Corporate Recovery: The Dark Side of Hurricane Katrina Aid Efforts

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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.
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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.
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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.

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).

This was not really laissez-faire capitalism, since the subcontractors depended on a steady stream of government legislation and no-bid contract funds to keep them busy. It was nevertheless a type of governance in and through a market dominated by large corporations. In the decades prior to Katrina, the Army Corps became increasingly invested in helping subcontractors undertake waterway projects that had little to do with protecting the public (by repairing levees) but much to do with augmenting the casino, tourism, and oil industries.

With little protection from the wetlands, Greater New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina as what some report was a Category 4 or 5 storm. Despite the fact that the storm passed the city itself, breaches and levee failures soon occurred in 50 different locations, with more than 20 in the first 24 hours, and another 20 levee breeches in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet canal alone. With over 350,000 people stranded in the city, the government declared a state of emergency, allowing it to offer more no-bid contract opportunities to corporations to help with relief in post-Katrina New Orleans. Since FEMA had been merged with the Office of Homeland Security only two years prior, many of these same firms that subcontracted to the Army Corps (such as Blackwater Security) were called upon to provide disaster relief.

After six months of living in their trailer (now May 2006), the Bradlieus were still trying to sort things out. Daily life presented a series of challenges. It took weeks to find a place to get Henry’s blood pressure medication. There was nothing left within a 10-square-mile radius of their home–no grocery store, no pharmacy, not even a gas station. The closest hardware store was miles and miles away. There were no streetlights or mailboxes (and there wouldn’t be for another three and a half years). Every trip to the neighboring suburb had to be planned carefully around the errands required for their life of “digging out,” like the stop at the library to use the computer to find phone numbers for insurance agencies, applications for relief funds, and stores for basic supplies.

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. When federal officials wanted to blame the catastrophe on “nature” (exempting the Army Corps from responsibility), they invoked the hurricane as the cause of the disaster. When residents asked the government to put pressure on insurance companies to pay residents for their damages from the hurricane, it did nothing while insurance companies blamed the catastrophe on flooding from breached levees instead of on the hurricane. Without flood insurance, few residents were able to collect anything. The Bradlieus got no help there. Their last hope, they said, was the Road Home Program.

The Road Home Program was set up by the State of Louisiana Recovery Authority to distribute federal relief funds. Returning residents who were homeowners were encouraged to apply for grants of up to $150,000 to make up for the difference between what insurance would pay and the cost of repairs to their home based on its assessed value. The program was promising. Here was the help returning residents needed. It soon became apparent, however, that getting help from Road Home would not be easy. The few who received funds within the first year received amounts that made no sense to them, and most, though not all, were woefully inadequate. The application process was itself no easy feat. Records of title, assessments, and taxes were lost in the floods. Every visit to the program offices and each new correspondence entailed reintroducing one’s case to a stream of new officers, as if the program had no institutional memory of any work that had already been done. Producing documents and meeting the application requirements took months and months.

The Bradlieus applied for Road Home support in early 2007, and after waiting nearly a year for a response, they were turned down on grounds that they had not proved title to their home. Henry and Gladys had bought their home through a bond for deed credit sale directly from the former owner, a strategy often used by African American families who were denied home mortgages from regular banks in the 1970s. The Bradlieus paid the taxes and were the owners of the home, but the Road Home Program didn’t accept the Bradlieus’ claim. Henry and Gladys then began the long and arduous process of trying to find out how else to prove they owned their home.

Henry and Gladys were not alone. By late 2008, three years post-hurricane, nearly two-thirds of the funds made available to the Road Home Program had not yet been disbursed. Even for those who had received awards, the funding was insufficient to rebuild without incurring further debt. Adding insult to injury, some people who received Road Home funds had to return large portions of the funds (sometimes up to half of what they received) to pay back taxes on properties they had not been able to live in for several years. For some, the Road Home funds had to be used to pay off mortgages on homes that could no longer be lived in. Assessments used by Road Home were far below what owners calculated–resulting in an abundance of arbitration cases. A citizens’ action group called Citizens Road Home Action Team (CHAT) formed to protest the slow pace of the Road Home Program. A Senate hearing was held where citizens voiced their concerns.

