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.