Sunday, March 1, 2015

Katrina Five Years Later: Safety responders bring lessons home


Boat that washed ashore blocks St. Bernard Parish street.

When Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast five years ago, not only did it destroy communities, it overwhelmed local governments. The needs of desperate citizens far exceeded the ability of their government agencies to respond.

The response had to come from across the country and in some cases from outside the United States.

Likely we all have vivid memories of the television news reports showing first responders risking their lives as they plucked stranded people from the rooftops of their homes in flooded New Orleans neighborhoods.

A less dramatic, but important response involved teams of safety professionals and damage assessment experts, who were dispatched to New Orleans, where levies had collapsed. These teams were also sent to the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast, where Katrina ground away thousands of homes, beach front businesses and historic landmarks. Entire communities were either blown or washed away.

Bakersfield architect William Melby and Chris Lee, who now serves as the City of Bakersfield’s assistant building director, were members of specially trained, volunteer teams sent to the devastated St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. Lee worked for the City of Anaheim at the time.

Melby recalls that he volunteered for California’s Office of Emergency Safety Assessment Program thinking he would be responding to earthquakes, floods and fires in California. It was a civic commitment he made believing if he helped a suffering community, a helpful hand would be extended to Bakersfield in an emergency.

Melby admits it came as a surprise when he and other California volunteers – architects, engineers and building officials – were dispatched across the country to claw their way through the rubble of Katrina.

Their base of operations was a tent city surrounded by debris and damaged buildings. Their job was to assess the structural integrity of every building. A green tag meant the building was safe, although it might be damaged. Red tag indicated a building was unsafe and posed a threat to life. A yellow tag indicated some risk, with limited use allowed.

Every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., teams fanned out into neighborhoods to inspect buildings. The tags they hung determined if a family could return home. They alerted residents and emergency responders to hidden dangers that existed in the abandon structures.

Initially their work was hindered by the lack of maps, supplies and direction. A St. Bernard Parish building official who greeted them when they arrived, was never seen again. It was the National Guard that pulled together the effort.

After volunteers were inoculated to safeguard them from the health hazards they would encounter, they formed small teams and set about the tedious task of “triaging” damaged buildings. These were long, hot, humid days of wading through mud and devastation.

Melby described surreal scenes of cars and boats that had landed on rooftops. He encountered remnants of personal loss – homes littered with toys, wedding photographs, dolls, scrapbooks, clothing and furniture.

The volunteers tried to shut out the painful scenes. They focused on the buildings. But it wasn’t that easy. Lee recalled team members held themselves together during their 16-day inspection assignments, but on the way home, when the pressure was off, some began to cry.

Both Melby and Lee have responded to other disasters, sharing their professional skills and compassion to help communities recover. But as these communities have benefited, so has Bakersfield. With each out-of-area response, Bakersfield’s readiness is fine-tuned.

From Katrina and other disasters, Lee says he has become more aware of the consequences of a community’s resources being wiped out. He has learned that a community must be prepared for the very worst that can happen.

Bakersfield building inspectors, who are certified as “disaster inspectors,” conduct annual drills, setting up a mobile emergency center and defining roles. Regular citywide drills, which involve all departments within the city, as well as regional agencies, also fine-tune and update local disaster response plans.

In their book “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson identified New Orleans’ lack of preparedness as a big factor in the city’s faltering recovery. Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois, and Johnson, a planning consultant, worked on New Orleans’ recovery plans.

Centuries old, New Orleans lacked maps and plans for many neighborhoods when Katrina hit. Residents paid the price for city officials’ lackadaisical approach to disaster preparedness, the authors told urban planners meeting this spring during the American Planning Association’s conference in New Orleans.

“The days and weeks following a disaster are not the ideal time to initiate planning,” Olshansky and Johnson wrote in their book. “The best preparation for recovery planning is to have active planning processes beforehand that include networks of well-established community organizations, clear lines of communication, and a variety of planning documents and tools.”

