Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2010 (November 8, 2010 at 12:00 am)

Talking with Emily Chamlee-Wright


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November 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Emily Chamlee-Wright is one of three principal investigators at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center researching Gulf Coast recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her new book, The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment, came out this year. This interview, conducted by Katie Leveling'09, is the complete version of the conversation excerpted for the “Talking With” section in the fall 2010 issue of Beloit College Magazine.

Emily Chamlee-Wright 

Your research has been going on since the Hurricane Katrina disaster struck. How did you come to be involved with this work?

The person who led our team [at George Mason University] is Peter Boettke. Peter recognized that the moment Katrina hit and the moment that all the pundits and people from all of the various disciplines were weighing in with their analysis of what happened and all the events that took place immediately following the storm—the breakdown of the levees, the botched rescue efforts, and the questions that started to emerge very quickly around long-term recovery—Peter understood that we wanted to have a voice of economists in this set of public debates. This was an opportunity to bring the economic way of thinking to bear on critical issues not only of disaster recovery, but also of civil society more generally.

So, he brought together a team of political economists. Some of them did work on disaster research; some of them did work on public choice economics, which uses the economic lens to understand political processes. Thirdly, he understood that we needed to bring in the stories of people who were actually going through the crisis and the aftermath of rebuilding. Peter and I studied with the same mentor, Don LaVoie, at George Mason, and he knew that I had done work in sub-Saharan Africa that worked with women’s narratives in terms of how they navigated market systems to attend to their own material needs and also to engage in capital accumulation strategies for maintaining control over their resources. So my work in qualitative methodology was something that Pete wanted to bring in as part of this project, and he knew that I would be the person to go to.

How would you explain to a general audience the kind of work you’ve been doing and the kinds of conclusions you’ve been coming to?

In the moments following a disaster, one of the things we notice is that the social systems we rely on and take for granted everyday—from market systems to the provision of government services to all of the things that happen in civil society—all of that breaks down, at least for a while. So the patterns that emerge in the wake of a disaster tell us a lot about community resilience, but they also tell us a lot about how society works generally. So, there are lessons to be born out of post-disaster crisis management, but really the focus of our project is much larger: How does society work more generally, what are the component parts, and what can we learn by applying an economist’s lens to these larger social coordination problems? In the wake of a crisis, there are obvious logistical problems that every individual has to face: lack of finances to rebuild homes, for example. But what economists call the collective action problem is the critical social coordination problem that goes beyond the individual logistical problem. So, the question is: “If my community is destroyed physically by some kind of disaster, I might want to return, but only if my neighbors are going to return, too. If I was sure that they would return, wonderful; I would return, too.” But the problem is people can’t all return at the same time. In the case of Katrina, they’ve been scattered across the Katrina diaspora. Where people went after the disaster is incredible. They were completely disconnected, cell phone towers weren’t working, and it was very hard to send robust signals to one’s neighbors, saying, “Yes, we will be coming back.” So everyone is waiting on the sidelines to see if others come back. But if I’m waiting on the sidelines to see if others are coming back, and they’re waiting on the sidelines to see if others are coming back, then we’re all waiting and no one’s rebuilding, and no one’s sending those signals that there’s new life, returning life, in the community. That signaling process is really critical to overcoming what we call the collective action problem.

Economists know a lot about how markets are important in the wake of crisis. But I wanted to focus on, “What are the non-market signals that are critical to post-disaster recovery, and more generally to social coordination, even in normal circumstances?” So, my focus is on these non-priced signals that come from civil society. Some of the signals that are embedded in civil society are some of the things like habits of association, voluntary authority within a community—say, like, a local pastor—patterns of mutual assistance that are exhibited prior to the crisis and then can be called upon as a familiar mental template after the crisis. Cultural norms that favor swift and self-reliant action are important here, too, because, as we all saw, government assistance was often slow in coming. So those communities that could marshal their own resources and start the process of coming back quickly, in advance of government help, were really at an advantage. So we looked at those kinds of patterns as well. So, that was the general focus of what we were trying to investigate.

It sounds like, in the breaking down of a system, you see how it normally functions, too.

Right. You see things in a kind of relief, because it takes time for, say, market systems to come back up and running. Some of these non-market solutions are really critical to individual residents: community leaders like religious leaders, non-profit organizations, directors. Some of these folks had resources. But if you have no stores open to buy the tools that you need, then the sharing of the tools becomes really important.

