Archive for the ‘New Orleans’ Category

Book of the Week: Katrina, After the Flood

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
Catching Up Ten Years Later

Catching Up Ten Years Later

One of my favorite articles from Inc. magazine explored the decline of a Florida community ten years after it had been struck by Hurricane Andrew. As businesses lost revenues and had uninsured losses, they had to close, laying off employees, who no longer had discretionary income to spend at local businesses which sustained a loss of revenue….it was a vicious cycle and a number of residents were forced to relocate in search of jobs and other opportunities. I particularly appreciated the article, because typically disasters command attention when vivid images of physical damage can be broadcast. But when the news cycle has moved on to other stories, the people impacted by the disaster are left to rebuild without the sense of urgency conveyed by the initial media coverage. I know from my own experience of 9-11 that it is a long, long time before things return to normal – if they ever do. So I had Katrina, After the Flood on my list for some time and finally got around to reading it.

Gary Rivlin, a staff reporter for the New York Times, first went to New Orleans to assess the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. He observed that 80 per cent of the houses in the city had been flooded, schools and businesses were ruined and the city’s water and sewer system were unusable. In this book, he traces what happens in the aftermath of a major disaster. Boarded-up businesses, some 21,0000 of the 22,000 businesses registered in New Orleans, were still shuttered six months after the storm. Six weeks after the storm, New Orleans laid off half of the municipal workforce. With so many formerly economically productive businesses and workers unable to contribute to the tax base, the community could not possibly finance its own recovery.  What we learn is that life doesn’t go back to “normal”; people re-build or they move on, but the community is permanently changed. It is a gripping read; I highly recommend it.

A New Orleans Institution in a New Era

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012
Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde

A fun morning ritual of my frequent visits to New Orleans is enjoying coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde (shown here in one of my older photographs) while reading the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune. So I was saddened to read that its print schedule has been reduced; it will now print only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, leaving New Orleans without a major metropolitan daily newspaper. More resources will be shifted to the web for digital news gathering and reporting. In my work with local small businesses on disaster preparedness and recovery issues, I have had the pleasure of meeting reporters from the Times-Picayune, who shared their stories of working through Hurricane Katrina, for which the paper won two Pulitzer prizes. Reporters and editors worked round the clock to give the community critical information even as their own families and neighbors evacuated and their own homes flooded. Their dedication to duty was a constant when everything else in the city was in upheaval. In the aftermath of the storm, the Times-Picayune doggedly pursued stories of promised relief aid, what worked and more, often, what didn’t. More recently, the newspaper has provided consistent coverage of local corruption and brought needed transparency to institutions that had not been held to account. What I most appreciate about the newspaper is its broader civic commitment.  Times-Picayune reporters have shared with me their experiences and lessons learned about disasters to contribute to sharing best practices with the larger small business community. While struggling and failing newspapers across American communities have sadly become the norm, the loss of the daily paper in New Orleans has particularly severe impact, given its contribution to building back a better New Orleans. In a city where many institutions are dysfunctional, the Times-Picayune is a world-class institution that inspires local pride. I hope the paper finds the means to return to its daily print schedule. New Orleans is a poorer city without it.

Hitting It Out of the Park

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Boston Red Sox Win

Having blogged about the disastrous consequences of the BP oil spill to small businesses in the Gulf Coast states, I was delighted to read this morning’s announcement of the finalists for the 2010 Online Journalism Awards.  The New York Times was nominated for recognition in the category of “Outstanding Use of Digital Technologies for its “Oil Spill Tracker”. I have appreciated the New York Times’ innovative digital platform for timely, up-to-date coverage of the unfolding disaster. Visit the online tracker and you will see tabs across the top organizing information by topic “Where Oil is in the Gulf”, “Where Oil Has Made Landfall”, “Effects on Wildlife”, “Efforts to Stop the Leak”, “Investigating the Blowout” and “Live Video of the Leak”.  The time-series information is presented on a very clear, uncluttered map. Press the “Play” button and you see the oil spill movements with a caption by date as to what happened. A helpful legend explains the scale and proportions of the disaster.  An interactive graphic element on the right-hand side next to the map dynamically presents how the government’s estimate of the size of the oil spill, changed over time. I loved the creative way of presenting many complex, interrelated pieces of information in a clear, user-friendly format. This could be a textbook example on effective visual communication for graphic design students. I appreciate the commitment of the New York Times to provide consistent, in-depth coverage of the unfolding disaster despite BP’s efforts to limit journalists’ access to information.  In case you are wondering, Stefan took photograph on September 24 from a skybox at Yankee stadium. The Boston Red Sox beat the Yankees and I thought this a good image to capture the theme of hitting it out of the park.

