Sunday, January 29, 2006

Katrina hit black areas hardest ...

Karen Brooks of The Dallas Morning News analyzes the Brown University study advising New Orleans to work on ways to bring minorities home:

The areas of New Orleans that suffered the worst of Hurricane Katrina were home to 80 percent of its black population, university researchers said Thursday – underscoring the difficulties in the city's struggle to rebuild while preserving its cultural and racial heritage.

"Knowing how disproportionately black neighborhoods were hit by the storm, what are the implications for what the city might be?" asks John R. Logan, the Brown University sociologist who directed the study. "These results suggest the importance of being sensitive to whose voice is going to be heard and what interests need to be taken into account."

The study, one of the most concrete profiles of Katrina victims to come out since the storm, cross-referenced the damaged areas with census tracts and found that the damaged areas had higher concentrations of residents who were black, poor, or renting their homes than did the undamaged areas. The results closely match a similar study done recently by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

City officials have struggled with encouraging minority New Orleanians to come back, while at the same time suggesting that some of their former neighborhoods – including parts of the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward, where most people owned their homes – should never again be inhabited.

Mayor Ray Nagin was criticized recently for saying he wanted New Orleans to return to being a "chocolate city," a remark he later clarified to mean that he wanted to make sure the black residents – who for many make up the very heart and soul of the city – felt encouraged to come back.

But his comments highlighted New Orleans' painful struggle to rebuild in areas that are low-risk, while keeping it affordable enough for minority, working-class and impoverished residents to live there, a delicate balance that few cities are able to achieve.

More next time ...


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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Homeland Security and "Hurricane Pam" ...

MSNBC posts a story by the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON - The Homeland Security Department was warned a day before Hurricane Katrina hit that the storm’s surge could breach levees and leave New Orleans flooded for weeks or months, documents released Monday show.

An Aug. 28 report by the department’s National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center concluded that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause severe damage in the city, including power outages and a direct economic hit of up to $10 billion for the first week.

“Overall, the impacts described herein are conservative,” stated the report, which was sent to Homeland Security’s office for infrastructure protection.

“Any storm rated Category 4 or greater ... will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months,” said the report, which was released by a Senate panel examining the government’s breakdown in responding to Katrina.

The documents are the latest indication that the federal government knew beforehand of the catastrophic damage that a storm of Katrina’s magnitude could cause.

Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 29. Some weather experts, however, believe it had decreased to a Category 3 or even Category 2 storm by the time it reached New Orleans.

Dire prediction

In 2004, Homeland Security and the federal Emergency Management Agency ran an exercise called “Hurricane Pam” that provided a dire prediction about a Category 3 hurricane hitting New Orleans. It found, among other things, that flood waters would surge over levees, creating “a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation” and leaving drainage pumps crippled for up to six months.

The Bush administration has been lambasted for its lackluster response to Katrina and its aftermath, including criticism that the government should have known that a hurricane of that strength posed a danger to the area’s levees and was unprepared to cope with it.


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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Democracy returns to N.O. ...

The Associated Press reports on plans for the delayed New Orleans election:

NEW ORLEANS - A panel of lawmakers has approved a plan to hold city elections in the spring by distributing absentee ballots to displaced residents and establishing new polling places to replace those devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The joint House-Senate committee that backed the plan Monday was under pressure from a federal judge who has threatened to take over the planning process if the state does not set dates for April elections by Tuesday.

Secretary of State Al Ater, who came up with the emergency plan, told the panel he would recommend to Gov. Kathleen Blanco that she set an April 22 date for the election.

Blanco was expected to do so on Tuesday, although the proposal still needs approval by the full Legislature and the Justice Department.

Blanco called off elections set for Feb. 4 in New Orleans because so many voters were displaced and voting places heavily damaged by the Aug. 29 storm. Races for mayor, city council, sheriff and tax assessors are among those on the ballot.

Ater’s plan envisions distributing absentee ballots to voters across the nation and creating “super-polling stations” within the city that would accommodate voters from neighborhoods that were flooded.