Residents were quick to blame the inefficiencies of the Road Home Program on “the government,” using epithets like “run-around bureaucracy” and “drowning in a sea of paperwork.” In fact, the Road Home Program was being run not by the government but by a private sector company called ICF International. Typical of market-based solutions to the problem of poverty (even disaster-induced poverty) in America, ICF International was invited to design the recovery program before it was given the contract in another no-competition subcontractor bid in 2006. In record time, ICF quickly transformed its relief services into a source of market opportunism, issuing an IPO and seeing its shares more than double by 2007.

ICF designed the Road Home Program in a way that would maximize economic priorities and market solutions. ICF would first fund people who already owned their home or who owned investment rental properties. The large population of New Orleans renters who did not own property (roughly 54 percent), some 22 percent of whom were low-income and living in publicly subsidized housing, were not offered Road Home funds or other support of consequence that would help them return.

In fact, most of the publicly subsidized low-income rental housing in New Orleans was torn down within the first two to three years after Hurricane Katrina. Developers and planners used the hurricane and floods as a rationale for the redevelopment even in public housing units that suffered no flooding whatsoever. Steel plates were put on the windows and doors within weeks after the flood. Residents who lived in these housing units were never allowed back into their homes and were relocated to FEMA trailer parks sometimes an hour’s drive outside of the city, miles from transportation, schools, and services and surrounded by chain-link fences with only one entrance, which had an armed guard.

During year three, the Bradlieus applied a second time for Road Home funding. In the four- or five-square-block area around their home, a house or two was coming back on each street. One would be gutted, one under reconstruction. Many were torn down and left as empty lots. The Bradlieus waited.

Seeing that many residents were still in their FEMA trailers, in April 2009, FEMA notified the Bradlieus and everyone else still living in trailers that they could purchase them for $25,000. Why, they wondered, were they being offered the chance to “buy” the trailer? Why didn’t FEMA just give it to them? Where else would they live if not in this trailer that had become their only home in the aftermath of their struggle with the Road Home Program? Like many residents, Henry and Gladys didn’t realize that the government had paid its contractor companies (Bechtel and Halliburton under federal contract with FEMA) roughly $229,000 per trailer to build and transport them to New Orleans.

Families like the Bradlieus were seen as capable of shouldering the responsibility for helping the government recoup some of these costs. Neoliberalism favors not the ones who receive “handouts” but those who become social entrepreneurs of their own lives–demonstrated handsomely in being able to take on new debt in order to buy their FEMA trailer. Arrangements like these are framed as strategies for entrepreneurial success, where the poorest do not become needy recipients of help but are transformed into empowered consumers of public resources. The result is an ongoing state of disaster for the poor and for those who are newly made poor by disaster.

When it was discovered that these trailers contained toxic levels of formaldehyde, FEMA retracted its offer to let returning residents buy them. Then, FEMA initiated an effort to have all residents out of their trailers by the end of the year. FEMA then sponsored job and housing fairs meant to help them transition from trailers to whatever life they could cobble together. By the end of the year, many of these FEMA trailer residents ended up homeless and on the street, while others sought assistance from family members residing out of state or in other regions of Louisiana.

In 2008, ICF executives running the Road Home Program received bonuses amounting to nearly $2 million, and then-Governor Blanco claimed they were doing “a good job,” giving the company an additional $912 million even though the Senate hearing revealed its numerous problems and complaints by home owners. In 2009, ICF’s three-year contract to run the Road Home Program had come to an end, at which point it was sub-contracted to an ICF subsidiary for-profit firm called Hammerman and Gainer, Inc., based in Virginia. By November 2010, five years after the storm and flood, the Road Home Program reported that they had received 229,470 applications but had awarded funds to only 127,980 of them. This means that they disqualified or denied support (or that the applicants just gave up on their requests) for over 100,000 people who needed funds to return and rebuild–roughly 45 percent of those who applied.

CHAT founder Ehrlich called the lack of transparency in Road Home Program a “Don’t ask, won’t tell” policy. But ICF International and Hammerman and Gainer, Inc., had no trouble being transparent about one thing: their stock portfolios held strong. After ending its contract with Road Home, ICF went on to obtain other lucrative government contracts, and its stock, which was trading at $12 in 2006, was trading at around $33 per share in 2010.

