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Determined homeowners are leading the recovery in parts of parts of eastern New Orleans
Friday, June 16, 2006
By Leslie Williams Staff writer

In about two weeks, Mtumishi St. Julien, an eastern New Orleans resident ousted from the city by Hurricane Katrina, will resettle into his two-story home in the Lake Bullard subdivision. He won't be returning to the wasteland some predicted the heavily flooded area east of the Industrial Canal would become.

The jack-o'-lantern effect of one or two isolated homes lit up on some desolate streets is neither his reality nor that of many of the thousands of people and businesses repopulating eastern New Orleans more than nine months after lingering floodwaters and hurricane-force winds wrecked their neighborhoods.

The lights are on at more than 4,500 homes and businesses: 13 percent of the Entergy customers connected pre-Katrina in eastern New Orleans, according to figures compiled by the utility as of April 30. Statistics for active connections through mid-June may be available in a week. The numbers of active connections obviously represent many more people because each residential connection likely supports more than one person. And if post-Katrina housing patterns in eastern New Orleans resemble those in other parts of the city, residents there likely are sharing living space with family and friends.

Businesses comprise about 140 of the 4,500 customers receiving electrical service in the east, according to city records.

Assuming an average of three people per residence, the remaining 4,360 residential connections translates into more than 13,000 people. Although no one claims to know exactly how many of the more than 89,000 pre-Katrina residents of eastern New Orleans have returned, electrical connections and city building permits bring into focus the area's evolving footprint.

Permits also show pulse

Since Katrina, more than 22,000 permits needed to repair and build homes have been issued for planning districts 9, 10 and 11, which encompass eastern New Orleans, said Joseph St. Martin, chief executive officer for St. Martin Brown & Associates. The planning firm has started preparing the groundwork to develop a vision for a section of eastern New Orleans bordered by the Industrial Canal, Paris Road, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

Certified public accountant Luther Speight, who was displaced from his Eastover neighborhood to Memphis, Tenn., was among those who obtained a permit to repair his two-story, 8,000-square-foot home on an acre lot. He recently began repairing the home's roof and its heavily damaged downstairs, as well as improving the landscaping.

Another Eastover resident -- former state Rep. Sherman Copelin Jr., who has led a group of eastern New Orleans business owners and homeowners in post-Katrina planning efforts -- has had a building permit for a while but hasn't started rebuilding his home, which his family hopes to reoccupy by Christmas.

"We've been busy working on projects that generate revenue," said Copelin, who, like other prosperous residents of the gated Eastover community, has acquired housing elsewhere and is under less pressure to quickly repair his flooded home.

Determining how many of those permits represent work under way is an imprecise science. How many get-to-it-when-I-can Copelins are out there? How many permits are a precursor to rebuilding as opposed to "saving a spot in line to be grandfathered in?" said John Beckman, a planner from the Philadelphia firm of Wallace, Roberts & Todd who assisted the Bring New Orleans Back Commission in crafting a rebuilding plan for the entire city. A building permit may protect a homeowner against changes in building requirements.

Still, the number of permits for eastern New Orleans is "impressive," Beckman said. And the electrical connections "show the grit and spirit of New Orleans: They're just going to do it."

Doughnut rebound

The footprint taking shape in a large part of eastern New Orleans -- a swath of real estate bounded by the Industrial Canal, Hayne Boulevard, Paris Road and Chef Menteur Highway -- thus far resembles a doughnut.

The resettlement there spreads inward from the long stretches of Hayne Boulevard and Chef Menteur Highway, which had little or no flooding, toward Interstate 10. The inactive areas, the doughnut's hole, are pockets of land on both sides of I-10. It's the landscape seen by many drivers cruising through eastern New Orleans who don't exit at Bullard Avenue or Read or Crowder boulevards.

Other rebounding areas include Village de l'Est and Venetian Isles, where more than half of its residents are rebuilding.

The configuration of the recovery makes sense "because Hayne and Chef were dry," said City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents most of eastern New Orleans.

Willard-Lewis, who has often complained about the slow response of government assistance in her council district, credited the indomitable spirit of residents for the recovery accomplished thus far.

Their efforts have been "Herculean," she said.

Glancing at a map showing where homes and business are using electricity, Willard-Lewis said the progress so far reveals what has occurred in five months, "not nine months."

"Look and leave was the law of the land" for eastern New Orleans residents "until the last week of December," she said. "And electricity wasn't fully restored till January." Considering the late start, the lack of government support and the uncertainty about the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet -- the man-made shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico that many residents blame for Katrina-related flooding -- "I'm really encouraged," Willard-Lewis said.

Greg Rigamer, chief executive officer of the planning firm GCR & Associates, agreed that assessing progress must occur in context.

Considering obstacles faced by those attempting to re-establish their neighborhoods in eastern New Orleans, a 13 percent Entergy reconnection rate as of April 30 reflects "very good growth," he said.

