Progress slow in New Orleans since Katrina

Some residents return, houses are repaired, but much of city still in shocking disrepair

August 29, 2007|By Miguel Bustillo and Richard Fausset | Miguel Bustillo and Richard Fausset,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- Two years after their city was nearly annihilated by a huge levee failure, the residents of the New Orleans neighborhood Gentilly acknowledge that their surroundings still look bad. But they also insist that things slowly are getting better.

Just 31 percent of Gentilly's 16,000 addresses were reoccupied or renovated as of March, according to a survey by a Dartmouth professor. But another 57 percent were being fixed up.

Private citizens, not the government, deserved the credit, residents said - a source of grim humor among those laboring to mend the neighborhood.

"Of course, we should also thank George Bush, Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin," resident Robert Counce said sarcastically as a meeting of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association wrapped up, referring to the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor, respectively.

The renaissance in America's most beleaguered city is a complex, dynamic and messy affair.

Locals seem confused as to how to measure it all. About 274,000 residents are back in New Orleans, which had a population of 455,000 before the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Is that reason to cheer or a troubling sign of a great city halved?

When another elected official is indicted or pleads guilty - a common occurrence - is it a setback or proof that the notoriously unclean milieu of Louisiana politics is finally getting the scrubbing it deserves?

More than half the city remains in a state of shocking disrepair, with block after block of historic cottages still bearing the spray-paint scars that showed they were searched for bodies after the Aug. 29 storm. Progress is evident, however: Freshly renovated houses increasingly are rising up amid the decay.

On paper, at least, the Crescent City is plotting an ambitious rebirth. Yet, despite promises by countless politicians, many people say they feel that the country no longer cares.

"America should be ashamed," said the Rev. Bill Terry, whose church delivers roses to the mayor and police chief each week to mark the grim tally of murder victims: more than 125 this year. "The nonprofit organizations have really responded. But all they can do is run the life-support systems to keep the city alive until the real help arrives."

New Orleans has benefited from the kindness of volunteers, more than 1 million of whom have come to the Gulf Coast to repair homes and churches, according to a federal report. But "The Road Home," the government grant program created to help Louisianans rebuild, has not been so generous. It has sent checks to only about 42,000 of the 184,000 people who sought assistance, and it is $5 billion short of the money it needs to help the rest.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $1.7 billion to raise sinking levees, rebuild retention walls and install huge floodgates at the points where the city's three outfall canals join Lake Pontchartrain. That has made some parts of the city far less likely to take water. But neighborhoods such as Gentilly remain extremely flood-prone.

By 2011, the Corps hopes to complete a broader flood-protection program. The Corps released maps this month to let residents - and insurers and banks - see how much each neighborhood could flood.

Other safety issues are just as pressing. City leaders are embracing community-oriented policing reforms and are giving officers raises in hopes of professionalizing a force that long has been one of the laggards of the South. Still, New Orleans has the highest number of murders per capita in the country, and rapes increased 44 percent in the first half of this year compared with the year before.

One emerging bright spot is New Orleans' tourist economy. Visitor figures are approaching 70 percent of pre-storm levels, said Stephen Perry, the president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau - a good sign for a city that relies on its cultural economy for about a third of its revenues.

Still, many other sectors of the economy continue to languish. Health care has been particularly crippled, and an exodus of highly paid medical professionals has had a ripple effect.

The pace of progress in many neighborhoods has caused even optimists to rethink the city's fortunes. Fred D. Smith serves as managing director of Hope Coalition America, a group providing financial advice to New Orleanians.

"Unfortunately, and I did not think this a year ago, most of the homes here will never be rebuilt," Smith said. "People are weary. They thought that within six to eight months they would be back. Now they're finding that if they come back, they'll still be the only person on the block."

Miguel Bustillo and Richard Fausset write for the Los Angeles Times.

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