Thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina, we tend to forget what, by my lights, was the biggest factor in the New Orleans recovery. Also, the least expected.
No, not the billions the feds finally poured into the flawed but pivotal Road Home program.
Not the $14 billion that brought the federal levee system back up to the “100-year storm” strength it had when it failed.
Yes, it helped that we eventually got a mayoral administration instead of a looting operation at City Hall, but that wasn’t until 2010.
The change I’m thinking about was already accelerating by then. Defying all odds, New Orleans had become a powerful magnet for a generation of young people from all over the country, eager to save the city, make a buck, feed the poor, and take on the world. They didn’t do it alone, but they certainly powered our recuperation.
Puerto Rico, still struggling through a painfully slow recovery from its own Katrina, can only hope it has the same good fortune.
September 20th marks the first anniversary since Hurricane Maria swept across the Caribbean and plowed into the island, whose 3 million-plus residents are, lest we forget, American citizens. Maria was at Category 4 strength when it made landfall at Yabucoa, a nastier storm than Katrina at its Louisiana landfall (near Buras). And just as Rita followed Katrina by less than a month, two weeks before Maria, Hurricane Irma had gut punched Puerto Rico and neighboring islands, making FEMA’s emergency response to Maria even clumsier and slower than it might have been, as the Department of Homeland Security conceded in a July report.
A few weeks after Maria, President Trump showed up in San Juan, inspired insults from San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, accused Puerto Ricans of not doing enough to help themselves and fully disgraced his presidency by carelessly tossing paper towels into a crowd, the insinuation being that Maria was a shower they could mop up themselves. He gloated that the death toll was a mere 46, not the big number (1,800) associated with a real disaster like Katrina.
As usual Trump’s bigotry was built upon misinformation and lies. Maria’s official death toll reached an estimated 2,975 in late August, with a Harvard study allowing as how it could still climb above 8,000 when the types and rates of mortality are fully parsed. On Thursday Trump falsely declared the numbers — verified by independent analysts in and out of government — to be a plot by Democrats to make him look bad.
Ignoring other statistical measures of Puerto Rico’s agony, Trump has declared FEMA’s botched disaster response “one of the best” ever. He did not well serve his bragging by referring proudly to the U.S. military hospital ship that was deployed to San Juan, in reality, another emblem of failure. With a capacity of 250 beds, it admitted only six patients on average per day, as hundreds if not thousands died of illnesses and infirmities that went untreated during the chaos.
Not that the idea of floating hospitals is a bad one, assuming they are managed more intelligently.
I recall a conversation a few years after Katrina with retired Marine Col. Terry Ebbert, the former head of the city’s emergency response. Drawing lessons from Katrina, Ebbert said the single smartest move FEMA could make in anticipation of another storm of that magnitude would be to martial several military vessels, including a hospital ship, and then run them up the Mississippi. Docked at city wharfs they could begin providing emergency shelter and services within a day or two of the storm passing or even before it arrived.
The points of comparison and contrast between Katrina and Maria don’t stop with their respective death tolls. If a poorly designed and maintained levee system was New Orleans undoing, the comparable vulnerability in Puerto Rico was its rickety electrical grid, a contrivance of wooden poles and easily shredded wiring that collapsed all across the island, not just along the coast where mountainous storm surge turned villages into shoreline debris.
Within a month of Maria, a tiny outfit from Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown—Whitefish, Montana—was awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid, and the effort was already foundering. Zinke—whose son had worked for the company—hastened to say he had nothing to do with cutting a deal with such a tiny, unqualified firm.
The Whitefish contract stalled the action by the consortium of giant utilities—Con Ed, Florida Power and Light, etc—that normally lends collective assistance after a disaster.
Recurrent island-wide blackouts continued to afflict Puerto Rico late last spring, and power was restored to the more remote towns only last month. And here’s where the Puerto-Rico/New Orleans analogy fits all too snugly: Just as the Army Corps of Engineers was commissioned, to rebuild—not significantly upgrade—the failed flood defense around New Orleans, again with help from the Army Corps, Puerto Rico today has only pieced together a system that will again blow apart the next time a half-serious storm comes anywhere near the island.
The Whitefish electric contract was matched by other botched recovery maneuvers directed by Washington, one of them FEMA’s award of a $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals. It went to Tiffany Brown, proprietor and sole employee of an Atlanta outfit called Tribute Contracting. (Not to worry: knowing she would need help, she subbed out the contract to two other firms, one of them a catering company with 11 employees.) A month later, Brown’s consortium had pulled together 50,000 of the promised 30 million meals (far less than 1 percent) and, citing “late delivery,” FEMA canceled the contract it had signed with her.
