Category Archives: Katrina

the role of charity

When Hurricane Gustav set its sights on New Orleans, the national political campaigns and parties instinctively started to raise money for NOLA charities. They were following the example set after Katrina, when the private sector contributed at least $6.5 billion (PDF). (And that doesn’t count the market value of volunteer time.) For comparison: the storm did an estimated $150 billion in damage; and the federal government has spent about $120.5 billion on relief (PDF). So the total value of Katrina philanthropy equals about 5% of federal funding.

Classic progressives might say that charity is too scanty, too episodic and unpredictable, and too unfairly distributed to matter much. Our attention should be focused on government aid. High-profile efforts to raise private money are distractions. Democrats should be especially reluctant to raise private money after a crisis, because their role is to put the government under scrutiny.

I only partly agree with this. Federal funding must and did dwarf private funding. But private money is useful for supporting experimental or adversarial activities that the government can’t touch. Also, individual contributors and volunteers create contacts and social networks. One local activist, Tim Williamson, said “Pre-Katrina New Orleans was an insular, closed community. …. Katrina has opened up the networks.” These human connections can be powerful. Finally, private money can support the kind of leadership and coordination that we normally expect of government. Foundations funded the Unified New Orleans Plan, a highly participatory and deliberative process. Compared to the structures created by local, state, and federal governments, the United New Orleans Plan was much better.

Overall, I would say that we need two things for any major public project (such as rebuilding a city): resources and structure. Resources can come from taxes or from private donors and volunteers. The danger of emphasizing private philanthropy is that it can let the government off the hook. But a balance of private and public funds is valuable.

Structure is at least as important as money and work, and we get structure from laws, regulations, and policies. But it is dangerous for official political leaders to set all the rules and priorities. Certainly, official institutions, from the New Orleans school system to the Army Corps of Engineers, made a hash of the job before Katrina. Governmental policies are generally better when citizens help to shape them more than they did in pre-Katrina NOLA. Besides, governmental policies are not sufficient because private institutions (from colleges and universities to churches) need to set policies and priorities, too. It’s important to coordinate across sectors.

The Katrina tragedy showed that government resources were woefully inadequate for the city of New Orleans. But the lack of money wasn’t as big a problem as the poor management of public institutions both before and after the storm. Katrina also proved that Americans are generous with their money and voluntary time. But the money and labor wasn’t spent as effectively as it should have been, because civil society wasn’t adequately organized and participatory.

Ideally, the parties would be debating these issues instead of just dialing for dollars.

public participation in planning: lessons from New Orleans

Abigail Williamson, a graduate student at Harvard, has written a study of public participation on the Unified New Orleans Plan (pdf). Here I assume that her narrative is accurate and comprehensive; I use it as the basis for some thoughts about civic engagement and planning.

According to Williamson, there have been three main planning efforts in New Orleans since the hurricane. The first was called “Bring New Orleans Back” (BNOB). It was ordered by the Mayor and run by local experts and leaders–an elite. It has been praised for its technical excellence, but it became highly controversial because it rejected rebuilding some of the flooded neighborhoods that were poor and largely Black. Because it was controversial and lacked political legitimacy, the Mayor distanced himself from it, and it died.

The second planning process was run by a firm called Lambert Advisory. Williamson’s interviewees told her that Lambert’s process truly reflected input from diverse citizens; but the resulting plan was not satisfactory. (I’m not sure exactly how it failed to measure up.)

The third planning process was designed to be broadly inclusive and technically satisfactory. It started off with some failed public meetings, but then AmericaSpeaks was brought in to organize demographically representative, deliberative sessions involving hundreds of people at once. In the interests of disclosure, I must note that I am a member of AmericaSpeaks’ board. But Williamson’s study was independently funded and she finds that the meetings truly were representative, substantive, and constructive. One observer recalls:

More than anything, I think the thing I was most impressed with about Community Congress II, in addition to just the sheer numbers they were able to reach, when I went and I walked around, I saw people sitting at tables together of different socioeconomic backgrounds, different parts of town, having healthy discussions. Not necessarily always agreeing, but actually having conversations. Not just rhetoric, not yelling and screaming, but really just having healthy conversations about what they saw as the issue here.

The resulting plan appears to have legitimacy–meaning not that it is necessarily just or smart, but that people believe it arose from a legitimate process. Just for that reason, it appears likely to pass.

