The Debt We Owe Katrina

New York, New Jersey and the Northeastern seaboard owe a debt of gratitude to Hurricane Katrina.

The lesson of the Gulf Coast disaster was the failure of government at every level — federal, state and local — and across party lines. Towns were unprepared; Louisiana’s Democratic governor was slow to mobilize troops; the Republican president oversaw a Federal Emergency Management Agency response that was an almost complete fiasco. Evacuation orders were either not issued or not followed, and many who wanted to get out couldn’t, because public trains and buses weren’t made available. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina was as simple as the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.” And, to a large extent, the Northeast’s response to Hurricane Sandy seems to have reflected that.

Many local governments issued evacuation notices and, unlike the New Orleans Police Department, managed to enforce them. State officials prepared early and cooperated, both within and across departments. FEMA aid arrived quickly this time, and in large quantities. Death and destruction were minimized by studying the response to Katrina — and doing the exact opposite.

But there were other lessons from the Gulf Coast disaster, slower to emerge and longer lasting. Here in the Northeast, there has already been talk of starting over, building better and coming back stronger.

As benign and uplifting as this may sound, in New Orleans “building better” was often code for a political agenda. It meant attempting to rezone low-lying areas as “nonviable” — and then turning them over to large-scale developers: a post-flood, backdoor route to old-fashioned urban renewal.

Low-income residents were discouraged from returning to their neighborhoods — in part because they were often the last to get power, water and other services. Damaged schools were permanently closed, providing opportunities to replace them with privatized alternatives. Hospitals dedicated to the care of low-income patients were never reopened; instead, plans were made to replace them with higher-end, more profitable facilities that would price out the poor. In New Orleans, specifically in the most impoverished areas, flooding and wind damage offered an opportunity to “solve” those problems by getting rid of the affected population.

The areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy should be prepared for similar kinds of opportunism. Take the Jersey Shore town of Asbury Park. For over 50 years, the city has had run-down housing, declining schools and increasing crime. Time and again, it has tried to solve those issues by building an economy based on tourism. But focusing on its mile-long beachfront has meant neglecting rampant poverty across the tracks on the town’s West Side.

Asbury Park was attempting a recovery before Hurricane Sandy, having sold most of its prime real estate to a single developer, Asbury Partners (part of the larger entity Madison Marquette), who promised to build high-end condominiums and town houses. Progress had been slow. Instead, the areas that had bounced back had done so mainly thanks to private homeowners and entrepreneurs rebuilding historic homes and opening restaurants and other businesses.

Hurricane Sandy brought the oceanfront three blocks inland. It ripped up sections of boardwalk and sent hundreds of people to shelters. Like New Orleans seven years ago, Asbury Park is now at a crossroads. Does it sweeten the sweetheart deal the developers already have, use eminent domain to condemn and raze low-income housing on the West Side, and lay the groundwork for a “boutique city”? Or is there a way to use Hurricane Sandy’s leveling of so many buildings to also level the city’s playing field: to bring it back as a multiracial, mixed-income city?

Similar questions will face many of the towns and municipalities in Sandy’s wake, including New York City. Much of the five boroughs’ low-income public housing is situated in flood zones. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 residents of public housing complexes have been moved out and are now homeless — living in shelters or elsewhere. Will they come back to the same, better or worse conditions — or come back at all? Will the destruction of private clubs and residences along the New York and New Jersey shorelines lead to rebuilding that includes more public access — or less? And will the rebuilding itself, with its potential of billions of dollars in infrastructure repair and redesign, produce big paydays for out-of-state firms (as it did in New Orleans), or create more local jobs that will help lower regional unemployment?

As I hand wrote this essay on a yellow legal pad, all computers down, the house cold and the refrigerator starting to give off an alarming smell, my first concern was the immediate restoration of power.

But if Katrina is any model, we have to think long-term as well — and make sure we’re forging not just a speedy but an equitable recovery.

Daniel Wolff is the author of The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back and 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land.

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