MOSAIC NOLA:The Gentilly Project

Saturday, December 31, 2005

On the seventh day..

Investigators have long suspected engineering mistakes were at the heart of the levee and floodwall breaches. Not only did the structures fail before they reached design capacity, but documents show the designs were not appropriate for the weak soils and the depth of the canals, investigators said. Yet discovering why skilled engineers at reputable firms came up with obviously faulty designs, and how those mistakes were missed in the corps' lengthy review process, has stumped investigators. - Times-Picayune (Friday Dec 30, 2005). Also see here.

It's my engineering education. As I study management and organizations as a profession, there remains a desire to get to the empirical realities first -- what can we know objectively as fact? However, socially speaking, getting to the facts has many filters and complications. And when facts are uncovered, there are more issues: Who will organize them and in what way? Who will get to see them? To what extent should the facts be summarized or deliver raw? Unfortunately, quite a bit works again the public learning (and remembering) what the facts are.

When public reactions to facts quickly become partisan bickering, it's a waste. Fortunately from what I've seen, the people who were most disrupted by Katrina aren't so easily distracted into the partisan exchanges. Usually I find them looking instead for trusted and credible information, so that they can make household decisions.

Friday, December 30, 2005

On the sixth day...

The early months of 2006, we'll likely focus on Gentilly area of New Orleans, home to Dillard University. Particularly zip code 70122. It's in a general area that has a mix of damaged and undamaged areas. Level of devastation not so complete, such that cleanup progress and gaps can be measured effectively. And it includes a significant middle-class population and is racially diverse.

During the holidays, returning residents and others have made progress cleaning up there already. Some are remaining behind in FEMA trailers to keep watch over their blocks, in areas that are most desolate.

The goal is to develop a system that follows the area's environmental and clean-up progress and communicates this information to local and distant residents. Perhaps such a system would have broader applicablility, as a kind of mobilization infrastructure.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

On the fifth day...

Today I was on a conference call for an interagency task force, one organized to focus on Katrina's environmental justice issues. There are a lot of federal agencies, programs, and departments related in some way to Katrina recovery. So many that it takes much work for them to coordinate with each other. Add in the other roles and departments at the state level. Then those of at the local level. Then community groups. That was the scope of the conference call.

On the call, I was fielding questions about the research proposal I'm developing with Dr. Beverly Wright of Dillard University. The project's goal is to develop a communications intrastructure that will inform on the environmental and housing isssus essential for repopulation decisions by returning and displaced NOLA families and others. Based on some of my studies of an Internet-enabled grassroots political campaign, this project further advances the notion of "open-sourced" organizing beyond software and content development. The proposed system will rely on GIS data applications and the social networks of returning residents, local volunteers, and others.

As usual, I spent some time answering the frequently asked question: "If you are developing a tool that's online, how will you reach people who don't have access to the Internet?" Later in the day, I received a good anecdote to help answer it. I was speaking to Rhonda, a displaced New Orleans resident in North Carolina who occasionally has Internet access. She apparently wasn't a heavy user of the Internet pre-Katrina, but she is now because she finds information she can pass on to others. She described receiving a cell phone call from someone physically situated in New Orleans. He didn't have Internet access, so he called her to look something up for him.

Most people have no idea how effective (or not) their organization's use of the Internet is. Years after the Internet started becoming "mainstream," it's still not too widely transparent who is visiting a website and how often. Even the most quiet website might be getting more traffic than you think, from people whom you might not expect. Including those whom you believe aren't getting access to the Internet.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On the fourth day...

When reporting the shared uncertainty that New Orleanians have about recovery, an article today sums up the key issues quite well:

The future of New Orleans teeters on choices made by families.....The sum of their private deliberations will determine the size of the reconstituted city, reset its racial balance and dictate its politics.

Ron Martinez, 49, an architect...weighs the risks of bringing his wife and two children back....he cannot make an informed decision. "I flat don't know what to do right now....A lot of things that are out of my control have to happen before I say I am rebuilding my house."

"If we had waited for the city and the federal government to do everything for us, we would be waiting for a good long while." - Adrianne LeBlanc,school principal [on her decision in the days after Katrina that any long-term closing was unacceptable]

"Your upper-class white neighborhoods are first in line and we are very last." -- Kesa Williams, accountant


Thousands of families from New Orleans are pretty much on their own. Left to make private decisions about a variety of things they can't reasonably get information about, and grossly lacking in the resources to fix the problems they encounter.

