Tony Lavely '64 and Jim Bowers '64 on Hurricane Katrina
Chris Getman, pinch-hitting for Tony Lavely in writing our class notes after Hurricane Katrina, solicited reports from Louisiana classmates concerning Katrina. Here are responses he got from Tony and from Jim Bowers.
Notes from Tony Lavely concerning Katrina
Notes from the Gulf Coast
November 4, 2005
First, I want to thank Terry Holcombe and Chris Getman for pinch-hitting in this column for the last two issues. Thanks also, to classmates who called and e-mailed expressing concern and support in the aftermath. On Saturday, August 27th, I was welcoming guests for the pre-opening celebration of our newest Ruth's Chris Steak House in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. The room in which I dined that night is now thirty feet under water! As the weather forecasts grew more ominous that night, I awoke early on Sunday morning to return to New Orleans, where Wanda was already boarding up our new home. I was the only car driving into New Orleans that morning, facing thousands already evacuating. Following hurried and minimal preparations, we finally started to evacuate mid-afternoon and began the bumper-to-bumper 17-hour drive to Houston. On Monday, we watched the TV news and were momentarily encouraged until we heard about the levee breach in the 17th Street Canal. Since we were doing major renovation to our historic home in Uptown, we were living in a first-floor apartment about twenty yards from the canal levee! Fortunately for us, the breach was on the other side, so our apartment only took on about a foot of water. Wanda and I returned on Labor Day, when officials opened the city for twelve hours. It resembled a war zone, complete with armed troops at every major intersection. We got most of our temporarily belongings out of the apartment. My company made the difficult decision to permanently relocate our Home Office to Orlando, Florida, so Wanda and I will settle there. As a newly-public company, we decided it was critical to act quickly to maintain company operations. We will miss New Orleans greatly. As others have observed, this began with an unpreventable natural disaster, but it quickly exposed civic planning and engineering failures. Government services at every level ― local, state, and federal ― toppled like dominoes, and a complete breakdown in social order ensued. I remain optimistic for the recovery of my beloved New Orleans, with its rich culture of ethnic and racial diversity, food, music, and joie de vie. I will be assuming my duties for the next issue of YAM, so please send me news and information about yourself and classmates.
Baton Rouge was lucky. We were on the weak side of the close storm
(Katrina) and pretty far away, although on the bad side of the other
(Rita). Still it blew pretty hard here for a couple of days and I had a
weekend's worth of work picking up all of the deadfall in my yard. We
are now the largest city in the state. About a million people had to
flee the New Orleans area and only a couple of hundred thousand have
returned. Roughly another hundred thousand are still here and it is
estimated that most of them will be staying. You will have no difficulty
imagining what happens when you hold the size of a city's road net
constant while doubling the number of vehicles. The principal adaptation
we've had to make is leaving a lot earlier to get wherever it is we want
to go and get there on time.
The real story is about the strength of informal networking in our culture. Of the million or so evacuees, only about a quarter ended up being housed on the floors of churches, high school gyms, and other shelters. Within hours there were no vacancies in hotels, apartments, even nursing homes, for miles. Home sales went up 10-fold. Even more significantly, well over half of all the households in the city became houses for friends, acquaintances, displaced New Orleanians, rescue workers, and others with whom the hosts may have had only distant connections. We, for example, started off housing a displaced judge with whom we are friends. Our kids are grown and away, and their college friends ― some who work for various NGOs and are aware we have spare bedrooms ― called our kids for reservations when they couldn't find hotels for their teams coming to town on their charitable missions. When that parade of visitors began to dwindle, our youngest daughter took a job with FEMA and discovered she had co-workers from faraway cities who were living on cots in a huge circus tent, showering in the back of 18-wheeler shower trucks, eating in mess halls. She began to bring them home for a private bedroom, bathtubs and home cooking. Things began to return to normal in our household around Thanksgiving. There is a secretary at the school who took in 11 people, her relatives. When their parents weren't home with them, the relatives picked up the kids next door and brought them along when they were ordered to evacuate.
The huge volunteer effort probably had its earliest start here. Everybody I know began immediately culling their closets and attics for unneeded clothes, bedding, furniture, household items, etc. Truckloads were being informally distributed almost immediately, not only by the Red Cross but by every church congregation and civic organization. Lucy and I volunteered and manned an emergency hot-line phone bank connecting people with whatever public and charitable resources became available. It is my impression that this kind of response went on country-wide, maybe even world-wide. The bottom line is that the markets and individuals helping people with whom they could network actually were the shelters for more than three-quarters of the people displaced. Watching the news you get persuaded that there was a massive failure of state and federal governments. Nowhere is credit being given to the millions of small voluntary actions by millions of individual citizens (not merely Louisianans either) for shouldering the vast majority of the load, but shoulder it they all did.
The State faces a very uncertain economic future. Something like 20% of all of its economic activity used to be conducted in New Orleans which has now almost entirely disappeared for the near term. The political structure which did not use its flood control budget to build adequate levee systems has still not been reorganized, and nobody feels confident that this disaster will not recur. I guess the excitement for the next year or so will be in watching to see whether even in the wake of this dramatic event which affected everybody, we can fix our problems so that the Big Easy can be recovered. My fellow Louisianans are all hoping against hope that the federal government will pay the cost of the repair and rebuilding even though we have just participated in a course of history where little of the effective action was governmental, but rather the results of the fine individual character traits of their neighbors and fellow citizens.