This is a major achievement, and it would have been impossible without demographic representativeness and high-profile, large-scale, public events. These events took skill and commitment to pull off. Those are conclusions to emphasize and celebrate. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out some limitations and challenges:

1. Framing the deliberation is tricky. If citizens are asked to produce a truly comprehensive plan (with a map and a detailed budget), then they will essentially govern the city. But no one has elected them, nor will the political leaders yield without a fight. If, on the other hand, citizens generate a plan without details, then they can avoid tradeoffs; and in that case, they aren’t really deliberating. Likewise, if citizens are told to work within very “realistic” constraints, they cannot demand justice. For example, if they are told that there is only $x of state money available, they are blocked from saying that the state should be more generous. If, on the other hand, citizens deliberate without constraints, they can invent unrealistic scenarios.

2. A process like this could be manipulated to get results that someone wants. The organizers could manipulate it, or an outside group could get its own people into the meetings. In other words, the legitimacy could be false. I’m committed to AmericaSpeaks and will vouch for this particular process. But the more such deliberations are used to make important decisions, the more people will try to manipulate them.

3. The organizers had to make a prior decision about the definition of “the people.” They chose the population that had lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina. Consequently, they aimed for a demographic mix that looked like the traditional city, not like the city today; and they organized town meetings in major diaspora cities from Houston to Atlanta. They could have chosen a different benchmark–current residents, or residents of the whole state, to name two examples. This is essentially a question of values, and it cannot itself be deliberated.

4. Planning is work. That’s what was evident at the tables during the Town Meetings–not just talk, but work. However, planning is only one aspect of public work. Buildings must be built, trees must be planted, money must be raised, newsletters must be written, and so on. It’s important for this work, not merely the talk, to be democratic and participatory.

civil society versus the private sector

(Newark, NJ): At Monday’s launch of America’s Civic Health Index, Bill Galston said that Katrina demonstrated a failure of government and political leadership, but also of civil society, because it displayed our inability (or unwillingness) to work together across differences. Nina Rees, formerly a staffer for Dick Cheney, replied that the “private sector” had performed very well after Katrina, as revealed by the massive amount of philanthropy directed toward New Orleans and the Gulf. I’m with Bill, because I think there’s a difference between the total amount of individual voluntary effort (also known as “the private sector”) and civil society.

New Orleans is rich in groups and associations that operate within discrete neighborhoods and ethnic communities–including the extraordinary African American mutual benefit societies. But there is, and was, a dearth of civic institutions. New Orleans had few voluntary associations that crossed community lines so that they could coordinate efforts, allocate resources fairly, monitor the government, organize deliberations about justice, encourage citywide solidarity, and develop plans for redevelopment. In the absence of an encompassing civic infrastucture, New Orleans got bad government and ineffective or piecemeal private aid. Thus the Katrina disaster illustrates the importance of decent political leadership, but also the need for a strong civil society that goes beyond charity and volunteering.

young people and rebuilding after Katrina

According to the latest AP-Ipsos poll, “About half the under-30 poll respondents — 52 percent — said they were confident federal money for the Gulf Coast recovery was being spent wisely. The number was much lower for respondents of all age groups — only 33 percent.”

We have three possible explanations for this gap, which are all quoted in an article by Ryan Pearson for AP’s youth-oriented wire service, ASAP news. First, the youngest generation has consistently been less critical of government than older generations. More of them agree than disagree that the federal government usually acts in the genuine interests of the public. (However, a plurality won’t answer the question at all because they are undecided). Second, younger people are often less well informed about current events, so perhaps they know less about the mismanagement after Katrina that has been heavily reported in the press. Third, they may be in the middle of a learning process. In the ASAP story, Abby Kiesa mentions CIRCLE’s focus groups on Katrina. Abby heard mostly questions rather than firm opinions. Youth wanted to know what was happening after Katrina, why we weren’t better prepared, and who was a credible source. As Public Agenda and its co-founder Dan Yankelovich argue, we often make a mistake when we confuse settled opinions with developing views–although they can look alike in a standard survey.

opportunity for youth work in New Orleans

Common Cents is offering grants up to $20,000 for projects that will contribute to an inclusive and just recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Preference will be given to service or advocacy projects that either involve young people meaningfully in the recovery, or that address the specific needs of children and youth. … All winners will …

  • Receive up to $20,000 in cash awards
  • Showcase their project at a student conference in New York City in May 2006
  • “Preference will be given for projects that …

  • Increase youth decision-making in the recovery and rebuilding
  • Build relationships between people within and outside the region
  • Strengthen infrastructure for sustainable services for young people
  • Contribute to our understanding of youth as a resource for recovery