If you were among the scores of thousands thronging the Fair Grounds racetrack during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 28-30, or if you strolled the French Quarter afterwards, you could almost convince yourself that the Big Easy was back in business.
On Bourbon Street, landmark bars were catering to the various vices for which the Quarter is far-famed. Jazzfest fans at the Fair Grounds enjoyed an eclectic schedule that ranged from local jazz and gospel choirs to Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band and Bruce Springsteen in a testament to the healing power of music and Crawfish Monica (the most popular food item, for the uninitiated).
Jazzfest served as a homecoming celebration for the Katrina diaspora, and Clarence "Frogman" Henry seemed to speak for his beloved city on the opening weekend of the festival when he proclaimed from the Southern Comfort Blues Stage, "New Orleans is back, y'all. New Orleans is back."
But on bus rides between Canal Street downtown and the Fair Grounds, damage from the flooding after Hurricane Katrina showed that New Orleans still has a ways to go in recovery. Eight months after the storm, less than half of the pre-flood population of 485,000 have returned. High-water marks can still be seen on houses and other buildings throughout the city. Mud-wrecked cars and trucks were lined for blocks under an elevated section of Interstate 10 through the Treme neighborhood. Some vehicles were partially stripped. Some serve as shelters for homeless.
At Donna's Bar & Grill, on Rampart Street, across from Armstrong Park, Shannon Powell, drummer and leader of the All-Star Traditional Jazz Band, told of being asked by a network TV reporter, "What do you think about what's happened to your city?" Powell replied, "What do you think I think? Take a ride and you tell me."
James Stanley, 36, has a temporary job working for the city, picking up trash. A native of the Desire housing project in the Upper Ninth Ward, he was among the first to reach the Superdome seeking refuge from the flooding, only to be told by the guard, "I can take you but not your bicycle." Stanley noted, "I looked at the bike -- it was a hundred-dollar bike -- and I said 'adios, amigo,'" and entered the Dome. There he witnessed chaos for three days -- "It seemed like three months" -- before he was evacuated to Houston. He returned to New Orleans in February to find his home gone. He has been homeless since then, but he hoped to find a place to live.
When Stanley got back to New Orleans and saw the ruins, he said, "I cried a little bit, but I said 'This is a great city and, to me, I'll never forget it.'" Stanley thanked reporters for listening to his story: "I couldn't talk about it for a long time, but it was good to bring it out."
Iranise Morris, 62, a native of Haiti, has lived in New Orleans since 1980. Her house in the working-class Upper Ninth Ward lost its roof in the storm. She and her teenaged granddaughter were forced to stay on her porch with nothing but a flashlight before rescuers took them away in a boat in eight feet of water the Monday after the flooding. They went first to the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge, then were given temporary housing by a church in the capital. Eventually she arranged a ride to her son's home in Florida, where she was reunited with her daughter, who had been isolated on the other side of town and had no idea what had happened to her.
Mrs. Morris returned in February to live in a trailer, supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, adjoining her house. She was uncertain whether she will be able to repair the house, which was uninsured, but she is happy that she and her immediate family survived.
"God bless me to save my soul and I'm not hurt," she said. "I have nothing but I'm happy God give me my life." She added, "People have helped a lot, with food and clothing, because we lost everything. But we're blessed."
As bad as other neighborhoods look, nothing compares with the devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward, also a working-class neighborhood of 5,600 houses on the other side of the Industrial Canal, and a population of 15,000 before floodwaters tore through a break in the levee on Aug. 29, 2005, after the hurricane passed through. Many houses are collapsed. In some cases they are collapsed over cars and trucks. Others were pushed across streets and against other houses. There are fewer water marks because the water topped most houses. Spray-painted codes on doors signify when they were inspected and by which crew. On May 1, emergency crews were still using dogs to search for dead bodies in dilapidated structures. Of 1,600 deaths due to Katrina, 720 were in Orleans Parish. A Fire Department chaplain stood by as firefighters searched through rubble in a wrecked house.
National media reports fed a widespread misconception that the Lower Ninth Ward is low-lying land that should be abandoned to revert to marshes. Wade Rathke of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a community organization of working-class residents, noted that the elevation of the Lower Ninth Ward was typical of the New Orleans area. In fact, the name refers to its downriver location, not its altitude. Much of the Lower Ninth actually is a half-foot above sea level, higher ground than Lakeview, a middle-class neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain that was also inundated after levee breaches. Parts of Lakeview are five feet below sea level but there is no question that predominantly white Lakeview will be rebuilt. However, residents of the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward were forbidden from moving back into their neighborhood, which still lacked electricity and potable water. A few people have come back to try to clear out debris from their homes.
Clay Landry, 42, spent a long weekend clearing out his one-story brick house on Rocheblave Street, which had been completely submerged after the levee failed eight blocks away. He is living with his wife and two teen-aged children in Memphis, where he has found work as a carpenter. His house is stripped to the frames. He is uncertain whether he will rebuild the home, where he was born and grew up. "I'm not going to put it back until after the storm season," which runs from June 1 through November, he said. He added, "There's no sense spending money on rebuilding if they're not going to clean up the property around you. I'll see how safe the levee is and also see what happens to the schools around here."