Committee members said the plan needs revision to ensure that the maximum number of voters are (sic) reached. Changes could be proposed during a special legislative session that starts Feb. 6.

“It is not a perfect plan. It is a work in progress,” said committee chairman Sen. Charles Jones.

On Wednesday, federal Judge Ivan Lemelle is scheduled to question state officials on what steps have been taken to give New Orleans residents a chance to vote.


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Thursday, January 19, 2006

N.O. Mayor Apologizes …

Let us see what the Washington Post thought about our good mayor’s MLK-Day speech. From an article by Manuel Roig-Franzia:

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 17 -- An avalanche of criticism, stoked by heated talk-radio rants, forced Mayor C. Ray Nagin to apologize Tuesday for declaring that God wants New Orleans to be a "chocolate city."

Nagin, who is black, had said during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech that "this city will be an African American majority city. It's the way God wants it to be." He also said "God is mad at America" and "is sending hurricane after hurricane" because He disapproves of the United States invading Iraq "under false pretenses."

Nagin's remarks drew a furious reaction from white and black leaders, as well as residents, in New Orleans, prompting him to tell reporters Tuesday that the comments were "totally inappropriate." The dustup is the latest in a series of controversies over remarks made by the mayor, a former cable television executive elected in 2002 without experience in elected office.

Nagin was lambasted by Hispanic leaders last fall for asking a business group, during a speech, what he could do to prevent New Orleans from being "overrun by Mexican workers." He also was criticized for saying shortly after Hurricane Katrina that 10,000 people had probably been killed in the city, and that there were rampant rapes and murders taking place at the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands had sought shelter after the storm. The actual death toll for the state was closer to 2,000, and journalists and law enforcement officials have criticized the initial reports of rapes and murders as grossly exaggerated.

The pitched reaction to Nagin's remarks reflected tensions in a city struggling to rebuild. Many of the most deeply flooded, and now uninhabitable, neighborhoods are predominantly black, leading to predictions that there will be a huge drop in the black population of a city that was 67 percent black before the storm.

Nagin did a round of interviews Tuesday, attempting to defuse the controversy, which spurred cable television polls and hours of talk radio debates. "How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about," he told CNN affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans. "New Orleans was a chocolate city before Katrina. It is going to be a chocolate city after. How is that divisive?"

Nagin, in his King Day speech, took African Americans to task, saying God is surely upset because "we're not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent."

In his remarks, the mayor urged black New Orleans to come together. He implied that white neighborhoods such as Uptown were saying that blacks would not return but told his predominantly black audience that "this city will be chocolate at the end of the day."


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Sunday, January 15, 2006

City Council Supports ...

"New Orleans wants Williams" reports Sports Illustrated:

City council urges Saints to hire former Redskins QB

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The New Orleans City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Saints to hire Doug Williams as the team's new coach.

The resolution urges both Saints owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis to give "strong consideration to naming Louisiana's own Doug Williams as the Saints head coach or as a high level administrator within the Saints organization."

"Benson never called me," Williams, a pro personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, laughed. "Loomis never called me, either."

The resolution said that Williams, who grew up in Zachary, La., had coached both high school and college levels, including at Grambling State, and had a stellar career in the NFL, which more than qualified him for the Saints job.

Williams became the second football coach in Grambling State history, replacing Eddie Robinson in 1997. Before that, he was a head coach at Morehouse, and his overall record is 55-26.

He also worked as a scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars and coached at Zachary, Northeast High School and Navy.

Williams retired from the NFL in 1990, having won a Super Bowl as quarterback of the Washington Redskins.

"Seriously, it's very flattering," Williams said. "I don't think I can stop smiling."

The Saints did not return a phone call for comment.


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Thursday, January 12, 2006

City Council Opposes ...

January 11, 2006: Ed Reams of WDSU-TV in New Orleans reported on the City Council's opposition to the BNOB Commission's Rebuilding Plan.

Just minutes before the Bring New Orleans Back Commission unveiled its master plan to rebuild the city, the New Orleans City Council spoke out in opposition of the recommendations.

The Council has been fighting for the rights of residents and says the BNOB Commission's blueprint violates those rights.

