New Orleans — Riding through this hurricane-hammered city a little shy of two years since Katrina lashed it, things are looking up. My friend Randy Boudreaux, whose family arrived here about 1760, takes me on a magical misery tour of neighborhoods that were wind-blown and waterlogged in “The Storm,” as locals call it. While suffering abounds, optimism ascends.
The Lakeview district merged with adjacent Lake Pontchartrain as this community’s homes stewed in up to 14 feet of water after Katrina. It’s still in bad shape. This never was a poor, minority area, like the predominantly black and now predominantly depopulated Lower Ninth Ward. Few of the mainly Caucasian owners of Lakeview’s vacant mansions have returned. Somehow, rich white folks got swamped in George Bush’s nefarious plot to drown black people.
Nonetheless, an attractive, bright-yellow model home brightens one corner of Lakeview’s Canal Boulevard. Like a few restored or brand-new houses, it sits on a fresh mound of soil that elevates it, presumably above sea level, in case these streets again become streams.
While Lakeview’s residences are mainly empty, the chaos and clutter previously on display have abated. Widespread cleanup has helped.
“The refrigerators are out of the trees,” Boudreaux says. “Where people did not get flooded, they’ve returned. Where they got some flooding, they are rebuilding. And where people got water up to their ceilings, they largely have stayed away.”
Boudreaux points with frustration to news reports that claim only 50 percent of New Orleans’ population has come home. He cites newer figures showing the municipal populace is at 58 percent of pre-Katrina levels. More important, he stresses that the metropolitan area has bounced back to 86 percent of its pre-hurricane headcount. While a seventh of the region’s population still is exiled in places like Atlanta and Dallas, Boudreaux says the fact that six-sevenths are in town or nearby bolsters the Crescent City’s prospects.
Surreal sights still pop up unexpectedly.
Area 13 at Louis Armstrong International Airport’s baggage concourse hosts a mini-display of Katrina damage. Behind the window of a dark, shuttered office, a chair and desk are covered with acoustic tile from the caved-in ceiling. A dysfunctional clock sits on the desk and blinks in red: “12:46…12:46…12:46…”
“It’s gross,” says a Delta Airlines baggage-claim employee, skinning up her nose. “That’s all Katrina.”
On the bright side, the black and brown lines that smeared so many walls and structures once the waters settled, largely have faded away or been expunged. Thousands of moldy vehicles once huddled beneath the Interstate 10 overpass have been cleared away. This was no small feat.
Esplanade, the mansion-lined street on the French Quarter’s eastern boundary, has recaptured its earlier elegance. Last year, its wide, tree-filled “neutral ground” or median was tangled with fallen branches and other debris. Three months after Katrina, it was clogged with abandoned refrigerators whose doors were sealed shut with yards of duct tape to entomb their rancid contents.
While many New Orleans neighborhoods remain grim, Carrolton, the French Quarter, Gentilly, and Uptown look much healthier than they did a year ago.
In another positive sign, New Orleans’s unusual characters seem to be returning.
Early one sweltering evening, a middle-aged man in dreadlocks and a Bob Marley T-shirt sits atop a group of street barriers just outside the local Fair Grounds. Asked if he’s selling any of the four bottles of cold water, chilling beside him, he replies, “Are you thirsty, brother?”
When I tell him I’m parched, he hands one over. Asked what he wants for it, he says quite firmly: “I don’t believe in paying for water.”
In the French Quarter, an older woman sits outside the Gumbo Shop on Saint Peter Street and plays a small piano for tips she collects in a large, red basket. She stops when an enormous garbage truck pulls up beside her and noisily gathers the trash.
“You’ve got a little bit of competition,” I tell her.
“I’ve been competing all afternoon,” she says, erupting into laughter.
So what would keep the good times rolling?
First, crime control is a must. The bad guys have returned with a vengeance. The local homicide rate has climbed a staggering 100 percent this year, according to a recent NBC News story. New Orleans needs a strong dose of Giuliani-style “broken windows” policing. Fighting small crimes usually nabs the perpetrators of bigger violations. An NYPD-type CompStat system also would help police commanders pinpoint crimes on precinct maps and employ those indicators to deploy cops exactly where crimes tend to unfold.
While Giuliani was mayor, I interviewed the late Jack Maple, an NYPD deputy commissioner who, before computerizing it, launched this initiative literally by sticking into paper maps pushpins color-coded to record and categorize specific crimes. Until Giuliani, no mayor had assigned police so systematically to the precise blocks where lawlessness festered. This program helped Giuliani slash overall crime 57 percent and homicide 67 percent.
Second, FEMA still cannot connect trailers with everyone who needs them. While some still seek them, others who have finished rebuilding their houses no longer need trailers, but cannot get FEMA to collect them.
FEMA could help by deregulating its failed trailer operation. It should allow inhabitants to sell their trailers to those who need them. This will wheel unneeded trailers to those who want them.
Also, FEMA henceforth should give disaster victims vouchers for the purchase and delivery of such trailers. The federal government should finance emergency housing for displaced citizens when natural disasters obviate other options. But Washington should not manage this entire process, as FEMA’s 12,000 trailers and 8,300 mobile homes still stored in Hope, Arkansas, so maddeningly attest. Vouchers will help disaster victims demand trailers; shown the money, entrepreneurs and manufacturers will supply them.
Third, close Mr. Go.
The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (nicknamed “Mr. Go” and the Hurricane Highway) facilitated Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. In 1956, Congress authorized this mini-Mississippi River as a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico. But on August 29, 2005, Mr. Go became a varnished wooden lane that sped the bowling ball of Katrina’s storm surge right into the pins of New Orleans’ skyline. The resulting strike still smarts.
“Studies at Louisiana State University suggest that the MRGO and East New Orleans levees form a funnel-like structure which intensifies a wave sent into the funnel,” states a November 2005 U.S. Senate report. This wave devastated St. Bernard’s Parish, New Orleans East, and the breathtakingly shattered Lower Ninth Ward.
“Without MRGO, the flooding would have been much less,” LSU’s Hassan Mashriqui has concluded. “The levees might have overtopped, but they wouldn’t have been washed away.”
Uncle Sam should reverse what Uncle Sam wrought. Fill Mr. Go now.
Levees also need to stand tall, and pumps need to function. The good news is that work crews with pile divers are busy reinforcing the 17th Street Canal’s floodwalls.
Last May 4, 5.5 inches of rain fell in one day, compared to the 4.6 inches that accumulate in a typical May. Music fans here for the Crescent City’s beloved Jazz and Heritage Festival found themselves in the Blues Tent, calf-deep in water, listening to Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood. As the sky was crying, many other Festheads postponed rhythmic bliss and instead enjoyed the French Quarter’s indoor culinary adventures.
But the next morning’s Times-Picayune was far from appetizing. Beneath the headline “DOWNPOUR” came sobering word that “New pumps fail a major test as a strong storm knocks out power and downs trees.”
More than ever, the fate of New Orleans rests with pumps that keep their promises and levees that don’t take no mess. Another factor, by definition, is beyond human control. May 2007’s so-far-tranquil hurricane season stay as hushed as last year’s.
August 29 will mark Katrina’s second anniversary. New Orleanians approach that day with customary relaxation, charm, and good humor. A small, re-inhabited house in the recuperating Gentilly neighborhood is most encouraging. Spray painted along its side are the words: “We back.”