because there’s nothing to see. They look like any other suburb.

    There are many great cities that face grave threat of natural disaster, (see: link to usatoday.com), should we not build in these areas? You should know that the flooding of New Orleans was due to engineering failures. Had it not been for those failures, the city would not have flooded.

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