As the recovery steps up, is the New Orleans area moving backward or
forward? SENSE OF DIRECTION
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
By Coleman Warner
Urban historian Arnold Hirsch has studied New Orleans' cultural evolution, the intricate layers of its past. But he can't fathom what the city's future holds.
Many neighborhoods remain dark at night, working-class people are largely absent and too much trash remains on the street, he said. The University of New Orleans professor is dismayed at what he sees as race- and class-based resistance to FEMA trailer parks. And when Carnival arrives, those joining the scaled-down celebration may have wildly varying motives -- showing faith in the city or simply escaping its hard realities, he said.
"It's such an unprecedented situation -- we're really kind of feeling our way," Hirsch said. "We're groping in the dark."
His sense of unease is rather typical. Many look around and say New Orleans is far from recovery, especially with the next hurricane season five months away and the Army Corps of Engineers rushing to repair battered levees and broken floodwalls.
But there is another camp, the glass-half-filled crowd, those who take note of a familiar restaurant opening here and there, the return of beloved neighbors, the reawakened streetlights and busy debris-removal crews. They hear of the Saints returning next season, the reopening of westbound Interstate 10 lanes between New Orleans and Slidell, of a scrappy St. Bernard Parish public school rising from the flood muck, and talk of a comeback -- even as Orleans Parish's population struggles to rebound and swaths of the landscape are permanently altered.
They focus on this month, January, seen as a critical period with the return of thousands of displaced students -- young people to breathe life into campuses and neighborhoods.
"Parents will come back if they have a place for their children to be educated," said the Rev. William Maestri, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. "You have children leading adults back into the city, which then is going to build up the infrastructure of jobs, supermarkets, financial institutions."
Is New Orleans turning the corner toward recovering from one of America's worst disasters? Will 2006 be better? So far, the evidence is mixed -- as are interpretations.
Three of every four businesses in the region battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are back in operation, at least partially, but others may not survive, and unemployment in the metro has jumped to more than 17 percent. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is bringing in trailers to provide temporary housing for thousands of people, but so far only a fraction of the need has been met, and complaints about delays in power hookups have mushroomed. Regional Transit Authority ridership is rising each week, but its daily count of almost 11,000 rides on a scaled-down route system is less than 10 percent of what it was before Katrina -- even though the rides, for now, are free.
"We're hoping that people will come back and start repopulating and that ridership will increase, but that's hard to predict," RTA spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook said. "Everybody seems to think there will be a lot more people coming back in January."
Medical services were decimated in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, but the hospital infrastructure remains strong in Jefferson and saw no harm in St. Tammany and the River Parishes, officials say. Virtually every local college is reopening at its main campus, but projected enrollment drops forced painful budget measures.
Most Orleans Parish public schools became Katrina victims of a different sort: The virtual destruction of the underperforming system hastened a charter school movement that had been a dream of education reformers.
Still bottoming out?
Any radio talk show offers a sampling of mixed signals. WWL's morning program did just that recently, as hopeful talk about Mayor Ray Nagin's recovery panel alternated with complaints about cars, killed off by floodwaters, now attracting graffiti artists.
"There are those who are doing and doing the best, and then there are other areas where we haven't even started scratching the surface," show host Bob DelGiorno said.
Some talk of recovery as a race against time.
In its latest "Katrina Index" report, the Washington-based Brookings Institution offered a sobering portrait of trends in the storm zone. Mortgage delinquency rates jumped in Louisiana during the third quarter of the year, and New Orleans is suffering from high unemployment and scarce food outlets, the report said. The group is alarmed that most hospitals and public schools in the city remain closed.
While there are "a few positive signs" in New Orleans, such as the opening of new bus routes and new, more encouraging projections for the area's population, "most of the key indicators moved in the wrong direction or not at all," the research group said.
"The bottom line: It continues to be a very risky decision for many of the displaced households to return to the area, since all of the key necessities are in scarce supply, and it is not at all clear when or if they will be brought back online," the report said.
New Orleans is at a critical point and developments in the next few months will shape the area's future, Brookings researcher Matt Fellowes said.
"It's not yet at a tipping point one way or the other, but it's getting closer and closer," he said. "With each week that passes, the likelihood of New Orleans returning to what it was before the storm or anything close to it becomes more and more remote."
Among top barometers for the area's future, he argued: landing more federal money, beyond $2.9 billion already committed, for major improvements to the levee system; clarifying what destroyed areas of New Orleans can and should be rebuilt; speeding up utility repairs, including those to lines linking individual homes to the power grid; reversing what has been a rising local unemployment rate; and rebuilding passenger traffic at Louis Armstrong International Airport. A key shift will be when people are flying to New Orleans not to see hurricane damage, but to enjoy themselves, Fellowes said.
Yet others argue that generalizations about the recovery of the metro area can be misleading, that better tests come at smaller geographic levels.
Sections of the French Quarter, downtown and Uptown seem barely touched by Katrina, in stark contrast to the Lower 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and Lakeview.
To some, getting basic services back on line is critical. Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle said he believes simply restoring utilities is a key to recovery. In the lower reaches of the parish, that's still a challenge holding back the recovery. But in Belle Chasse, where power is restored, the area is packed.
"In Port Sulphur, we've already turned the corner on it. In Buras, we're working on it. In Venice, we're working on it," he said. "Belle Chasse is back to normal, other than being overcrowded."
Dry -- and crowded
While New Orleans and St. Bernard are still focused on cleaning up, the influx of thousands of displaced people to St. Tammany, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes has stressed school systems and tightened the housing market. Worker shortages and the related reduced business hours are a problem everywhere, not just in Orleans Parish.
