Finding Silver Linings

AuthorSean Reilly
PositionMember of the Board and Chair of the State and Local Legislative Affairs Committee of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Page 331


We have now passed the second anniversary date of the most catastrophic natural disaster and engineering failure in our nation's history. Hurricane Katrina rolled ashore on August 29, 2005. When the levees failed, New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana would be forever changed. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita-the third most costly natural disaster in American history-punished Southwest Louisiana.

In addition to the human loss and physical destruction, these two storms held a mirror up to the state, and many did not like the reflection. Rebuild smarter, as well as safer and stronger, became the clarion call. Fundamental policies and institutions should be rethought and reshaped as we emerged from the wreckage. Or to cite LSU Law Center Chancellor Emeritus, John Costonis, this unprecedented catastrophe "has stimulated unprecedented receptivity to fresh ideas and fresh solutions for the problems that the hurricanes mercilessly exposed, but did not create."1

The first section of this article chronicles policy and planning successes and shortcomings since the storms. It celebrates the moments when we seized the opportunity presented by disaster to enact new approaches to old problems. It uncovers lessons to be learned. One such lesson is the need to establish recovery entities that enhance accountability links between policy development and Page 332 program delivery. Another lesson is the importance of early post- disaster leadership in engaging citizens in planning the rebirth of their communities.

The sections that follow focus on three challenging issues that pit the need to change against the tug of the status quo. First, implementation uncertainties confront South Louisiana as it attempts to execute infrastructure projects in alignment with its new regional plan and to alter its development patterns to grow more safely and toward a more sustainable and insurable future. Second, unclear policy direction clouds future recovery of the state's healthcare finance and delivery system. Finally, political tensions and litigation threaten the renewal and reconstruction of public housing in New Orleans.

It is too soon to write the history of the recovery. We are in medias res. This writing is necessarily a single snapshot of the state's recovery, a single moment in a long journey. Much progress has been made and more remains to be done. But because of the undeterred spirit of her people, I am optimistic about the state's recovery and as committed as ever to the cause of rebuilding safer, stronger, and smarter.

I Several Steps Forward-one Step Back

In October of 2005, Governor Blanco created by executive order-later to be enacted in statute-the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).2 Modeled after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation,3 which was created by the state of New Page 333 York in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on Manhattan, the LRA serves as the state's primary planning and coordinating recovery agency and, as such, is leading one of the most extensive rebuilding efforts in the world. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita claimed almost 1,500 Louisiana lives,4 destroyed more than 200,000 homes and apartments,5 and crippled 18,000 businesses6-more than thirteen times the per-capita losses suffered in any other domestic catastrophe.7

The LRA's staff and thirty-three member board8-reflective of the geography, race, and partisanship of the state-has focused on four primary roles in recovery: securing and prioritizing funds from the federal government,9 setting rebuilding principles and Page 334 policies, leading long-term regional and local planning, and ensuring transparency and accountability in the handling of recovery funds.

To augment its activities and help finance its mission, the LRA created the LRA Support Foundation, a non-profit entity that raised private philanthropic dollars for the hiring of planning consultants and policy experts to advance the recovery.10

Charged with advancing policy and planning initiatives that will rebuild Louisiana safer, stronger, and smarter, the LRA and the LRA Support Foundation enjoyed early success.

The LRA was active in the first Special Session of the Legislature called by Governor Blanco in the fall of 2005. One early victory was the enactment of the first uniform statewide residential building code in our state's history.11 Modeled after the code enacted by Florida after its series of hurricanes, this code will serve the state well when future disasters visit Louisiana's shores and its structures survive. Likewise, in that first special session, the LRA led the charge to have the state take over the failed public education system in New Orleans and create a new model allowing for choice and charter schools in a clear rejection of the pre-storm status quo.12 LRA leadership also worked to reform certain aspects of the state's business tax structure to help stimulate business activity in the storm-stricken economy and make sure our Page 335 tax code conformed with the recently enacted federal Gulf Opportunity Zone legislation.13

Another milestone of that first special session was the creation of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Trust Fund (Coastal Trust Fund).14 For the first time ever, Louisiana's policy on hurricane protection would integrate levees and coastal restoration and charge a single entity with design and execution. The CPRA's master plan is complete.15 It has been well-received and is now being implemented. Moreover, the Coastal Trust Fund helped our congressional delegation make the case in Washington for a larger share of outer continental shelf oil revenues and provides a constitutionally protected vessel for the income's effective expenditure. With both pieces in place-the CPRA and the Coastal Trust fund-a strong accountability link between design and execution of hurricane protection and coastal restoration was thereby established at the state level. The Army Corps of Engineers, of course, has responsibility for the design and construction of many of the levees that comprise CPRA's master plan, so constant vigilance will still be required to maintain clear accountability across state and federal jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, in the second post-storm Special Session of the Legislature in the winter of 2006, the state missed an opportunity to clearly delineate responsibility for its housing recovery programs and strengthen accountability for their delivery. Legislation that would have created the Louisiana Land and Page 336 Housing Trust failed to pass in the waning moments of the session.16 Managed by housing professionals, this trust would have had primary responsibility for crafting procedures that effectively execute the homeowner and rental assistance programs and contracting with public and private entities for their implementation. This trust would also have served as the sole repository of land sold to the state under its homeowner assistance program, and as such, would have established policies and procedures for the ultimate disposition of those properties. As a result of the failure of this legislation, the state resorted to a patchwork of existing and new agencies to execute its housing programs.17 Consequently, there have been delays, implementation frustrations, and much finger pointing.

That second Special Session was not without its victories, however. There was a post-storm hue and cry in New Orleans to restructure some of the city's long neglected civic institutions. The LRA worked with reform-minded and change-oriented New Orleanians to consolidate and reform the region's broken and Byzantine system of levee boards.18 Legislation in that Regular Session also consolidated the New Orleans assessor's offices and the city's fractured system of civil and criminal courts.19

In the months that followed, LRA staff worked diligently with Parish officials toward the adoption of the new FEMA Advisory Base Flood Elevation guidelines, and those guidelines have been adopted in every devastated coastal parish. The guidelines require raising new houses and buildings to reduce future flooding. The slogan, "safer, stronger, smarter," was no longer merely rhetorical.

Insurability in coastal Louisiana remains a key factor in its recovery. Enactment of building codes and adherence to the base Page 337 flood elevations as lynchpins of risk mitigation has critical long- term implications for the availability and affordability of insurance in the region.

So do other directional aspects of insurance policy. The LRA endorsed and helped advocate the abolition of the state's anachronistic Insurance Rating Commission.20 The only such commission in the country, its activities had retarded private underwriting in the state. In addition, the LRA Support Foundation funded a study of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to determine its suitability for Louisiana.21 That study helped guide policymakers away from greater state intervention as the answer to Louisiana's insurance problems and toward more market-driven solutions enacted in the 2007 Regular Session of the Legislature. Work remains in this area, but Louisiana's policy direction is clearly and rightly directed at expanding private insurance capacity.22

In the spring of 2006, the LRA Support Foundation funded successful planning efforts in Calcasieu, Vermillion, and St. Bernard Parishes. Renowned disaster recovery planner Andres Duany led planning workshops-or charrettes-in these communities, giving citizens a voice in the rebuilding of their neighborhoods and helping local elected officials prioritize recovery projects, modernize their land use and zoning codes, Page 338 develop mitigation strategies, and designate green spaces.23 Strong...

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