“We Shall Not Be Moved”: Tom Wooten on New Orleans and Community Rebuilding

By Martha Pskowski

Author Tom Wooten spoke at Hampshire College on Wednesday, December 5th, on his recent book We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina.

Tom Wooten

Tom Wooten

We Shall Not be Moved tells the story of five New Orleans neighborhoods, and how residents worked in the months and years after Katrina to rebuild their communities. The book tells the story from the points of view of residents in Broadmoor, Village L’Est, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and Hollygrove.

I spoke with Tom before the event to learn more about his work in New Orleans and perspectives on disaster recovery. Tom began the book as an undergraduate thesis project, and decided to settle in New Orleans after that year. As a young author and new to the city, Tom gained the trust of the people he worked with. We Shall Not be Moved shares their stories. This book is a remarkable testament to individual and community will in the face of “super storms” and a cautionary tale of governmental neglect and misconduct.

MP: What can we learn from the Katrina recovery when facing recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy? What differences exist between these events?

TW: I’m not the first to say this, but we need to keep in mind after disasters is that communities are the world experts on themselves.

One reason that you’re hearing more about community recovery efforts sooner after Sandy is that people are able to start the recovery a lot faster. This period of time after Katrina the city had just started to be de-watered and the first zip codes were being re-opened.

The scale was bigger in New Orleans on an aggregate level, but of course if you’re an individual family and your home is flooded that’s devastating. A lot will also be state-specific; New York is a different place than Louisiana.

MP: How did you negotiate your role as a transplant to the area, first as you were involved in the recovery and then as you were deciding to write about it?

TW: The most important thing was spending as much time as I could with people who were doing the actual work of rebuilding and not transplants like myself. I spent my first summer on the ground in 2007 really immersed in these three different community-based recovery efforts. I spent my free time out talking to neighbors on the block where I was living, I showing up to events on the weekends that neighbors were throwing, getting involved in the city’s small-but-vibrant Celtic music scene.

It became less of an issue as I moved there semi-permanently in 2008 because the city was becoming my home. I spent a lot of time on my porch with my landlords, Miss Dorothy and Mr Coco.

Over the course of my first year in the city, I really saw the block where I was living come back to life. That was a process that meant a lot to me, because it was home.

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MP: What is the correct balance between community organizations and government agencies in re-building, and sustaining neighborhoods? How can community rebuilding groups work with government agencies and vice versa?

TW: One thing that’s clear looking at this small sample of neighborhoods, is that neighborhoods that were well-organized before the disaster were better off. There are some cities around the world that have started experimenting with having a portion of the city budget go to community grants. Building neighborhood organizations before a disaster creates the infrastructure socially and fiscally to implement community recovery efforts.

This book is walking a fine line between celebrating the potential for community rebirth that these neighborhoods have shown, and also cautioning future leaders that this is not an optimal way to rebuild a city. These people have gone above and beyond the call of duty to rebuild their neighborhoods because they didn’t have a choice.

MP: What are the limits to the community-based recovery approach?

TW: The people who did this work have burned out and in some cases died doing this work. The people I have written about with two or three exceptions are not doing this work anymore. It’s not clear that these neighborhoods will keep up the social infrastructure and gains they built up after the storm. Part of that’s normal in a recovery: You can only give up weekends and evenings for so much of your life, eventually you want to see your kids. You need to think about personal and financial sustainability.

The things that neighborhood groups have been forced to do in New Orleans we need to correct. There were certain “chicken and egg” problems, like with the schools, where government needed to make the first step and initial investment to re-open institutions.

MP: How can adaptation to a changing climate be factored in when recovery from a disaster? Especially in a city like New Orleans, built on the silt deposits of the Mississippi River, how can a recovery be sustained?

TW: One neighborhood group, the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, has a very strong sense that the planet’s climate future, and that neighborhood’s future, are inextricably linked. But we need more political will to reduce green house gas emissions.

The new levy system is something that will do pretty well for the city in a 50 year time span. But the approach of bigger pumps and levies will only work for so long.

We see with Sandy and we see with climate projections that a lot of other coastal cities are going to be dealing with problems like the ones New Orleans has faced. This is not just a New Orleans problem as folks in New Jersey and New York are now seeing.

MP: What advice would you give to young people who want to help in a recovery process, or move to a city like New Orleans that’s going through a major revitalization?

TW: A lot of the work that got done was by volunteers in the months and years after the storm. Flying people in for a week is an important show of solidarity, and it made a difference for residents to see how many people cared about their situation.

Money will only do so much, and you never know quite where it goes. But you can tell that your labor is being spent well if you’re working with a community.

In terms of young people who are moving to the city, from the context of New Orleans, I generally think that it will be good for the city in the long term. Many residents seem to think so too. Cities are tantalizing places, and important places to keep vital. That’s part of why young people are drawn to them.

The thing that worries me a little bit is that some folks moving to New Orleans- myself included- can develop a voyeuristic sense of destruction and poverty in the city. There’s this idea that you’re a pioneer going to the ends of the earth. I think that you see this same trend with young people moving into downtown Detroit. It’s important to keep in mind that these places are people’s homes.  They were, and by many measures remain, vital and vibrant. No city is a post-apocalyptic playground, nor is it a blank canvas.

You can learn more, read excerpts and purchase We Shall Not be Moved at nolarecovers.com. Thank you to PopDev and the First Year Program at Hampshire College, sponsors of Tom’s visit.

All photos courtesy of nolarecovers.com.

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