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Friday, August 25, 2006

Numbers show slow but steady recovery
By Coleman Warner
Staff writer

The numbers tell the story of a painful, clawing, slow-motion recovery from Katrina.

Statistics gleaned from around New Orleans offer snapshots of hope and determination nearly a year after the storm: Schools and businesses reopening here and there; thousands of residents signed up for the Road Home grant program that will dole out billions of federal dollars; a torrent of building permits; repaired traffic signals.

Population is rising, albeit slowly.

But the latest statistical snapshot also shows how far the metro area has to go, starting with a levee protection system that, while its Katrina breaks are nearly repaired, remains largely shy of federally-authorized levee heights.

Other indicators of an uncertain future: A dearth of affordable housing, a stressed medical care system and wrenching economic changes, with many businesses decamping from Orleans to Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes, all trends closely followed by number-crunchers.

“We’re putting a few more people back to work,” said Tom Weatherly, vice president of research for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “I’d say everyone is anxious for the return of travelers and doing whatever they can to improve the image of the city, and a little bit concerned about what we’re going to get (from the national news media) at the anniversary” of Katrina.

Restaurants and other food outlets illustrate bad-news, better-news elements of the post-storm picture: In Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, the number of such businesses has plummeted 55 percent, but since February their total has increased 23 percent.

While billions of federal dollars already have been spent on emergency post-hurricane assistance to local residents, levee repairs and debris removal, New Orleans advocates have spent much of the past year lobbying for enormous grants that, for the most part, have yet to be spent. Notably, the Road Home grant program for rebuilding or buying out storm-damaged homes, for which more than 100,000 have signed up — more than 90 percent from the metro area — is valued at more than $8 billion, but counselors hired to run the program have just started individual meetings with homeowners. Many see New Orleans’ lurching recovery fueled, so far, by private decisions: residents or business owners using insurance payments to restore buildings, neighborhood groups crafting their own recovery plans and nonprofit groups pitching in to gut houses.

In many cases, out-of-state doctors, community activists and cultural groups have wrestled with local government officials as they have tried to penetrate post-storm confusion and target their money or volunteers. As one example, Beverly Gianna, a former convention marketing official in New Orleans, is furious that she has repeatedly met with leaders of nonprofit groups who say they cannot get clear signals from local elected officials about how they can best help arts organizations.

“It’s extremely slow,” Gianna said of the recovery. “I’ve not had anybody who has said, ‘Wow, I’m impressed at what’s going on in New Orleans.’”

Having tracked recovery indicators in a monthly “Katrina Index,” the Washington-based Brookings Institution says in its August report that “to be fair, one year is not much time to turn around a city devastated by such a storm.”

Mixed signals continue

Across the metro area, progress is as evident as the challenges ahead.

Encouragement can be found in a busy home-sales market, the opening of new charter public schools and in a rebound in the numbers of business and visitor travelers to New Orleans, the research group says.

Monthly passenger traffic at Louis Armstrong International Airport has rebounded to more than 80 percent of its pre-Katrina levels.

But Brookings analysts share locals’ impatience with the pace of recovery.

“The level of basic city services and infrastructure remain thin, does not cover all neighborhoods, and has yet to strengthen overall in the past six months,” the report says. “Affordable, rental housing is critical for workers, and the employers who rely on them, and yet that seems increasingly out of reach. Job growth has inched upward but so has the unemployment rate, sending mixed signals about worker security.”

An unemployment rate of 7.2 percent for the New Orleans region, influenced by post-Katrina upheaval in the local economy, is up from 5.6 percent just before the storm. And that comes against the backdrop of a local civilian labor force that shrank by 30 percent.

Sales tax collections have spiked in most local parishes, as residents rushed to make big-ticket purchases and building materials have flown off the shelves.

Even in badly-damaged Orleans, sales tax income is on the rebound, topping $10 million in monthly collections, more than 75 percent of pre-storm levels. Such increases give a dash of new hope to agencies that count on the income to function.

A reshuffling of city finances has made it possible for the tattered New Orleans Public Library system to restore 45 lost positions, bringing its full-time workforce to 85, interim Director Geraldine Harris says. That’s down from the library’s permanent force of 213 before Katrina, but beleaguered staffers aren’t complaining.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting there,” Harris said.

