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Nine Years After Katrina, Looking to Louisiana for a Path to Sandy Recovery

New Jersey researchers explore lessons learned by Gulf Coast residents

A redeveloped marina in Delcambre, Louisiana. (Photo: Peter Rowe)
A redeveloped marina in Delcambre, Louisiana. (Photo: Peter Rowe)
Reinventing lives and livelihoods, rebuilding homes and expressing frustration over red tape, endless government regulations and squandered recovery funding.

More than 18 months after Superstorm Sandy rolled ashore, there likely hasn't been a day that Jersey Shore residents haven't had the storm on their minds.

In Delcambre, Louisiana, it's been that way for almost nine years.

"It’s nine years and they’re still working on permitting and dredging and making connections," said Dr. Peter Rowe, the research director at the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium.

Rowe and two colleagues from Sea Grant visited Delcambre and other cities in Louisiana, including New Orleans, last week to get a sense of what nine years of recovery looks like after Hurricane Katrina destroyed Gulf Coast communities.

Community Comes First in Recovery

For those affected by Katrina, "It’s the same issue: getting money," said Rowe. "People  say the money’s there, but it never flows. I heard from many people that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and you have to keep hammering."

Despite the lingering destruction, Delcambre is something of a success story, but only because its local business community was able to adapt. A fishing town that depends on the shrimp and oyster catch for jobs, the community largely banned together to redevelop itself – instead of relying on top-down advice from the state or federal governments.

"They emphasized that every time they used a top-down approach, it failed," said Dr. Ryan Orgera, Coastal Community Resilience Project Manager at New Jersey Sea Grant. "Louisiana is much larger than New Jersey, and sparsely populated, so at first it was hard to see how the two are similar. But the idea that the communities have to be in charge was the biggest lesson learned."

In Delcambre, an old marina destroyed during Sandy was turned into a new fishing port, and the local fishermen started a new sales approach: using Twitter and social media to post the day's catch and directly selling to consumers at the improved dock.

The idea to adapt to a new, post-storm culture wasn't easy, said Dr. Jon Miller of Stevens Institute of Technology, who also serves as Sea Grant's Coastal Processes Specialist.

"Communities had started down certain paths, realizing they were never going to get to their completion level," said Miller.  But if they could get 10 percent built, they knew they would have a better case to get the money to continue the project. One thing I heard, they did a lot of what they called cussin' and discussin'."

A Different Kind of Shore

The redevelopment of Delcambre, and the bottom-up approach from its residents, may not be as easy to accomplish in New Jersey.

"A lot of our coastal communities, in particular, are not those tight-knit communities," said Miller. "You have the residents, you have summer homes, it’s all over the place."

Add in the fact that New Jersey's sting from Sandy affected towns from ultra-affluent Mantoloking to middle class Brick and Toms River, to urban areas such as Jersey City and Hoboken, and there are many competing interests, none of which see recovery in the same light, the experts said.

But the key in recovery, the Louisianans said, has to begin at the local level regardless of what defines local in a given area.

"Making new uses of old places was something they did that worked," said Rowe. "Where people took ownership and went right at it, they saw some success."

The advice that was given: "Get together with your community, meet and meet and meet, figure things out and get the support of your community so you can lean on each other and you’re not on your own," said Rowe.

A Long Road

The success in Delcambre, of course, is tempered by areas of the city of New Orleans – including the infamous Lower Ninth Ward – which are still home to empty lots and overgrown commercial areas. Some blocks are ghost towns.

In other areas, the storm led to gentrification when developers bought up areas to make them more upscale – a scaled-down version of what many middle class Shore residents feel could become of their homes if developers and wealthy seasonal residents increase home values, especially on the barrier islands.

That makes it even more important for local residents to come up with solid plans for recovery, rebuilding and rezoning.

"The end result wasn’t, ‘do this, A, B, C.’" said Rowe, of the group's visit. "There wasn’t a silver bullet. In the longer view, it was a philosophy of moving forward as a community."

Some similarities cross all geographic and monetary bounds, however.

"They were completely frustrated with that whole process," explained Miller. "People saw how much money was wasted on bureaucracy – determining which application was better, which ones had technicalities that got them denied, it was very frustrating."

"FEMA was universally reviled by pretty much everyone down there," added Orgera.

If, aside from developing solid, local plans for rebuilding, there was one lesson learned from Katrina, it's that recovery is a long and painful road.

"There are going to be pitfalls, starts and stops," said Rowe. "Someone mentioned that after Andrew, the last FEMA field office didn’t leave for 20 years. It’s a long, drawn-out process."
Mike Mazzucca May 16, 2014 at 12:09 PM
From the bottom up our community could really accomplish many things. Sadly it's our town leadership that is failing us by not listening. "The advice that was given: "Get together with your community, meet and meet and meet, figure things out and get the support of your community so you can lean on each other and you’re not on your own," said Rowe." If only our leadership would listen to what people had to say and then act accordingly. What we see here though is "money wasted on bureaucracy" at the top level as well as the local, with residents sandwiched in between. People, we can't expect our leadership to fight every battle. In fact we shouldn't expect them to fight any battles for us because their agenda is different than ours. Self serving vs. community driven and we know which is which. What does it say about a community and it's leadership when the town administrator over steps and over speaks his boundary? We all wished that we could have learned a tremendous amount from Katrina and I guess to some degree we did. That is we still can't trust any form or our local or state government to help victims unless their is political gain for them, it's that simple. As Chris Christie departs onto the white house, he'll forget about the few promises he's made to us victims. Heck I am sure he has already forgotten them because to date we still are waiting on funding that has been promised. If we think 19 months is long, consider 9 years. The best quote in this article, "I heard from many people that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and you have to keep hammering." This is exactly what we all need to keep doing, and well beyond after we get into our homes. Don't give up...don't ever give up.....
Mac May 16, 2014 at 02:09 PM
if it is GOP in Ocean County, then it is a Gilmore kneepad - Gilmore kneepads are so well greased that they can only purr and roll over

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