Five years later, New Orleans still struggles to recover from its fatal and tragic failure to plan for the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Bakersfield and Kern County officials, especially those who witnessed firsthand Katrina's aftermath in New Orleans, are committed to having resources and plans ready to respond to local natural and man-made disasters.

This article by John Hardisty (Jack) appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Aug. 29, 2010. Hardisty retired in 2004 as the City of Bakersfield’s development services director. He is now a planning consultant and mediator.

HISTORY SERIES: UP Train Conductor Wants to Save Bakersfield Depot


Union Pacific train enters the weather-beaten station in east Bakersfield.

Stephen Montgomery is an architectural sleuth. When he is not working as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad, he spends his spare time poking his nose into and under some of Bakersfield’s oldest buildings.

He lifts dates off of plumbing fixture, finds discarded catalogues stuck in walls and searches through government documents – all part of his tedious hunt for the pieces of puzzles that tell the stories of decades-old homes and businesses.

He also is a man on a mission: Protecting Bakersfield’s history.

No high-falutin’ government agency appointed him to this task or mission. He’s just a regular guy, a lifelong resident of Bakersfield, a member of the Kern County Historical Society, a self-taught architectural detective and a passionate believer that Bakersfield isn’t doing enough to protect its heritage.

And that belief particularly applies to the building he has worked in during his more than 40-year railroad career.

Once known as the Southern Pacific Railroad depot on the corner of Baker and Sumner streets, the building is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, after a merger in the mid-1990s.

Appearing weather-beaten and forgotten, the east Bakersfield building is still used by crews manning the six to 10 freight trains that pass by the station every day.

But the glory of its past – when it formed the hub of a new town named Sumner, and when passengers would squeeze through its doors and line the benches of its waiting room – are long gone.

Montgomery is convinced railroad officials are just letting it deteriorate and crumble into a memory.

He would like to see the building sold to investors and “repurposed for business and professional uses.” Montgomery envisions the building becoming a restaurant, collection of shops or turn-of-the-century themed focal point for a revitalized Baker Street corridor.

Before the present economic slump, the city’s redevelopment agency was moving forward with plans for east Bakersfield’s revitalization. But reportedly that did not include investors stepping forward to acquire and “repurpose” the landmark railroad station.

“Currently we use the building as office space for several dozen people, some of whom are train crews that pick up their trains out of our yard in Bakersfield,” said Aaron Hunt, Union Pacific’s director of corporate communications and media. “We will continue using the building in this capacity for the foreseeable future.

“The depot sits on railroad right-of-way and is near our line. As such, safety is a primary concern for us. In that context we plan to continue using the building as office space for railroad employees,” he said. “We work hard to be accessible to the communities where we operate trains. If a party is interested in purchasing the depot, we would be willing to have a conversation about it.”

But like city officials, Hunt has not heard of any investors interested in buying and renovating the building.

Construction of the depot began in 1888, when the Southern Pacific Co. expanded into the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Residents and business owners in Sumner applied pressure on the company to expand railroad facilities east of Bakersfield.

First to be constructed was a machine shop. Later the company’s maintenance facilities in Tulare were shifted to Bakersfield. Shortly after the move, work on the brick depot and a hotel was started. The depot was officially opened on June 27, 1889.

In his analysis of the building that is on file with Bakersfield Economic and Community Development Department, historian Chris Brewer called the depot an architectural “disaster.”

“It is a combination of several different architectural styles, including Richardsonian Romanesque, Spanish Colonial Revival and Moderne,” Brewer wrote. “The roofline and arcade are the only elements which have original architecture somewhat intact.”

The building has been severely altered numerous times over its more than 100-year existence. Alterations included spraying gunite over its brick exterior. Despite these changes, Brewer concluded the building “is significant to the area both economically and to a lesser extent architecturally.”

And it is this “significance” that bugs Montgomery the most about old buildings, and how they are regarded in Bakersfield.

