Corporate Recovery: The Dark Side of Hurricane Katrina Aid Efforts

Abandoned by corporate recovery efforts like the Road Home Program after Katrina, a Gentilly, New Orleans couple sees the underside of the for-profit affect economy.

| September/October 2013

  • Dilapidated House Graffiti
    The Bradlieus had no home insurance, but like many New Orleanians, even if they had had insurance, they likely would not have collected much from it unless they had flood insurance. This was tricky business on the part of insurance companies and the federal government, entailing a careful rescripting of the disaster and its causes.
    Photo By Taslim van Hattum
  • Hurricane Katrina Rubble
    After Katrina, furniture was covered in layers of lifeless mud. Silverware that had been washed off kitchen counters was strewn about in layers of smelly and gooey sludge. Family photographs were blackened and moldy.
    Photo Courtesy Infrogmation
  • House in 9th Ward
    In the absence of meaningful support from the government, or rather in the presence of for-profit disaster recovery, residents of New Orleans had to rely on the steady stream of (largely) faith-based charity volunteers to rebuild.
    Photo By Flickr/cliff1066

  • Dilapidated House Graffiti
  • Hurricane Katrina Rubble
  • House in 9th Ward

In August 2005, Henry and Gladys Bradlieu lived comfortably in retirement in one of the oldest properties in the Gentilly District of New Orleans. Henry served in Vietnam and was a three-time Purple Heart recipient. He was retired from the U.S. Postal Service, and Gladys had been a data entry clerk for an office in city hall. They owned their two-bedroom home on the corner lot in what was, in 2005, a densely packed mixed-race neighborhood. Gentilly, New Orleans was then a success story of middle-class comfort, complete with public schools and parks, sidewalks and neighborhood churches, mortgages and relatively low crime rates, and where the history of racial disparity that overlaid this community seemed at least in some small part to be muted. What could not be seen by the Bradlieus, or perhaps anyone else, was the fragility of their lives—a fragility that had less to do with race than it did with the changing shape of governance in America.

On August 27, 2005, the Bradlieus evacuated to Texas and watched on television as their home was swallowed up by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent collapse of the levee system that resulted in the flooding of 80 percent of the city. The Bradlieus’ home was under 10 feet of water. It stayed that way for three weeks. When they finally came back to the city a few months later, Gladys recalled what it looked like. It was so quiet. “No birds, no trees, no color. Nothing. Just gray, everywhere gray.” Furniture was covered in layers of lifeless mud. Silverware that had been washed off kitchen counters was strewn about in layers of smelly and gooey sludge. Family photographs were blackened and moldy. Clothing, linens, books, and shoes were indistinguishable from the walls, with their wallpaper peeling away in sheets from the stained brown-gray Sheetrock behind them. Worst of all, Gladys said, were the trees. Most of them had been uprooted, and the rest were covered in brown and were as lifeless as the neighborhood around them.

Like a lot of returning residents, Henry and Gladys didn’t really know where to begin. They had a check for $2,500 and a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The church folks in Texas who helped the Bradlieus sent them home with a few items of clothing and some dishware, glasses, and linens. The Bradlieus moved into their FEMA trailer, which measured around 300 square feet and was parked lengthwise on what was once their front lawn. As African Americans who had lived through the years before the civil rights movement, they were used to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, or at least with just the Lord’s help. Henry said, “We’ll rebuild.”

Local newspapers had been writing about the potential damage from a hurricane like Katrina for years. The Army Corps of Engineers had built and maintained the levees in New Orleans, but locals had been increasingly worried that signs of deterioration in the levee walls were being ignored. Nearby canals served as a funnel that would direct storm surges right into the city. Worse, the canals had become a known menace to the fragile wetlands stretching over the 8,176-square-mile coastal zone that once served as a natural protective barrier for New Orleans.

Because the canals prevented the inflow of freshwater from feeding the foliage and replenishing sediment, the wetlands had been losing approximately 13 square miles per year—or approximately one football field of marshland every hour. By 2005, New Orleans had little protection against Gulf hurricanes, which were generally halved in size when they first hit land (or what used to be long stretches of wetlands). The Army Corps of Engineers had known about the problem for decades, just as they knew the levees that were fed by these canals would not hold up against anything over a Category 2 storm surge. Still, calls for repairs and strengthening went unanswered.

The Army Corps of Engineers had been undergoing its own structural adjustments for at least two decades. Private sector companies had developed relationships as legacy contractors with the Army Corps, including The Shaw Group, Bechtel, Halliburton, HNTB, Titan, Blackwater Security, and KBR Associates. By 2003, the firewall between the subcontracting companies and the corps was hardly visible—it had become more like a revolving door. Few saw or raised concerns over the conflict of interest in this situation (those few who did were often fired).

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