You recently presented at George Mason University. What findings did you share?

We have over 400 research subjects as part of this study, or set of studies, most of which are in-depth qualitative interviews that can range anywhere from an hour to three hours, so there’s literally more than a thousand hours of data, and that’s thousands of pages of transcripts. We focused primarily on neighborhoods within New Orleans, but we also did a comparative study in Houston of New Orleanians who had evacuated there after Katrina but were still in Houston three years later. So we had a comparison group as well. The three categories of lessons I would think of as falling into three buckets: There’s a set of lessons for economists, there’s a set of lessons for policymakers, and there’s a set of lessons for communities as well. They can learn from our work.

The principal lesson for economists is that just as markets are critical to the proper functioning of society, and market signaling is critical to widespread social coordination—economists are very familiar with that idea—so are non-priced signals that are embedded within civil society. One of many examples is Father Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam community. They were able to come back very swiftly relative to the general population in New Orleans. And this is an interesting question because it’s not as if this is a particularly well connected or affluent community. What they did have is well-worn habits of association and authority laid in place before Katrina. Every aspect of community life radiated out from the church that was at the physical center of this community. So you had professional networks, youth networks, the networks of the elderly, all radiating out from the church. So when they were orchestrating their return, they worked in the evacuation sites right along the way that they would if they were planning a big cultural event: “You’re going to do this piece, you’re going to do that piece.” All of that was figured out even before they were allowed to come back in on October 5th. They held mass the first Sunday they were back. About 300 people were at that first mass. That may not sound like a lot, and compared to what it would have been pre-Katrina, it wasn’t. But at that point New Orleans was a veritable ghost town. So, to have 300 people in one place was astonishing. So, by October 23, they had more than 2,000 people back. Not all of them had come back permanently, but it was a very strong signal that people were going to be coming back. This presence was critical to getting the attention of the electric company to get the power back, in securing the cooperation of FEMA to set up a trailer site, and also to ward off political threats that were coming from the city. They really wanted to shut this community down—not this particular community, but the general area in which this community was situated was very badly damaged. It was about 15 miles outside of the center of New Orleans. So there was a strong push in those early days after Katrina to say, “Let’s not provide any services in this area. Let’s not allow rebuilding way out there.” While they were developing those plans to not allow rebuilding, this community was already being rebuilt. So, that would be an example of how the habits of association established in the days prior to Katrina were really critical after the disaster. We see that in many other communities as well.

The lessons for policy makers: There are many different studies that are part of this overall project, and the policy implications were a very huge part of what the teams were doing. But I think, in terms of my work and my coauthor’s—who’s Virgil Storr’96, a Beloit alumnus—our principal lesson for policy makers is that, just as in the context of economic policy, where economists are always stressing the importantance of letting price signals work, our work suggests that policy following disaster needs to allow the signals that are emerging from civil society to work. So, let me give you an example. One of the first things that developed after the crisis was the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. What we saw with this early redevelopment planning process was a kind of wait-and-see approach: “Let’s have extensive viability studies of communities before we will allow rebuilding. Let’s have lots and lots of attention on the downtown area and the high-population density areas that we know will come back. But for those other questionable areas that are more distant from the center, let’s have a wait-and-see kind of attitude. We may want to have a broad, aggressive, and sweeping use of eminent domain, which is government retakings of property.” The idea there is that they can rebuild the city better and stronger, but smaller than it was.

While these discussions were going on, it meant that anyone who owned property in an area that was under question didn’t know whether or not they should start rebuilding. If you’re told, “You know, it’s not really clear what’s going to happen to your neighborhood,” the last thing you’re going to want to do is invest $100,000 or more in a rehabilitation process for your home. They didn’t receive as much attention because by May of 2006 the Bring New Orleans Back Commission was defunct. The response from people was, “You can take my home, but it will be with me standing on my porch with a gun.” People were saying things like this in public settings. It was very unpopular politically, so it got scrapped. But what we see is that other community redevelopment strategies replaced them. So, we have a Louisiana Speaks redevelopment process, the New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan, the Office of Recovery Management has its rebuilding plan, and then finally the Unified New Orleans Plan comes on. This stuff takes years of planning with each new planning process, leaving people in a state of limbo where they’re not quite sure what the rules of the game are. They’re sort of doing it in a context of risk, of what we call regime uncertainty. It thwarted what would have been a much more robust early set of efforts. And what happens there is that you start to create a context in which it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that neighborhoods won’t recover. Remember that collective action problem: I will go back if I expect others to go back. But everybody’s delaying their return waiting to see which rules of the game will apply to them. Well, every day that goes by that there’s no rebuilding, or no robust rebuilding, is a day that expectations anchor around the negative: “This neighborhood’s not going to come back.” So, more and more anchoring means that it’s less and less likely to actually come back. You have a social coordination problem that’s really sticky.