Only those in the best shape economically have some chance to dig themselves out. However, even upper-class families with ruined houses are on the brink. In the most damaged neighborhoods, what good will it be to recover your own house if your neighbors do not? By default, the recovery of family homes will need to be neighborhood efforts.

Jimmy from New Orleans suggested to me today the need for Block Captains. Makes sense. Recovery would go a lot smoother on a block if there was a captain to keep track of the block's needs and share information about common problem. According to Jimmy, block captains apparently worked well in rebuilding London faster than expected after World War II .

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

On the third day...

Today I prepared a description of a proposed activity that will help map out recovery gaps and progress in New Orleans by neighborhood.

There are many kinds of personal and grassroots recovery actions in New Orleans, and perhaps these different things can be made more transparent. That way, the activities can be less scattered, different efforts can be coordinated, and others may be inspired by what they see happening and offer additional help.

It helps me to talk to different kinds of people to sort these plans out, and when doing so I do get a general sense of mood about the city's recovery. What I'm hearing today isn't too good. The mood seems very sad. One person described it me as a "continuing state of disequilibrium, unpredictability, and unreality."

An infrastructure for communication looms very large as something that's needed for the recovery effort. I'm hearing anecdotes of people in different locations who are feeling disconnected and looking for updates of what's really going on and where things are really headed.

Fortunately, the project's contact center is ready now, and there is sufficient breadth and numbers on the project email list to continue making an impact beyond the Internet. The limiting factor is a series of events and programs to drive the communication. And a series of events and programs requires articulation of a public mission for January and February...

Monday, December 26, 2005

On the second day

In his recent blog post, Clayton Cubitt describes the kind of thing that's now happening in multiple locations:

Often the best way to solve an insurmountable problem is to start with an attainable goal. With that philosophy, a grassroots coalition of volunteers from Walton County, Florida, started the "One House at a Time" project. Working with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, the group adopted the town of Pearlington and recently completed the first of many temporary houses. The coalition's goal is to raise money and build 200 houses in Hancock County.

Residents and volunteers are starting to take back flood-ruined neighborhoods in the Gulf Coast, concentrating block-by-block and house-by-house. This kind of grassroots organizing appeals to my head.

The core event of Cubitt's post - Miss Suzie and Mr Josh getting married - touches my heart. Recovery is more than logical planning. It is more than dealing with what our senses are telling us. It is more than what our prior experience tells us is possible.

Recovery is also love for one another. It is the restoration of hope in one person or one family. It is faith in the revival of communities, when standing in the midst of destruction.

A lot can happen with unexpected speed when effective organizing has this kind of love, hope, and faith operating in tandem.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Twelve Days of Christmas (Post-Katrina New Orleans)

A couple weeks ago, I had been talking to Monisha, who's back in New Orleans, about that famous song - The Twelve Days of Christmas. We imagined what the lyrics for this song might be if modified for Post-Katrina New Orleans.

Back then, I thought that the twelve days ended with Christmas, but it turns out it was the other way around. Christmas Day is the beginning. The twelve days end with the night of January 5, the Eve of Epiphany.

So Monisha and I weren't able to brainstorm any lyrics for our imagined "Twelve Days" for New Orleans. But someone else had (see comments). The lyrics had me with the first day's reference to Entergy.

Spencer Bohren played the song at Snug Harbor during his Christmas show, and he apparently got the words from Sylvia Patterson right before. I don't know whether she wrote the lyrics herself or received them from elsewhere...

Enjoy. And have a Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

What Christmas?

"I don't even care about Christmas now," said Ashira Francis, who lost her rented eastern New Orleans home and everything in it to Katrina. "Once I get into a house I can worry about that." -- 'WHAT CHRISTMAS?' Times-Picayune (Steve Ritea)
I hope Ashira Francis, wherever she is right now, has at least a moment of holiday spirit, stripped away of the frenzy, the spending, and the obligations we take on for the season.
I pray that all of our differences the night before Christmas might fade away, as each of us seeks (and finds?) a peace in spirit. A window of peace and silence that comes when the world shuts down, so that caring for ourselves and others comes first before everything else.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Into Christmas Day

Yesterday I heard from a Dartmouth alumus in New Orleans. He saw an article written about Mosaic in the local New Orleans newspaper Time Picayune. I was delighted to hear from him. He's been in the city most of the time since Katrina, and he and other IT professionals have been helping bring businesses and employees together and generally helping form virtual communities.

