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Eight years after Katrina, N.O. makes strides but challenges remain

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the Ferris wheel at the former Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans sits idle. “Closed for Storm” signs are still posted and the abandoned, weed-choked site remains a thorn in the side of officials leading one of the most extensive city-rebuilding projects in U.S. history, The Associated Press reported last week.

Proposals to revitalize the 150-acre site in New Orleans have ranged from restoring it to a working amusement park to turning it into a retail mall. The land has been controlled by the city since 2009, when an agreement was struck with Six Flags Inc., for the tract.

So far, the city hasn’t been able to seal a development deal. For New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, such eyesores are a lingering distraction from the enormous rebuilding effort that has followed since the day the levees broke under Katrina’s fury on Aug. 29, 2005.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, some say optimism is rising as New Orleans approaches the 300th anniversary of its 1718 founding. “The city is a much better place than it was eight years ago. The biggest challenge we have is blight,” Landrieu said, adding that 10,000 blighted properties have been removed from the cityscape.

A thriving downtown and newly vibrant neighborhoods contrast starkly with the city’s appearance eight years ago. When Katrina hit, thousands of people who couldn’t escape New Orleans in time were trapped in homes as levees broke and floodwaters rose.

Helicopters plucked the desperate from rooftops as chaos spread. The damaged Superdome became a refuge of misery for thousands as temperatures and tempers soared. Days afterward then-President George W. Bush promised the nation’s full attention.

But federal authorities were sharply criticized for their early response and local and state authorities as well. And though billions of federal dollars have helped to rebuild a strengthened levee system, many locals remain bitter with the Army Corps of Engineers for the failure of the levees. Landrieu said he’s intent on moving forward.

“I think that we have successfully done the most important thing, which was to think about building the city back the way she should have always been and not the way she was,” he said. Landrieu said re­building has even meant re-organizing government operations, streamlining finances, curbing waste and fraud and reorganizing the city’s education system — even adding new fire and police stations, parks and libraries.

Gov. Piyush Jindal praised the progress, calling New Orleans “America’s Comeback City,” in a statement Wednesday night. “Hur­ricane Katrina was a terrible and devastating storm that brought us to our knees, but it didn’t shake our resolve,” he said. Landrieu said he planned to attend a ceremony Thursday at a cemetery for those who died.

Despite the signs of life in certain parts of the city, some residents say that in some of the city’s low-income minority communities it looks as though Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a month ago.

Cheryl Williams said last week that she has tried repeatedly to get the city to help her by tearing down a blighted home that has been leaning toward her renovated eastern New Orleans home since 2008. “Five years is a long time to wait for anything,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “All we’re asking is that the City of New Orleans do its job and handle its business the way it expects residents to handle their business when it’s time to pay property taxes. Fair is fair.”

“All you see are abandoned homes, pothole-filled streets and out-of-control weeds that seem to grow taller than oak trees,” 9th Ward resident Lisa Franklin told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. Franklin, who returned to her 9th Ward home three years ago after spending several years in Memphis and Atlanta, says that every day is a struggle in the storm-ravaged 9th Ward eight years after Katrina.

“There are things we still don’t have that other people take for granted,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “We still don’t have many schools in the area, we have to travel far to find a grocery store in other parts of the city and we can’t expect the police to show up whenever there is a problem. It’s like we’re out here on our own fending for ourselves and being punished for having the audacity to return to the 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina.”

“Lonely” is the word Franklin used to described life in the 9th Ward in 2013. “It’s very lonely,” she added. “Many of my neighbors and lifelong friends have either died or have been unable to return to New Orleans since the storm. I used to see people I knew from grade school every day before Hurricane Katrina; now I barely see anyone I recognize. The streets are still torn up and there has been very little in the way of progress here. We still have no hospital, so many of the elders who lived here before the storm don’t want to risk their health in a much more unstable and unhealthy 9th Ward.

“Meanwhile, we see other parts of the city second-lining and getting dog parks, bike lanes and all kinds of amenities,” Franklin added. “It’s very frustrating — we’re paying taxes and getting very little in return from City Hall.”

Franklin in part blamed elected officials from the area who ave not been very vocal about the 9th Ward being left behind. “Whether you’re talking about the City Council, the State Legislature or Congress, that’s their job and they’re failing miserably to represent the interests of their constituents,” she said. “We need to clean house and start over with a brand-new group of elected officials who aren’t beholden to anyone and haven’t been corrupted or compromised by the system.”

New Orleans businessman Ramessu Merriamen Aha was similarly frustrated by what he has seen in post-Katrina New Orleans. “It’s still a wasteland in Pontchartrain Park,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “Very few of the families who lived in Pontchartrain Park before the storm have returned and many people believe that’s by design.