The son of Stephen H. Montgomery, a Bakersfield doctor, Montgomery was born in Bakersfield and graduated from Bakersfield High School. Even as a child, Montgomery said he had an interest in architecture and a sense of history. He recalls, for example, being in the audience as Bakersfield’s Civic Auditorium on Truxtun Avenue was officially opened.

He studied architecture-related classes at Bakersfield College and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. But a stint in the military ended his college education. Needing a job after his discharge, he signed on with the Southern Pacific Railroad.

That was in 1969. Montgomery was 24 years old. The Sumner depot was a beehive of activity, serving as the headquarters for the San Joaquin Division’s superintendent. Much of the rail’s coordination that is now automated was being done manually.

Changes in railroading have taken its toll on the building. Passenger service transferred to Amtrak. Much of the building was converted to storage. Portions of the once ornate portico promenade were enclosed to expand office space. The entire complex became emeshed in chain-link security fencing.

Montgomery is now 65. He has watched and fretted over the building’s four decades of decay. Even on a recent tour of the building, he was quick to point out the shingles and boards that were peeled away by the wind of a recent spring storm.

On July 12, Montgomery will retire from railroading. He is going back to school, taking classes at Bakersfield College in building codes and materials of construction. He’s getting serious about his historical preservation mission.

A long-time union officer, Montgomery says he is used to butting heads with railroad officials. He’s now preparing to butt heads with city officials.

“I have a few attitudes to overcome,” he said.

He believes Bakersfield should have a historical preservation ordinance based on the age of a building, not on its standing on a “historical register.”

To demolish any building over a certain age – perhaps the cutoff being 50 years old – should require a study of its historical significance.

Like the Sumner Street railroad depot, a building might not be an architectural work of art. But it may be significant for other reasons and worth saving.

This article by John Hardisty -- a Bakersfield court mediator and planning consultant – first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on July 11, 2010. John Hardisty writes the newspaper’s occasional column “If these walls could talk.”

TV INTERVIEW: John Hardisty, Ted James warn California farm land threatened


California government’s shortchanging of the state’s counties could lead to prime agricultural land being lost to farming, according to a report by Bakersfield television station KERO.

Reporter Felix Rodrigues Lima interviewed Ted James, the director of Kern County’s development services department, and his former counterpart with the City of Bakersfield, John Hardisty, who now operates the Bakersfield land-use consulting firm South Valley Solutions.

Both agreed that the state’s decision not to support the Williamson Act jeopardizes agricultural land preservation. The state has shortchanged counties and cities millions of dollars in promised tax subsidies.

One of several California counties that participate in the program, Kern County was supposed to receive $4.6 million in state “subventions.” Instead, it recently received only $133.22.

The paltry amount is Kern County’s share of just $1,000 left in the state budget for the program after last summer’s legislative hearings, instead of the $28 million that should have been allocated.

In exchange for reducing property taxes on farm land, the state for decades has promised to reimburse counties for lost tax revenues. But the state last summer reneged on that promise.

With California now nearly $20 billion in the budget hole, it is likely legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will do that again.

"Not receiving this annual payment is a major issue for the county," James said.

Hardisty told KERO that the Williamson Act is “consistent with policies of the state for compacting development, making sure they don't get too spread out and sprawled."

James called the state’s actions “contrary to the laws they have about preserving prime farmland. … On the one hand, you want us to preserve the land, but on the other, you're not giving us a financial incentive to do that."

Abandoning the program, which was created through an act authored by former Kern County Assemblyman John Williamson in the 1960s, is currently not an option for the county, James told KERO. Instead, it is monitoring how other agencies react, and looking for other sources of funding.

"One may be a user fee," he said. "Another could be some kind of transactional costs, one to enter the program, one to participate, and when you leave the program there's a cost as well."

Hunting for Bakersfield's 'historic character'


John Hardisty spent nearly 30 years guiding the city of Bakersfield, Calif., forward as its development services director. He managed the city’s Planning Department as Bakersfield grew to include about 143 square miles and serve a population of nearly 340,000 people.

