Georgia Johnson's new home. Photo credit: Tom Wooten
Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
Posters providing help at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. (From Bigstock)
This year, thousands of families from Long Island, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the Jersey Shore were not able to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. For these people, whose houses and apartments were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, the long recovery journey is just beginning. Rebuilding poses an array of daunting challenges: insurance proceeds rarely cover costs, destruction lays bare the risk of building anew, and doubt lingers over whether neighbors will return. To make matters worse, national attention moves on quickly after a disaster.
Gulf Coast residents can relate. In the more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina washed away the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flooded much of New Orleans, recovery has been a slow and uneven process. Parts of St. Bernard Parish, the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, Waveland, Miss., and other Gulf communities remain as empty as the charred blocks of Breezy Point, Queens. Katrina permanently displaced hundreds of thousands of people. For those who have been able to return, restoring life to flooded neighborhoods has been a trying, all-consuming endeavor. Much of their work remains unheralded; the slow work of reconstituting a community rarely makes for snappy evening news stories.
Lessons from the long Gulf Coast recovery can inform the work that lies ahead for Sandy’s displaced survivors. The most important such lesson is that context matters. What works in one place will not necessarily work in another, and local knowledge is vastly more important than outside expertise or prior disaster recovery experience. New Orleans resident Hal Roark, who worked on recovery efforts with hundreds of his neighbors in the Broadmoor neighborhood, puts it best when he says, “We are the world’s leading experts on Broadmoor.”
Because of a vacuum of city, state, and federal government leadership in Katrina’s wake, New Orleans neighborhood-based organizations carried out much of the city’s recovery work. Their diverse recoveries reflect the importance of tailoring efforts to match physical and social context. Hal’s neighborhood of Broadmoor, a racially and socioeconomically diverse community, based its rebuilding effort on the recovery plan drafted by dozens of resident-led committees and democratically ratified by the neighborhood. In Hollygrove, a predominantly poor and black neighborhood, churches and religious nonprofits drove recovery efforts. Lakeview, a white, upper middle class community, drew on a longstanding neighborhood civic tradition to organize its recovery. Village de l’Est, a far-flung Vietnamese-American neighborhood, coordinated recovery efforts through its 6,000-member Catholic parish. The Lower Ninth Ward, which sustained the most damage of any neighborhood in the city, relied on close coordination between resident-led organizations and massive teams of outside volunteers.
Even counting the inevitable missteps, it is clear that the response to Hurricane Sandy from all levels of government has been vastly better than the response to Hurricane Katrina. However, although mid-Atlantic communities will not have to “go it alone” to the same extent as Gulf Coast communities, much of the onus for post-Sandy recovery will nevertheless fall to the most local level. Residents and community leaders bear most of the responsibility for leading recovery. Government agencies, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations can be valuable partners to flooded neighborhoods, but they will not do most of the heavy lifting.
What kinds of partnerships should residents form with outside groups? In New Orleans, the best partnerships augmented neighborhood capacity, providing a hand up instead of a handout. These partnerships emerged when residents had a firm sense of what they needed in order to drive recovery forward and when outside groups had the good sense to listen to residents instead of dictating assistance on their own terms. Strong neighborhood partners emerged across the organizational and political spectrum, from the anarchist-founded Common Ground Collective to the Shell Oil Corporation.
Strong community partners are also appearing in Sandy’s wake. Volunteers for Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, noticed that returning residents needed bleach to disinfect their flooded homes. They launched a trick or treating initiative for supplies across New York City, collecting thousands of half-used Clorox jugs to distribute in Queens and on Staten Island. The tech community has also jumped into the fray. Recovers.org, a web platform that allows communities to host recovery websites matching goods and volunteers to resident needs, has created websites serving Hoboken; Staten Island; Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Astoria in Queens. More neighborhoods hoped to use the service, but the organization reached capacity.
