Illustration by Andrew Neyer
Illustration by Andrew Neyer

Hurricane Isaac pummeled New Orleans, with floodwaters surging and officials cautioning against complacency. Yet this is a different city from the one devastated by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.

When that storm flooded New Orleans in 2005 -- or, more accurately, when the federally built levees failed to contain the storm surge -- people turned to their government for help, with dismal results. The National Guard was slow to come to the rescue; the country watched as residents waited on rooftops and overpasses for excruciating days.

In the aftermath, desperately in need of relief funds, people again turned to their representatives for help. Although Congress apportioned the money fairly quickly, many residents waited a year or more before receiving anything, and then the aid fell far short of what they needed for repairs. Residents found yet more disappointment when they looked to government to help with basic health care, crime prevention and infrastructure repairs as the emergency continued.

Yet, on the seventh anniversary of Katrina, New Orleans had come back, or at least some version of it. Those who returned, who managed to rebuild their homes or settle into rentals, overcame not just a disaster but also a deeply dysfunctional political system. In reinventing their city, they quietly, almost without notice, reinvented the idea of government

Government Failure

As Abraham Lincoln defined it, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not so well do, for themselves.” A lot of the survivors of Katrina couldn’t do for themselves, or thought they couldn’t. Part of the problem was due to the flooding. But especially in low-income areas, it had been years since the government had provided even the basic services.

In the city’s Ninth Ward, for example, health care had always been a long ride away. Citizens hesitated to call the police, thinking that incidents of hazing, domestic violence and petty larceny would escalate if officers were too quick to reach for their weapons. Sewage breaks, power failures and lax road repairs were a regular part of life decades before the levees failed.

But the floods made things worse and underlined that the community, both residents and volunteers, had to do more for themselves than ever before. The result has been a new brand of self-reliance.

Although the city has proposed a massive new medical-research center, it is still years off and not particularly geared to the many low-income residents without adequate insurance. Instead, a network of community-health centers has sprung up, often volunteer-run in makeshift sites but offering the kind of personal, local care that the pre-Katrina system couldn’t.

Crime continues to be a problem in New Orleans, forcing people to make their own adjustments: Neighbors watch out for one another and organize to have derelict houses (where addicts and criminals congregate) torn down -- or tear them down themselves. On street after street, people have banded together to remove trash, cut the grass on empty blocks and in parks, and reconstruct one another’s homes.

Some of these efforts have been more formalized than others. So, in the Ninth Ward, the Common Ground Collective provided residents with free legal service and medical care, organized volunteers to gut houses, and set out to replant grasses in long-ruined bayous. Others organized a farmers market, and the Holy Cross neighborhood established a community garden. In defiance of both city-controlled public schools and the charter movement that has brought in private administrators, the Ninth Ward is home to an award-winning elementary school run by its own principal, teachers and parents.

Distrust Remains

This do-it-yourself approach has helped revive the city, but it has worried some, especially those in government. After Katrina, the mayor of New Orleans appointed Edward Blakely to a job popularly known as “recovery czar.”

Blakely immediately sought control of all funding and decision-making. A year and a half after Katrina, he expressed his concerns about the path that recovery was taking. “Defiance is still in the air -- that people want to do things on their own. And they don’t trust the system that they elected, or they didn’t elect but was in place.” If residents formed their own support systems, what did that leave for government to do? Not to mention czars.

Many in New Orleans didn’t trust the system before the disaster, and with good reason. The government’s failure and the people’s own success have only reinforced that position. Seven years later, it remains to be seen how deeply the recovery in New Orleans has undercut representative government -- and what might emerge in its place.

(Daniel Wolff is the author, most recently, of “The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back” and is a producer of Jonathan Demme’s film, “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Daniel Wolff at ziwolff@optonline.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.