The last bucket of lessons that are important here are for communities themselves. It is very likely that despite what I say about what would be the right policy environment following a disaster, when the next disaster strikes, there’s going to be the same old dynamics in play. So, if community leaders are dealing with the logistical problems of getting food and supplies to members of their community, trying to communicate with people who haven’t returned yet; you’ve got all these logistical questions like the collective action problem that we’ve talked about. Now, in addition to that, community leaders have to deal with the fact that they’re not in an environment that’s conducive, public-policy-wise, to effective rebound. So, what should they do?

The first lesson is that they need to get people who can come back: able-bodied people who are pioneers, who are self-sufficient, self-reliant. Some communities call it the “strong man approach.” What they mean by that is not literally just men; there were a lot of strong women in this process as well. It’s people who had some kind of capacity to withstand the extreme conditions of a post-disaster environment. Clearly, they’d be taking on a lot of risks. What happens when you have a disaster is the community gets emptied out, especially if it’s an evacuation situation. That creates a kind of vacuum. You need to create the presence of civil society so that it becomes clear that, “Okay, this is a community that we’re going to redevelop and provide, again, with basic public services”—services like debris removal and getting the power back on. Those are the kinds of services that are really critical to tapping the resources that are within civil society. There are lots of people in trades in these poorer communities, and they had the capacity to come back and start working. But it’s much more difficult, obviously, if they can’t get any power. So something like FEMA trailers is a critical issue. Say you decide you’re going to provide something like a FEMA trailer. Providing those early is critical. If people are driving back and forth from Baton Rouge, that leaves very few daylight hours to work on their homes. These issues are critical for people. They all have jobs and they need to rebound quickly. But because they weren’t allowed to stay, because they wouldn’t deliver FEMA trailers to places where the water had not been restored or the power had not been restored, people couldn’t come back and have a presence. Then it becomes a catch-22. You haven’t provided a FEMA trailer, and you haven’t allowed people back in, because there’s no water and electricity. So now, people are having to drive back and forth. Then people say, “Why aren’t you providing water and electricity and other municipal resources?” And the answer is, “Well, no one’s come back there yet, so we can’t justify the provision of those sorts of resources for a community where no one’s coming back.” But the reason they’re not coming back is because there’s no provision of those basic services.

So, getting people who have the capacity to deal with those difficult early conditions is useful for sending those early signals. It’s very useful if you can get people back early; some of them will be business owners and provide basic services. Something like a lunch cart could be tremendously valuable in allowing people to continue to work throughout the day without having to futz around with where they’re going to get food. So, that presence is important from a logistical standpoint, and it’s also important politically. Once you have a presence on the ground, that makes it much harder for government to say, “No one’s coming back there, so clearly people don’t value their neighborhood, and that’s why we’re not going to provide municipal services.” Getting people there is important.