“Some of the homes once owned by locals have been snapped off the market for pennies on the dollars and turned into Section 8 housing, which is destabilizing the area and making it increasingly more difficult for residents struggling to rebuild their homes,” he added. “Crime seems to be on the rise, there is less upkeep of property, which leads to lower property values. Some of the same folks who fight tooth and nail to prevent multi-family dwellings from being established in their neighborhoods have bought up properties in Pontchartrain Park and added to the neighborhood’s challenges.”

The hurricane was blamed for more than 1,800 deaths, mostly in the New Orleans area and along neighboring Mississippi’s Gulf coast. “We’re going to commemorate the anniversary of Katrina by doing the thing that really is important, just remembering those that lost their lives,” Landrieu said.

Despite somber memories, the city leaders are buoyed by new figures. Information compiled by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center shows about 80 percent of the pre-storm population has returned, retail outlets are reopening and new ones emerging. Investment in a major medical corridor and an influx of technology companies offer new hope for a city long dependent on tourism.

Direct damages have been estimated at about $108 billion, but the overall cost of rebuilding raises estimates as high as $150 billion. Katrina greatly topped the estimated $50 billion in damages caused by superstorm Sandy during its East Coast rampage in 2012, according to the National Hurricane Center. Billions of dollars in federal aid has built a new and stronger flood protection system, adding pumps and more concrete storm surge walls.

Many neighborhoods have been restored, though there are vacant lots where houses once stood. A way of life is showing changes, though the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration and zest for good food, music and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints had remained intact.

Bike lanes have been added, linking outlying neighborhoods with the French Quarter and downtown while a post-Katrina expansion of a streetcar service is another sign of progress. Some lifelong residents talk of relishing renewed normalcy.

Stephen Assaf, a musician whose raised cottage was pushed off its foundation when a levee gave way, took payouts for the property and invested in repairing another house blocks away. He didn’t want to leave his neighborhood. Sipping coffee at his parents’ home, he recalled the scene there after Katrina: several feet of muck all over with a car in the backyard pool and a tree running through the front doors.

Eight years later, the home has been renovated, re-landscaped and many neighbors are also back in their renovated houses. “It’s looking nice here,” he said. The city is not without its trouble-spots. A crime problem predating Katrina remains.

And there are questions whether post-storm reforms have really improved schools. Many scattered far and wide when the city was abandoned.

Those who came back talk of weighty decisions. In 2008 at her rebuilt home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, Valeria Schexnayder drew praise from U.S. Rep Nancy Pelosi as an inspiration for others to start anew in a neighborhood that had been all but wiped out.

Now years later, Schexnayder said, she couldn’t have imagined how slow recovery would be. “We’re still living in a jungle,” she said, seated on a porch with friends. She took in a view that included rebuilt homes but also vacant lots overgrown with weeds. Linda Rhodes, who lives nearby, said she doesn’t regret returning. “This is home,” she said. “This is home.”

Eight years after the miscarriages of justice that took place within Orleans Parish Prison and the New Orleans Police Department, those issues remain a major blemish on the city’s reputation. Two federal consent decrees aimed at implementing major overhauls of the NOPD and OPP have yet to be implemented with the Landrieu administration continuing to fight to convince the Federal Court to allow the City of New Orleans to back out of paying for these multimillion-dollar projects. He has argued that the City of New Orleans no longer needs a NOPD consent decree because the department has already begun to implement its own reforms and the city cannot afford to pay for an OPP consent decree. The mayor blames Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman for the jail’s horrible conditions, while Sheriff Gusman says the jail’s conditions are the result of being underfunded by City Hall for years.

“When you get right down to it, the problems implementing the two consent decrees, coupled with school officials’ hijacking of decision-making power from Black parents, show that while some progress has been made in the recovery process, the city is still a work in progress with much remaining to be done,” Ramessu Merriamen Aha told The Louisiana Weekly. “In many way, the struggle in New Orleans is a lot like the struggle to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality. The only difference is that in some parts of the U.S., some semblance of effort is made to uphold the United States Constitution — New Orleans has blatantly steamrolled over Black residents’ constitutional rights without thinking about it twice. Every aspect of life in New Orleans is controlled by white people, including second lines. We have had no say in the governance of schools in our communities and are routinely ignored by school and elected officials.

“New Orleans still has a long way to go with regard to bringing equity, justice and democracy to the people of this city. It’s clear that the people we have elected are not committed to doing that, so it’s up to ‘we the people’ to find political candidates who are.”

Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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