A visit last spring to the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, has prompted graduate students and a faculty member in the Department of Public Policy to research why the government’s response to reconstruction has been so slow.
Thomas Craemer, an assistant professor of public policy at the Greater Harford campus, visited New Orleans twice last year.
In May, he rallied a group of graduate students to go there to help build a Habitat for Humanity house.
| Graduate students from UConn work on a Habitat for Humanity project in New Orleans.
|Photo by Thomas Craemer
The contingent of 15 people included members of the Graduate Association of Public Policy Students and Chris Farmer, who works in the mailroom at the Greater Hartford Campus.
What they found when they crossed the canal bridge into the Lower 9th Ward shocked them – rusted cars, upended houses, and few signs of outside help.
The Lower 9th Ward has seen little reconstruction.
“It’s sad to think that two years later, the majority of the 9th Ward is still uninhabitable.,” says Barbara Rua, current president of the Graduate Association of Public Policy Students.
The students and Craemer began to analyze what they saw.
They interviewed residents, counted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers, and took pictures of overturned houses and hearing notices tacked to houses – “Blighted property: public nuisance.”
“I was overcome with a sense of how massive the devastation was and what the next steps are,” said graduate student Ryan Tully.
The group noticed markedly fewer FEMA trailers in the Lower 9th Ward, which had been a largely African-American neighborhood, compared with the adjacent Arabi neighborhood in the largely white St. Bernard Parish.
Were people in the Lower 9th not applying for trailers? Did they not have the property titles needed to obtain them? Was racial discrimination a factor in rebuilding?
These are questions they are probing in their research. Craemer will give a presentation on the topic at a conference in New Orleans in January.
Their preliminary findings raise more questions. In a half mile of road in the Lower 9th Ward, 13 percent of housing units have trailers, compared with 63 percent in a half mile in the adjacent Arabi neighborhood.
The response to Hurricane Katrina has directly involved the Department of Public Policy’s new head, Amy Donahue, whose expertise is in disaster management and the role of first responders.
Donahue, who is also an associate professor of public policy at UConn, was on sabbatical leave at Louisiana State University last spring and summer, where she organized and served as interim director of the new Stephenson Disaster Management Institute.
Disaster management is a research specialty of Donahue. She studies the productivity of emergency service organizations and the nature of citizen demand for public safety services.
Donahue is a former senior adviser for homeland security to the administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
While there are many capable and dedicated emergency responders around the country, Donahue says, when disasters strike, major gaps are evident in the ability to respond to large, complex events.
“The frustration,” she says, “is that we seem to confront the same obstacles disaster after disaster – somehow we can’t seem to learn some of the critical lessons and solve these persistent management problems.”
Craemer compared this with a complete trailer count of both neighborhoods, using Google Earth aerial photos from 2006, and got similar results.
He also compared the results with the trailer count for Lakeview, another largely white neighborhood in the same parish as the Lower 9th, and found that Lake-view had nearly three times as many trailers as the Lower 9th.
All three areas suffered similar damage in the hurricane and are located in low-lying areas.
Comparing reconstruction in New Orleans with the rebuilding of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami destruction, Craemer found that 45 percent of damaged houses in Indonesia were under construction or finished two years after the disaster, but only 15 percent of those in New Orleans were reconstructed.
The U.S. government is one of the largest contributors to the Indonesian reconstruction effort, he notes.
The students and Craemer presented their findings recently at the Greater Hartford Campus.
Craemer came to the United States from Germany in 2000.
He completed his Ph.D. at Stony Brook University before joining the faculty of UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2005.
He said it was the “can-do” spirit in this country that attracted him to the U.S.
“Why not in this case?” he asks.
Rua says the New Orleans experience has piqued her interest in disaster preparedness policy nationwide.
“It really makes you contemplate what exactly the role of government should be,” she said.
The public policy graduate students are planning to return to New Orleans for a community service trip next spring.