With all the outsourcing, “it’s kind of like the U.S. is afraid to have a real disaster-recovery agency,” said Sergio Marxuach, a policy expert with the nonprofit Center for a New Economy in San Juan. Marxuach’s critique will strike a familiar chord with New Orleanians who watched companies wired politically to Washington and Baton Rouge skim 70 percent to 80 percent off nine-figure contracts for debris removal and roof tarping, leaving only a pittance for the street-level operators who actually hauled the debris and put tarps on roofs.
Along the coast where Maria made landfall, lingering signs of the disaster are ubiquitous — from tarped roofs to shattered or abandoned houses and commercial structures. But to their considerable credit, Puerto Ricans have responded robustly and creatively to the recovery fiasco orchestrated by the Trump administration. Emergency feeding and sheltering programs have evolved into more permanent and progressive solutions to problems of malnutrition among the poor and elderly that long-preceded Maria.
On a hillside providing us with a sweeping view of the ravaged coast, Fernando Silva, an activist academic, brought me up to speed on recovery efforts a year after Maria. Director of the Puerto Rico Institute of Sciences for Conservation (PRISC), he touted one home-grown program called el Fogón de Guayanés. Fogón is Spanish for fire pit, the center of community life in the pre-Colonial era. The new version is a sustainable outgrowth of the soup kitchens set up immediately after the storm. Asking pay-what-you-can donations, instead of fees, el Fogón feeds the needy and arranges for delivery of meals to homebound people.
In Punta Santiago, an outfit called PECES has upstaged FEMA to create a multi-service nonprofit handling everything from legal issues to temporary shelter for those who still need it. Pop-up community centers still distribute bottled water and home rebuilding supplies, a critically important service trying to plug the gap left after FEMA found ways to reject roughly 60 percent of the applications for housing aid.
The problem in part was a startling cultural illiteracy on Washington’s part. FEMA could not wrap its head around the fact that home and land ownership in Latin America, especially in rural areas, is often “informal”—i.e. passed on from generation to generation, rather than recorded on U.S.-style deeds. It’s not as if the problem was anything new. In fact deedless houses had bedeviled the post-Katrina Road Home program in New Orleans, particularly in poorer communities such as the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.
Punta Santiago homeowner Marilyn Viera was one of the lucky ones: She managed to coax $8,000 from FEMA, a start, if not nearly enough to rebuild a roofless house in which every appliance had been destroyed. Through whatever inanities of bureaucratic dysfunction, the government came through with in-kind assets as well as money—in Viera’s case, one window. “What do I do with one window?” she wondered, glancing around her small, sun-drenched house. Fortunately PECES was able to provide replacements for the rest of the blown-out windows, plus that all-important piece of equipment for a tropical kitchen, a refrigerator. (Like most of her neighbors, Viera has generators at the ready to see her household through persistent brownouts and more complete power failures.)
Silva and a community ally named Zenaida Navarro told me one of the more intriguing stories of coastal Puerto Rico’s still shaky recovery. For months after Maria (and presumably again this fall) an infestation of mosquitoes was one of the real horrors of life on an island lacking the electricity to power air conditioners and still sodden with countless mosquito breeding areas left behind by the epic floodwaters. Zika, chikungunya and dengue were potential threats, as were skin infections from mosquito bites. Add to that the insomnia that set in as people without air conditioning or screens tried to sleep in puddles of sweat and clouds of whining insects. Sleeplessness wore people down. Irritability gave way to rage and weakened immunity made people vulnerable to outbreaks of flu. Diabetics and heart patients were at special risk.
Navarro and Silva remembered one solution from the days of their great-grandparents— indeed, a solution as old as the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs where it is depicted in wall paintings: mosquito nets. Silva set off in search of right-sized bolts of fabric. An aged tailor cured him of the mistaken assumption that they would need to line up an army of volunteers to cut and hand-sew the fabric. The tailor’s far quicker solution: roughly measure a sufficient length of fabric (about double the width of your arms spread-eagled), bunch the fabric on one side and simply tie it with string. With the knot suspended overhead, the netting can be feathered out to the edges of the bed to make a tent. Voila! Or, as they say in Puerto Rico: Listo!
The first three community brigades organized by Silva and Navarro to make nets acquired the name Las Tres Mosquiteras, a play on the Three Musketeers. Today the Mosquiteras have organized groups in 127 communities across the island’s 29 municipalities.
The solution to a temporary crisis also shows promise as a source of longer-term post-disaster revenue. Emblazoned with an image of the Puerto Rican flag, the netting has started to catch on with customers on and off the island, a memento of Maria that is also a way to support communities that survived the storm.