FEMA Trailers – the Sequel

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Life Imitates Art

Life Imitates Art

For disaster-fatigued residents of the Gulf Coast, it must be a struggle to move forward with their lives as a painful symbol of the past has returned: the FEMA trailers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had provided close to $3 billion worth of mobile home trailers intended to be used for temporary housing for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Many occupants of those trailers had developed respiratory ailments, which was subsequently attributed to high levels of formaldehyde resulting from the cheap wood and poor ventilation in the units. The government decided to ban the use of trailers for long-term housing.

But the trailers are re-appearing in the Gulf Coast to provide temporary housing for workers involved in the clean up of the oil spill. Because of the $130 million annual cost to store and maintain the trailers, the government elected to sell them in public auctions. Members of Congress had expressed concerns that the trailers would be re-purposed for long-term housing, which fears appear to have been realized. Purchasers of the trailers may not be aware of the health risks associated with the formaldehyde in the trailers or of the ban on their use for long-term housing purposes. But really, what other purpose would the trailers serve if not housing, as they were built with lavatories and kitchenettes? We are long past the time to demand a comprehensive overhaul and accountability from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “FEMA Trailers – the Sequel” is simply inexcusable.

This photograph is of original art made by New Orleans artist Karen Niklaus. I enjoy art that expresses powerful messages about politics and social change and this piece resonated with me.

Heartache and Activism in Louisiana

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
Endangered Oysters

Endangered Oysters

June 1 would have begun the shrimp catching season in the Gulf Coast. While the season lasts only 90 days, during that period Gulf Coast fishing enterprises earn their entire year’s income, often working 18 – 20 hour days in a grueling business. But the Deepwater oil spill ended the shrimp season before it began, forcing many businesses, such as Camardelle’s Seafood, a bait shop and convenience store operating in Louisiana, to close. The proprietor put a sign on her door stating that BP closed her business. She reported to the news media that her utilities are being shut off and she can’t pay her rent. The oil spill has destroyed more in the Gulf Coast than hurricanes of past years did. Small businesses in Louisiana’s fishing industry report that BP’s compensation for their losses doesn’t even come close to making them whole.

One community isn’t accepting the losses without a fight. A group of Vietnamese-American fishermen have filed a class action suit against BP seeking compensation for their losses. The case is to be heard by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes who, according to the Miami Herald, has ties to the oil industry. Specifically, the Herald reports that the judge was compensated for traveling around the world to present ethics lectures to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a professional association that works with oil companies, including BP. The company has requested that Judge Hughes hear all of the cases filed against it, presumably because the judge has positive relations with the oil industry. This action suggests a long march to justice.

But the Vietnamese-American community has fought such battles before. Case in point: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, residents of Versailles, a community on the edge of New Orleans, used the disaster as a catalyst for change. Versailles is the home of the densest community of ethnic Vietnamese outside of Viet Nam. Hurricane Katrina destroyed what they had spent years building since arriving in New Orleans as refugees. Because of their extraordinary work ethic, they rebuilt what nature had destroyed – only to face another threat in the form of a toxic landfill the government planned to build in their neighborhood. The documentary film “A Village Called Versailles” chronicles the experiences of the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans. It airs on public broadcasting stations this month. I watched it twice and, in light of the oil spill disaster, the timing of the broadcast makes the subject particularly poignant.

The image I have chosen to accompany this blog posting is that of a piece of jewelry from the Gulf Coast collection by Mignon Faget. Mignon Faget is one of my favorite jewelry lines and I always make it a point to visit her shop when I am in New Orleans. She also has a website and catalog for online sales. She writes, “it is a heartbreaking statement to make with jewelry originally designed to celebrate the abundant gifts of our coast. The reality: we need to make people aware of this disaster and the long-term effects it will have on this region. We all need to do what we can.” Mignon Faget is donating 10% of all sales of this jewelry line to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Tough Economy Means Tough Choices This Hurricane Season

Monday, June 1st, 2009
Can We Afford It?

