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6 months later, recovery gaining focus
City may be near turning point
Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Gordon Russell Staff writer

Six months after Hurricane Katrina, Louise Leflore is one of tens of thousands of New Orleanians still waiting to come home. And with all due respect to Atlanta, she's sick of it. Advertisement

This week, the post-Katrina era reaches the half-year mark. Millions of cubic yards of debris have been swept from city streets. More than a million cubic yards of clayey soil has been compacted into levees to replace what was washed away, a job the Army Corps of Engineers now says is 40 percent complete. The main post office in New Orleans is scheduled to reopen next month. Out of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population of 462,269, city officials estimate 189,000 have returned.

But the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line won't be back until well into 2007. Electrical service has been restored to nearly all of the local grid, though many customers are waiting for hookups. Twenty Orleans public schools have reopened, with an enrollment hovering around 10,000 -- a sixth of the pre-storm student body.

However mixed the measures of recovery, the six-month mark has the feel of a turning point -- not just for Leflore and others in similar situations, but for the city itself. The rudiments of a housing buyout plan now on the table, along with vows from the White House that there will be enough money to make it work, promise an end to the long period of limbo in which it has been nearly impossible for individual storm victims to plot their future.

As Katrina swept across the Gulf of Mexico, Leflore packed up a few things from her Gentilly home and piled into a car with relatives bound for an Atlanta suburb -- with no idea, of course, that she would still be there half a year later. Leflore, 71, got enough money from the insurance company to pay off her note, but not enough to fix her two-story house, inundated with 7 feet of water. At her age, she says she doesn't want a new mortgage. So she eagerly scans the news every day to see what sort of government aid she might be able to tap into to repair the home she has owned for half a century. Staying in Georgia is not an option.

"I don't want a buyout," she said. "I want to go home. This is not for me up here."

Janice and Phillip Manuel live on St. Roch Avenue in Gentilly Terrace, not far from Leflore's house. Their neighborhood, on the lake side of Gentilly Boulevard, suffered less damage because it was built on a natural ridge, but the house still took on 2 feet of water.

It distresses Janice Manuel when she talks to friends around town who don't know what they will do with their flooded properties. Her block, she said, is stepping quickly toward renewal, with nearly everyone back in their homes.

"It's just abuzz with activity," she said. "I am encouraged because lately I've seen people walking their dogs, like they used to."

Gentilly Terrace is an exception. While trailers have sprung up here and there, most of the most heavily flooded parts of the city remain vacant -- in stark contrast to the dry parts of town, where new roofs are in place; restaurants, bars, grocery stores and retail outlets are thriving; and Carnival floats are coursing through the streets.

But the stirrings of a wider recovery could soon begin. Under terms of the housing plan proposed by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Leflore might expect to receive about $100,000 in direct federal grants to rebuild her beloved Rayne Drive home. She believes the pre-Katrina value of the house was about $175,000. Her insurer paid her roughly $75,000, which must be deducted from the value of the property; the federal grant money would make up the difference, up to $150,000.

Not everyone wants to come back. Dave Silverman, a Xavier University communications professor who lost his job in the wake of Katrina and has moved to Colorado, is looking to get rid of his Gentilly home. It's listed at $60,000.

Like Leflore, Silverman got enough money through insurance to pay off his note. But his efforts to sell his house, which took on 9 feet of water, haven't attracted much interest, and he's stuck without any money to use as a down payment for a new house. Under the state plan -- which would offer people moving out of state 60 percent of the difference between their home's pre-Katrina value and their insurance settlement -- Silverman figures he would get about $42,000 for a house that was worth $205,000 before Katrina.

And that would be fine with him.

"Honestly, I'd be very happy with that," Silverman said. "We loved our neighborhood; we loved our neighbors. But none of that is there anymore."

Experts on disaster recovery see the gradual clarification on housing options as a pivotal moment, one they regret has not come sooner. The $10.4 billion in community development block grants pledged by the White House is expected to precipitate a building boom of as yet uncertain dimension and duration. It should also stimulate the market for existing homes, as some owners of flooded property elect to cash out and buy in parts of town at higher elevation.

"This is a key turning point for New Orleans," said Rob Olshansky, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois who has studied Kobe, Japan's resurrection after a devastating 1995 earthquake and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. "I think everyone has been waiting for some kind of signal from the federal government, some clue as to what kind of financial resources are going to be available," said Olshansky, who has been to New Orleans three times since Katrina. "I think we have that clue now. Up until the last week or two, there was still real uncertainty about what kind of help the city and state and individual homeowners could expect."

But huge question marks still hang over the landscape. One is the revised Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, due out next month. State recovery authority officials have said those maps, reflecting adjusted flood probabilities and continued subsidence throughout the city, will guide rebuilding decisions. Depending on how flood-prone their lot is, some homeowners seeking repair grants may be required to elevate their homes, a mandate that in some cases could prove prohibitively expensive, as will flood insurance costs if they don't.

Another uncertainty is how many people will return to flooded neighborhoods. Will neighbors come back in sufficient numbers to restore the vitality -- and affordable level of city services -- that were known before the storm? Or will the revival be scattershot, with only a small percentage of households returning amid vast stretches of abandonment and blight?

Some of those questions will be addressed in a four-month planning process that was supposed to have begun by now but which has been slowed by bureaucracy and ongoing debates about cost and scope.

Jeanne Nathan, a member of the communications staff for the land-use panel of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, said her group has been haggling with FEMA about how much money is needed for the planning process.

While the discussions have led to a delay, she said she hopes the process will ramp up shortly after Mardi Gras. She expects it to unfold quickly, in much the way the land-use panel described, with plans being developed for each of the city's 13 planning districts after meetings that will be led by professionals but hopefully driven by residents.

