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Experts examine rebuilding in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina

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Robert Olshansky, a professor of urban and regional planing, co-wrote a new book, “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” which takes an in-depth look at the city’s challenges in recovering after Hurricane Katrina.

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7/21/2010 | Sharita Forrest, Arts Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As residents of the Gulf Coast in the U.S. brace themselves for what is expected to be another active hurricane season, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina looms on Aug. 29, a grim reminder of the suffering wrought when people are unprepared for nature’s worst.

A new book, “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans” (American Planning Association Planners Press, 2010), takes an in-depth look at the city’s challenges in recovering after Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest and costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and concludes that while New Orleans has made great strides in the five years since, it has been a difficult process, and for many residents the disaster still has not ended.

The book’s co-authors, Robert Olshansky, a professor and associate head of the department of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois; and Laurie Johnson, a consultant and researcher with more than 20 years’ experience in catastrophe risk management and disaster recovery, study communities’ recoveries following natural disasters. Their book chronicles the first 22 months after Katrina struck, providing insights into the challenges that New Orleans faced after the catastrophe and the role of urban planning in the city’s rebirth.

“When a lot of people looked at New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, recovery and rebuilding seemed like overwhelming tasks,” Olshansky said.

“I think that many people would be surprised to see what New Orleans looks like today. From that point of view, progress looks quite good, but try telling that to the 20 percent of people who are still having trouble obtaining homes and jobs. For them, it’s still a disaster.”

With hurricane winds and a storm surge that toppled the federally built levee system, Katrina so devastated New Orleans’ infrastructure that the city ceased to exist for a time, Olshansky said.

While a community’s top priority after a disaster is rebuilding its civic infrastructure – with the expectation that it will stimulate economic recovery and restore livelihoods – numerous factors hampered reconstruction in New Orleans, among them the Army Corps of Engineers’ study process prior to restoring the levees, and the federal government’s reluctance to provide funds for planning. Bureaucracy, contradictory policies, poor communication and a lack of coordination among the various agencies involved – particularly between the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – further hindered reconstruction.

“Following a catastrophic disaster, the most urgent need is money,” Olshansky and Johnson wrote. “To rebuild in a short period of time costs at least as much as it did the first time, but the money needs to flow much, much faster. … All the struggles in New Orleans have centered on obtaining scarce funds for reconstruction.”

The massive scale of the Katrina disaster strained all levels of governance from city hall to Washington, D.C., and all systems of finance. Many of New Orleans’ property owners had no flood insurance because they felt protected by the levees, and the federally funded Road Home program failed to cover the high costs of reconstruction, especially for homeowners with lower incomes.

A significant obstacle for the city was the delays and limitations of FEMA’s Public Assistance program, which provides grants for rebuilding public owned facilities but requires an in-depth review process and asks cash-strapped local governments to pay the construction costs themselves and then obtain reimbursement from FEMA.

“When large disasters strike, affected communities immediately lose cash flow from sales and property taxes, and they turn to the state and federal governments for help,” Olshansky said. “To require localities to front end the construction costs – while laudable in normal times – is a big problem after large disasters when many public facilities need to be rebuilt quickly and simultaneously in order for the community to come back.“

New Orleans’ recovery efforts also floundered during the 16 months immediately after Katrina because of a lack of local leadership, notably from Ray Nagin, the mayor at the time, who provided inconsistent guidance and laid off employees from the city planning commission responsible for coordinating reconstruction.

As with all disasters, the need to rebuild quickly in New Orleans was precariously balanced against the need to proceed thoughtfully, improving the city’s design and mitigating hazards. Friction was severe between factions that advocated abandoning the city’s low-lying, most flood-damaged areas and residents who wanted to rebuild the city in its pre-Katrina form. That tension was heightened by a history of racial discrimination and perceptions that city officials were not responsive to public input.

Although New Orleans has made incremental improvements since the disaster, its hasty issuance of building permits immediately after Katrina, and the difficulty of coordinating HUD funding for reconstruction with FEMA funding for disaster mitigation, prompted many property owners to rebuild without design improvements that would have reduced their vulnerability to flooding, Olshansky and Johnson wrote.

“There were some significant timing issues that made it difficult to build disaster mitigation into the rebuilding process,” Olshansky said. “As one person put it, you were paying for building the second floor first – and the first floor afterwards.”

“New Orleans still faces uncertainty about its long-term safety from future flooding,” Olshansky and Johnson concluded. “Hanging over the city’s future economic viability is its physical vulnerability and the likelihood that it will see more strong storms and flooding without adequate protection from either.”

Editor's note: To contact Robert Olshansky, e-mail rolshansky@gmail.com.

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