For recovers.org co-founder Caitria O’Neill, the biggest lesson to come out of Sandy is the importance of prior organization. Recovers.org works with communities to set up web portals before disasters occur, so that residents can immediately coordinate recovery work and solicit donations in a disaster’s wake. Caitria and her staff spent sleepless weeks after Sandy setting up the four web pages, all the while aware the communities would be far better served if the portals had been created in advance. “A disaster is like an inverse political campaign,” she explained. “Attention peaks right after it happens, and wanes after that.” A short delay in web presence can mean losing out on the bulk of potential public giving.
New Orleans residents also sing the praises of prior organizing. Neighborhoods with strong pre-Katrina organizations—namely churches and residents’ associations—had a much easier time launching coordinated recovery efforts than did comparatively disorganized neighborhoods. To be sure, though, although a number of less-organized communities faced a longer and bumpier road to recovery, many such neighborhoods have since caught up. No matter how long or hard the process, few in New Orleans who were fortunate enough to rebuild regret their decision.
In the days after Sandy, a touching blog popped up featuring photos of New Orleans residents holding hand-written notes to Sandy survivors. “Believe in your N’hood,” begins one message. “Take it day-by-day. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep believing in the rebuild. You & your neighbors are what will bring your n’hood back.... It’s a long haul for those who are committed, but the emotional payoff is huge.”
Our thoughts today are with those on the Gulf Coast threatened with flooding and storm surge as Hurricane Isaac brings its deluge ashore. It is seven years to the day since Hurricane Katrina hit this same area, and I had scheduled this blog post in honor of the anniversary weeks ago: an interview with Tom Wooten, author of We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina. Wooten's book tells the story of the community leaders and neighborhood groups who led the recovery efforts in New Orleans. In running it today, we wish to honor the strength and resilience of this uniquely wonderful city. —Jessie Bennett, Blog Editor of Beacon Broadside
You were a student at Harvard when you decided to write this book. How did you come to be interested in the story of New Orleans' recovery?
I had a longstanding interest in disaster recovery as a
result of research project I was undertaking with my college roommate. That
project was about a flood that occurred in western India in 1979 that was the
deadliest dam collapse in human history. His mother's family survived the
disaster, and we wrote a comprehensive history of the events surrounding that
flood. One of the big questions that came out of our research in India was
related to ideas of community agency in the wake of a disaster. Many of the
people who survived that flood felt as if the government had been very
heavy-handed in coming in and dictated the way that the city that was destroyed
would be rebuilt. I became very interested in what a recovery would look like
that was being driven largely by neighborhoods themselves. It turned out that
in New Orleans, there were answers to many of my questions.
When I was a junior in college, I traveled to New Orleans
for the first time, and began to get a sense of the neighborhood-based nature
of the recovery taking place there. All levels of government—the city
government, the state government, and the federal government—had largely fallen
down on the job. As a result, often out of desperation, neighborhood groups
were stepping in to fill the void. They were doing things like opening their
own charter schools, passing self-taxing initiatives, running their own police
forces, providing very comprehensive social services to members of their
communities, in order to spur recovery. Many of these things are things we
expect larger nonprofits to do or expect city government to do, but
neighborhoods were doing this instead.
Do you think that there is something unique about this
particular disaster recovery? Is there something particular to the character of
the city of New Orleans that shaped this recovery?
New Orleans is a unique place. Among large cities in
America, New Orleans before Katrina had the lowest rate of people who were born
there leaving the city. People fall in love with New Orleans, and it is because
it is like nowhere else in the United States. And so people across the city
were incredibly invested in bringing the city back. The disaster was also
unprecedented because it was tremendously large—the biggest landscape scale
disaster to hit an American city. The destruction within New Orleans itself
stretches for more than twenty miles, from end to end of the city. Eighty
percent of the city was under water, and hundreds of thousands of people were
affected and still are today.
