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Spring makes slow return to Crescent City
Legacy of Katrina colors tomorrow's mayoral election
By Bella English, Globe Staff | April 21, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Irises, tulips, and pansies have returned to New Orleans, just as they do every spring. But nearly eight months after two hurricanes battered this historic port city, fewer than half of its residents have.

Miles of neighborhoods remain boarded-up ghost towns, with homes and businesses alike standing vacant.

Nothing is easy in the Big Easy these days.

In the French Quarter and much of the Garden District, ''Help Wanted" signs are as ubiquitous as Mardi Gras beads in the souvenir shops. But with no housing, the jobs go unfilled.

Vulgar T-shirts hanging in the shops reflect residents' impatience with FEMA's restoration efforts, and with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, who came under heavy criticism in the aftermath of Katrina.

The Superdome is being repaired. A banner draped across the facade heralds: ''Reopening Superdome 9-24-06, Go Saints." But if the football team will return in the fall, it's doubtful that many of the residents will be able to come home by then, if at all.

The rebuilding effort remains stalled by differences among local, state, and federal officials over how New Orleans and its levees should be rebuilt -- and, of course, because of politics.

In the mayoral primary tomorrow, voters will choose the person they believe can best lead New Orleans out of the muck and mire. The embattled incumbent, Nagin, initially cautioned residents not to rebuild in the lowest-lying neighborhoods until a sensible plan could be put into place. But when citizens balked, he scrapped a proposed moratorium on building permits.

Obtaining a building permit is as easy as going to the city's website and clicking on ''FastTrack Permitting." There's a disclaimer: ''The issuance of this permit does not expressly guarantee that the subject property is or will be eligible for any flood insurance program." In other words, builder beware.

The heated mayoral race has attracted 22 candidates, including a Tulane University student, a man who says God has given him a vision for the city, and another who would pay for new levees by legalizing prostitution and hashish dens.

The winner faces a host of post-Katrina problems.

Although New Orleans's high crime rate abated when the majority of residents fled the city, it has begun inching back up. In the wake of recent slayings, the Times-Picayune pleaded for peace: ''After grieving over lost friends and neighbors, after being separated from loved ones, after wondering about the strength of the levees, after waiting for months for information on what to do with their ruined homes, New Orleanians cannot be expected to shoulder yet another burden. Citizens cannot put their lives and their neighborhoods back together if they are under siege."

The police department has been under siege, too, and is recruiting officers after firing 80 and suspending 50 more following an investigation of those who left their posts after the storm. Dozens of others received reprimands.

In a public relations gesture, billboards announce: ''New Orleans Police Department. We Protected, We Stayed, We Served." In souvenir shops, T-shirts have a different take: ''NOPD: Not Our Problem, Dude."

Abandoned vehicles remain another issue: Thousands of them were destroyed by the water surge and have been towed to a makeshift automobile graveyard under the Pontchartrain Expressway, mud-encrusted BMWs next to pickup trucks. According to the city, 11,162 vehicles have been towed to date; hundreds more have been crushed into scrap metal.

A look at the city website reveals how New Orleans is still struggling with such basic services as sanitation, water, gas, traffic lights, housing, schools, and roads. Destinations out of Louis Armstrong International Airport are half what they were before Katrina. As of last week, just over 1,000 restaurants had reopened in Orleans Parish, or about 28 percent of the pre-Katrina total. Tons of garbage and debris remain to be collected.

Healthcare is spotty. Charity Hospital has been closed. The city's only public hospital, it helped serve the 760,000 New Orleans residents who were uninsured before Katrina hit.

At Tulane Hospital, just one of the seven floors is open to patients. Today, the city has 72 emergency-room beds.

In New Orleans East, a middle- and working-class black section, entire neighborhoods are uninhabited.

''I thought we were bad off until I saw the Lower Ninth Ward," one of the city's hardest-hit areas, said Tonji Veazie, who along with her husband, Russell, is gutting her house and plans to rebuild.

Along their street of tidy brick houses, few have ventured back. On one side of them, city inspectors declared the house a total loss; on the other side, a white FEMA trailer resides in the front yard, and ''You Loot, We Shoot" is spray-painted on a nearby garage door.

Still, signs of hope emerge in unexpected places.

In one deserted neighborhood, the message painted on a garage door states simply: ''We Are Still Alive." Billboards viewed by commuters crossing the Mississippi River say: ''SMILE! Now doesn't that feel better?"

And in the weed-filled yard of one destroyed home in New Orleans East, a geranium pokes through the ground, a splash of color in a debris-strewn wasteland.