Managing the Recovery of New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina
Publication Year: 2012
Edward J. Blakely has been called upon to help rebuild after some of the worst disasters in recent American history, from the San Francisco Bay Area's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the September 11 attacks in New York. Yet none of these jobs compared to the challenges he faced in his appointment by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin as Director of the Office of Recovery and Development Administration following Hurricane Katrina.
In Katrina's wake, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast suffered a disaster of enormous proportions. Millions of pounds of water crushed the basic infrastructure of the city. A land area six times the size of Manhattan was flooded, destroying 200,000 homes and leaving most of New Orleans under water for 57 days. No American city had sustained that amount of destruction since the Civil War. But beneath the statistics lies a deeper truth: New Orleans had been in trouble well before the first levee broke, plagued with a declining population, crumbling infrastructure, ineffective government, and a failed school system. Katrina only made these existing problems worse. To Blakely, the challenge was not only to repair physical damage but also to reshape a city with a broken economy and a racially divided, socially fractured community.
My Storm is a firsthand account of a critical sixteen months in the post-Katrina recovery process. It tells the story of Blakely's endeavor to transform the shell of a cherished American city into a city that could not only survive but thrive. He considers the recovery effort's successes and failures, candidly assessing the challenges at hand and the work done—admitting that he sometimes stumbled, especially in managing press relations. For Blakely, the story of the post-Katrina recovery contains lessons for all current and would-be planners and policy makers. It is, perhaps, a cautionary tale.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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I had known Professor Blakely by reputation as one of the nation’s most creative urban planners and most respected academics. His writings on urban solutions have shaped many ideas and careers over the years. I observed from afar his work as an urban administrator and courageous activist in Oakland and other cities. But it was during the working...
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I arrived in New Orleans on January 7, 2007, the 192nd anniversary of the historic Battle of New Orleans. I had been called to take command in a new and perhaps more daunting battle, for the life and soul of the nation’s most distinctive city. This was my first official day on the job as the “czar” to lead the post-Hurricane...
PART I. SEEING THE PROBLEM
1. An Alarming View from Down Under
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I got my first view of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation from computer news feeds in Australia. I had moved to Sydney with my wife Maaike, an Australian, in 2003. My goals were to retire—to Sydney, a city we both loved—and to fulfill a childhood aspiration to live outside the United States. Although...
2. Getting to New Orleans
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It was natural for the Association to reach out to me. When I moved to Australia, everyone acted as if I’d resigned from the world. But my Stateside credentials remained strong. In addition to being at or near the center of activity after the Oakland fire and earthquake, and after September 11 in New York, I’d written...
3. A Harbinger of Problems to Come
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Legislative director and mayor’s aide de camp Kenya Smith showed me around City Hall, and introduced me to city council members and staffers. I went to meet city attorney Penya Moses-Fields in her office. She told me that her role was to be the lawyer for the council and the city, and to be the mayor’s and the city’s conscience. I also...
4. “Fix It!”
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I was announced as the recovery “czar” in New Orleans on January 7, 2007, 16 months after Katrina. “Dr. Blakely, a globetrotting academic with a long résumé, has a mandate for renewal from Mayor C. Ray Nagin and a city desperate for leadership,” reported the New York Times on my appointment...
PART II. WHERE TO FROM HERE?
5. Imagining a Future Out of Mud: A Recovery Plan
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Mayor Nagin was on the horns of a dilemma. He had to decide among at least three competing recovery plans: one promoted by the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) commission; the second, a scheme of neighborhood plans put forward by the consulting firm of Lambert and Associates; and the third, an initiative...
6. Inside the Mayor’s “Cocoon”
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My first two weeks in City Hall were illuminating. Although I hadn’t expected a big welcoming party, I was surprised at simply being put out to sea with almost no contact with anyone, including the mayor. I spent my first two weeks reviewing resumes, finding office space, and getting an office up and running with...
7. Putting My Team on the Field: Recovery Administration
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The mayor started his second term with roughly twenty senior staff, including those I’ve just described as his “cocoon,” reporting directly to him. When I arrived, there were three direct line officers: myself, as director of recovery management, with a small team of 20; Brenda Hatfield, CAO, with several thousand...
8. Politics and Money
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The New Orleans recovery was largely about the politics of money and who controlled it: city or state, black or white, rich or poor, downtown or the neighborhoods. In the recovery, there was money on the table. It could be used to determine who came back to New Orleans, and who didn’t. Much of the recovery...
9. Reviving a Drowning Economy
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Leading policy economist Ed Glasser, in a piece he described as a “thought experiment,” which I learned about in my first visit to Harvard in 2007, said that with the federal government pledging billions of dollars in aid, most of which never materialized, people would be better off not thinking about a place-based strategy that emphasized...
PART III. ELEMENTS OF THE CITY
10. In Search of Civic Leadership
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Thanks to its music, New Orleans is justifiably known as the “soul city.” But if the term “soul” is taken to mean “soul-mate,” as in the sharing of a common identity and sense of directions and goals, then New Orleans falls far short of the mark. New Orleanians frequently use soul to refer to the collective spirit of the...
11. More Than Bricks and Sticks: Reviving Neighborhoods
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On my many bike expeditions around New Orleans as the Bicycle Guy, I got to see the city’s residents as neighbors, and in neighborhoods. Some places suffered little storm damage but had large-scale problems that predated the storm, such as dilapidated houses and neglected streetscapes. I saw that income was...
12. The Race Cards of Recovery
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New Orleans may be a glamorous place on its face. But beneath the glitter a devastating poverty festers that Katrina made all too public. The poverty rate in Louisiana is the nation’s second worst. In New Orleans itself, 38 percent of all black kids live below the poverty line, and among fourth graders, only 44 and 26 percent read and do...
13. A Medium Off Message
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As I began packing my office for my departure from New Orleans in May 2009, I came across Marshall McLuhan’s pioneering book on one of my shelves. His famous statement about the media being the message I found to be partially correct in New Orleans: there, during the recovery, it seemed that the media...
14. Levees and FEMA: The Real Hazards for New Orleans
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In one of my very first field notes in New Orleans in January 2007, I wrote, can the city fool Mother Nature? That question is still relevant, ominous, and unanswered. In some ways, it is a foundational question for the ongoing recovery. The levees render the city a cup with a sinking bottom. The city faces the mighty...
PART IV. ASSESSING THE RECOVERY
15. Chance to Assess the Recovery
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In late November 2008, as my appointment and the second term were coming to an end, Mayor Nagin and I met over lunch to take the next steps and begin changing the city’s message from “recovery” to “normalcy.” Continuous stories of struggle at some point wear out. There was talk in Congress of Katrina...
16. The “Big Easy,” Nothing Comes Easy, Not Even Leaving
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I left New Orleans at the end of May 2009, with a great send-off party given by Mayor Nagin and attended by about 150 guests. I received many accolades: for example, the proverbial “key to the city” and the designation of my date of departure as Edward J. Blakely Day. The city council were unanimously generous...
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Appendix: Memorandum of Understanding
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Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2012
Series Title: The City in the Twenty-First Century