Delta Dawning

Gulf Coast Efforts Look Beyond Recovery Toward Lasting Renewal

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By John Godges

John Godges is a RAND communications analyst and editor-in-chief of RAND Review.

Ben Springgate never thought he’d go home so soon after his medical residency. Nor did he foresee that his professional calling toward community-based health care for the poor would be put to such an early and grueling test.

A slide trombone sports a steadfast sticker.
AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER  
A slide trombone sports a steadfast sticker during the Krewe of Cork parade through the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 17, 2006.

A native of New Orleans, he completed his residency at Tulane University in his hometown in late June of 2005. He then moved to Los Angeles to start work as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at UCLA, which led him to work on RAND research teams as well. Troubled by the health disparities he had observed across the country, he was planning to conduct community-based participatory research to improve health care services for homeless and low-income people.

Then, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck. In one fell swoop, the storm shifted the nation’s attention to the reality of aching poverty deep in the country’s heart and soul.

“I watched the television reports in horror,” recalled Springgate, 34. “I couldn’t just simply sit back and watch. I had to try to go back and see if I could contribute somehow.”

His bosses at RAND and UCLA supported him. Two days later, he was home. “It just so happened that I’m in a field where there are persistent needs as a result of the disaster.”

Since his return, Springgate’s work has broadened from emergency care to community planning. At the outset, he triaged evacuees at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, recruited and deployed volunteer physicians to work in evacuee shelters, and helped coordinate health care for emergency responders in a French Quarter hotel ballroom and outside a Wal-Mart. In the ensuing months, he and his colleagues have opened new nonprofit clinics in neighborhoods that were left without any local health services.

“The community can learn two important lessons from the experience,” said Springgate. “First, we can’t assume we’re going to be spared from these storms. We need to plan ahead and recognize what we need to do to limit the potential damage and loss. And second, as terrible as the disaster has been for the community, I’m hoping there’s an opportunity now to overcome the inertia that existed previously and to improve on some components of the community that weren’t functioning optimally before.” He cited a reformed school system, smarter building practices, and improved health care quality and access as a few areas of top priority.

The hope is that the deluge of disappointment and heartbreak that came with Hurricane Katrina can sow the seeds of renewal incubated and rooted in the Gulf region.

RAND’s commitment to the region has broadened in analogous ways. From an initial focus on emergency response and recovery in the most catastrophically inundated areas, the preponderance of RAND work has since shifted toward helping the entire region reshape itself into something better than it was before the hurricane hit. The hope is that the deluge of disappointment and heartbreak that came with Hurricane Katrina can sow the seeds of renewal incubated and rooted in the Gulf region.

“What we have here is an opportunity to make a strong, nationally credible, nonpartisan resource available in this region,” said George Penick, director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, which is based in Jackson, Mississippi. The purpose of the institute, created in the wake of the hurricane, is to provide a long-term capacity to develop informed public policy in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

RAND studies in the region initially have focused on the repopulation of New Orleans, affordable housing in Mississippi, student displacement and mental health, water resource management, and health care. Studies that are under development aim to help regional leaders strengthen an assortment of public and private responses related to housing, health, education, infrastructure, the economy, the environment, disaster preparedness, and government performance.

“These are issues that needed a great deal of attention before Katrina and need even more attention after,” said Penick, who had served as president of the nonprofit Foundation for the Mid South before joining RAND. “They are long-term, transformational issues, and they cannot be solved overnight. They are daunting. But now is our opportunity to confront them.”

Figure 1 —

Flooding Was Most Severe in Low-Lying Areas, While Neighborhoods on Natural Levees Had No Flooding

Figure 1 -- Flooding Was Most Severe in Low-Lying Areas, While Neighborhoods on Natural Levees Had No Flooding
SOURCE: Flood depths calculated by GCR and Associates, Inc., from Federal Emergency Management Agency data on water levels for September 10, 2005.
NOTE: CBD = French Quarter/Central Business District.
  

Figure 2 —

Projected Repopulation of New Orleans Neighborhoods Depends on the Depth of Flooding

Figure 2 -- Projected Repopulation of New Orleans Neighborhoods Depends on the Depth of Flooding
SOURCE: The Repopulation of New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina, 2006.

Repopulation of New Orleans

The limits of local recovery efforts are best embodied by the city of New Orleans itself. A RAND team led by demographer Kevin McCarthy has projected that the population of New Orleans will rebound by about half within three years of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. By September 2008, the population of New Orleans will reach an estimated 272,000 — or 56 percent of the pre-Katrina population of 485,000.

The homes of 55 percent of the pre-Katrina population suffered severe damage when the levees were breached and deep floodwaters inundated parts of the city. “The extent of rebuilding in the most severely devastated areas of the city will largely determine the pace of repopulation and also the total future population,” said McCarthy.

Figure 1 maps the neighborhoods of New Orleans according to their flood depths and the consequent severity of housing damage experienced as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Areas in the severe damage category include the largely poor and African American communities of Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward, as well as the mostly middle-class and white community of Lake-view — all of which were swamped with more than four feet of water. The severely damaged areas accounted for 52 percent of all pre-Katrina New Orleans households, home to 55 percent of the city’s residents.

At the other extreme, about 25 percent of the pre-Katrina population was not exposed to flooding, and their housing likely suffered little or no floodwater damage. These neighborhoods — including the whiter, wealthier French Quarter and Garden District — are perched on the natural levees on both sides of the Mississippi River.

The repopulation of the “high and dry” areas has probably already exceeded more than 100 percent of pre-Katrina levels, as more people have crowded into the limited supply of safe and available housing. Future housing redevelopment is likely to be concentrated in these areas as well. In contrast, the RAND team has projected that repopulation in the severely damaged areas will reach just 30 percent by 2008 (see Figure 2).

“New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was a poor city that was highly divided by race and class,” said McCarthy. “Many poor residents were tenants who paid extremely low rents.” These people may no longer be able to afford the higher rents that could be demanded for reconstructed dwellings. “There are likely to be major demographic and socioeconomic disparities in the repopulation of New Orleans,” McCarthy concluded.


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