The second lesson for communities is how important storytelling is. We saw this again in the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community and others as well: The Vietnamese community had been through far worse in their minds. Their framing was, “This is an inconvenience compared to what 1973 was like.” You had people who still remembered coming over after the fall of Saigon. You had people who had certainly heard it from their parents. They kept telling these stories over and over as a way to remind people that there was a template for action here: “This is a pain in the neck, but we’ve been here before. This is pretty familiar territory, and we know what we’re doing.” That familiarity created a sense of confidence that they could do this. In other communities, the stories might be different. In other communities you might have a very strong faith-based narrative: “God has called me to act, and the act that I’m capable of doing is rebuilding my own home.” In neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward neighborhoods, the sense of place was extraordinarily strong, especially after having a prolonged evacuation experience in a place like Houston or Dallas. Nothing against Dallas or Houston, but from the perspective of people who were thrust there in circumstances not of their choosing, they started to gain focus around how special their neighborhood in New Orleans was, its outdoor environment in which people could hang out in social ways and weren’t seen as strange or somehow reflective of bad behavior. This one guy said, “If I want to sit out and drink a beer with my wife at the end of the day and watch my kids play on the street, I should be able to do that.” But in Shreveport, no one did that. If you were in an apartment building, you would get nasty looks if you sat out on your balcony drinking a beer. Things that were considered totally normal and part of the value and quality of life in a New Orleans neighborhood were seen in much more negative terms elsewhere. So, when they came back, they talked about that as a kind of story: “The good life can be found in New Orleans, particularly in this neighborhood, even if it’s a neighborhood that had had its problems.” Other stories were—St. Bernard Parish is in a working class neighborhood, steeped in the trades, and the story they would tell each other over and over again is, “Other neighborhoods have lots of doctors and lawyers. They look at the wreckage of their home and just go, ‘Oh my God, this is overwhelming. How much is this going to cost?’ We look at it and say, ‘Gosh, this is overwhelming, but we know what to do. We’re going to rip that wall down, rewire the house. Mike knows how to do that, Jerry knows how to do that.” That know-how, the familiarity, that narrative—“We’re a working community. We are not afraid of hard work. And we know what we’re doing.”—was really critical for neighborhoods that have that kind of tradition.

Those are the three buckets. To round this out is that the paradigm we have of what makes community work, of what makes society work, really matters. If we keep thinking that cities and neighborhoods are constructed from the top down, we will continue to pursue bad policy. We’re going to have a redevelopment planning policy that says, “Let’s scrap everything; everything will be redesigned from the top down, and we’ll make it perfect.” That will bypass the capacity that’s within civil society. But if we start to recognize that communities are built from the ground up, then maybe our policy starts to say, “How do we craft our policy so that we tap into that capacity?” So that’s really the much broader, overarching lesson.

I’m interested in your work with qualitative data: these in-depth interviews with local people. I think a generalist’s conception of economics is that it’s very numbers-oriented . . .

It’s also the economists’ notion.

So, what does your kind of subjective data have to offer? Why is it more effective than numeric data in some cases, and what does it tell us that we can’t get anywhere else?

Well, first of all, I see my work as being complementary to the other kind of work: theoretical work as well as quantitative, data-driven theoretical work. That work has to get done as well.

So, lots of good work has been done around Katrina with that as the focus, and much of that is part of our larger project. So what’s the complementary piece that my kind of approach offers? A big part of it is this mental template question: What we know from the quantitative data is which communities came back the fastest. There’s great work being done on this: spatial analysis that uses GPS, that uses data from mail service and delivery to say which houses came back online, was really telling, and you could see interesting aggregate patterns across neighborhoods. You could see that some neighborhoods were coming back, but that quantitative data doesn’t tell you why or how those communities were coming back. It doesn’t tell you the constraints that are limiting communities that aren’t. It may be that lack of financial resources is a big piece of the puzzle. But without going further underneath that aggregate level, you would miss that there’s all sorts of other things impeding the way. Policies that were often designed to help had an impediment effect. Some policies said, “We want to keep you guys safe. Your neighborhood was badly damaged, so we’re not going to let you in. We’re going to delay access to you, and we’re going to delay access to the point where it will be many months until we allow delivery of trailers to your neighborhood.” Those were put in place at least in part to protect people, but they were an incredible barrier to neighborhoods in which physical labor was one of the resources available. They couldn’t deploy it because they weren’t allowed in. And then about 18 months after the storm, you have the Road Home Program. It’s been announced, and it’s starting at snail’s pace to close at its first payouts. The public announcements had figures in the range of $150,000. That was the maximum amount that you could get. But it was much more likely to be around $62,000. There were all sorts of attempts to make sure that the payout system was designed to help people, to keep them from being the victim of disreputable contractors. They’d say, “We’ll only pay out once the work’s been done. That way, you can apply to get that chunk paid to the vendor.” Well, it was so cumbersome that they eventually scrapped it. But that was another four months. All of these efforts to try to help made things so much slower and actually reinforced negative expectations because you were told, “If you go back now, you could, but you’re going to be taking on tremendous costs. If you wait for another two months, four months, six months, you’ll get this big pay out,”—which oftentimes wasn’t really all that big. Now you have people saying, “Well, maybe it does make more sense for me to wait for the Road Home money to come through.” But while those folks are waiting, that’s one less signal that people are coming back to invest in the community. Those are the kinds of challenges that people were facing in the post-Katrina context that are really hard to capture with just quantitative analysis alone. And it’s the storytelling around the impediments that really helps you see the systemic nature of those impediments. It’s the storytelling around the success cases—“Why were you able to come back quickly and other neighborhoods that were even more affluent were not?” Only by hearing over and over again from the Vietnamese community: “Well, this is no fun, but compared to the 1970s, this is easy.” It tells you something you just can’t get by looking at the aggregate data.