It was accomplished despite the lack of infrastructure that as provided to other parts of the city and with minimal services and almost no grocery stores or gas stations in the area, he said. Eastern New Orleans also had more flooding than other areas of the city, Rigamer said.

More than 80 percent of the east was soaked by floodwaters, Beckman said.

'Self-sustaining' areas

The map showing where residents are back on the electric grid indicates "self-sustaining areas" are leading the recovery, Rigamer said. Such areas have "high levels of home ownership, high home values and residents with high incomes," he said.

The homes in a rectangle bordered by Morrison Road, Downman Road, Hayne Boulevard and Poitevent Avenue represent one example of such an area, he said. Other examples are the rectangle bordered by Lacombe Street, Hayne Boulevard, Paris Road and I-10 and the rectangle bordered by Flake Avenue, Dwyer Road, Michoud Boulevard and Chef Menteur Highway.

People talk about the east as if it's one neighborhood, but it's many neighborhoods, said St. Julien, executive director of the New Orleans Finance Authority and co-chairman of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's housing subcommittee. St. Julien plans to sell the house he bought in Baton Rouge after "chest-high" water soaked his Lake Bullard home.

"We're painting the upstairs now and Sheetrocking the downstairs," he said of his home here. "We won't be finished with the kitchen in two weeks, so we're going to live upstairs and cook in the trailer."

According to Rigamer's definition, St. Julien also lives in a self-sustaining neighborhood.

"I feel very confident about my area," St. Julien said. "Neighborhoods are built on assets, and in my area there are two (temporarily closed) hospitals, a library, one of the largest parks in the city, a complex of office buildings, three school sites, the transportation corridors of I-10 and I-510, the golf community in Eastover and a footprint for a massive shopping area."

Most of the recovery to date has been spurred by the return of middle- and upper-class homeowners with strong neighborhood associations, Willard-Lewis said. She adds Lake Barrington, Lake Carmel, McKendall Estates and Fairway Estates as neighborhoods on the rebound.

Pete Hamilton Jr., owner of the 21-unit Willow Oak apartment complex on Crowder Boulevard and a former president of the Lake Forest Estates Homeowners Association, said that -- based on where homes and businesses are receiving electrical service -- the neighborhoods of Lake Willow, Lake Forest Estates and Kenilworth are showing signs of life too.

"At the moment they seem to be staying away from the rental apartments along I-10, and there's not much business activity around the Plaza" shopping center, Hamilton said.

However, the rate of return so far has been "disappointing" for Hamilton, who plans to move out of eastern New Orleans to some other part of the city.

The withered population and the lack of big-box retailers and grocery stores are not among the primary reasons for Hamilton's departure. "It's the uncertainty about flood protection," Hamilton said. And, he said, he has been offered a handsome sum of money for his Lake Forest Estates home and his apartment complex.

"They say I'm abandoning the east," Hamilton said, "but I can't wait five or more years for them to figure out what to do with MR-GO."

Improving quality of life

The growing head count for eastern New Orleans is not a primary concern for the Rev. Luke Nguyen, associate pastor at Mary Queen of Vietnam, a Catholic church.

About 18 percent of the predominantly Vietnamese-American community of Village de l'Est has returned, he said.

Of the 6,000 Vietnamese residents and nearly 5,000 residents of African ancestry who lived there pre-Katrina, about 1,500 Vietnamese residents and 500 African-Americans have returned, Nguyen said.

The neighborhood has devoted most of its energy toward improving the quality of life, he said.

During Katrina, "one elderly, disabled woman died in her home and she was found three weeks later," he said. Inspired by this tragedy, the community is building a 300-unit complex strictly for seniors near the intersection of Willowbrook Drive and Dwyer Road. The sewer and water lines and other infrastructure are being put in now, Nguyen said, adding that about 30 percent of the Vietnamese-American population in the neighborhood is elderly.

Nguyen points to corridors of bustling economic activity on Alcee Fortier Boulevard and along Chef Menteur between Michoud and Alcee Fortier boulevards as another opportunity for an upgrade.

In the past, businesses have been arranged in chaotic fashion in Village de l'Est, he said. Now "we're developing a business district," he said. An architect will guide the design of a uniform, aesthetically pleasing "Viet Town" on a stretch of Chef Menteur between Michoud and Alcee Fortier boulevards, Nguyen said.

It's the quality of life that Nguyen and others seek that draws many eastern New Orleans residents back to their neighborhoods. For St. Julien, the aesthetics of suburban life within a city pulls him and others back to his beloved Lake Bullard subdivision, the kind of place where you easily can find a parking spot in front of your house.

A little more than 10 percent of the 200 homeowners in Lake Bullard are actively engaged in rebuilding, St. Julien said.

At the moment the pendulum in eastern New Orleans seems to be swinging toward reclaiming neighborhoods that were sturdy and organized pre-Katrina.

"Every time I drive around," St. Julien said, "I see more and more activity, people working on their homes."

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Leslie Williams can be reached at or (504) 826-3358.