The day before that I met Dr. Beverley Wright of Dillard Univeristy, who's the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. We began discussion of a small near-term research grant to contribute towards New Orleans repopulation issues. Talking to her took me back to my feeling immediately after seeing the city in New Orleans in November, and she's come independently to the same sentiment. It's time to clean up the city. This must be a growing sentiment, because returning residents and other volunteers are beginning to do this in more organized ways.

Even the mass demolition project in St. Bernard's Parish (which I read about this morning) suggests an undercurent of residents taking action, in ways that fit the circumstances of their particular blocks and neighborhoods.

Rebuilding and recovery is beginning to emerge "from the bottom up."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Bridge to Gretna: Tonight on 60 Minutes

Tonight Ed Bradley at 60 Minutes tackles September's incident on the bridge connecting New Orleans to Gretna, Louisiana. Sunday, Dec. 18, CBS at 7PM Eastern/Pacific (6pm Central).

Thousands of evacuees, mostly black, were taking one of the few routes out of the city. They were lacking food, water, and shelter. The Gretna police officers, mostly or all white, used force to stop the evacuees from crossing the bridge. Was this a case of racism or the story of a town government trying to protect its citizenry?

On the one hand, simple racial explanations and stereotypes can stand in the way of understanding what's really going on. On the other, racism can be too quickly dismissed as an explanation.

Ed Bradley has a good chance of getting the balance right. As black professionals in predominantly white occupations, we must constantly reconcile racism with colorblindness. We're never recognized for it. It can make white people uncomfortable when we admit having it. It's a professional skill that's translatable to other social situations, but it isn't much appreciated. We can't realistically put it on a resume and be compensated for it.

Yet, getting right the dynamics of racism and colorblindness is needed. Race remains a potentially significant factor in our interactions. It doesn't always have to be a factor. It isn't the only factor to consider. It can be one in a collection of factors working together. Given its practice and mutating forms in the history of the United States, it shouldn't be easily dismissed or ignored.

I'm glad that Ed Bradley is addressing this tonight. On the road to New Orleans recovery, this is a bridge that must be crossed.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Paths to Permanent Return

A lack of leadership in New Orleans recovery is often described in a particular way.

The New York Times editorial, Death of an American City (12/11/05), describes it as a need to produce "a comprehensive plan for putting New Orleans back together."

In yesterday's New Orleans Time-Picayune, displaced resident Bernadette Porche puts it this way : "I'd love to go home, but it's the uncertainty of the rebuilding process...we have no real plan."

The greatest uncertainty is about the level of hurricane protection. The recent proposal to increased funding for levee protection is providing hope for lots of people as an important start, if not tangled up by other Congressional matters.

At the same time, there are families and businesses who want to see commitments for Category-5 level protection before they return. The new plan, which is builds on the Army Corps of Engineers existing plan, focuses on Category-3 protection.

Ivor van Heerden, director of the LSU Hurricane Center, adds another layer to many of the existing proposals: "in terms of the overall needs of southeast Louisiana, those are little more than Band-Aids." He suggests that restoring the existing levee design can't meet Category-3 protection. Surges generally associated with a Category 1 storm caused two of the levee breaches in New Orleans.

What can be done to invite a more serious commiment to hurricane protection?

Monday, December 12, 2005

'Tis The Season

Sometimes I'm hearing organizers for Katrina recovery putting off planning into January, because "everyone is taking time off for the holidays and won't be paying attention."

I reject that. This holiday season is the best time. There's no better extended time for us to gather with our families and others to address the greater good.

Just try approaching me in January with the proposal of something new. Most likely I'll be like most everyone else. Too busy with returning to work to think beyond the next day. Do you want to develop options for Katrina recovery? Now is the time.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Is The City Safe? Sample Alot In Many Places

I met this morning with Darren Ranco, a professor of Environmental Studies and Native American Studies, at Dartmouth College, and I'm delighted that he's agreed to be a Mosaic advisor of environmental sampling issues.

Professor Ranco is one of Dartmouth's specialists in environmental justice issues, and one of his core research areas is community monitoring of the environment, something sorely needed to understand the ongoing safety and health situation in New Orleans.

New Orleans already has groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade that help citizens test air samples in their communities, with EPA-approved tools. Supporting groups like this and developing new community groups enables more frequent and comprehensive environmental testing of the city.

The EPA obviously has a critical role to play. What we can do as private citizens is significantly augment the EPA's professsional efforts, helping conduct environmental sampling in New Orleans that is much more significant in scope.

Just like astronomy. There are professional astronomers (i.e., professors and researchers) who study the stars, and there are communities of amateur astronomers who play a critical role in making observations. There are more amateur astronomers than professional astronomers, and so the "amateurs" sometimes make very important discoveries. Their motivation to help drives them to become very capable, and there are more of them looking!!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mosaic: An Information Clearinghouse?