Homeowners in the Lower Ninth neighborhood have received mixed signals on whether they should rebuild their homes. FEMA did not allow them back in the area to see their property until Dec. 1. Then a few weeks ago homeowners were warned they had to clean up their property by Aug. 29 or the city would declare the property blighted and seize it. Now the City Council is backing off from the Aug. 29 deadline.
Landry evacuated with his family to a downtown hotel before the storm, expecting to be gone a few days at most. When it became apparent that he could not return to his home, he went to Leesville, in west central Louisiana, only to be forced out of there by Hurricane Rita. But he said he's not worried about "material stuff ... The best part was with me: my wife and children. They're the only thing that matters." Many of his neighbors either could not afford to leave or got tired of running. A niece died in a house a few blocks from his because she wouldn't leave.
He is hopeful that the neighborhood will come back, but the kids have made new friends in Memphis and would not mind staying there, he said. Still, "Once people come back and go to cleaning up it'll probably be better."
Down the street, Annie Mae Cole, 44, was checking out her house, which also needs to be gutted. She had been stranded with others for four days in the second floor of a building not far away, and nearly lost hope as they watched helicopters passing overhead, ignoring their appeals for help. In one case, a helicopter circled around, but when she looked out the window she saw a soldier sitting in the helicopter door with a gun cradled in his lap, so she ducked her head back in and decided they were never going to come for her.
She had nearly given up hope on the Thursday following the flooding when rescuers finally took her in a boat, only to leave her with other survivors on Interstate 10 with no food or water in the midst of dead bodies covered with sheets. "We was in a dead hole," she said. "We was trapped." They stayed there two days.
She adds that she knows she should be glad she survived but she couldn't let go of bitter memories just yet. "They're not saying how they left us on the bridge and people were walking and begging for water. ... I know they had some people doing bad things, but why make the good suffer with the bad?" She added, "This should be a wakeup call for everybody."
Eight months after Katrina, much work remains to be done. President Bush on Sept. 15, 2005, came to New Orleans and pledged, "Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."
FEMA says it has spent $5.7 billion on Katrina recovery so far and provided more than 16,200 trailers as temporary homes for hurricane victims. But on May 2, with housing still in very short supply, 7,500 families were waiting for FEMA trailers in eastern New Orleans. Only a handful of public schools were reopened and many neighborhoods resembled ghost towns, but FEMA announced that it would close the local office responsible for helping New Orleans rebuild. The federal agency blamed local officials for failing to start planning the recovery adequately. But the Associated Press reported, "One major hold-up was the late release of FEMA's flood elevation advisories, which offer guidelines on how high homeowners should raise their homes to qualify for flood insurance." FEMA issued the advisories the last week in April, months late.
City officials said FEMA also reneged on a promise to fund city planning efforts. And thousands of hurricane evacuees are being dropped from FEMA housing programs. FEMA officials later said they would keep the office open, but move it across the river to Algiers.
Bruce Springsteen, who kicked off his "Seeger Sessions" tour with a two-hour Jazzfest set on April 30 that brought vintage folk and protest songs to life in tribute to musician Pete Seeger, told the crowd he had toured the Ninth Ward the previous day. "I saw some sights I never thought I'd see in an American city," he said. "The criminal ineptitude makes you furious."
Taking up the slack are groups such as the Common Ground Lower Ninth Ward Project, which set up a community center in one of the few houses in the neighborhood with electricity. It was helping residents organize to rebuild their homes and protect their interests. A nearby yard sign proclaims, "Not as seen on TV."
"There's no FEMA, the electricity stops here, there's no potable water and no Red Cross -- and there never has been Red Cross here," said Michelle Shin, 29, the Common Ground coordinator in the Lower Ninth Ward. In addition to providing solidarity with the neighbors, the project provides access to computers and Internet service, lends tools, provides temporary housing for 30 people and kitchen facilities. "It's a place to stay while people are working on their homes," she said. "It's on a mutual aid basis, not charity."
Common Ground (commongroundrelief.org) started as an emergency health clinic in the Algiers neighborhood, on the west bank of New Orleans, the week after the storm. It has expanded to the Ninth Ward and adjoining St. Bernard Parish, which also was devastated by the flood, and attracted volunteers from all over the country.
Restoring the Lower Ninth Ward "is not part of [the city's] agenda," she said. Residents, 60% of whom are homeowners, objected when a city commission suggested converting part of the neighborhood into park land. When the Orleans Parish School Board balked at cleaning up the Martin Luther King Elementary School, Common Ground volunteers went to work at the urging of residents. On the second day, school officials called police to arrest the volunteers, before backing off. They estimated they saved the bankrupt school district $500,000.
The group has helped gut 100 houses. It also has been planting sunflowers and mustard greens to draw toxins from the floodwaters out of the soil.
Shin stressed that it was up to the residents to make decisions. "But they need resources if they want to rebuild. They need the same protections everybody else has for their private property."
