reflection on recovery Sunday, Aug 30 2009 

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, to miss it each night and day?” In the 1947 movie “New Orleans” Billy Holiday, accompanied by Louis Armstrong, sang these words. An always popular and wistful song, it has gained new poignancy since Hurricane Katrina struck four years ago: August 29th 2005. If there was ever a theme song completely made for a city – that would be it.

Like many people, I was glued to the TV and the CNN coverage of Katrina and its aftermath. As an instructor of a course in homelessness at Ryerson I immediately began teaching my students about the disaster; my students are always stunned to see the destruction and to learn there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done. This past May 23 students joined me on a two week trip to rebuild houses, replant the wetlands, create community gardens and do whatever else we could to help bring families home.

It is estimated that the population of New Orleans has reached about 75% of its pre-storm numbers. But more than 25% of the residents are not home; the numbers include large influxes of Hispanic labourers and young (mostly white) professionals who want to help rebuild the city. The face of New Orleans is different; it’s not the “Chocolate City” that Mayor Ray Nagin said he wanted to recreate after the hurricane.

Sadly, in many ways this vibrant city has been forgotten. The news media doesn’t talk much about it anymore and so it slips away from our consciousness. We assume that everything is back to normal; it isn’t. The traditional tourist areas are restored from the very light damage they received mostly from winds. The Central Business District had very minimal destruction and is back to normal. Even the infamous SuperDome, scene of the sad footage of thousands of hot, tired, hungry and thirsty displaced New Orleanians is fully functioning.

You can travel to New Orleans and never know that there was ever a problem. If you don’t look hard that is. If you don’t leave the downtown area. If you ignore the boarded up businesses or assume it’s just the recession that has caused stores to close. If you have blinkers on your eyes, then all will be fine. But the moment you open up your eyes, ears and heart, you will notice the changes.

Musicians are fewer; their music more wistful. Many have been forced to leave the city in order to make a living; in order to have the money to rebuild their houses. Mardi Gras is still a celebration, but it feels muted, smaller, less colourful. The crowds on Bourbon Street are smaller, less raucous.

The tourist who takes a drive outside of the downtown core will soon see that the wrath of Katrina still remains. Just a few blocks from the vibrant French Quarter the houses began to look rundown, empty, abandoned. Large X’s remain on house exteriors and doors, the mark of the search teams. Too often the dates are well into September; too often they say “NE” – no entry – the search teams couldn’t enter the houses even then.

As you cross the Industrial Canal from the Upper 9th ward to the Lower 9th ward – where the levee broke in two big spots – the scene gets even more heart wrenching. Instead of empty or damaged houses there are almost none, especially in the north part of the ward. The houses were washed away, sometimes within minutes of the levee breach, or destroyed afterwards by order of the government.

Many of the deaths connected to Katrina happened here. People were sleeping in the early morning hours when several feet of water flooded the area within minutes. They too were washed away.

The Lower Ninth, named not for elevation as many assume but for geographic position in the city, was home to many workers from Bourbon Street’s restaurants and the local hotels. It was also home to many of the city’s musicians including Fats Domino.

There is some rebuilding happening here; Brad Pitt has built several houses through his Make it Right Foundation. Canada’s Mike Holmes joined forces with him to build a house in time for last year’s anniversary; there are ongoing repeats of the TV show documenting his struggle to finish the build in the hot and humid New Orleans weather. Holmes and Pitt are not alone, many community organizations are rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward and throughout New Orleans.

Next door to the Lower Ninth ward, the St. Bernard Project struggles to rebuild that community. St. Bernard Parish is the only community in North America to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster. Every single home was damaged with most sitting for weeks in the 4-20ft of water that flooded the area. With $15,000 and a team of volunteers, it takes the St. Bernard Project about 12 weeks to rebuild a home; they’ve completed 228 already with 40 more in progress. Only 1/3 of the residents and 1/3 of the businesses are back.

People want to return home; they should be allowed and enabled to do so. In many cases the destruction was caused by the breeches, not the hurricane itself. It wasn’t that the city was built below sea level; rather it was the poor and inadequate construction of the levees. It took less than four years for Europe to be rebuilt post WWII. On the fourth anniversary of Katrina we must ask ourselves, “Why is it taking so long for New Orleans to get back to normal, or something closely resembling it?”


Talking to a 10 year old about Katrina and New Orleans (3 days) Thursday, Aug 27 2009 

My 10 year old nephew is visiting for a couple of days. He and I had a talk about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina today. I showed him some pictures from my various trips and talked about the issues. I showed him the media coverage that most clearly indicated the racism that was inherent in post-Katrina coverage. He says he could never do my work.

I asked him for some words to describe what we had talked about. Here’s his list.

(natural) disaster
hard to believe
and in a way amazing that it could actually happen.

Indeed, he really gets it. Too bad the government didn’t get it so clearly as a 10 year old did in a 15 minute conversation.

Why am I 4 NOLA? (4 days left) Tuesday, Aug 25 2009 

Just before we left for New Orleans one of my students wrote in her journal that she hoped to begin to understand my obsession with the city. I did after all tattoo a fleur de lis in Mardi Gras colours on my arm with the words Do you know what it means/New Orleans. I know that she figured it out pretty quickly, as did most of the students.

It’s a city that you fall in love with almost right away. The people are amazing and love volunteers; in St. Bernard Parish they particularly love Canadians (we were the first in after the storm; faster official rescuers than any Americans!).

This weekend is the St. Bernard Project’s official 4NOLA launch; the same night that we are launching Toronto2NOLA 4NOLA. A 24-hour build and a big concert at the House of Blues are just two items on the agenda. reports that “Two-hundred-twenty-eight renovated houses. Forty more under construction. But the founders of the nonprofit St. Bernard Project have another number in mind: two-thirds. That’s the percentage of residents and businesses still unable to reoccupy their spaces in the decimated parish.”