Another unique feature of the recovery in New Orleans is
that it has been largely driven by neighborhood groups. It is not a recovery
that is being led by the city government or the state government or the federal
government. Neighborhoods like Broadmoor, Lakeview, the Vietnamese community
New Orleans East, have really taken leadership in all aspects of their
recoveries. A number of New Orleans neighborhoods have made innovative
partnerships with larger nonprofits, with universities, with corporations, to
help resource those neighborhood based recovery efforts. A number of
organizations have partnered with groups in the Lower Ninth Ward, to rebuild
houses, to spearhead greening initiatives in the neighborhood, and many
residents have returned to the neighborhood as a result of those partnerships.
Similarly, Hollygrove has a tremendous partnership with the AARP which provided
a comprehensive set of consulting services for the neighborhood to help them
with crime prevention, education, health care, commercial development, and a number
of other issues facing the neighborhood.
We watched the government fail on many levels in the wake of
Katrina. Does this show that the government is a less effective actor in the
face of a disaster? Should we rely on private organizations and neighborhood groups to provide these
Stories from the New Orleans recovery can be uplifting when
you consider what neighborhoods have managed to accomplish, both on their own
and through partnerships with private entities. That said, there are a number
of things that we can take from this disaster that show us ways to do recovery
better. A lot of that has to do with partnerships that should exist between
communities that are struggling to survive after a disaster and higher levels
of government. Neighborhoods in urban environments post-disaster should not
have to open schools on their own. They should not have to self-tax to fix
streets or provide extra police coverage. There are things that we expect
different levels of government to do, and whether you're liberal or conservative,
I believe that we all want government to work well at the tasks that we assign
it. We saw that this didn't work well in New Orleans.
In the future, there will
be more landscape-scale disasters of the type that we saw in New Orleans. We
have a number of coastal cities, and we have climate change that is raising sea
levels and changing weather patterns. We have cities that are in places that
are prone to wild fires; we have cities that are prone to tremendous
earthquakes. We don't want what happened in New Orleans to happen again in
another American city. And government reforms are key to making sure that we
respond better in the future.
Quite simply, there is tremendous potential for partnerships
between communities and neighborhoods on the one hand, and higher levels of
government on the other. We should work hard to make sure that potential is
One of the problems seems to be that FEMA is set up to help
during isolated incidents, to help small communities recover, but when
something happens that is this vast, it has a more difficult time responding.
Historically, FEMA has been set up to respond very well to
small disasters that are contained to an area--perhaps a tornado that destroys
300 homes. They can respond very quickly and very well to that. But we as a
nation have proven through the experience of New Orleans have proven that we
are not able to handle a landscape-scale disaster very effectively. In the
future, the federal government needs to think about what role it will play when
other landscape-scale disasters take place.
Who were some of the people and groups that you encountered
who were instrumental in New Orleans' recovery?
In Broadmoor, the neighborhood association president is
LaToya Cantrell, and she is a tremendously powerful individual. Even before the
storm, she could command a large crowd's attention just by her presence. She's
a good listener and empathetic, and she has an amazing and broad base of
support across the neighborhood.
Many of the leaders I've interviewed, including LaToya, have
put themselves on the line for their neighborhoods, have spent years upon years
working harder than any person should have to work to make their communities
come back. There's a lot of burnout that's taking place right now, but it's
exciting to see that as progress becomes clear, it's exciting to see some of
these leaders getting to kick back a little bit.
Terry Miranda, who is from Lakeview, his contribution to the
book is that he is able to narrate New Orleans history and make sense of many
nonsensical things very well and even poetically. He always rides around the
city on a bike, and he'll give me insights into city history, neighborhood
history, and he seems to know everybody. Very often a Sunday afternoon bicycle
ride will involve dozens of conversations with people on porches and lots of
funny stories about the people and the city. [Photo at right, courtesy of Tom Wooten, is of one of those bike rides led by Terry Miranda.]