During those years, his focus was on the present and the future. Now retired from the city and working as a planning consultant and court mediator, Hardisty’s focus is also on the past, as he writes an occasional column for The Bakersfield Californian .

Beginning with his May 23 feature on the turn-of-the-century home of the late Louise V. Olcese, a Bakersfield capitalist, Hardisty will write about the historic, significant and sometimes downright strange homes and buildings in Bakersfield.

Bakersfield, at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, has a rich history rooted in oil and agriculture. It also has a hard-scrabble reputation born of the struggles of the Depression-era Okies, who flocked to the community.

Known for its brand of Country Western music and Basque food, Bakersfield can be as sophisticated as any city – and mind you, it’s California’s 11th largest – but it can also be a bit quirky.

Hardisty’s occasional column will highlight such attractions as Bakersfield’s tallest building and explain why at 12 floors it was required to obtain a variance from the city’s height limitation. He also will interview the architect of Bakersfield’s futuristic-looking triangle building and recall the 1970s battle waged to get city clearance to build the “funny looking thing.”

At the center of what was once the city of Kern (east Bakersfield) is a sprawling, formerly elegant train station. He will tour readers through the now mostly boarded up and weather-beaten structure, which is used by the railroad to house a skeleton staff and store supplies.

“To keep moving forward, it is important for every community to understand its past,” said Hardisty, explaining the focus of his column. “To attempt progress without an understanding and respect for history is like building without a foundation.”

This sensitivity to history is particularly important to Bakersfield. The city was hit in 1952 by an earthquake that destroyed much of its downtown and many of its public buildings. Some contend Bakersfield’s historic character was turned to rubble by the earthquake. But if you look closely, you will find some remnants have survived.

Hardisty’s column will take readers on a treasure hunt for Bakersfield’s historic character. The articles will be reprinted on this blog beginning with the May 23, 2010 feature about the Olcese House.



The annual conference of the American Planning Association, held last week in New Orleans, focused on the city’s recovery after flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the city were billboards advertising the new HBO series “Treme,” about people displaced by Katrina from an historic, but poor New Orleans neighborhood.

Saturating the television airways were clips of the series’ star, John Goodman, chewing out a British reporter who suggested New Orleans was past its prime and not worth saving – don’t save the city, its food or its music. Goodman ends up grabbing the guy’s microphone and heaving into the city’s rubble.

Goodman correctly shouts at the reporter that the destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Katrina five years ago was a natural disaster. The destruction of New Orleans was a manmade disaster (he actually used less polite.) Here’s a link to the YouTube video.

In their book “Clear As Mud,” Robert B. Olshanky, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois, and Laurie A. Johnson, an urban planning consultant, document the run-up to this manmade disaster and what will be needed to put New Orleans back together. For years, government officials were warned that New Orleans’ levees were on the verge of breaking and people would drown like rats.

Goodman’s exchange with the pesty reporter was (more politely) replicated during an APA conference session. An out-of-town planner asked a similar question: Is it possible that it is just too expensive to rebuild New Orleans?

A panel of New Orleans activists and city officials, some of whom had seen their homes wash away when the water broke through defective levees, basically “ate the man’s face.”

Their point: Don’t question the money spent to restore New Orleans and return people to their homes. That question is not raised when rivers repeatedly flood Midwest cities, tornadoes tear apart neighborhoods, or when wildfires and earthquakes ravage California.

It’s going to take billions of dollars and many more years to put New Orleans and the Gulf Coast back together. Can we, as a nation, just walk away?

John Hardisty (Jack) retired in 2004 as the development services director for the city of Bakersfield, Calif. In 1952, a massive earthquake leveled most of Bakersfield’s downtown. Did anyone suggest the city wasn’t worth rebuilding?

History Hunt: Olcese House Shows Bakersfield's Character


Jack Hendrix jokes that he needs a 12-step recovery program. He’s a compulsive collector.

He collects furniture, statues and pottery. He even collects old family photos of people he doesn’t know. He finds them in second-hand stores and hangs them on the walls of the old houses he collects in east Bakersfield.