The changing face of New Orleans Monday, Aug 24 2009 

While New Orleans’ population is growing – it is hovering around 75% of pre-storm size – the faces that make-up the city have changed. It’s less black, more white and more hispanic. There is an increase of people who aren’t from New Orleans and who had no connection before the storm.

This Times-Picayune article does a great job explaining how New Orleans has changed.

The changing face — and faces — of New Orleans

Obama and New Orleans Sunday, Aug 23 2009 

This is a GREAT ARTICLE ON OBAMA AND NEW ORLEANS from the Times-Picayune.

In part…

But his administration has shown a dogged dedication to bending the federal bureaucracy in what Flozell Daniels Jr., president and CEO of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, describes as a “kinder, gentler” direction.

With “federal agencies finally working as partners and not adversaries, ” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-LA, said, “in its first seven months, the Obama Administration has made significant progress toward making the Gulf Coast recovery effort quicker and more efficient.”

“I would say what they have demonstrated in this first year is a low-key but genuine commitment to accelerate the business of recovery, ” said Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which publishes an annual New Orleans Index, detailing the city’s progress since Katrina.

Or as the president put it in an Oval Office interview in advance of the fourth anniversary, of Katrina: “In terms of rebuilding, two of my best Cabinet members, Secretary Napolitano of Homeland Security and HUD Secretary Donovan, have been spending an extraordinary amount of time thinking about how to deal with the blockage of assistance in the region.”

1 week to anniversary; 1 week to our event Saturday, Aug 22 2009 

Just one week left to the get together commemorating the 4th anniversary of Katrina.

For two weeks in May 2009, 23 Ryerson students and their instructor (me) went to New Orleans to build houses, replant the wetlands, and help do whatever was necessary to bring families home. We worked with several groups while they were there including the St. Bernard Project – On August 29th, the St. Bernard Project is launching its 4NOLA campaign to recognize the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – yes, its been 4 years. We have been maintaining a blog about our experiences, and in August we have been writing a post a day as we approach the 4th anniversary –

We are holding a launch party on August 29th to share information about our experiences and to raise money for the 4NOLA campaign. Our goal is $15 000US over the next 8 months. Students in CINT 908 – Homelessness in Canadian Society – will also be helping to raise money this year. $15000 is enough to fully fund the reconstruction of a house – built with volunteer labour and is therefore enough to bring a family home.

What: Toronto2NOLA’s 4NOLA Fundraising Launch
When: August 29th 2009
Time: 6-9pm
Where: Sistering DropIn. 962 Bloor Street West at Dovercourt
Cost: Free but donations are strongly encouraged

We will have a silent auction, pictures of our trip, student’s stories and the film students made about our experiences.

Check out our Facebook event page or please RSVP to Tanya Gulliver at

If you are unable to attend we welcome donations (cash or items to auction). We also have an online giving site at

Thanks and hope to see you there

ISS – 4 Years After Katrina: Housing crisis continues, low-income renters face discrimination Friday, Aug 21 2009 

One of the worst experiences I had in May during my visit to New Orleans was watching the destruction of the Florida Street townhouses. Sadly, housing continues to be an ongoing issue in New Orleans especially for people living in poverty.

4 Years After Katrina: Housing crisis continues, low-income renters face discrimination

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GNOCDC Ten Minute Briefing on New Orleans’ Recovery (9 days left) Thursday, Aug 20 2009 

As the 4th anniversary gets ever closer many people want to know what is happening in New Orleans. The wonderful folks at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center are right on top of the numbers.

GNOCDC Ten Minute Briefing on New Orleans’ Recovery

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10 Social Media Methods for Hurricanes – 10 days to 4 years Wednesday, Aug 19 2009 

A few days ago I wrote about which is looking at social media as a tool during hurricanes.

This article on goes even further with ten different ways social media can help during a hurricane season.


4- Communication- Hurricane Katrina illustrated that a widespread disaster can displace residents and employees without access to Internet connections or working land-lines. In advance of natural disasters, less-traditional communication methods might include two-way radios, cellular telephones with out-of-state area codes and/or text messaging capability, satellite telephones, or personal data assistant (PDAs). Cell phones that have access to social networks can be used to report one’s location and current status.

5- People Finders- Twitter, Facebook and other social networks should devise a ‘disaster recovery plan’ to assist in locating people that are stranded by a storm. Perhaps similar to a 911 call to a police station, postings to a central location on these social networks with one’s location and contact information could be another means for the distressed to reach out to family and loved ones. In reverse, the social networks can communicate safe-house facilities in various areas that can provide the displaced with updated shelter locations.

Katrina pain index (11 days) Wednesday, Aug 19 2009 

How do you count the impact of a Hurricane? Bill Quigley and Davida Finger think they have a way. Davida Finger is a justice lawyer and clinical professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer on leave from Loyola now serving as legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Some examples:
Number of hospitals in New Orleans providing in-patient mental health care as of September 2009 despite post-Katrina increases in suicides and mental health problems. (Source:

Percent of 134,000 FEMA trailers in which Katrina and Rita storm survivors were housed after the storms, which have had formaldehyde problems. (Source:

Percent increase in rents in New Orleans since Katrina. (Source: Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, Metro New Orleans Fair Market Rent History (2000-2009), at

One Hundred Sixty:
Number of units which will be public housing eligible in the new St. Bernard area after demolition and rebuilding. St. Bernard was constructed with 1400 public housing apartments. Only a small percentage of the 4000 families in public housing in New Orleans before Katrina will be allowed to live in the new housing being constructed on the site where their apartments were demolished.


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