I love New Orleans, and many of the young people who have
come in since the storm have adopted the city as their own. It's a city that,
very rightly actually, is very skeptical of outsiders coming in. There have
been a number of outside agendas in the wake of Katrina that have not panned
out very well for the city. So if you come in with an idea of how things should
be and how you're going to fix things, you're probably not doing the city any
favors. If you come in open to how the city works and ready to contribute to
things that the residents are already undertaking, the city will really embrace
"It was heartbreaking, but we couldn't give up. I just said, 'Well, I've got to get in and do it.'"-Phil Harris, eight-decade-long resident of Hollygrove
As floodwaters drained in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents came to a difficult realization. Their city was about to undertake the largest disaster recovery in American history, yet they faced a profound leadership vacuum: members of every tier of government, from the municipal to the federal level, had fallen down on the job. We Shall Not Be Moved tells the absorbing story of the community leaders who stepped into this void to rebuild the city they loved.
From a Vietnamese Catholic priest who immediately knows when two of his six thousand parishioners go missing to a single mother from the Lower Ninth Ward who instructs the likes of Jimmy Carter and Brad Pitt, these intrepid local organizers show that a city's fate rests on the backs of its citizens. On their watch, New Orleans neighborhoods become small governments. These leaders organize their neighbors to ward off demolition threats, write comprehensive recovery plans, found community schools, open volunteer centers, raise funds to rebuild fire stations and libraries, and convince tens of thousands of skeptical residents to return home. Focusing on recovery efforts in five New Orleans neighborhoods-Broadmoor, Hollygrove, Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, and Village de l'Est-Tom Wooten presents vivid narratives through the eyes and voices of residents rebuilding their homes, telling a story of resilience as entertaining as it is instructive.
The unprecedented community mobilization underway in New Orleans is a silver lining of Hurricane Katrina's legacy. By shedding light on this rebirth, We Shall Not Be Moved shows how residents, remarkably, turned a profound national failure into a story of hope.
“Compelling beyond belief, deserving the broadest possible readership, and mandatory reading for urban planners and community organizers, this is a tour-de-force about one American city and what it means to fight for the survival of your hometown.” Booklist
"Mr. Wooten meticulously tracks the work of civic groups in five parts of New Orleans as they labored to prove that their neighborhoods were worth saving, underscoring the importance of fostering such groups long before a catastrophe hits." The Wall Street Journal
“Few disasters are ever truly ‘natural,’ and, as Tom Wooten shows, reconstruction after catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina is shaped heavily by individuals, their communities, and the structural barriers they face. Portraying a diverse range of community leaders, Wooten spins a compelling tale based on deep knowledge of local worlds, linked to an understanding of the large-scale social forces that affect these worlds in ways too often invisible to journalists and other chroniclers of events like Katrina. The stories in We Shall Not Be Moved show the essential role of local knowledge in long-term recovery and reconstruction.”—Paul Farmer, author of Haiti After the Earthquake
“A moving portrait of a city’s struggle to rebuild. It is not an account of Katrina per se. . . . Rather, it is a story of the arduous endeavor residents have undertaken in New Orleans. . . . Every bit as gripping and important as tales from the storm itself.” Walter Issacson, from the Foreword
“In this moving book, Tom Wooten narrates the daily struggles of residents of five neighborhoods in New Orleans to overcome the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. We Shall Not Be Moved brilliantly weaves together the stories of community residents, including accounts of their unprecedented organizing and rebuilding efforts. Wooten’s revealing nonfiction narrative is a must-read.”—William Julius Wilson, author of More Than Just Race
About the Author:
Tom Wooten is coauthor of No One Had a Tongue to Speak. Since graduating from Harvard in 2008 and moving to New Orleans, he has worked as a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, as a neighborhood volunteer coordinator, and as a fifth- and sixth-grade writing teacher. In 2011, Wooten was featured as a Forbes 30 under 30 in Law & Policy.
Tom Wooten is the author of We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina, forthcoming this summer from Beacon Press.Since graduating from Harvard in 2008 and moving to New Orleans, he has worked as a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, as a neighborhood volunteer coordinator, and as a fifth- and sixth-grade writing teacher.
Nathaniel Rich’s recent New York Times Magazine article about urban abandonment in the Lower Ninth Ward is called “Jungleland.” Fascinated by the process of “nature reclaiming civilization,” Rich describes a dystopian city neighborhood: alligators drink from leaking fire hydrants; shadowy figures emerge from derelict houses to rob and rape honest residents; everywhere, lush green vines envelop blocks that were once densely populated. There is truth to Rich’s Joseph-Conrad-meets-David-Simon portrayal, but it isn’t the whole story.
