"AK" (after Katrina), city is still in a funk


NEW ORLEANS -- More than half the city might remain in moldering ruins, its residents scattered, confused, anxious, its commercial activity moribund, its political leadership adrift, and yet the people of greater New Orleans at least have managed to come together and save Katrina Ridge.

Katrina Ridge is not an actual neighborhood. It is a miniature village laid out for the holidays in the middle of a suburban mall near the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, at a place where children line up to sit on Santa's lap and ride a tiny train around and around in circles.

Nestled in fake snow, its houses decorated with twinkling lights, the village seems standard issue for American malls in this season - except for a few special touches.

In Katrina Ridge, blue tarps cover the rooftops of the tiny houses. A plastic helicopter airlifts a figurine in a basket. Little toy men and women balance on chimney tops. Downed trees rest against buildings. And finger-sized refrigerators set at curbside carry warnings such as "You Loot. We Shoot."

Of course, there was a stink. Two weeks after the display went up, mall management ordered the volunteer designer to remove the Katrina touches, managers said, "out of respect for those who found it offensive and in poor taste." This, though, only created a bigger stink. Letters and e-mails of complaint flooded into the mall by the hundreds, running 50-1 in favor of restoring the village - overturned cars and all.

"The city has lost almost everything - except its sense of humor," went a typical missive. "If you take that away and steal the laughter you are not any better than a looter after the storm. Keep the display!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!."

And so last week the village was restored, except for the hieroglyphic markings on the little houses, which in the real world designated how many dead bodies had been found within. There are limits.

Coming to grips

Silly as it all might seem, the battle over the Christmas village reflects larger emotional plates moving beneath the city - the struggle to come to grips with the depressing reality, not only of the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought more than 100 days ago, but also the halting pace of the early recovery efforts and the long, grim passages that lie ahead.

On radio talk shows, the questions and complaints of callers seem to have changed little from the first days of the crisis - dreary incantations about hapless federal disaster agencies, absent insurance adjusters, shoddy levee work and an overall lack of leadership.

While media here herald the rebirth of each icon and institution - they are selling beignets again at Cafe Du Monde; another private school has reopened; the horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through the French Quarter once more - much of the city remains abandoned and dark at night.

Energy New Orleans has restored enough of its system to make power available to 120,000 of its 190,000 customers but estimates that only about half that number have, in fact, returned to the grid.

Few of the tens of thousands of houses that must come down have been demolished, and it is possible still to drive through mile upon mile of wrecked or badly damaged houses and commercial strips. The sight still has the power to shock.

"I still find it compelling, riveting, to see," John McClachlan, director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities, said of the cityscape. "You can't see it without having an internal sense of loss of what the city was."

Tourists have begun to trickle back, but now they come for more than jazz and gumbo. At Cafe Maspero in the French Quarter, a woman who appeared to be a resident could be heard the other day plotting out a visitor's itinerary.

"Now all through here," she told the young man, running her finger across a street map, "it's really devastated. You'll want to go there. And over here, that's really, really devastated. That neighborhood won't be coming back for a while. ... "

Garbage piles up

In neighborhoods that have begun to be reoccupied, fresh piles of garbage grow in the streets, with the financially strapped city unable to pick them up. Appearances aside, however, more than 7 million tons of debris, a third of the expected total, have been hauled away.

That figure, said Chuck Brown, a state official involved with the logistics of debris removal, represents only "the low-hanging fruit."

The pace will slow, he said, when the more difficult job of actual deconstruction begins.

Beyond the gritty debris work, though, it can seem at times that the principal activity of the rebuilding effort is to meet and ruminate about what was before Katrina - "BK" in local-speak - and what might be in the new New Orleans - "AK." Blue ribbon commissions seem nearly as abundant as the blue tarps roof-coverings that have flowered across the city.

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