Big Easy slow to recover, but progress is evident

[5 April 2007]

By Ken Kaye

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Walk around downtown and it’s almost like Katrina didn’t happen. Harrah’s casino sees a bustling crowd. Restaurants and shops do a good business. The trolleys are running. And the French Quarter is filled with Cajun rhythms and revelers at night.

But the Crescent City’s soul is unquestionably aching. What was once a happy-go-lucky spirit has given way to a more somber determination to dig out. Overall, New Orleans remains in a dire struggle to recover 19 months after Hurricane Katrina toppled the levees of Lake Pontchartrain, putting much of it under water and killing more than 1,800 people.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in just 18 months,” said Jacqueline Boyd, a retired resident whose second-floor apartment in Orleans Parish was destroyed by high waters. “But I give it about 10 to 15 more years to recover.”

While many neighborhoods have rebuilt, many others appear ravaged, particularly those just south of the lake. In these “ghost towns,” as residents call them, block after block is filled with boarded-up homes and yards full of hurricane debris. Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers are plentiful, providing temporary housing for those who stayed. Tens of thousands of others have resettled in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and other nearby states.

Meanwhile, the areas that weren’t that badly damaged are overcrowded with those seeking decent places to live. The problem is homes are expensive and rents are high, said Norsha Cooper, whose apartment in Orleans Parish was flooded in the hurricane. To afford rent, Cooper, 34, a parking attendant, and her two children moved in with a cousin near downtown.

“The city has a long way to go,” she said. “Due to the hurricane, people don’t have enough money to get everything up and running.”

Even the downtown area retains some poignant reminders of Katrina’s destruction. Dozens of shops along Canal Street, the city’s main commercial corridor, are still boarded up. Some motels, waiting to be razed, have turned into water- and wind-damaged eyesores.

Colleges are scraping to meet enrollment goals. Though a public school recently opened in Orleans Parish, one of the most devastated areas, more than 75 schools around the city have not reopened. The city’s police force has dwindled from a pre-Katrina level of 1,700 officers to about 1,400, as about 17 officers per month are leaving. And the murder rate has climbed sharply, from 56 per 100,000 pre-Katrina, to 81 per 100,000 last year.

Mayor Ray Nagin has been widely quoted as saying New Orleans is on the mend. He notes the city has issued 102,000 demolition and building permits and already has collected about 50 million cubic yards of debris.

Nonetheless, the recovery process would seem to be overwhelming. The city has identified 20,000 separate projects that still need to be undertaken, from rebuilding schools, hospitals and police stations to improving basic services such as water and sewage.

City officials estimate it will cost about $135 billion to bring the Big Easy back to its old self. Yet the flow of federal funding has been clogged by federal regulations requiring 10 percent in matching funds.

There are some positive signs in the city.

According to The Brookings Institution, a private non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that independently analyzes government problems: More than 50,000 workers moved back to New Orleans between November and January and the unemployment rate has dropped from 5 to 4.5 percent. Louis Armstrong International Airport is seeing about 65 percent of the passenger traffic it saw pre-Katrina. And more than 90 percent of the city’s hotels have reopened.

Before Katrina hit, the city had about 455,000 residents. Immediately after the storm, only 50,000 remained. At the start of 2007, the population had rebuilt to about 230,000, according to city estimates.

Within the past few months alone, more tourists have arrived and new shops and hotels are taking root in the downtown area, says Crystal Ward, a waitress at Big Easy Daiquiris & Cafe, a fixture on Canal Street.

“Business is definitely picking up,” she said.

One recent arrival is Don Leoncio Cigars, which opened its doors on Canal Street at the beginning of March. Company president Ysidoro Rodriguez said he saw tourists as well as more conventions returning to the city.

“New Orleans is growing,” he said. “This was a big surprise for me.”

And some say New Orleans already feels like the Big Easy again.

“It’s not exactly what it used to be,” said Darrell Myles, 43, an employee with the Louisiana Clerk of Criminal Courts Office who lost his home in the Carrollton area of the city. “But it’s getting there.”

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