In 2009 on the Bradlieus’ block, only a few more homes were being rebuilt. FEMA trailers still dotted the yards around them. Some trailers still had whole families living in them. Large heaps of trash from homes that had been gutted after the second year (when the Army Corps stopped picking up trash) were still visible on many blocks. People were hurting. Residents described living in a chronic and stagnant state of disaster. Depression was described as a “way of life.” Katrina was “the funeral that would not end.”

“It takes a good deal of endurance and strength,” one neighbor of the Bradlieus said. “But after three years with so little visible recovery, it wears down and erodes that strength … Life as I knew it is gone.” Residents talked about being depressed and developing disorders that they attributed to the chronic stress of failed recovery. There was a threefold increase in heart attacks by the two-year mark post-hurricane. One resident who was still living in her FEMA trailer in year four post-hurricane said: “I’d like to think that things are going to get better here, and I’m not sure about any of that stuff. There’s a lot of uncertainty, insecurity. I feel insecure. Maybe that’s how to put it. It’s a very big sense of insecurity here. I don’t like talking about my kids … A lot of that is feeling insecure. You don’t know what they’re gonna do.”

Many residents just gave up, leaving messages of lost hope spray-painted on the walls of their former homes. One Gentilly, New Orleans resident left the message “Broken Dreams Inside” spray-painted on its brick walls for the world to see.

When the Bradlieus resubmitted their Road Home application in 2008, they included an affidavit from the previous owner attesting to their ownership of the house, which he had sold to them some 20 years before. They included their property tax records. In the same year that ICF executives earned $2 million in bonuses, the Bradlieus were denied Road Home funding for a second time. That same day, Henry told his wife he was going to lie down for a nap because he felt so upset and then suffered a massive stroke.

When Caroline, a local community organizer, first met the Bradlieus in late 2009, she broke down and cried. Gladys called her and said she had heard that her organization might be able to come paint her home. Caroline said, “I asked her: ‘Are you back living in your home now?’ ‘Oh no,’ Gladys said, ‘we’re not back in the house yet.’ ” Her house “was nothing but studs and floorboards. The electrical, the plumbing, the roof–everything–still needed repair and rebuilding.” They had nothing. No insurance, no Road Home money, and no savings. Henry was completely disabled, bedridden and unable to speak. Gladys was taking care of him full time. “You know,” Caroline said, “it breaks my heart to see this. Imagine, this man who was a three-time Purple Heart recipient … It breaks my heart. They treated him like he was a criminal, trying to get away with fraud. Imagine that … a three-time Purple Heart recipient?”

Caroline reminded me that everyone who applied for Road Home funds had to first be submitted to fingerprinting and having a “mug shot” taken. They said it was to “prevent fraud.” But she thought it went beyond that. People who were asking for or receiving government support were made to feel as if they were criminal for doing so. Caroline wanted nothing to do with it. “It’s not right,” Caroline said. “It’s just not right.” She then turned to the job of helping them by herself.

Volunteers from the Good News Camp had come by sometime in year two and gutted the Bradlieus’ home. They got rid of the refrigerator, and that helped with the growing rat population. But for the next two years, the Bradlieus would be hoping and praying, waiting for help while Gladys tended daily to Henry. Caroline met the Bradlieus after working for three years to rebuild her own neighborhood in nearby Lakeview. She formed a Beacon of Hope satellite, organizing volunteers to do the work that the Road Home Program and insurance had not done. In 2008, she broke off from Beacon and, with support from her local Episcopal Diocese, began to help home owners in Gentilly through an organization she named The Homecoming Center.

After Caroline found the Bradlieus, she directed a steady stream of out-of-town volunteers to the Bradlieus’ home. They replaced studs and floors, laid electrical lines, hung Sheetrock. She pulled the permits herself. She got the local Episcopal Church to purchase sinks and toilets, countertops and flooring. She recovered windows from the old house and got volunteers to refinish them. She assigned volunteers, a week here, a few days there, to put on the primer and paint the home inside and out.

“Eight hundred volunteers and two years later,” Caroline said, “we were able to get the Bradlieus back into their home.” It was 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina, and despite her sense of accomplishment, she figured that the time waiting, the heartache, and the sense of betrayal that had caused Henry’s stroke were too high a cost, no matter how good the outcome now.