On a recent warm spring morning, I sat on the porch of the “Olcese house,” one of Hendrix’s most interesting and historic East Bakersfield homes, and discussed his compulsive collecting.

Hendrix, 69, is a retired educator, who spent most of his career as a teacher and counselor at East Bakersfield High School. An Oklahoma native, who moved to Bakersfield to live with relatives in the 1950s, Hendrix remembers watching his father work with tools as he built cabinets. That inspired Hendrix to begin collecting tools and fix-it books.

To supplement his teaching salary, Hendrix started collecting fixer-upper Bakersfield homes and turning them into rentals.

“I like to work with my hands and it was a good diversion from teaching,” he explained. “In the summers, I would work in construction, doing repairs for other people. I thought, ‘Why not acquire my own property. I love old houses.’”

His interest in buying houses shifted from those built in the 1930s and 1940s to some of the city’s oldest houses -- those built at the turn of the century in east Bakersfield.

He said he spent hours talking to the late Judge Frank Noriega in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the family’s vintage home on Baker Street, which has been renovated and turned into a reception hall.

It was during those long chats that Hendrix learned about the histories and myths of the neighborhood’s other landmark buildings, and Hendrix set his sights on the Olcese house at 528 Monterey St.

Weather-beaten and in need of repair, the house was built by Louis V. Olcese for his bride in the late 1800s. The city’s register of historic buildings did not pinpoint the construction date. During the century that followed, colorful and sometimes tragic stories unfolded within it walls.

Before telling some of those early stories, I’ll skip ahead to the present. Hendrix bought the house in 1983, after it fell briefly into the hands of a real estate speculator. The speculator had given it a quick lick of paint, leased it to a preschool and then placed it up for sale again. While he worked on its restoration, Hendrix moved into the house. He lived in there for the next 18 years, before buying another fixer upper at Flower and Baker streets, where he lives today.

The Olcese house now is called Griffins Gate, a 26-bed home for men dually diagnosed as mentally ill and substance abusers, operated by Hendrix’s non-profit organization Casa de Amigos. The stately rooms have been converted to dormitories, offices and dining halls. But the exterior is restored to a condition that would surely please its original owner.

Hendrix has pieced together most of the home’s history from the stories told by Judge Noriega and neighbors. And occasionally people will walk by to take a look and share their memories.

Olcese, the son of Italian immigrants, moved to Bakersfield as a young man from Northern California. The railroad line had reached East Bakersfield. Basque shepherds were settling in the area. Fortunes were being made lending money and outfitting settlers in this emerging commercial hub.

Olcese went into the mercantile business with Beneditto Ardizzi. Hendrix was told Olcese lived in a lavish apartment above his store until he decided to marry a young opera singer. He built the house on Monterey Street as a wedding present for his bride.

In the city’s historic resources inventory, consultant Christopher Brewer describes the Olcese house as “an excellent example of vernacular architecture.” With Hendrix’s subsequent restoration, Brewer concluded it would be eligible for inclusion in a historic register or district.

Hendrix acknowledges that Olcese spared few expenses as he combined several architectural styles. The home has a vented gablet, a turret, an oval window overlooking a covered porch that is supported by round columns, boxed eaves and gables, and double-hung windows.

Shortly after Olcese’s marriage, his bride left for a European singing tour. By all accounts that Hendrix has been given, in her absence, Olcese found a young live-in maid irresistible and a baby boy was born. Olcese and his bride divorced when she returned from her tour. He sold the Monterey Street house.

Olcese’s wealth grew. He bought acres of land that he ranched. He form a bank. But in 1929, at a relatively young age, he dropped dead in San Francisco en route to visit his sister, who lived in Piedmont. An obituary published in The Modesto Bee described him as “one of the wealthiest men in Kern County.”

Two years later, a story in The Bakersfield Californian reported Olcese Kramer, a naval officer who claimed to be Olcese’s “natural son,” reached a court settlement with Olcese’s sisters and brothers to share the estate. Although settlement details were not revealed in the news story, an attorney said “the ramifications are so great” that it would take “some time until the whole affair is settled.”