So, if you were advising a policy committee that needed to address something of this scope, would you suggest talking to local people?

That’s a great question, and my answer may surprise you. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to go in and try to do some of the work I was doing. My work is to inform the public policymakers and to inform the scholarship. Policymakers shouldn’t try to do the work I’m doing. What they should do is what the government’s good at doing. Government is good at doing some things. It’s the basic lesson in economics: you should focus on things that you have a comparative advantage in doing. What is it that government does very well? It’s got lots of resources that it can bring to bear quickly. What should they be doing? Getting rid of the debris. To the credit of FEMA, that was a big push, and it was an important thing. Mr. Smith can’t rebuild his home if there’s a big oak tree that’s blocking his truck from the street. So getting the oak tree out from the road is critical. Things like basic service provision: Get the lights on. Get the debris removed. Get the water clean. Provide basic levels of security, with the message of, “If you’re coming back early, please make sure you’re capable of doing that, because we might not be able to respond. If you have a cardiac condition, maybe it’s not a good time for you to come. Send your son instead.”

The other thing government can do is uphold the basic rules of the game that govern society generally. Rather than putting in doubt questions like, “Are your property rights going to be worth anything in six months?” be very clear in saying, “the contracts that were in place pre-Katrina are still in place. The property rights that were in place pre-Katrina are still in place.” Now, that said, there may be contexts in which policymakers want to say, “Building in that neighborhood in the first place was stupid. We may not want to recreate that problem.” If that’s the case, or it’s the case that says, “You can rebuild, but we need to have everybody’s property elevated by three feet,” that’s fine. But make those decisions swiftly, and with certainty. So if that’s bad news to someone—“Oh, now I have to elevate my home in addition to repairing it”—at least they know. At least the clarity allows them to sell their home to someone who is willing to take on those costs. And thirdly, take a serious look at policies that thwart the signaling process in advance of disaster. The National Flood Insurance Program is a real culprit here in squelching the signal that building in places that are six feet below sea level is not a good idea. That signal does not get conveyed if you subsidize what it costs to insure property. That’s a much more politically charged, more difficult question. But if we want to take a sober look at what policy does to create unintended negative consequences, subsidizing flood insurance does create a context in which there will be more people and more homes at risk. Even if you still have a National Flood Insurance Program, make the rates actuarially sound. If you have a government program to provide flood insurance, have the rates convey the signal that there is a cost, a risk, associated with building in a place that’s vulnerable to flood and wind damage. So, even though I tend to focus on the capacity within civil society, my attitude is not that government is useless. It’s far from it. I think that there are things that government has a real advantage in doing. Reinforcing security, upholding private property rights, upholding contract law, upholding the rule of law: those are critical things they could do. In terms of relief and recovery, providing those things that government is good at providing and doing it quickly is really critical. But don’t try to get into the business of redesigning the entire city according to some ideal plan that even if perfectly executed—which it never will be—is going to take 15 years.

Is there an interview you can pick out as your most memorable?

Virgil Storr, Nona Martin, and I are editing a historical narratives volume, so it’s less policy. It’s much more about presenting a whole family or couple or person we’ve interviewed in a much fuller context. Virgil and I conducted one interview in which Virgil was the lead interviewer. It was an elderly couple—she was in her early 60s and he was in his 70s. This was a couple that was very clear about what they were doing and very clear that they were moving back to their Lower Ninth Ward home. They came back very early. She learned how to do drywall. She didn’t have a lot of know-how coming into this but she learned very quickly.

One of the things that was so striking is that they had a very clear sense that this was a community they were a part of recreating; in their decision to return, they were recreating it. They were among what we call the able-bodied retirees. They had some resources: they had a pension, and they had time. They were physically capable of doing the difficult work of rebuilding. What they would also convey is what their life was like pre-Katrina. They did very hard work during the week, and the weekend was social time. It included family and friends in the neighborhood, family and friends that were down the road. They were a part of the Mardi Gras balls and the whole circuit of the crews that were part of civil society that made New Orleans a special place to them.