"People want to come home and they want to come back. But if we're going to throw this monkey wrench, we should have done this four months ago ... they should not be saying come back as the mayor has said ...and we're thowing (sic) a monkey wrench (into?)this mess," said Councilman Jay Batt.

The City Council says all residents should be allowed to rebuild no matter which neighborhoods they live in.

"The sequential re-population has worked to a disadvantage for certain part of the city ... We as a united City Council will not accept a strategy or a vision of limitation. But we work for full restoration and inclusion and respect for all citizens," said Cynthia Willard Lewis, who represents New Orleans East.

Willard-Lewis said schools must be reopened in eastern New Orleans so that families can move back home.

The Council said questions about insurance and flood maps need to be answered first before redevelopment can begin. "We should be asking all of our people, 'What will it take to bring all of you home,'" said Jackie Clarkson, whose district includes the French Quarter and Algiers.

City Council members said people should not be forced to decide within a four-month period whether or not they want to or can rebuild.

The Council said the BNOB plan shows a lack of thought and consideration for the people who are waiting to return home.

Next time we'll look at something the Council supports. Let us know what you think about their priorities.


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Sunday, January 08, 2006

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They? (Part 3)

Following is the conclusion of a December 2005 article in the online magazine "Reason."

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They?

From a journalistic point of view, the root causes of the bogus reports were largely the same: The communication breakdown without and especially within New Orleans created an information vacuum in which wild oral rumor thrived. Reporters failed to exercise enough skepticism in passing along secondhand testimony from victims (who often just parroted what they picked up from the rumor mill), and they were far too eager to broadcast as fact apocalyptic statements from government officials—such as Mayor Ray Nagin’s prediction of 10,000 Katrina-related deaths (there were less than 900 in New Orleans at press time) and Police Superintendent Edwin Compass’ reference on The Oprah Winfrey Show to “little babies getting raped”—without factoring in discounts for incompetence and ulterior motives.

Just about every local official and emergency responder with access to the media in those first heartbreaking days basically screamed, and understandably so, for federal assistance. With their citizens stranded, desperate, and even dying, with their own response a shambles, and with their families and employees in mortal jeopardy, they had ample temptation to exaggerate the wretchedness of local conditions and ample fatigue to let some whoppers fly.

“I think that’s exactly what it was,” says Maj. Bush. “But the problem is they were doing it on the radio, and then the people in the dome would hear it.”

The information vacuum in the Superdome was especially dangerous. Cell phones didn’t work, the arena’s public address system wouldn’t run on generator power, and the law enforcement on hand was reduced to talking to the 20,000 evacuees using bullhorns and a lot of legwork. “A lot of them had AM radios, and they would listen to news reports that talked about the dead bodies at the Superdome, and the murders in the bathrooms of the Superdome, and the babies being raped at the Superdome,” Bush says, “and it would create terrible panic. I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn’t happening.”

The reports of rampant lawlessness, especially the persistent urban legend of shooting at helicopters, definitely delayed some emergency and law enforcement responses. Reports abounded, from places like Andover, Massachusetts, of localities refusing to send their firefighters because of “people shooting at helicopters.” The National Guard refused to approach the Convention Center until September 2, 100 hours after the hurricane, because “we waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force,” Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum told reporters on September 3.

“One of my good friends, Col. Jacques Thibodeaux, led that security effort,” Bush says. “They said, ‘Jacques, you gotta get down here and sweep this thing.’ He said he was braced for anything. And he encountered nothing—other than a whole lot of people clapping and cheering and so glad that they were here.”

At the same time, it is plausible that the exaggerations helped make the outside response quicker than it otherwise would have been, potentially saving lives. As with many details of this natural and manmade disaster, we may never know.

But in the meantime, truth became a casualty, news organizations that were patting their own backs in early September were publishing protracted mea culpas by the end of the month, and reputation of a great American city has been, at least to some degree, unfairly tarnished.

“New Orleanians have been kind of cheated, because now everybody thinks that they just turned to animals, and that there was complete lawlessness and utter abandon,” says Maj. Bush. “And that wasn’t the case.…There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that never happened at the dome, as I think America’s beginning to find out, slowly.”

