New Orleans Finds Its Civic Pride

Despite one of its oft-used nicknames—mostly by out-of-towners and the makers of a not-bad Dennis Quaid movie—New Orleans has never been The Big Easy. The city was barely a year old when the first hurricane hit in 1719, wiping out the original settlement of palmetto huts in what is now the French Quarter. Two years later another came along, and knocked out the four square blocks that had been rebuilt. The 19th century saw almost constant epidemics of yellow fever, including one that killed 8,000 people. As late as 1914, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague.

In recent years, things have not improved much. Since the 1930s, we've had the highest cancer rate in the country, and for decades we have vied for honors as the city with the highest murder rate; we've reclaimed the title this year, with more than 130 murders so far, including, in the last week alone, two double murders and the slaying of a 17-year-old who was shot at close range 16 times. Even before Katrina, our life-expectancy rate was up there with that of Uzbekistan.

To live in New Orleans has always required a bargain of sorts. While it may not be an easy place in which to live, it's an easy place to love. So you decide (as I did when I got married, sold my apartment in Manhattan and moved into a house in the Garden District, three weeks before Katrina) that the good stuff—the food and the music, the amazing architecture, the carnival atmosphere and Caribbean soul—outweighs the bad. You decide that the mild winters and sheer lushness of the place ("If it smells like sex it grows here," Ellen Gilchrist once wrote) are worth the crippling August heat and humidity so dense it's hard to tell the air from the water; that something as simple (and sublime) as a shrimp and oyster loaf, dressed, from Casamento's might well be worth the deplorable state of the infrastructure or the constant threat of inundation.

Now, two years after Katrina, the bargain is that much harder. Whole stretches of the various flooded areas (which add up to a space seven times the size of Manhattan) continue to lie in ruins. More than 100,000 people who applied for Road Home grants in order to repair their homes are still waiting to close, and more than 33,000 still live in FEMA trailers. Rules requiring absentee homeowners to have their properties taken care of are not being enforced (so that even if you're lucky enough to be back in your house, you might live next door to an overgrown hell hole). Meanwhile demolition orders (often premature, sometimes just plain wrong) are being carried out. Insurance companies have not paid thousands of claims, yet their rates have doubled, and property taxes across the city have increased by up to 55 percent. And that's just for those of us who are here. Thousands still in exile include renters not in on the Road Home program who cannot afford the skyrocketing rents, and residents of public housing who still await decisions about the moribund "projects" they once called home.

The number of hospital beds has been cut in half, while far fewer are available to the uninsured (downtown's already crumbling Charity Hospital was permanently shut down by the water that flooded its basement). The mental-health crisis continues to be severe; psychiatric-hospital beds have dwindled to 105 from 365, and include only 30 for adults (the rest are for children and the elderly), while depression is pervasive, the mentally ill homeless population continues to soar despite the lack of shelters, and reports of poststorm suicides have not abated. Last week, a man making a typically long trek across the lake to an available state psychiatric hospital bed killed himself by leaping from the ambulance he was traveling in and puncturing his brain on the asphalt.

There is no water pressure, the state is still bickering with contractors over $74 million in FEMA money for alternative housing—and armed robberies occur daily in broad daylight and in every neighborhood, "good," "bad" and in between.

So, two years after the biggest manmade disaster in the history of the United States, there is, clearly, plenty of bad news. But this is New Orleans, a city that has by necessity made an art form of finding silver linings, and the surprisingly good news is that there are plenty of them. Pre-Katrina, the school system had been plagued by scandal and corruption by its board and was on the brink of being taken over by the state; most of the buildings themselves had been condemned and an alarming number of students were allowed to graduate despite the fact that they were unable to read and lacked basic math skills. Now, having literally been blown apart, it is being remade into a model system of charter schools and public schools led by Recovery District Superintendent Paul Vallas, who previously resurrected failing systems in Chicago and Philadelphia. One charter school boasts Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard program, only the second of its kind in the country. Another, Esperanza, is geared toward—but not limited to—the city's burgeoning Latino population. The parents of the roughly 40 percent of non-Latino students are thrilled that their children will be exposed to Spanish and that their classes are conducted in a gleaming, newly renovated building. They should be: when my husband's secretary evacuated to Baton Rouge after the storm and asked her daughter which school she liked best, her new one or her old one, the little girl immediately said the new one. The old one, she explained, had no toilet paper.

