Katrina’s legacy: More citizen involvement in decision-making

By Jodi Heckel
U of I News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN — The end of this month will mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.

Robert Olshansky, a University of Illinois professor, head of the department of urban and regional planning and an expert in post-disaster recovery, closely followed the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans in the first few years following the hurricane.

Olshansky co-wrote Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans, a book published in 2010, just before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The book outlined the obstacles the city faced in rebuilding, the progress it made in the first few years following the hurricane and the lingering uncertainty about the city’s safety.

“I was really interested in understanding the planning process and all the ways decisions were being made about going about rebuilding. It was pretty messy for a while,” he said. “I think the end result was there were some changes in government in New Orleans.”

As the 10th anniversary of the storm approaches, Olshansky said his perception is there is a lot more transparency and public involvement in government and how decisions are made since the natural disaster.

Olshansky said one of the simplest measures of the recovery is how many people came back to live in the city following the hurricane. But that’s not an easy thing to address.

“A lot more came back than I ever thought possible, about 80 percent. But that hides the fact of who they are,” he said.

Many lower-income residents went elsewhere and found jobs and housing, and they don’t intend to come back. Others left after the hurricane and want to return to New Orleans but are unable to, Olshansky said. Still others stayed in the city and are worse off than before Katrina.

Another way of looking at the recovery, Olshansky said, is to ask when the city is no longer in recovery, but just dealing with the issues common to any urban area. A simple way of defining the end of recovery is when the flow of federal money for disaster relief ends. There is still some money coming in, and some initiatives aimed at helping make people whole, even 10 years later, Olshansky said.

Most of the main priorities identified in recovery planning are done or in the process of being completed, he said.

But the most important development to Olshansky was an intangible piece – open discussion by residents. “Neighborhoods got together and talked,” he said.

“My perception is the decision system is more open than it was before,” Olshansky said. “There continues to be an open process on how to spend their scarce resources.”

“My perception is the decision system is more open than it was before. There continues to be an open process on how to spend their scarce resources.”

There have also been exchanges with other governments on disaster recovery and planning. Olshansky helped set up meetings between officials in New Orleans and Kobe, Japan, for Japanese officials to share what they learned from their recovery efforts following the 1994 earthquake in Kobe. The Japanese city provided a model of urban post-disaster recovery, Olshansky said.

Since Katrina, New Orleans officials have offered advice on dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to people in Iowa following 2008 flooding, and they’ve worked with the Haitian government following the 2010 earthquake.

New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the  hurricane hit August 30, 2005.  The skyline looms in the background. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005. The skyline looms in the background. | Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

National-level policy changes in Katrina’s aftermath were applied when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012.

“They were small, bureaucratic kinds of things, but they were cumulatively important,” Olshansky said.

Although there have been improvements in handling disaster recovery, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA can be more responsive, he said.

“They’re big bureaucracies, and big bureaucracies – even ones designed to work after disasters – don’t work well,” he said.

Several years after Katrina, Olshansky came to appreciate the generosity of the $10 billion Road Home housing program funded by HUD. However, it is reviled in New Orleans “because it was so painfully bureaucratic,” he said. “There were ways in which it could have been less centralized. It was one big, centralized bureaucracy, and it created lots of problems.”

Another problem with Road Home is the formula used by the program was disadvantageous to lower-income homeowners, which has made it difficult for many of them to rebuild, Olshansky said.

One of the most important things he’s seen in disaster recovery efforts is the benefit of taking time to plan so residents get what they really want.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned from several of these events is to not be hasty. Politicians get really scared, because the people are out there with torches and pitchforks. They want their houses rebuilt now,” he said.

Going slowly with planning is better, but it requires a lot of public involvement in terms of meetings and communication. It is “painful and expensive,” Olshansky said. “It takes a lot of intention and planning. It needs to be really transparent, and citizens must be part of the process.”

He and the other planning experts who studied Katrina’s post-disaster recovery agree the jury is still out on how effective the recovery has been, and they need to look at it in-depth.

“The planning process was so contentious in the first three years,” Olshansky said. “How it has played out over time in the sense of outcomes, what lessons can we draw as planners – we can’t quite say right now. This is something we still need to look at.”

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