This week will see dozens of events related to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, and today saw one of the biggest — The Atlantic
's "New Orleans: Ten Years Later"
conference at the Sheraton New Orleans.
After an introduction by The Atlantic
's editor in chief James Bennet, Gwen Ifill of PBS News Hour
introduced writer/filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and national student poet Madeleine LeCesne, VAYLA executive director Minh Nguyen, writer Chris Rose, former City Councilman Oliver Thomas and Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Center.
Washington had the crowd's attention, questioning the city's recovery pointing out that 50 percent of black children in the city live in poverty — more than before the storm — adding that special needs children are being ignored in the New Orleans school system. She also took exception to "resilient," which has emerged as the buzzword du jour of Katrina recovery. "I'm not resilient," she said, scoffing. “I have a right not
to be resilient!”
“Our measures of progress are based on how rich people are getting richer," Elie said, getting strong applause. "We need new statistics.” He added that the “assistance that’s come to this town has all been top-down" and criticized the firing of longtime teachers in the Recovery School District.
Rose, referring to himself sardonically as "the foremost authority on New Orleans despair," discussed the way New Orleanians come together on Superdome Sundays, saying he'd like to see that carry over into the city in general. As far as "Katrina fatigue," Rose cracked, “Don’t worry about it. After August 30, you won’t hear about it for 15 years.”
“I am so sick of people telling our narratives and our stories,” Nguyen said, adding that people most affected by the disaster are not at events like The Atlantic
Thomas addressed the culture bearers in the city, pointing out, “We want to promote the festivals, but we don’t want to support the people who go to the festivals." Time and again he returned to the theme of inequality in recovery: “Maybe it’s time we put the poor people, the children, the elderly, the working class in front of the line,” he said.
LeCesne, who opened the program with a poem called "Evacuation" (she was 9 years old when the storm struck) had one of the most sobering responses to the storm. She said she's been of voting age for a year, but hasn't registered to vote because "I don't trust politicians," she said, adding that her parents voted and paid their taxes, but lost their home anyway. "I can't tell you a way to fix it," she concluded.
The room filled up for the next panel, which was an interview of Mayor Mitch Landrieu by The Atlantic
's Jeffrey Goldberg. Landrieu was lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 2005, and led off with the observation, “This was not a natural disaster. This was a man-made disaster," adding he never doubted the city would come back. Goldberg brought up those who thought New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt (like then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert). Landrieu said the remark filled him with “rage,” but added Hastert wasn’t the only one with a “stupid comment."
The mayor feinted on a direct question about what he was doing to ensure affordable housing, turning the question to schools instead. As for the Lower Ninth Ward, Landrieu pointed out that progress had been slow there, but that it hardly was the only neighborhood that needed more help than most. “We have spent $500 million on the Ninth Ward," he said "I’m committed to every neighborhood in this city.”
As for the city's homicide rate — which is rising again after a decrease for several years — Landrieu said he was "apoplectic" about the numbers, but pointed out it was happening in other cities as well. "Here’s the problem. Nobody knows” why it’s happening, he said.
Goldberg got a laugh when he asked why former President George W. Bush would be coming to town Friday to take part in the Katrina commemorations, but Landrieu wasn't amused. "I invited all three presidents," he said, "Obama, Bush and Clinton — and they're all coming this week.
“None of us in this room are perfect," Landrieu said.
Speakers in other morning sessions included FEMA Director Craig Fugate; Michael Henderson of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab; developer Pres Kabacoff; and James Perry, former executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.