Remember “Brownie”? It’s been a while since I’ve thought of him. Michael D. Brown -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency dunce and friend of George W. Bush - - who stayed far away from the Superdome as it took on water during Hurricane Katrina, with screaming local residents inside.
Ten years ago, Katrina soaked 80 percent of New Orleans and damaged some 134,000 housing units. Flooding from Katrina opened up the levees, and it turns out, much more.
Politicians, developers, and urban fantasists banded together to make some money and redo the city. New Orleans, they thought, would be a nicer town if it were a little smaller, with fewer stoop-sitting black folk. Outraged citizens won some battles to rebuild their houses and lost others to bulldozers.
Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, last year began serving a 10-year prison sentence for bribery, conspiracy and money laundering.
What happened to Brownie and Nagin’s other pals? And what happened to the city he left behind?
Katrina’s aftermath is superbly documented in Roberta Brandes Gratz’s “We’re Still Here, Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City!”
A well-known urbanist and journalist with deep roots in New York (whose partial destruction by Robert Moses sparked her book “The Battle for Gotham”), Gratz now lives half-time in New Orleans. We spoke in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Hoelterhoff: What did happen to Brownie?
Gratz: Oh that idiot. He kept people from contributing free stuff like water. He said it had to be done through “a system.” What he really meant was “a contract.” The contract business is shameful. As I estimate in the book, if 20 percent of the money that went to the recovery landed locally, I would be surprised. The point is there is no such thing as government -- everything is contracted out. In a typical story, a plumber who received one of those trailers wasn’t allowed to set it up. It had to be done by a contractor.
Hoelterhoff: Great title. Tell me about it.
Gratz: A friend took the photograph which expressed the feeling of a young couple. It’s their finger to the experts who said New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt and it will never recover.
Hoelterhoff: So what changed?
Gratz: Katrina provoked local engagement. People started resisting. Social media made a big difference along with The Lens, an online investigative news journal.
Hoelterhoff: Was the agenda of reducing the poor black population ever articulated?
Gratz: Indirectly. One of the leading businessmen said that those who want to see the city rebuilt want to see it redone in a different way.
Hoelterhoff: I first heard the phrase “disaster capitalism” from Naomi Klein, who used it to describe private companies profiteering in Iraq, companies like Blackwater.
Gratz: She’s shown it around the world and it holds true for New Orleans as well. Millions are awarded to the politically well-connected. Little drifts down locally.
Hoelterhoff: So it became profitable to tear down some good brick public housing dating to the New Deal era?
Gratz: Yes. The brick housing is some of the best ever built, and would never have been doomed in normal circumstances. The occupants weren’t allowed back -- even though many were not much damaged. But the destroy-and-rebuild business reflects our national policy of public private partnerships that is now in place -- basically private development with public money. Only a fraction of the poor gets new housing.
Hoelterhoff: Your chapter on Charity Hospital is a fantastic ode to greed. It’s really inconceivable. A nationally revered, 18th-century hospital that was a fixture in a low-income community survives the storm. A local guy, an Army staff sergeant, cleans up two floors with help from doctors and Army personnel so the hospital could open. And yet it was closed.
Gratz: Because it was more profitable to build a gargantuan, federally funded health complex.
Hoelterhoff: Which is encircled by a superhighway and required razing the community that was there. What happened to the old hospital?
Gratz: Charity is still standing. They couldn’t take it down. It’s too big. Now officials are asking questions about what to do with it. Well, it should have stayed a hospital!
Hoelterhoff: Brad Pitt’s celebrity houses. Are they for real? Did they have any value?
Gratz: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of the Brad Pitt houses. He and his entourage were very locally engaged. He let the people decide which designs they wanted out of 13 choices. Over a hundred have been built. They’ve been slow, but monthly maintenance is less that their pre-Katrina house.
Hoelterhoff: Mayor Landrieu has been saying that tourism is great and New Orleans is done with all that rebuilding stuff.
Gratz: I don’t know what city he is talking about. The recovering city I wrote about is still a work in progress.
Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor for Global Cities at Bloomberg. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.