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. These sources of relief operate through both unpaid labor and through affect–that emotional sense of urgency tied to tragic situations and an injunction to action. Affect here commands a sense of purpose and ethical goodness from those who volunteer and a sense of restored faith in society on the part of those who receive. Faith-based institutions that work largely through the circulation of this type of affect now, more than ever, fill in the gaps left open by the failure of both the private sector insurance companies and marketized governance to help rebuild New Orleans. This is why in Caroline’s eyes, recovery had nothing to do with government or the market and everything to do with faith.

Sometimes the marriage of profit with social service can work, but in most cases, it can’t. It was for this reason that Caroline dropped her affiliation with Beacon of Hope. To sustain its funding, Beacon had streamlined its accounting practices to show larger and larger numbers of clients, even though most of the help these clients received was for a single day, a single task. It was, Beacon said, more profitable from the perspective of their philanthropic donors for them to show a larger number of clients overall.

The Bradlieus were clients who couldn’t fit into this model of accounting. Caroline told Beacon that the Bradlieus needed more than one day of help–in fact, they needed 800 volunteers and two years of help. But this didn’t work for Beacon. They needed to show a high number of clients on their performance roster, regardless of overall outcome of these cases because their donors needed bigger numbers. Like the shift from welfare to workfare, recipients were not supposed to depend on charity. Ideally, people like the Bradlieus would pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with just a small amount of help, but Caroline knew this was unrealistic.

Auditing and accounting practices that place self-sustainability and fiscal bottom lines above the needs of recipients means that some goals, and some people, will drop off the aid map. Recipients of aid and those who help them must continually recalibrate their aims and goals to funders’ priorities, as funders become taskmasters of accountability. People who get aid have to figure out how to make aid work sustainable, which often means pulling resources from those who need it the most and putting it back into fundraising and building business models.

In other words, relying on the private sector for recovery has meant enabling for-profit institutions and models to govern how we help the needy, often called philanthrocapitalism. But what philanthrocapitalism can mean for those trying to recover is a state of chronic disaster. Life and labor are brought under conditions in which both public and private humanitarian relief efforts are beholden to market measures of success. Unpaid labor and needy subjects are used to generate profits, while grassroots volunteer groups are forced to scramble and compete for wealthy donors by showing that they too can earn profits on the work of helping others.

Adding insult to injury for people like Caroline, she learned that in 2009, after ICF’s contract with the Road Home Program came to an end, the company explored new federal contract opportunities. One of these led them to merge with a company that aimed to leverage government’s support for faith-based neighborhood volunteer organizations working in places like New Orleans. In other words, ICF was exploring ways to profit not once, but twice on the disaster. It was “enough to make me sick,” Caroline said.

As the wheels of corporate recovery come crashing into the wheels of neoliberalism, the private sector finds that it needs needy people to stay in business. For those still trying to rebuild their lives from the disaster of recovery post-Hurricane Katrina, the process of recovery by the market has produced an emotional surfeit, an affective surplus, in which need has become a circulating resource. Affect here is not just the visceral and emotional suffering felt and worn by people like Henry Bradlieu. Affect here is also a fiscal potential, an ability to generate new business investments and free labor for a struggling economy. In the affect economy, the hopelessness experienced by Gladys and Henry Bradlieu is the new surplus–a marketing tool in the ever growing infrastructure of the faith-based charity market.

The reproduction of need fuels the engines of charity-based aid and renders all but invisible the profit-making at the other end. One can almost hear the siphoning of federal and human resources upward into the pockets of those who know how to capitalize on a good social movement when they see it, even while depriving those who need support the most. Without a viable public sector that limits private profits through charity, these profits will remain desirable and aggressively pursued. Without much more accountability, the market will continue to serve as the primary index for success and investment, and the growing ranks of the poor will remain no longer just the spoils of capital, but also its source. We are all asked to participate in this affect economy in new ways, with new demands on our time–both paid and unpaid–in the effort to take care of those who are in need, and who, despite being deserving of having their needs met–for the three Purple Hearts earned–are now made to produce profits for someone else.

Vincanne Adams is Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She writes extensively on post-Katrina recovery efforts in her new book, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith, published by Duke University Press (March 2013). This piece was excerpted from an article on the same topic titled “The Other Road to Serfdom: Recovery by the Market and the Affect Economy in New Orleans” published by Public Culture (Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 185-216), a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year for the Institute for Public Knowledge. It is republished by permission of the copyright holder, Duke University Press.

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