Hendrix said the Olcese house passed first into the hands of a wealthy couple. The husband was a county official and the wife a physician. He said neighbors and Noriega told him about patients walking up its stairs to be seen by the doctor.

Preoccupied by both their daughter and by “appearances,” the couple borrowed against the home to pay for a lavish wedding and to buy furniture. When they could not pay their bills, Hendrix said they lost the home to foreclosure.

An investor bought it reportedly for $1,700 and gave it to his newlywed daughter and son-in-law. Over the next several decades, the childless couple lived in the home their entire marriage.

Eventually a gas lighting system was replaced by electricity. But neither air conditioning, nor heating systems were installed until the then widowed owner sold it in the late 1970s to the real estate speculator who resold it to Hendrix.

“The neighbors were shocked,” Hendrix said, explaining that they thought the woman was wealthy. They chalked up the home’s lack of maintenance, the owner’s unwillingness to install air conditioning and her habit of wearing layers of clothing during frigid winter months to her being eccentric.

In fact, the woman was living off the property she inherited from her investor-father. As she needed money, she would sell off a house or commercial building. Reportedly she was running out of money when she sold the Olcese house for just $16,000. Hendrix paid $90,000 for it when it was resold a short time later.

Hendrix credits the woman’s poverty for the home’s historic integrity. She simply did not have the money to “modernize” the structure.

“The thing I love about old houses it that everything has a story,” Hendrix said, admitting that restoring them is costly, time-consuming and just plain hard work.

His advice to others who might be tempted to buy and restore a turn-of-the-century home: “Do it only if you can do most of the work yourself. And do it for love, not to make money.”

This article by John Hardisty (Jack) appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on May 23, 2010.



Several weeks ago, I wrote about Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s legislation, AB 1588, which proposes to require lenders to enter into discussions, or mediate loan modification requests, when property is headed for foreclosure.

See “As foreclosure crisis keeps growing, lenders, borrowers need mediation,” by John Hardisty

The Santa Barbara assemblyman proposes to set up a system that already exists in several other states.

As Nava’s bill makes its way through the California Legislature, the Bank of America now is boasting that it is stepping up its efforts to reduce mortgage-loan balances to avert foreclosures. According to The Wall Street Journal, the plan is the mortgage industry’s boldest move yet to address the plight of millions of U.S. homeowners who are “underwater,” owing more than the current values of their homes.

“It enhances an agreement Bank of America reached 18 months ago with state attorneys general to settle claims they made over certain high-risk loans made by Countrywide Financial before Bank of America acquired that lender in mid-2008,” according to The Journal.

But just this week, cold water was thrown on the Home Affordable Modification Program, the $75 billion effort to bring “underwater” homeowners relief. Neil Barofsky, the Treasury Department’s special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, called the existing definition of success for HAMP “essentially meaningless.”

The conclusion: It has been oversold by the Treasury Department and is likely to be a failure when it wraps up in 2012.

Why? Partially because lenders are not compelled to even acknowledge troubled borrowers when they request loan modifications.

For an on the ground “reality check,” go to Steven B. Porter’s blog

Porter is an attorney and mediator who lives in Tehachapi, Calif. In a blow-by-blow account (which would be funny, if it were not so serious) he details more than five hours on the telephone trying to even find someone at the Bank of America willing to talk to him about a client’s mortgage problem.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to trying to obtain some information from the Bank of America today (March 23, 2010). What follows is true, and the actual events are not made up, and the names were not changed to protect the innocent.”

He was finally referred to a department within the bank that was closed for the day.

“Just in case you thought this issue was unique to the Bank of America, I recently had a similar experience with Chase over a two-day timeframe,” Porter wrote. “With Chase, I spoke to 17 individuals before I was put in contact with a person who could answer my questions.”

John Hardisty is a Bakersfield-based mediator and land-use consultant. His company's website is