Their degree of personal resilience was particularly awe-inspiring. I thought that one was particularly worthy of note. This was a couple that was not wealthy by any means. They were in the Lower Ninth Ward. They were really close to where the breach was from the barge that came. They were elderly. These are exactly the folks you thought would not be capable of coming back. And yet they were doing it. This was emblematic to me: As difficult as the circumstances were and continue to be in post-Katrina New Orleans—all the social structures that conspire against people, acknowledging that in its fullest sense—even with all of that, people exercise tremendous agency, despite the social structures that we would have predicted, that no one could come back. Trying to hold both of those things in my mind has been an important piece of this project. Trying to understand, “What are the overarching structures that both enable and constrain effective action?” and the fact that even when everything seems to be conspiring against a person or a community, you still see robust examples of resilience at a personal level and a community level. That’s what’s really intriguing to me: to better understand those stories both at the individual level but then how those stories translate into broader patterns of social resilience.

There’s been some Beloit College student involvement with this project. How have Beloiters contributed?

Tony Skriba’07 was part of this project. He ended up working for the team at the Mercatus Center after he graduated. He continued working on the project with me even after that. Andrew Serwadda’10 was a Sanger student, and he was deployed as one of the members of the interview team in Broadmoor, New Orleans. He developed his Sanger project around his research. Lots and lots of people—too many to name—have helped me with cleaning up the data. The audiofiles are sometimes misheard when we transcribe them, so people cleaned up the transcripts. Ellie O’Byrne’05 worked on the project even though she had graduated many years before, and she worked at the Mercatus Center. Heather Allen’08 was leading a team after she graduated. She led the Houston team of interviewers who were doing the survey work in particular. Laura Grube’08 was in the field. Skyler Treat’09 also worked as a research assistant, and she was in the field as well. She worked at the St. Bernard Parish study. Lots and lots of Beloiters were a part of this project. Kate Linnenberg, assistant professor of sociology, was also helpful in developing the protocol for training field researchers. She ran some early workshops around qualitative methods. Maria Vasquez’09 also worked on the project.

Thinking about Beloit’s particular pedagogical approach, how is this project fertile ground for learning?

If you think about what it is that’s distinctive about Beloit, we push out disciplinary boundaries. That doesn’t mean that we ignore our discipline. Far from it. I am an economist through and through. And yet, I find some of the most interesting questions are at the intersections between economics and, say, sociology, or economics and anthropology. The intersections between disciplines is one place in which we can grow as scholars, and it is a context in which fresh questions get asked. Or old questions get asked, but with a fresh perspective. Having an economist ask questions that ordinarily a sociologist would ask allows for new learning. Thinking about the interdisciplinarity of the college and why we think it’s valuable for our students to dwell in that intersection between disciplines—that’s also the thing that creates great scholarship. It creates meaningful scholarship.

The other piece of this project is that it enters into territory that isn’t scripted. There were ideas that we had going into this: We initially thought we would do a comparative analysis between Biloxi and New Orleans. We had this political economy narrative: You have one set of rules in Biloxi and another set of rules in New Orleans, and a horrific natural experiment in which we can tease things out. It turned out that within the first week of being in the field, we figured out that that couldn’t work. There were just too many things that were different. You couldn’t attribute the differences to any particular set of things. What we realized is that there was tremendous variation within New Orleans that was crying out for explanation. As I said, the aggregate data was telling us that there was this variation, and yet we had no sense of what was explaining that variation. So, the unscripted territory: We didn’t know that things like sense of place were going to play such a dominant role in places like the Lower Ninth Ward communities. It was by getting the boots on the ground that we discovered that it was something that did deserve attention. We didn’t know that historical narratives in the Vietnamese community were important. It didn’t occur to me. I didn’t know enough to know that that was an important question. By being on the ground, it hits you in the face and you realize, “This is the story that needs to be told here.” We thought that the initial constraints, the most pressing difficult challenges, would have been the logistical and financial challenges in the first few months after Katrina. Those were certainly big problems, but they didn’t compare to the confusion and uncertainty that people were facing in terms of the policy environment. We would ask people, “What’s been the biggest challenge since you returned?” expecting that this would be an opening question about telling us about how hard it is to get the debris removed from their house, and they launched right into, “It’s just so damn confusing. I don’t know what the answers are. I keep going to these community meetings to try to get some answers from the local council members. What’s going to be the context in which I’m allowed to rebuild? When can we get inspectors to come inspect the homes? They’re telling me we can’t get inspectors because we aren’t even going to be issued building permits.” All of this confusion was what we called the “signal noise,” the noisy policy environment in which people who were really well-motivated couldn’t make responsible and clear decisions.