Can We Afford It?

Today marks the beginning of the 2009 hurricane season and with it, heightened anxiety among Gulf Coast residents.  We are particularly vulnerable as the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 12% of the population, close to 36 million Americans, live in areas at risks to Atlantic storms. Last year, in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Louisiana evacuated two million of its residents from the coastal areas, the largest mobilization in its history. They are preparing to do so again this year and increase the number of residents who may be sheltered within the state. In an earlier blog posting, I wrote about how the team at the New Orleans Small Business Development Center told me of their clients who did not have the funds to pay for a fourth evacuation in the 2008 hurricane season should one be called. State officials realize that the 2009 season may be worse, as with the weak economy, many people won’t be able to afford the cost of the evacuation and may choose instead to shelter in place which, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, could be a fatal option.

The Clock is Ticking

Friday, February 27th, 2009
No time like the present

No time like the present

USA Today reported this month that close to $4.0 billion in federal government rebuilding aid committed in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has not been spent more than three years after the disaster. The result is that thousands of projects across the Gulf Coast remain incomplete. The aid, part of a massive recovery effort funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was intended to repair or replace public works destroyed by the hurricanes. Congress has called FEMA to account for the unspent funds, but the lesson bears repeating: don’t depend on the government for disaster aid. You will be disappointed. Focus your efforts on what is within the scope of your control, such as savings and insurance.

Back From New Orleans

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
Back to New Orleans

Back to New Orleans

I just returned from a very enjoyable few days in New Orleans where I facilitated a “Train the Trainer” day-long workshop for the counselors of the Small Business Development Centers across Louisiana. One of the challenges that was discussed concerned the need to budget for successive evacuations, which FEMA does not reimburse. One of the counselors told me of a client who had to evacuate the Gulf Coast area three times during the 2008 hurricane season at a cost of $1,000 per trip. He does not have the funds available for another evacuation. Another counselor suggested that New Orleans residents should accept the reality of hurricane season as a cost of living in the community and budget some savings for it.  If they are not called to evacuate in a given year, they have a Christmas fund with the accumulated savings. Good advice for all of us, no matter where we are located. Liquidity, or the immediate availability of cash, is important for all small businesses, particularly in the current economic environment.

I also had the opportunity to visit some of the community-based non-profits in New Orleans which are laying off staff owing to the downturn in charitable donations that began with the Wall Street crisis of September 2008. On a happier note, I had two excellent dinners with the SBDC team: one at Mr. B’s and one at Bourbon House, both in the French Quarter. (We stayed at the Hotel Monteleone where our program was held.) I recommend both to readers who will travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, which will begin on February 24 this year.

Class Action Status Denied

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

In an earlier posting, I wrote of a lawsuit filed by Gulf Coast residents concerning their FEMA-provided housing. Today, the Court ruled that the varying nature of the claims would disqualify them for class action consideration, making it impossible for them to be consolidated. Once again, effective disaster preparedness and recovery programs provide more certain outcomes than post-disaster litigation. It appears that many of these claims will move forward on an individual basis.

New Orleans Homeowners File Lawsuit

Sunday, November 16th, 2008
Notice the house markings

Notice the house markings

New Orleans homeowners filed a lawsuit against the Louisiana Recovery Authority, alleging that it discriminates against black homeowners whose houses were damaged by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The Road Home Program, administered by the Authority, bases grants on the pre-storm value of the house or the rebuilding cost, whichever is less.

When I read the newspaper’s account of this lawsuit, it reminded me of some news I had heard on the occasion of my last visit to New Orleans: I was told that plaintiff’s attorneys were seeking to bring suit against federal disaster relief agencies on the grounds that the post-disaster aid to small businesses in the Gulf Coast was significantly less than that that awarded to Lower Manhattan small businesses in the aftermath of 9-11. If true, this rests on a serious misunderstanding of what aid was actually made available to Lower Manhattan small businesses.

But the more troubling aspect of this approach, for the small business community if not for homeowners, is how it delays the recovery process. A study of small businesses in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center at the time of the 1993 bombing found that of those small businesses that could not get back online within five business days, 90% were out of business one year later. Cash flow is critical to a small business, which is why you either recover quickly or you don’t recover at all. Perhaps this explains why homeowners are more likely than small business owners to litigate claims following a disaster.