Sept. 21, 2017
Denice Ross wrote for Slate's Future Tense about accessing reliable data after catastrophes.
Six months after the federal levees failed and Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, I went to City Hall to try to get electricity restored to our house.
The government building’s seventh floor was so full that overflow needed to be moved to the ground-floor lobby. Most people waiting carried stacks of paperwork and photographic documentation of their damaged homes. One elderly woman ahead of me finally got her turn but walked empty-handed to the counter. She didn’t have a permit to file. She just wanted to know: Have any of her neighbors gotten permits to rebuild? Could they tell her which of her neighbors might be moving back? She didn’t have enough information to decide what to do next. And she wasn’t alone. Without data on the rapidly changing housing and demographic situation, businesses didn’t know how many customers they might have. Charities didn’t know which services were most needed and where. Neighborhoods didn’t know how to prioritize volunteer efforts to rehab houses. The whole city was flying blind.
As months turned to years, people increasingly lost confidence in government agencies and philanthropy. News reports on federal dollars going to the region and donations coming into nonprofits were abundant, but people looked at their own stalled recovery and asked, “Where’s the money?” The lack of financial transparency only added to the sense of uncertainty and suspicion.
We can do better with Harvey and Irma.