April 12, 2010

New Book Explains the Who, What, and When of New Orleans's Recovery Process

"Olshansky and Johnson gamely dive into the muddy waters of post-Katrina planning to bring us the real story of New Orleans's patched-together recovery." — David R. Godschalk, FAICP, professor emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

CHICAGO — How does a city rebuild after being submerged under more than 225 billion gallons of water? Clear As Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans provides readers with an objective and intimate look at the people, events, and actions that defined the first 22 months of the city's recovery.

Published by the American Planning Association's Planners Press and released today at the APA National Planning Conference, Clear As Mud was written by disaster recovery experts Robert B. Olshansky, AICP, and Laurie A. Johnson, AICP. The authors participated actively in the recovery process and spoke on or off the record with nearly all of the major players. This is the definitive history of a process that many found almost impossible to understand.

Clear As Mud documents the enormous social, political, and logistical complexity of rebuilding a city.

"Recovery processes are complicated by a lack of funding and a lack of timely information," said Olshansky. "New Orleans was no different. Decisions had to be made by officials and citizens quickly and based on information that was changing by the minute. It's like rafting through the Grand Canyon with no map and tiny oars."

In any recovery process, the need to act quickly often conflicts with the need to satisfy many different stakeholders. Throughout Clear As Mud, Olshansky and Johnson identify the stakeholders involved in New Orleans's process — including the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the federal and state governments, mayor, city councilmembers, city neighborhood groups, planners of all sorts, and countless others — and explain what each of them wanted at each turn in the story.

Olshansky and Johnson write about the continual uphill battles New Orleans faced throughout the recovery process — beyond debris clean up and rebuilding. Communicating with residents displaced around the country took time and money. The decline in population meant the city's sales and property tax revenues were down more than 50 percent. Various groups and neighborhoods began developing their own plans, afraid they would lose their voice in the process. And the city's planning capacity was squeezed even more.

"Even before Katrina, the city's planning office was small for a city of that size," said Johnson. "The city's planning staff had been reduced from 24 to eight positions, and only four of those eight positions were for professional planners. This further complicated an already enormous task of planning for rebuilding an entire city."

Clear As Mud is a story about working through adverse circumstances. The authors share New Orleans's recovery process in the hope that it will provide lessons for other cities and other disasters. After documenting the recovery process, the authors were amazed at how versed many New Orleans residents became in the planning process, calling them "some of the world's best citizen planners."

The authors note, "Recovery following a catastrophic disaster takes a long time. It is never easy, and it is never fast enough for affected residents." Planners, politicians, and citizens alike can learn from New Orleans's experience and perhaps become better prepared for crises of their own.

Clear As Mudis published by the American Planning Association's Planners Press. Clear As Mud may be purchased immediately through APAPlanningBooks.com for $72.95 ($48.95 for APA members). ISBN: 978-1-932364-80-4. Paperback: 304 pp.

About the authors

Robert B. Olshansky, AICP, is a professor and associate head of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois. He has published on postdisaster recovery planning, planning and policy for earthquake risks and environmental impact assessment.

Laurie A. Johnson, AICP, is principal of Laurie Johnson Consulting and Research. She has more than 20 years of experience in urban planning, risk management, and disaster recovery research and consulting. She has written about the economics of catastrophes, land use and risk, and urban disaster recovery and reconstruction.


Roberta Rewers, APA, 312-786-6395; rrewers@planning.org