School enrollment is climbing even in the hard-hit parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Orleans Parish will have 56 public schools, including new charter schools, in operation this fall, a far cry from 117 last fall before Katrina, but a dramatic increase from 25 during the spring.

Archdiocese of New Orleans schools will total 88 this fall, compared to 107 before Katrina and 83 in the spring. The system’s 50,000-student count before Katrina fell to 40,000 during the spring semester, and should reach 43,000 this fall, officials said.

Universities are still facing an enrollment shakeout, as many out-of-state parents are worried about post-storm conditions. At the University of New Orleans, for example, an enrollment of 12,000 is expected for the fall semester, up from 11,118 in the spring but still far short from 17,250 last fall, just before the storm hit.

Plenty of permits

Parish officials offer varying progress reports about repairs to critical pieces of infrastructure, ranging from pumping stations to libraries to traffic lights.

In New Orleans, 90 percent of the traffic signals have been repaired or replaced, while in St. Bernard, key intersections have new signals, but half of the total number of signals are still out.

Ridership in the public transit systems of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes remain a fraction of what it was prior to Katrina, posing huge logistical problems for workers without cars. The Regional Transit Authority, primarily serving Orleans, reports it has about 19,000 riders each day, down from 124,000 prior to Katrina.

Building and electrical permits, predictably, are being issued at a frantic pace, with more than 79,000 issued in New Orleans and more than 10,000 issued in Jefferson Parish since Katrina. More than 93,000 owners of homes in the metro area, meanwhile, have registered for the Road Home grant program, although there is widespread public frustration over how long it is taking for the money to flow.

Occupational license figures in local parishes point to a move of many businesses from flood-devastated Orleans into suburban parishes. But economic development experts concede they don’t have a good fix on how many businesses remain shuttered generally as a result of Katrina, or the pace at which they are reopening.

Cargo figures from the Port of New Orleans are up more than 40 percent from pre-Katrina levels, demonstrating vibrancy in one building block for the local economy.

With overall reductions in the size of the metro area’s population and in visitor traffic, with the workforce scattered, recovery is slow, but there also is strong evidence that companies are seeing opportunity in recovery work, said Louisiana’s secretary of economic development, Michael Olivier. He cited as one example Emmedue, an Italian company that builds structural panels that can be used in lieu of sheetrock and plywood.

It opened a factory on Airline Drive in Kenner in July that will employ more than 100 people when in full operation.

Cindy Fromherz, director of research for GNO Inc., a regional economic development group, said that while Orleans and St. Bernard parishes in particular are still suffering, other parishes are humming. “The region is open for business,” she said. “There are pockets in the region that are having difficulty.”

A more somber tone is heard among hospital executives, who see daily evidence of the strain that shuttered hospitals and inadequate staffing is having on medical care. The number of hospital beds available in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes has fallen by 51 percent since Katrina, rebounding just 10 percent since February, according to figures collected by the Metropolitan Hospital Council.

A return of professionals and support workers during the summer was less robust than expected, said Cynthia Matherne, the council’s emergency management coordinator.

Thin staffing means some patients wind up spending their entire hospital stay in the emergency ward, she said.

“We’re just not seeing the recovery quite as quick as what we would like, and we would have quite a difficult time supporting a large influx of people (residents),” Matherne said.

Winston Brown has a few vantage points from which to gauge New Orleans’ recovery. Tourist sections are up and running and even vibrant, he says, but at Xavier University, where Brown serves as dean of admissions, enrollment this fall should be about 1,000 less than pre-Katrina figures last fall, a drop of 26 percent. And Brown’s old neighborhood in eastern New Orleans, hit by five feet of water during Katrina, is now a mishmash of FEMA trailers and boarded-up or gutted houses. Most neighbors aren’t coming back, or haven’t decided, he said.

“The things that the tourists and the visitors want are there, the downtown, the French Quarter, they’re available. But from a day-to-day standpoint, the people who live here in New Orleans are still going through adjustments because of lack of city services, things like that,” Brown said. “It seems that people are still waiting.”

(Coleman Warner can be reached at or at (504)826-3311.)