The best "information clearinghouse" is people talking to each other, particularly when we're all trying to make sense out of non-routine events like the flooding of New Orleans. That why I think among the best clearinghouses of information are the forums or craigslist.

Or just about any gathering of people who are concerned about New Orleans and its residents. If the gathering is large enough and has people who have different bits of information, everyone attending comes away a lot more informed.

Lately, I've been thinking of Mosaic as an operations center. I see it today as a crossroads for all the different people who'd like to see more action in recovery. As families are being put out of temporary housing in the coming weeks, those who are action-oriented need a means of congregation, irrespective of their locations and the organizations they belong to.

If you want updates or have plans and meetings in the works for evacuees and returning NOLA residents, sign up and keep visiting.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Welcome Anny!

I'd like to welcome Anny to the project. She's a Masters of Enginneering Management student here at Dartmouth, and this month she's helping administer the Mosaic Operations Center.

New Orleanians are all over the country. When you want to share events or announcements related to the city's evacuees or returned residents , email Anny ( Or post them here, and she'll retrieve them for our calendar.

Our blog roll - the right side bar - has been pretty bare the past couple months. Anny will be adding to the roll this week. If you have or know of a blog that addresses Katrina and the Gulf Coast/New Orleans, email them to Anny (

Much thanks to Greg Greene for providing a whole list of bloggers from the Gulf coast/New Orleans area. Mobilization for New Orleans requires developing new relationships, whether it's in person or online. I'm delighted to have more bloggers a click way on this site.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Levees Are Not Enough

For New Orleans to withstand future hurricanes, coastal wetlands will have to be restored. Levees alone won't do it.

Even before Katrina, it was known that Louisiana has been losing dozens of acres of coast **every day**. As these wetlands erode, New Orleans becomes more vulnerable to every hurricane that approaches. Storm surges on the city are higher as the coast erodes. Wetlands reduce the burden on the city's leves.

So is stopping coast erosion hopeless? No. Louisiana's costal wetlands can be rebuild. Already there is a plan that explains how to do it (Coast 2050). It was completed a year ago and was produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and local agencies.

The solution is on the shelf. Estimated cost is $15 billion over several decades. Apparently, the nation spends more in Iraq in one week!

Here's the executive summary.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Why We Can't Wait

The Mosaic Project will be continuing through the holiday season, focusing on the front line issue of New Orleans repopulation: environmental protection, health and safety.

A long-term emphasis on New Orleans recovery has stolen urgency and public direction on what can be done today, and so the aim this holiday season is provide up-to-date information on several issues:

  • Reconstruction and fortification of levees
  • Identification of plans to redevelop Louisiana's coastal wetlands
  • Sampling of the city's physical environment to ensure the health and safety of returning residents, reconstruction workers, and volunteers.
This information, organized to provide situational awareness within New Orleans districts and neighborhoods, provides a critical role in allocating resources for resident return and recovery. And in atracting resources too.

Many people don't give to worthy causes all the time, out of concern of where their contribution will be most effective. Providing ongoing transparency on this, with respect to New Orleans, is sorely needed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

From Charlotte, North Carolina

I received this email a few days ago, and I'm reprinting this here with the author's permission

Hello, my name is Rhonda Flowers and I am a New Orleans native relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. I hope something can be done and the election scheduled for February is postponed. We are interested in returning to our homes someday. However, we still would like the right to vote on issues that benefit our city while away from home.

I hope a creative way can be done to stop the election or allow those away to vote. Changes need to be made to better our city. If we are not allowed to vote those necessary changes needed to help African American communities in the city will not take place.

It's not that we have thrown our city away we had no choice in leaving our homes. There are about 3,000 residents from New Orleans here in Charlotte. We do not hear about most of the important information going on in our city which causes a problem. If this election will take place I beg our leaders to send out information via mailings, internet, television, etc. so our voices can be heard and our votes counted.

If we are not allowed to vote the city will never be the same and benefit low-income African-Americans. We should still have the right to vote in our city and our voice should be heard. Thank you. Be Blessed.

Louisiana's Secretary of State has said on Friday that the city's local elections should be postponed from February 4. Governor Blanco makes the final determination. The recommendation is that elections take place no later than September 30.

The Salvation Army hosts a monthly meeting for evacuees in Charlotte, NC. The next meeting is this Thursday, December 8 at 515 Clanton Road, starting at 6pm.