"We're going to provide support to neighborhoods, but we're asking them to initiate the ideas," Nathan said. "We hope we get a lot of this from the neighborhoods, as opposed to us bringing the ideas."

Though the pace hasn't been as quick as the land-use panel wanted, Nathan said the announcement of the planning process has already yielded results. In some cases driven by fears that their homes might be targeted for parks or wetlands, residents of some neighborhoods have begun organizing themselves, in some cases with assistance from professional planners. The result is that certain areas are likely to enter the city-sponsored process with something close to a neighborhood blueprint already in hand.

"Although it came about in something of an oppositional context, the planning that's going on right now I think is very healthy and an important part of the process," Nathan said.

Olshansky believes the city's ultimate rebuilding will hinge in large part of how the neighborhood planning process is carried out. If it's done well, and financed properly, it could result in a city that sheds many of its worst features, he said. Conversely, if it's an empty exercise, it will have little value.

"I think the next four to six months is going to tell us a lot," he said. "There are some intriguing possibilities in New Orleans. After disasters there's always a possibility that some things can be made better than they were before. If this participatory process is done right, I think there's some promise."

The city as a whole

A central focus of the planning process will be determining who's staying and who's going; who's rebuilding and who's not. To that end, observers say, it's crucial that state and local authorities complete the recovery plans now on the table. Only then will the tens of thousands of homeowners in limbo like Leflore and Silverman begin to make informed decisions. Planners, in turn, will quickly get a much clearer picture of where wholesale redevelopment might be possible, and where incremental tinkering will be in order.

Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University's school of architecture and one of two people assigned by the mayor's commission to oversee the planning process, believes planners must look at the forest as well as the trees.

"I think we need a comprehensive vision of how we're going to deal with the city as a whole, not just respond to one homeowner at a time," Kroloff said.

Kroloff believes a key to the plan's ultimate success will lie in what sorts of incentives the government can offer to make the plan's vision a reality. For instance, he said the state's plan to offer a better deal to homeowners who resettle in Louisiana is a smart one. On the local level, he believes the city may be able to package blighted and abandoned property in ways that make it attractive to investors. Washington, D.C., underwent a remarkable turnaround in the past decade through the use of such local tax incentives, he said.

"The great thing about tax incentives and development incentives is they don't rob the treasury," Kroloff said. "You're talking about properties that have no tax value now. I really hope we pull all the incentive packages and the planning on the table at the same time, and say, 'Let's make this better than it was before.'

"Wouldn't it be nice if five years from now we were talking about how New Orleans is busting at the seams instead of busted?"

'Report card' forum

While observers generally expressed optimism that the city is about to turn a corner, many tempered their views.

Angela Glover Blackwell, chief executive of PolicyLink, a nonprofit agency that has been tapped to advise Gov. Kathleen Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority, said that while she's encouraged by the Bush administration's recent announcement of more money for the area, she still finds the federal response lackluster.

She also has been disturbed by how little attention is being given to helping renters displaced by the storm. Renters likely outnumber homeowners, she said, and they're apt to be poorer and less able to help themselves. Others, however, said renters are less invested in the community -- financially, if not emotionally -- and therefore have a less direct stake in rebuilding.

Blackwell will participate in a discussion next week in which experts draw up a "report card" on New Orleans six months after the storm. Among the others on the panel is Reese Fayde, chief executive of Living Cities, a consortium of public and private entities that invests in urban neighborhoods. Fayde is perhaps more positive in her view of the recovery, but likewise aware of ongoing challenges.

"It seems like there's been a picking up of agreement and moving forward recently," she said. "I think we have some hopefulness that you're on the cusp of some positive change. On the other hand, our experience would say, 'We've turned a corner, and now we see how long the road is.' This is the first act of a very long play."

Olshansky agrees, noting that it took Kobe about a decade to fully recover from its earthquake. The half-year mark in New Orleans may have coincided with a turning point, but it will be several more months before plans are hashed out and residents start receiving grants, Olshansky said. By summertime, he predicted, a building boom will be under way; whether well-planned or not remains to be seen.

New Orleans' recovery has been slower than that of Kobe or San Francisco, both of which were poised for massive construction after six months, he said. While some of the delay may owe to failures in leadership, Olshansky said, it's partly because of the unprecedented scope of the disaster and the subsequent dispersion of people.

"I can't think of any natural disaster that displaced so many people so far," he said.

Also troubling to Olshansky: Unlike cities that have staged the most vigorous bouncebacks from disaster, New Orleans has been in a state of economic contraction for decades, providing little momentum to power a revival.

Plotting the future

During the next few months, New Orleans will make many of the key decisions on its reconstruction. There will be a rollicking campaign season culminating in the election of a mayor and City Council. As that unfolds, neighborhoods will be organizing to plot their futures -- or to determine if they have one -- in the post-Katrina world. Against that backdrop, state and local leaders will have to agree on how federal money will be disbursed, and who will control the purse strings.

Until then, the recovery likely will be powered by the decisions of scattered homeowners like Leflore and the revitalization of small islands like the high section of Gentilly where the Manuels live.

Janice Manuel is anxious about the slow pace of the city's recovery, but it is a philosophical frustration mixed with appreciation for New Orleans' assets.

"The progress has been slower than I think it should be, but this has been an event of epic proportions," she said. "It's going to take time. I accept the reality that it will probably take years. It would be a quick fix to pack up and move somewhere else where the amenities are there and the schools are wonderful, but this is where our hearts are."

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Staff writer Coleman Warner and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Gordon Russell can be reached at or (504) 826-3347