So, economic theory is really helpful once you’ve identified that that’s what you need to start focusing on. There’s lots of wisdom in the literature—questions around this regime uncertainty—but without the boots on the ground, we didn’t know that that was the important question. So, there’s this iterative play between our theoretical lens and what we discover on the ground and in the world. If that’s not a Liberal Arts in Practice story, then I don’t know what is. It’s this iterative play between what I’m looking at and what my theory tells me. The theory informs what I’m looking at, but what I’m looking at cries back and challenges, “Is this really the right theoretical lens you need for this problem?” So that pushes the boundaries of our theoretical understanding, too. This iterative process is one where meaningful scholarship develops. It’s also where critical thinking develops for our students. Certainly, critical thinking, even for professors, develops. This is very much a project that Beloit College would have naturally a lot of sympathy for because it speaks to the values of the college in terms of our academic mission.

What haven’t I asked you that I should have?

That was always my question at the end of my interviews.

You wouldn’t know to ask this question, but a good question would be, “What’s the audience for the various projects that we’re doing?” The book, The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery, is very much geared toward an academic audience. I want to talk to my fellow economists and social theorists about these questions. Policymakers who are interested in these kinds of questions will also be very interested in this. But we’ve also done work that targets public policymakers more directly. Virgil and I have an edited volume that’s much more focused on the policy lessons that can emerge out of a context like this. But—and this is where the historical narratives volume is something we’re really excited about—How We Came Back is the one that we’re working on right now. It’s moving toward the point where we’re trying to find a publisher for it. The reason I really like this one is that it would be useful to scholars who have no interest in economics at all but want to understand the narratives behind post-Katrina recovery from the standpoint of the people who lived it. We are able to present people in a more full sense. You never get somebody’s full story, but we have the luxury of doing is presenting a person as they were willing to tell us their full story. That has been a really valuable part of the project because one of the frustrating parts of doing the social science work is that you find the representative datum or quote or bit of a story that helps you to make a general point, but you really have to leave the other 47 pages of that transcript aside.

One guy I’m thinking of in particular is a hardware store owner in St. Bernard Parish. His story was really helpful in providing examples of how frustrating the post-disaster flood insurance payouts had become because everyone was trying to push everything off to flood damage. If private insurers saw it was flood damage, the private insurer didn’t have to pay. This guy’s experiences were so illustrative. I would feel a pang—a real deep, gut wrenching pang—when I would leave the rest of this guy’s story out. This was a guy who had hit a point in his life where he was successful. He was a very hardworking business owner who showed up to work every single day, and yet he was at a comfortable stage of life. In one fell swoop, his entire business was wiped out. He’s dealing with all these insurance hassles. And yet the first thing this relatively successful businessman says is, “We’re going to gut this place out and we’re going to do it ourselves. We have no means of earning an income, so my manager and I are going to hire ourselves out mucking out houses.” Then there wasn’t enough money coming in, and he asked his wife to do the same thing. This is a guy who probably prides himself in being at a stage where he doesn’t have to do this sort of thing, and yet he had to ask his wife to do this sort of thing. And he valued her for her willingness. He said, “I’m not afraid of working. It never scared me.” It amazed me that the decision was immediate. He had mortgage payments on his home, on his business. He never missed a payment. It’s something he takes pride in. And it was something he was able to do because he started mucking out houses in a neighborhood that was horrifically damaged. The piece that never gets told is that the level of resilience that this couple was already displaying: within the past one to two years they had lost their daughter. She was a college-aged daughter who got into a car accident. The most devastating thing you can imagine as a parent is to lose your child. And they hadn’t had time to process that, and they were demonstrating this level of resilience. That to me is an astonishing thing. By having the historical narratives laid out, we get the opportunity to see the fuller picture, that there was a life filled with wonderful things and heartache and hardship pre-Katrina. Whatever level of resilience people were displaying post-Katrina, that’s part of the story, too. That’s why I’m really excited about this next project, because we get an opportunity to tell those stories.

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