For Release Thursday, January 17, 2013
Granted, some neighborhoods in Staten Island, Red Hook, Rockaways and the Jersey shore were similarly devastated. But the word here is “neighborhood,” not city.
Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, paralyzing the city for months. While flooding in lower Manhattan temporarily decommissioned a good piece of the city and the country’s economic heart, the city didn’t stop functioning.
Sandy was a genuine natural disaster, a hurricane made more severe by the convergence of high tide and full moon. What’s little understood outside New Orleans is that Katrina was man-made, an immense engineering failure: New Orleans’ vast federal flood protection system failed.
Katrina was effectively over and beginning to subside by early Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. The levees had already breached in 53 places before the storm reached maximum intensity. But the water rose slowly at first, eventually submerging whole neighborhoods and forcing hundreds into rooftops or makeshift boats. Almost 2,000 people died, about half just in New Orleans.
It has since been revealed that the levees were built, monitored and maintained improperly. Had they held – which the city had been assured they would – damage would have been quite limited.
New Orleanians have long lived with floods and severe hurricanes. Early houses were built slightly elevated, with water resistant materials, to withstand flooding. Katrina was beyond earlier experiences. It had, however, been predicted in a series of brilliant Times-Picayune newspaper articles a few years before. But the levee failure was not predicted.
In New Orleans, the water came and stayed, and many houses that flooded became irreparable.
Then, about a month later, came Hurricane Rita.
Trying to compare Sandy and Katrina based on property values or numbers of houses is a fool’s errand. A $300,000 property in the New York/New Jersey region might be a $75,000 value for a New Orleans home.
For Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a different – and functional – agency. While overstretched, it was able to respond, even if imperfectly. At least no one at FEMA stopped voluntary support and supplies arriving from around the country in order to give private contracts to a favored few.
Comparing city government actions during and after Sandy and Katrina is like comparing night and day, with one capable of springing into action, the other incapacitated by systemic breakdowns and leadership vacuums.
State leadership in New York/New Jersey was not only meaningful, it had a sympathetic and cooperative White House. For Katrina, Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour got more attention and bailouts from the Bush administration than Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, even though Louisiana’s damage was far worse than Mississippi’s.
The point here is not to belittle Sandy and the damage it wrought. Yet, the differences between the two hurricanes are many, and require radically new responses.
Above all, both hurricanes make clear that infrastructure needs radically new design and construction.
New Orleans is a few years ahead of the Northeast thinking about this. Advocates like New Orleans architect David Waggonner have provoked serious public conversation about “living with water,” designing and showing the myriad ways a water-friendly landscape can avert considerable damage. Waggonner initiated a series of public gatherings called “The Dutch Dialogues” that brought experts from the Netherlands to spotlight the innovations there.
Waggonner’s “living with water” approach starts with the premise that we can’t engineer our way out of increasing storm vulnerability, and that less expensive and less massive alternatives exist. The alternatives serve multiple purposes.
In New Orleans, many possibilities have already been identified:
- Reopening covered waterways and transforming them, along with open cement-walled canals, into landscaped waterways with parks, walkways, boats and bikeways so they become neighborhood assets as well as water collectors.
- Exchanging asphalt for porous materials for streets, driveways and sidewalks instead of having to pump out every raindrop through the city’s vast underground system.
- Creating rain gardens, cisterns and bio-swales in backyards.
- Incorporating water-absorbing elements into the architecture of buildings.
The stumbling block is that these innovations upend the way things are done. Changing government policies and their administrators is nothing short of turning around the Titanic, starting with FEMA. FEMA will pay only to put things back as they were. So even if an agency might embrace an innovative path, financing is out of reach. Altering how things are done, with a new environmental awareness, is necessary everywhere.
Another difference concerns public housing. Sandy revealed how public housing has been built on the most vulnerable New York sites, which took damage severe. Katrina, though, became an excuse for New Orleans leadership, with a more-than-willing federal government, to demolish undamaged, solidly built public housing from the 1930s. Replacements are privately developed and economically mixed, with only a small percentage of public housing units.
Both cities suffered a health care crisis, but with a difference. New Orleans closed its public hospital, considered one of the country’s best, even though it was restored and patient-ready. It demolished a working class neighborhood in order to build a new, oversized, private medical complex.
Four New York hospitals were flooded, but only temporarily closed.
But good news is evident in both disasters. Communities came together. Volunteers appeared from everywhere to lend a hand. New support networks were forged. Fundraising was impressive. Once again, evidence was clear that Americans don’t wait for government to rescue them – but they do expect it to be there when all else fails.
Now the question is: Can the evidence and the new solutions that have been revealed be translated into real action before the next disaster?
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of 2010, Nation Books.
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