Government officials have made recovery difficult, she said. FEMA stalled in publishing flood maps and when they finally produced them with flood zones that appeared to zig and zag in an arbitrary manner they were supposed to be recommendations, but within days the city had put them up on their website. "I don't know what happened to the legislative process," she said.
Shin also noted that the city hasn't published the list of properties that need to be demolished and the Corps of Engineers cannot begin work on demolishing those properties until 30 days after the list is published. But the Corps demolition contract expires June 30. After that the cash-strapped city will be responsible for the demolitions. Residents fear the city will simply declare the property blighted and seize the land.
A resident of California's Bay Area, with a master's degree in international relations, Shin visited New Orleans in late December for nine days during her vacation from her regular job. She ended up staying. "I realized there was such immense need for volunteers from around the country and even around the world. The government has left these people out in the rain literally and figuratively, and soon it will be literally again. It's up to the rest of the world to make a stand, because if we allow them to do this to this community, we can rest assured they'll do it to our community next."
The Lower Ninth Ward is only the most extreme case. People in the Seventh Ward, off Claiborne Avenue, have been waiting since December to get their trash picked up, and "toxic flood rats" have been taking over. She added that streets are in such poor shape that tires on her car have had four blowouts in the last two weeks.
She stressed that she was only a guest of the neighborhood. "I'll only be here as long as the community requests me to be here," she said.
Rathke, a founder of ACORN (acorn.org), and chief organizer of Service Employees International Union Local 100 in New Orleans, said ACORN, with 9,000 members in New Orleans, has trained several thousand volunteers and helped to gut 1,200 homes in various parts of the city. At least that many more homes are waiting for assistance. "It's like pushing a rock up a hill," he said. ACORN also has joined a lawsuit to block the bulldozing of 2,500 homes that are considered unsafe by city inspectors. It has joined a coalition of grassroots organizations that are fighting evictions in the city, while seeking to address the concerns of landlords. But other than clearing debris out of houses, not much more can be done in the Lower Ninth Ward until water and electricity service is restored. Rathke said he has not received a satisfactory explanation of why those services have not been restored.
"There is the lack of a coherent plan, the failure of money to move to families. Those are probably two of the biggest problems," he said. While he does not discount the possibility of bad faith as well as incompetence, he said many factors have contributed to the delays in rebuilding New Orleans. For example, Congress is only now getting around to appropriating money for the rebuilding and the state set up a Louisiana Recovery Administration but it has been sitting on billions of dollars, waiting to see how much the federal government will allocate for New Orleans. And while the city is virtually bankrupt, he noted, it is sitting on nearly $50 million in Community Development Block Grant funds that could be used. "So there's enough blame to go around."
Rathke is hopeful for the city's long-term prospects. "There's no physical, practical reason [New Orleans can't be rebuilt]," he said. That is, if the levees are fixed and residents can be assured they will hold. "It will take money being spent and it will take time to put it together, but ... it's surprising how quickly people are coming back, particularly working-class people who want to get back to New Orleans and get their homes back in shape."
In fact, with so much work to be done, particularly in the construction trades, the unemployment rate in New Orleans is less than 5%, he said, compared with estimates of 30% for evacuees, many of whom are trying to figure out whether they should put down roots in their new communities, such as Houston, Atlanta or Memphis.
The ones who face the biggest problems, he said, are the middle-class professionals, such as the 6,500 people who were terminated by the New Orleans public school system, which now employs just 125 teachers in four public schools. Other private "charter schools," which usually pay teachers less than public schools, have sprung up and enroll the balance of the 13,000 school-age kids in the city.
"If you're a family with children, you've got problems. These situations are very difficult for people," he said, but added, "We're extremely impressed with the will and the desire of people to return ... There is a huge number of people who are working hard to try to get back, largely with their own resources and willpower."
The Times Picayune on April 26 reported that the city has lost 77% of its primary-care doctors, 70% of its dentists and 89% of its psychiatrists since Katrina. Charity Hospital, the city's only Level 1 trauma center, which treats the most serious life-threatening injuries, was closed until April 24, when it reopened an interim trauma center in the East Jefferson Parish suburb of Elmwood. (Other clinics and hospitals are operating in the city.)
Rathke discounts the suspicions that developers are scheming to clear out the Lower Ninth Ward, although ACORN is keeping an eye on the situation.
When the state and federal money is finally jiggled loose, he said, "there's going to be billions of dollars, literally a flood of money, and there's not going to be enough people to do the work."
The trick is for homeowners to hold out until then. He said ACORN has seen very little activity in property transfers so far. "The truth is that people are hanging onto their property," he said. He has met with mortgage bankers and been assured, "The last thing they want is to foreclose on thousands of homes and get stuck with a huge number of properties in New Orleans. It is in their interest for people to come back to their homes."
Big developers, such as K&B Homes, want clear tracts of 50 acres or more, and he does not think clearance of the Lower Ninth Ward is going to happen. "We're going to need developers who are responsive to the community's need to build affordable housing, which we haven't heard a lot about yet," he said. "But the least of our problems is big developers coming in and buying up large tracts of property."
So the good times are rolling in New Orleans once again. Come and enjoy the music and cuisine. But don't forget the neighborhoods that are still in need.