The Myths of Hurricane Katrina: Part Three

Myth Three: The Gulf Coast is suffering from a lack of leadership


In his opening column to the recent issue of Time devoted to New Orleans, managing editor Richard Stengel reports that his impressions of the city's recovery efforts are based on "conversations with everyone from Mayor Ray Nagin to jazz great Terence Blanchard."

That sounds impressive, but truth be told, "everyone from the mayor to a famous jazz musician" isn't a terribly wide range, and misses a good deal of the city. The tendency of journalists to look first to political leaders-who, to say the least, usually have other motives for pushing a narrative-and big names explains why so much of the media has gotten post-Katrina New Orleans so wrong. Turning first to the great and the good to get the story is an easy mistake to make in a society where everything from the foods we eat to the way we garden is subject to the whims of the ruling class.

But leadership isn't something you are elected into. There have been plenty of leaders on the Gulf Coast over the last two years. It's just that their names don't roll off the tongues of magazine editors, or appear in newspapers or campaign ads.

If there's any good news to come out of the recovery effort it's that people in the hurricane zone have learned to become less reliant on political saviors and more reliant on themselves. In May 2007, the highly-regarded University of New Orleans Survey Research Center released their annual survey on quality of life in Orleans Parish. For "the first time in twenty years," the survey reported, "something rivaled crime as the 'biggest' problem facing New Orleans." That problem was dissatisfaction with the local political leadership-just one-third of New Orleanians approved of Mayor Nagin's performance in office.

This isn't terribly unsurprising. Political leaders simply don't have the knowledge or-thankfully-the power to conceive, plan, and execute the rebuilding of entire communities after a disaster. Every community, neighborhood, and street is unique. The most effective solutions are being found locally, mostly in spite of government efforts, not because of them. The real problem, as economists Sanford Ikeda and Peter Gordon suggest, is not that political leaders aren't doing enough, it's that they're doing too much, and doing it poorly. There's too much centralized control preventing people from finding the solutions that best fit their own communities.

The best leadership comes from the bottom up, not the top down. And it's the neighborhoods that have been able to forge community leaders-from volunteers, entrepreneurs, sometimes even compassionate bureaucrats willing to bend the rules-that have shown the most signs of progress.

In Waveland, Mississippi, for example, the manager of the local Wal-Mart worked with the company's corporate officials to open a store under a tent in the parking lot, then later opened a convenient, easily accessible "Wal-Mart Express"-the first-ever store of its type-designed especially for post-Katrina Mississippi. Such creativity and on-the-fly adaptation and innovation on-the-fly would have been inconceivable from FEMA, which kept physicians from treating wounded evacuees because they weren't registered with the federal government, and kept firefighters away from those in need until they completed sexual harassment training, and courses on FEMA's history.

Down the road in Bay St. Louis, I spoke with resident Alicia Cool, who told me she reopened her flower shop because "without business you can't have people wanting to come back and stay here." Despite the devastation all around her, her perseverance paid off. Her sales went through the roof. While flowers wouldn't at first blush seem to be something people of limited means in the process of rebuilding would want to purchase, they became, she explained, a symbol of beauty and normality in an environment devoid of both. Tim Williamson, the president of the Idea Village, an organization that helps would-be entrepreneurs get their footing, has seen many such stories. Entrepreneurs know that they're rebuilding more than their businesses, he says. "The story's going to be written, I think, that the entrepreneurs restarted New Orleans…. They did it on the back of their own spirit and on their own funds."

Even within the various bureaucracies leaders can flourish, though it's often those who break free of the red tape, and try to forge their own way. Even then, it isn't easy. One example is Doris Voitier, the superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish Schools. Voitier became something of a local hero when she realized that functional schools were critical to getting residents to move back to the parish. She decided she'd figure out a way to open them, bureaucracy be damned.

Enter FEMA. FEMA officials told Voitier she'd need to have a "kickoff meeting" before she could open the schools-where she'd meet not with parents, or students, or teachers, but with a federal environmental protection team, a historical preservation team, and the "404-" and "406-mitigation teams" (terms which refer to specific sections of the Stafford Act, the law that covers federal disaster response). And it wasn't a "meeting" so much as an introduction to the vast bureaucracy that was FEMA's "education task force," basically a list of barriers Voitier would have to clear before she could start classes. Voitier says she sat in the meeting thinking, "Can't somebody help me get a school started and clean my schools?"

Voitier decided to cut her losses and reopen the schools without FEMA's help. She says she adopted a "the heck with you guys" approach. "We can do it, we'll make it happen, and we'll send you the bill." Before Thanksgiving, Voitier opened her first school, and 334 students attended the first day of classes. By the last day of the year, there were 2,360, and over 3,000 on the first day of the next.

For her heroic efforts to reopen her schools, Voitier would later be investigated for misappropriation of federal property. When a local fire chief determined a FEMA trailer was unsafe for classroom use, Voitier made do, and used the facility to housewashing machines for her teachers, who were living in their own trailers in the school's parking lot. This change in use was sanctioned by the appropriate FEMA field official. But when that official rotated out, he failed to file the appropriate paperwork, leaving the next official under the impression that Voitier had changed use of a federal trailer without the government's permission. The horror.

There are other stories of local leaders stepping up. Neighborhood associations are a good example. LaToya Cantrell, who by day works for an education non-profit, turned the 75-year old Broadmoor Improvement Association into a leading example of how to organize a neighborhood to rebuild. She reached out to universities and corporations who offered expertise and volunteers for the effort. Broadmoor now has rebuilt 75 percent of its homes, and is constructing a community center. But the bureaucrats have gotten in the way here, too. The neighborhood association wants to open a charter school in an abandoned school building. The parish school board, fighting further the decay of its authority, is doing everything it can to prevent them.

Less than a mile to the north, the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization is trying to bring businesses into the community, matching prospective business owners up with retail space and working with commercial developers to ensure that they're attuned neighborhood concerns.

The commonly held notion that post-Katrina recovery effort has been hampered by a lack of leadership is true only if "leadership" refers only to political leadership. There, there's not only a lack of leadership, but a stifling bureaucracy that's smothering real progress. Across the Gulf Coast, there are real people taking real risks, trying to buck the obstacles thrown in their way, and many are seeing real results. Some are motivated by profit, others by love of their neighbors, or a sense of community. But they aren't posturing, or complaining, or speechifying. They're acting.

We've heard a great deal about the leadership problem in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast over previous month. Make no mistake, there is one. But the problem is not that city hall, the state house, or the U.S. Congress aren't doing enough. It's that they're doing too much, and preventing the real leaders-the organic leaders springing up in community centers, school halls, and business districts-from making their own decisions, informed by their own, localized wisdom and experience, about how to rebuild.