But the suburban parishes, especially in St. Tammany where large numbers of St. Bernard evacuees settled, expect lasting economic benefits and population gains as a result of the storm.
St. Charles Parish Hospital, which evacuated most of its staff for 24 hours during the storm but never closed, sees fresh pressure for expansion as a result of population gains, according to Chief Operating Officer Karen Guillot. The area has lost only one doctor since Katrina and has gained some others who had practices in New Orleans, she said.
Recovery is a taller order in Jefferson Parish, which sustained flooding in some areas and has seen an estimated 17 percent population drop. But housing repairs across the semi-urban parish are escalating, and Entergy has almost completely restored electric service. Roughly 85 percent of Jefferson's businesses have reopened since the storm, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, which administers occupational licenses. While showing major effects from Katrina, Jefferson faces dramatically better conditions than those in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans parishes.
Dire warnings about New Orleans tipping in the wrong direction can be found at informal town hall meetings organized in the French Quarter by businessman Jimmy Delery, a Riverbend resident who took part in boat rescues after Katrina hit. Delery sees hope and determination among city residents, but it is tempered by uncertainty.
"We've gotten a lot of debris cleaned up, but I don't think we've gotten solid, measurable things that people can feel comfortable with yet. We still hear debates about what they're going to do with the levees," he said. "We hear about (President) Bush money and we hear about this plan and that plan, and yet we turn on the TV and they'll say, 'We hope that this will be done' or 'We hope that this will be done by these deadlines.' "
Delery is furious that more hasn't been done to give working-class people a way to return to New Orleans from far-flung evacuation centers, saying they are critical to providing the work force needed by restaurants, hotels and other businesses; many were evacuated from the city carrying almost nothing. His concern is shared by Dorian Hastings, a community development analyst who lives in Central City.
"The people that I talk to, their greatest concern is that low-income people, the people that do all the grunt work in the city, the maids and even up to schoolteachers, they have no place to live," Hastings said. "There are jobs, but there are no places to live that they can afford, and I'm very concerned about people moving into housing that was already substandard."
Anxiety about the future is palpable in New Orleans' marquee restaurant industry, even through the return of college students promises to ease its employee shortages. Among 3,718 restaurant and other food outlets in Orleans Parish before Katrina, only 768, or 21 percent, had reopened by late December. Among 2,332 in Jefferson Parish before the storm, 1,336, or 57 percent, had reopened.
While Tom Weatherly, vice president of research for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said, "I think we've bottomed out," he cautioned there could be more losses -- especially among the small, neighborhood restaurants -- because insurance settlements aren't enough or the costs of insurance and labor rise too high.
"Right now New Orleans has a lot of busy restaurants. We don't have a lot of profitable restaurants," he said.
Big picture is brighter
Negative assessments about the Katrina-damaged region's prospects are countered by experts who note that, after a trying shakeout period, the metro area should regain most of its 1.3 million pre-Katrina population.
The importance of the New Orleans port, offshore oil and gas fields and local petrochemical plants to the national economy will help sustain the region's business infrastructure, and many people hurt financially by the storm will find new opportunity in the construction industry, said Don Pierson, an assistant secretary of economic development for the state. Hurricane relief tax incentives will help spur business investment, and the region may attract plants that manufacture house components, he said.
"We will now have a large sector of the work force employed in construction. There's going to be a change, a transition," he said. "The case is clear that we are on the mend."
Local officials see dramatic jumps in the rate at which people are applying for construction and demolition permits as evidence that the rebuilding effort is moving ahead. Building permits issued in New Orleans, for example, totaled 3,193 in December, up from 380 in August, while Jefferson Parish officials report the rate at which they issue building permits has doubled or tripled since the hurricane.
Others caution against drawing conclusions based purely on statistics.
The Brookings Institution's data-driven reports don't take account of the sheer determination many St. Bernard residents have to rebuild their community, despite fears that levee repairs won't be adequate, said Craig Taffaro, a Parish Council member. The "St. Bernard attitude" was reflected in the push to open St. Bernard Unified School, relying largely on tents and trailers, and in plans for spring classes at Nunez Community College, he said.
Taffaro said the parish should move "out of a response mode to a recovery mode" in the spring, after more progress in debris removal and demolition.
At the edge of Lakeview, one devastated section of New Orleans, Delgado Community College sees evidence in its student registrations that the city is taking a turn for the better. Using four of the larger buildings at its flood-damaged City Park campus for spring classes, Delgado expects to reclaim 60 percent of its total fall enrollment of 17,400 -- easily topping the 40 percent it projected not long after the storm.
"People are electing to come back; they're still interested in the community, its advancement, its growth," said Chancellor Alex Johnson, who has worked with Nagin's storm advisory group on education and economic development issues.
He conceded that recovery work demands a leap of faith. Many of those who won't take that leap will rebuild their lives elsewhere, he said.
"The levees are still an issue. Safety and security are still issues with a lot of people," Johnson said. "My big concern is what if we experience the same type of hurricane season that we had this year. But I can't allow myself to think about that if I want to facilitate the recovery of my institution."
Rosanne Hirsch, an educator who is married to the UNO historian, sees weak points in businesses' short hours and the thin stock on their shelves: "There's a lot missing still."
But she detects hope in "tentative" decisions of many to bring their children back, to try out life in post-Katrina New Orleans.
"I don't see it so much as (turning a) corner as I do a slow curve," she said. "I see it as just inching and inching."
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Coleman Warner can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3311. Staff writers Bruce Hamilton, Karen Turni-Bazile, Richard Boyd, Jenny Hurwitz, Alan Powell and Sandra Barbier contributed to this report