But even with vigorous energy at the local level, the collapse of leadership by Team Trump and the agents who preside in San Juan over the de facto American colony has cruelly slowed the recovery. Eleven months after Maria, coastal wharfs and piers critical to the fishing economy of coastal villages, remained skeletal, unrepaired.
I spent part of an afternoon with José Sanchez—“Junior” to his compadres in the fishing collaborative at a small harbor in Yabucoa called La Puntita Fishermen’s Association. It’s one of 172 such associations dotting the coast of Puerto Rico. Repair of the nearby wharf at Punta Santiago had begun, a year late, but Sanchez’s pier remained derelict and he had spent the morning trying to rig up a trailer to haul his boat in and out of the water.
“Forget about the government,” Sanchez growled as he tinkered with the rusted trailer. “That’s the great lesson out of this.” Instead, as was also true in New Orleans, nonprofits and deep-pocketed foundations—PECES and PRISC among them—have filled the breach left by government ineptitude and outright failure, while easing local groups back toward a more robust and sustainable self-sufficiency.
The climate changes that warming seas and, presumably, intensifying hurricanes may be imposing an additional hardship on maritime life: Sanchez had got himself out on the water two days earlier only to find that his nets were uselessly clogged by the sea grasses that also have been degrading beaches and killing tourism all across the Caribbean this year. He had to turn back.
Of course, at some point island-wide programming and more effective leadership from Washington and San Juan will be required. Just as New Orleans could not, on its own, have pumped billions into shoring up the failed federal levee system, Puerto Rico’s bankrupt utility—a government monopoly called PREPA—clearly needs help strengthening the electrical grid it has so far managed only to piece back together. With his colleagues at San Juan’s Center for a New Economy, Marxuach is advising the government on how to devise a 21st-century service with an upgraded grid, one more reliant on alternative power sources. Looking ahead optimistically to the era of plug-in transportation, Marxuach speculates that car batteries might prove to be a viable way to store energy and smooth out the daily surges in solar and wind power.
Wiring must be buried or strengthened where that is financially feasible, Marxuach said. In addition, common sense calls for forcing PREPA to break the grid into subsections—micro- and mini-grids—so that an outage in one area doesn’t take down the whole island.
Meanwhile, maintaining electric service is a D.I.Y proposition. Those with the means to do so have acquired diesel-burning generators—huge ones for hotels and hospitals, small units for residential use. But with persistent power deficits even now that the blackouts have been minimized, a reduction in street lights and other kinds of urban illumination make nighttime San Juan a shadowy experience and driving hazardous.
In terms that will resonate with anyone who followed the political agonies associated with the New Orleans’ recovery, Marxuach insists that any and all planning must entail citizen participation in a “bottom-up” process. It’s an easier sell now that the “top-down” solutions have failed as saliently here as in New Orleans in the early going post-Katrina. After all, it was months after Katrina before a power struggle between Mayor Ray Nagin and the City Council for control of the recovery gave way to citizen participation in the Rockefeller-funded Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP).
The chaotic interim, for those with the fortitude to recall those dark days, featured Nagin’s ill-considered proposal that every downtown hotel become a casino, followed by a pledge to abide by the recommendations of an appointed panel—the Bring New Orleans Back Commission—which he promptly stabbed in the back and ignored. Councilmanic machinations were not less flawed.
Given the general sense of civic optimism in New Orleans these days—with rising real estate prices and a frisky entrepreneurial class offsetting the pathological violence and drug abuse in a still notably impoverished city—it’s easy to forget what a mess we were in even a full year after Katrina.
Republican leadership, then incarnate in the person of Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, had seriously advocated that New Orleans not be rebuilt at all. Give it up, Hastert recommended: a big city never should have been encouraged to flourish on such a marshy, low-lying landscape. Better to reduce the city’s footprint to an enclave of maritime services, maybe with the French Quarter still up and running as a tourist attraction. Hastert later walked back an idea that almost certainly would not have come to Republican minds if the city slated for annihilation wasn’t a persistently Democratic stronghold in the Deep South and majority black.
A decade later, New Orleans could be forgiven for the pleasure some took in Hastert’s conviction for financial chicanery associated with his effort to buy the silence of a sex partner. The focus of Hastert’s lust was a teenage boy, not a Playboy bunny or an adult film actress, but the parallel is not lost on knowledgeable Puerto Ricans, still dreaming that another Republican, the serial bankrupt in the Oval Office, will get over himself long enough to call for adequate disaster relief.
New Orleans would eventually defy the doomsayers and backstabbers, but it’s worth remembering that as we reached our first anniversary after Katrina, pessimism was as widespread as it is in Puerto Rico today. That soul-restoring win over the Falcons as the Saints took possession of a refurbished Superdome in the fall of 2006 boosted morale. It would take another half-decade before optimism was more than cautious.
