6 months later, area is still reeling from Katrina

March 12, 2006|By SCOTT GOLD | SCOTT GOLD,LOS ANGELES TIME

NEW ORLEANS -- Six months ago, a 200-foot-long barge careened over a collapsed levee during Hurricane Katrina, eventually coming to rest on the shattered remains of three houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. And there it remained.

On the last Friday of February, workers with metal torches finally began to dismantle the barge. But by then, it had become a rusting, 150-ton metaphor for everything this city has been through: destruction and despair, followed by lagging reconstruction that has given way, too often, to dismal stasis.

Red tape. Bumbling bureaucrats. Recalcitrant politicians.

Tightfisted insurance companies. Old age. Sheer exhaustion.

Most everyone who lived in Katrina's flood path has had his or her own confounding odyssey of tribulations and missteps that have kept them from coming home. In the meantime, vast stretches of the city -- 100 square miles or more -- are still abandoned and rotting.

Six months after the Aug. 29 storm -- long after Mayor C. Ray Nagin estimated that residents would be able to return within 16 weeks and President Bush said he would do "whatever it takes" -- New Orleans has become paralyzed with uncertainty.

"Some days you wake up and you just think: `My God, what is going on?'" said Lora Crayon, 34, a real estate agent and bartender whose home in the Gentilly neighborhood was destroyed when it took on 5 feet of water. "It's just stagnant. We're all just now figuring it out. There is no help for us. There is no one coming. No one cares."

Crayon gestured toward one lot, where the water had flipped a car on its back and tore a massive hole in what appeared to have been the living room wall.

"Look at this place," she said. "Every one of these houses was somebody's life. Every one of these houses had a family -- kids who ran around in the yard."

At the mention of children, Crayon's voice caught in her throat; New Orleans, she said, is no place for young girls. Her 13-year-old daughter is living with relatives in New Jersey; every six weeks or so she sees her for a weekend. Alone, Crayon fights through every day, through every task and errand.

"I got a $1,000 electric bill the other day," she said. "I haven't lived in my home in six months. So I called. They said: `You'll need to come into the office to speak with a supervisor.' So I went down there and waited in line and finally a supervisor told me: `Oh, well, that was just an estimate. You don't really have to pay that.' All I did was reconcile an illegitimate bill. And that was a day of my life. Gone."

Crayon has scraped together enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment in an isolated "dry" neighborhood, but she is in the minority. One-third of New Orleans' residents -- there were about half a million before the storm -- have come home.

Fewer than 15 percent of 15,000 businesses are open. Most of the people and businesses that returned are jammed into an area that has become known as the "Sliver on the River" and the "Isle of Denial" -- the relatively high land, home to most wealthier neighborhoods and tourist spots, hugging the banks of the Mississippi.

The flood never got this far, and it shows. Virtually every significant advancement hailed by city officials happens there, including last month's reopening of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and this month's scheduled reopening of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

There are isolated pockets of life in other parts of the city: in a far-flung neighborhood of New Orleans East, for example, and atop skinny ridges of high land.

But about two-thirds of the city remains uninhabited.

Reconstruction officials have picked up about 33 million cubic yards of debris, but they're only halfway done, and piles of fetid mattresses and moldy drywall still line many streets. Venerable institutions in this area, such as the 270-year-old Charity Hospital, which suffered $258 million in damage, have no concrete plans to reopen. What was once a verdant, tropical landscape is brown and dusty. Enormous stretches of the city are still pitch-black at night.

The new hurricane season is fewer than 100 days away, and repairs to the city's levees are 40 percent complete, federal officials said recently. Some Army Corps of Engineers officials have acknowledged that even with the repairs, it is unlikely that the levees would withstand another storm as powerful as Katrina.

Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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