Matt Welch is associate editor of Reason


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Thursday, January 05, 2006

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They? (Part 2)

Following is part 2 of a December 2005 article in the online magazine "Reason."

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They?

The Air Force, to which the Air National Guard reports, also has zero record of helicopter sniping. “We investigated one incident and it turned out to have been shooting on the ground, not at the helicopter,” Air Force Maj. Mike Young told The New York Times on September 29.

Aside from the local National Guard, the other government agency with scores of helicopters over New Orleans was the U.S. Coast Guard, which rescued more than 33,000 people. “Coast Guard helicopters,” says spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet, “were not fired on during Hurricane Katrina rescue operations.”

How about the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the all-volunteer, Air Force–assisting network of around 58,000 private Cessna pilots, 68 of whom flew a total of 833 aid missions after the hurricane? “To my knowledge,” says CAP Public Affairs Manager Jim Tynan, “none of our pilots on any Katrina-related mission were taking ground fire.”
That doesn’t mean that people weren’t shooting at helicopters. As Lt. Comdr. Tim Tobiasz, the Coast Guard’s operations officer for New Orleans airspace, told me, “It’s tough to hear in a helicopter. You have two turbine engines.…I don’t know if you could hear a gunshot below.” And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrested a 21-year-old man in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans on September 6 for firing a handgun out his window while helicopters flew nearby.

But the basic premise of the article that introduced the New Orleans helicopter sniper to a global audience was dead wrong, just like so many other widely disseminated Katrina nightmares. No 7-year-old rape victim with a slit throat was ever found, even though the atrocity was reported in scores of newspapers. The Convention Center freezer was not stacked with 30 or 40 dead bodies, nor was the Superdome a live-in morgue. (An estimated 10 people died inside the two buildings combined, and only one was slain, according to the best data from National Guard officials at press time.)

Tales of rapes, carjackings, and gang violence by Katrina refugees quickly circulated in such evacuee centers as Baton Rouge, Houston, and Leesville, Louisiana—and were almost as quickly debunked.

More, next time...


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Sunday, January 01, 2006

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They? (Part 1)

Following is part 1 of a December 2005 article in the online magazine "Reason."

They Shoot Helicopters, Don’t They?

How journalists spread rumors during Katrina. By Matt Welch

On September 1, 72 hours after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, the Associated Press news wire flashed a nightmare of a story: “Katrina Evacuation Halted Amid Gunfire…Shots Are Fired at Military Helicopter.”

The article flew across the globe via at least 150 news outlets, from India to Turkey to Spain. Within 24 hours commentators on every major American television news network had helped turn the helicopter sniper image into the disaster’s enduring symbol of dysfunctional urbanites too depraved to be saved.

Golfer Tiger Woods spoke for many of us on September 2 when he remarked, during a tournament in Boston, that “it’s just unbelievable…how people are behaving, with the shootings and now the gang rapes and the gang violence and shooting at helicopters who are trying to help out and rescue people.”

Like many early horror stories about ultra-violent New Orleans natives, whether in their home city or in far-flung temporary shelters, the A.P. article turned out to be false. Evacuation from the city of New Orleans was never “halted,” according to officials from the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Louisiana National Guard. The only helicopter airlifts stopped were those by a single private company, Acadian Ambulance, from a single location: the Superdome. And Acadian officials, who had one of the only functional communications systems in all of New Orleans during those first days, were taking every opportunity to lobby for a massive military response.

More important, there has been no official confirmation that a single military helicopter over New Orleans—let alone a National Guard Chinook in the pre-dawn hours of September 1—was fired upon. “I was at the Superdome for eight days, and I don’t remember hearing anything about a helicopter getting shot at,” says Maj. Ed Bush, public affairs officer for the Louisiana Air National Guard. With hundreds of Guard troops always on duty inside and outside the Superdome before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, if there had been gunfire, “we would have heard it,” Bush maintains. “The instant reaction over the radio would have been overwhelming.”

More, next time...


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