But, to revisit the question posed at the outset of this column, the huge and affirming surprise of our whole recovery was well underway and apparently dauntless, even in the face of the 2010 BP fiasco: our sudden allure to a generation of millennials, teachers, aspiring artists, Uber drivers, brogrammers, or just plain slackers.
It was a mixed blessing, of course: an engine of gentrification and cultural homogenization that would spike rents and disenfranchise communities of color even as it perked up tax collections and the municipal economy. But that influx of the young and the restless was pivotal to the energy of New Orleans today and only in hindsight can it be called predictable, let alone inevitable.
Hadn’t we always been the coolest city in America? Maybe so, but with the population still off by more than half a year after Katrina, there was reason to wonder if our claim on hipness, good food and great music would be more than a memory.
To their credit, our colleges managed to reopen, some of them as centers for study of the disaster and the recovery itself. Beyond that minor miracle, programs like Teach for America and the influx of post-Katrina volunteers from churches and universities deserve credit for deepening millennial appreciation for New Orleans. In other words, little if anything about the onrushing wave of newcomers was engineered by the political leadership that likes to take credit for it. Indeed, the notorious incompetence of our political class added a sense of adventure to the very idea of giving New Orleans a try—for a year or two, or maybe just for Mardi Gras 2006.
And so they came, tourists wanting to take a look; youngish people from all over the place drawn here by the possibility of escaping conventional careerism in New York or Silicon Valley. They came to save a city and maybe the world, to finish that screenplay, master the sax or help rebuild a collapsed school system. And a lot of them stayed, as did Latino workers who flooded in from Mexico to restore our housing.
The yen to make a buck would result in a swelling entrepreneurial class and a nation-leading surge in business start-ups. Rents were so cheap you might not even need a soul-destroying day job, let alone a trust fund while you tinkered with your Internet app and dreamed it would go viral.
Low rents? Puerto Rico is not cheap, even now in its time of distress. And there are enormous financial challenges ahead that have little to do with Hurricane Maria. The island economy was first skewed and then savagely undermined by maneuvers in Washington and San Juan that, for a time, made Puerto Rico a corporate tax haven—much beloved by the pharmaceutical industry.
The sugar high ended abruptly in 1996 when the Section 936 of the U.S. Tax Code, establishing the tax haven, was rescinded. The island fell into a depression comparable to what New Orleans endured with the mid-‘80s oil crash and far more devastating to recovery than the ’08-’09 Great Recession was for us, buffered as we were by all that federal recovery money coursing through Louisiana. The political response to canceling 936 was a neap tide of government-issued debt. As with New York City’s teeter on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s, Wall Street at first drank up the red ink thirstily, hollered for more and then suddenly started to throw up.
The political repercussions have been seismic. Statehood remains the option for Puerto Rico favored by the incumbent governor, Ricardo Rosselló. The more conservative posture is to stick with “commonwealth” status—i.e. the status quo, both hands permanently outstretched in Washington’s direction. An edgier crowd these days calls for “sovereignty” and perhaps even a separate currency—which, among other things, could allow Puerto Rico to repudiate the huge debt accrued during its century under Washington’s thrall.
Part of the pro-sovereignty camp is comprised of a new generation of self-styled financial wizards—or frauds, depending on your point of view. A colleague of Marxuach’s at the Center for a New Economy calls them “crypto-creeps”—a dark force in the digital age that wants to bet the island’s future on its potential as the geographical hub for a global crypto-currency. Maybe that’s ahead. More likely: one of the stock-market crashes that periodically upend Bitcoin.
But in the near term, what a beautiful island needs—and deserves—is something like the influx of tourists, entrepreneurs, dreamers and snow-birds that saved New Orleans from Nagin’s cultural obtuseness and/or the cynical defeatism of Dennis Hastert.
Tourism’s big problem in the near term seems to be Cuba—a Caribbean destination just now inordinately popular with Europeans and stateside Americans wanting a first taste of an island that was for decades hauntingly off limits.
Puerto Rico is recovering from a hurricane, not the quaint retro-weirdness of decades under Communism. It has Colonial and mid-century Modernist architecture every bit the match of Havana’s. But Puerto Rico, while not without high-end resorts, is much smaller than Cuba and no part of it is prowled by bullet-nosed Studebakers and mid-‘50s DeSotos, iconic relics of a different disaster, the economic catastrophe ushered in by the Castro brothers and reinforced by Washington’s Cold War hostility.
Could Puerto Rico suddenly catch on, even in this time of island-wide distress? Stranger things have happened. Indeed, they happened right here in New Orleans a decade ago.
Puerto Rico should be so lucky.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.