Life is being restored to significant portions of the Lower Ninth Ward, and the heroes of this effort are fiercely determined residents who have returned to their blocks and rebuilt their homes. Approximately a quarter of the Lower Ninth Ward’s 20,000 pre-storm residents are back, mostly concentrated in the southern half of the neighborhood on higher ground close to the Mississippi. Shortly after the storm, residents collaborated to reopen the K-8 Martin Luther King Charter School, one of the rare community success stories in an education system increasingly dominated by outsider-run schools. A grocery store is set to begin construction soon on St. Claude Avenue. Considering the unique set of challenges residents faced after the flooding of Katrina and Rita, their progress to date is noteworthy.
What obstacles have the 5,500 residents who have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward overcome? Because of a particularly severe levee breach, their neighborhood experienced the most concentrated physical destruction in New Orleans. Not only did they have to work harder and spend more to rebuild than other residents, but they also had to overcome a unique stigma. Although the Lower Ninth Ward was no more vulnerable to flooding than dozens of other low-lying neighborhoods, Americans incorrectly inferred that the area was particularly at risk, and a national debate ensued about the merits of rebuilding there. The neighborhood remained sealed off months after the rest of the city reopened, straining displaced residents’ finances and forcing many into permanent exile. Owing to controversy over the Lower Ninth Ward’s fate, utility providers were slow to restore service to hundreds of blocks in the neighborhood, forcing some families to wait for years to return and prompting others to give up and settle elsewhere. The federally funded and state-administered Road Home program awarded rebuilding grants based on pre-storm property values, a policy that yielded higher payouts for residents of wealthy neighborhoods and put black working class areas like the Lower Ninth Ward at a distinct disadvantage.
In light of these challenges, restoring life in the Lower Ninth Ward has been a collective undertaking by necessity. As occurred in other New Orleans neighborhoods, a remarkable coalition of residents rose up to help their neighbors come home. Patricia Jones founded The Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association in 2006, providing financial coaching, free architectural services, and volunteer labor to hundreds of returning Lower Ninth Ward families. After years of pre-storm work with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the late great Pam Dashiell teamed up with dozens of other residents to found the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED). Mack Mclendon had the courage and vision to convert his newly purchased Lamanche Street warehouse into a multi-purpose community center, with the long-term goal of converting the space into a hub for neighborhood youth.
These community-based efforts are driving the Lower Ninth Ward’s recovery, and not only because of the direct services they provide. For one thing, they have created the social infrastructure needed for outsider-led groups to effectively do work in the neighborhood. Common Ground partnered closely with each of the above groups to provide them with volunteer labor. Brad Pitt’s meetings with CSED resident leaders helped to seal his Make It Right foundation’s commitment to the Lower Ninth Ward, and informed its focus on building physically resilient and energy efficient houses. More importantly, resident-led recovery efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward have given returning families confidence that they are not alone. There is a community meeting every Thursday night at the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church, and the optimism at each meeting is palpable. Every week, families who have just moved home are asked to ring the church bell to announce their return.
So what should our orientation be to struggling urban environments? Without much prompting, Americans felt a profound sense of collective responsibility about rebuilding the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. We should apply the same sense of resolve and moral clarity to other sites. Cities are national treasures. They are centers of tremendous commerce and creativity; they are cultural and religious melting pots; they are humane refuges where Americans can live comfortably without cars. Like interstate highways and public universities, they serve a profound collective good, and they are worth maintaining even if their most direct beneficiaries cannot always foot the entire bill.
The Lower Ninth Ward is now internationally famous, often standing symbolically for the destruction wrought along hundreds of miles of the American Gulf Coast. With enough genuine will at the city, state, and federal levels, Lower Ninth Ward residents can transform their neighborhood from a symbol of abandonment into a symbol of hope.