Equally important is a level of civic involvement unimaginable before the storm. Pre-Katrina, a poisonous mixture of complacency, callousness and sheer paralysis (who knew where to begin when faced with such entrenched and seemingly intractable problems?) conspired to destroy what was left of the city's institutions and economy. A certain segment of society was far more focused on who would reign as Queen of Comus than on any of the city's ills. Now there are as many citizens' activist groups as there are Mardi Gras krewes.

It was one of them that forced the legislature to consolidate the multiple—and completely ineffective—local entities in charge of maintaining our levees, to get rid of our seven tax assessors in favor of one. In the wake of such a tragedy, no one is amused anymore by our long legacy of corrupt-but-entertaining politicians. It seems obvious, finally, that there is a direct connection between more than a century of larcenous, inept or just plain lazy politicians and thousands of people sitting on an overpass or residents dying of heat exhaustion in a fetid convention center.

Yes, our politicians continue to embarrass us. Since June, Rep. Bill Jefferson has been indicted, Sen. David Vitter had been linked to two prostitution rings, City Councilman Oliver Thomas has resigned and pleaded guilty to accepting $20,000 worth of bribes and Mayor Ray Nagin has described our horrific crime rate as a "two-edged" sword that keeps the New Orleans "brand" in the national news. But, increasingly, they are being held accountable. Thomas did not try to hold onto his seat and agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation; Gov. Kathleen Blanco looked at her dismal poll numbers and chose not to inflict her incompetence on the electorate again, deciding against a run for re-election in October. In her place is a remarkably able field of candidates, including Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal and local businessman John Georges, who give the voters real choices. I first arrived in New Orleans in 1991 to cover an election between three-time governor and suspected crook Edwin Edwards (now halfway through a 10-year sentence in the federal pen) and a Klansman, David Duke. Less than 20 years later, the fact that none of the current choices for governor would be a full-blown disaster (and that two or three of them might actually be good for the state) is as much of a post-Katrina miracle as the Saints having a winning season in a sparkling new Superdome last year.

In the political arena—and everywhere else—it is necessary to take the long view. Bureaucratic red tape and the serious missteps of the state may be slowing down the billions allocated by the Feds—for Road Home money, for infrastructure repair and alternative housing—but the money exists, and it is coming increasingly faster. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has chosen downtown New Orleans as its preferred location for a new veterans' hospital, and Louisiana State University has announced plans for a teaching hospital that would replace Charity as a haven for the uninsured and help establish the city as a center for biomedical research. This week, 33 new mental-health beds are opening up.

More immediately, young college graduates, a segment of the population in short supply since the storm, are returning to or coming for the first time to the city, lured by the opportunities to make a difference at nonprofits like the Berkeley, Calif.-based Idea Village. Tulane's Center for Biomedical Research estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 young professionals have arrived in the city since the storm, including 200 Teach for America instructors who fulfilled the program's two-year requirement and chose to stay anyway, and graduates of Ivy League law schools vying for jobs in the once-beleaguered public defender's office.

The new energy is much needed. While President Bush has signaled that he will ask for the additional $7.6 billion needed to construct "100-year levees," the task now is to push for 1,000-year, Category 5 levees as well as the all-important restoration of our rapidly disappearing wetlands. The federal government seems to have no problem doling out vast amounts of money to far less important causes. Three months prior to Katrina, the United States House and Senate, including every single one of Louisiana's representatives, signed off on an obscene highway bill whose 6,000-plus pork projects cost $24 billion—and yet the city is fast falling off the congressional radar screen; even if Congress grants the president's request, it's far short of what's needed to shore the city up for another disaster. The New Orleans port is the country's leading gateway for coffee, rubber and imported steel. Our wetlands produce 25 percent of the nation's oil and gas and a billion pounds (40 percent) of its seafood annually. But in this post-Katrina environment, those are not our only resources. Fortunately, these days the city is also producing newly invigorated citizens who are taking responsibility for their own fates. And they will continue to bang the drums and get the message out, so that in the end, the primary silver lining of Katrina will be the continued existence of New Orleans itself.

Two weeks ago, on opening day of the Esperanza school, wide-eyed Hispanic kids were handed Mardi Gras beads they didn't yet know what to do with and watched wide-eyed as a mock jazz funeral was staged, complete with musicians carrying a black-draped coffin that they set on the stage. The coffin, far from being a grim reminder of all that has been lost, was a symbol of hope, one of the school's directors told the crowd. "No more can we afford to let the past weigh us down," he said. "We must bury low expectations, low standards … and start fresh." It is a fitting rallying call, and not just for the kids.