Will New Orleans Be Rebuilt?

Moments after New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin won reelection with the smallest margin in modern mayoral history, he took the podium at the Marriott ballroom and proclaimed: "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans." We are, he said, "ready to take off."

Well, nine months after Katrina and only days before the next hurricane season begins, one would hope. But the truth is that much of New Orleans looks the same as it did a week after the storm. "FEMA got the streets cleared," says Jimmy Reiss, a local entrepreneur who served on Nagin's Bring Back New Orleans commission, "But other than that, not a whole lot has happened in the city."

Indeed, more than 100,000 damaged and abandoned cars and 20,000 boats serve as grim and often surreal reminders of Katrina's havoc-a pale blue speedboat is a by now familiar sight on Earhardt Expressway, one of the city's major thoroughfares, and a huge barge still sits on the land side of the Industrial Canal floodwall where one of the catastrophic levee breaches occurred. Many of the eerie brown flood lines that wrapped around the majority of the city's houses have finally been bleached out by the sun, but the properties themselves remain largely untouched, rife with mold like so many individual toxic waste sites. In the lower 9th ward, 5,500 houses were tagged by the city in January for demolition, but to date, only 119-which were not houses as much as piles of kindling-have been removed. Less than half of the city's roughly 450,000 residents have come back but the housing shortage is severe. It is likely to be worsened by the fact that 7000 displaced residents in Houston alone will be turned out of their temporary lodging when their FEMA rent money runs out on June 30.

The lack of momentum on housing has had much to do with the mayor's race. "Would somebody please tell us what we don't want to hear?" local Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose asked in capital letters on election eve. He was referring to the fact that neither Nagin nor Landrieu would admit that New Orleans will necessarily be rebuilt on a smaller footprint-one that will likely not include the lower 9th and other flood-prone parts of the city. A platoon of urban planners and the mayor's own commission urged that the rebuilding, initially at least, be concentrated on the high and dry ground otherwise known as the "sliver by the river" or the "isle of denial." The problem though, as Rose pointed out, is that "voters live-or lived" in the neighborhoods the planners wanted given up for green space, and they cast absentee ballots in record numbers.

"It hasn't been politically expedient to tell anybody anything," says Reiss, who is also head of the Regional Transit Authority, an agency whose budget from July 1 will be $23 million compared to $110 million pre-Katrina. "No one has stood up and told people what the facts are-not just whether or not you should raise your house [to comply with the FEMA flood maps] but the financial condition of the city and the city's inability to provide basic city services. You can move back in some of these neighborhoods, but you won't have fire or police protection. There'll be nobody picking up garbage, no bus service, and if you call 911 you'll wait 45 minutes at best."

One of the few areas that lately has seen momentum is crime. April's thirteen murders match the city's horrific pre-Katrina numbers on a per-capita basis, and in recent weeks neighborhood watch groups have been sending out blanket emails warning of gangs of teenagers as young as 15 and 16 who are committing armed robberies across the city. Sparsely populated neighborhoods provide ready hideouts and an ample supply of loot caches, while teens coming home to a city with even less than what they took with them are turning to drugs or crime or both. "They're wilding out," a 14-year-old boy playing hooky from school told the Times-Picayune. "They want to give off a different image than before. They want to be killers."

Frustration over the shrunken police department's seeming lack of ability to curtail the rising crime rate has gotten to the point that columnist Rose asked each candidate if they would try to dissuade him from shooting, on sight, a trespasser on his property. Even the comparatively prissy Landrieu responded "not necessarily," while Nagin suggested that Rose "shoot them in the butt and then we'll take them to Charity Hospital and get them fixed up." The only problem is that Charity, once the largest teaching hospital in the southeast, was severely damaged in the storm and will not be rebuilt; its trauma center is in the suburbs and its only local presence is a first aid center consisting of tents pitched inside the empty Lord & Taylor department store. There are just three full-service hospitals in operation in Orleans Parish and the number of primary care doctors has dropped by 77 percent. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that there are only 22 psychiatrists left—a recent survey by the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse showed that one in nine New Orleans residents are using more prescription drugs to help them cope with emotional stress, and one in seven say they are drinking more heavily. No wonder—work on the levees won't, in fact, be entirely completed until mid-to-late July, as much as two months after hurricane season begins on June 1.

While there is indeed much to blot out with the booze, there are some hopeful signs. In a city where apathy reigned and where much of the white elite was often more focused on the social aspects of Mardi Gras than, say, good government, suddenly everybody is paying attention. When the state legislature killed a bill last fall that would have consolidated the 24 disparate local levee boards that were in part responsible for the levee failures, locals who'd returned were properly outraged. They protested and lobbied and emailed until the governor was forced to call a special session, and the bill, which also replaced the boards' political appointees with actual engineers, was passed. Such a level of civic involvement is a stunning about face in a place where one of the most frequently uttered pre-Katrina lines was "What you gonna do?"—an all-purpose reaction to everything from such irritants as state legislators and mosquitoes to the possibility of a catastrophic hurricane.

Likewise, the public school system is getting a long overdue overhaul. When Katrina hit, New Orleans schools were known as the worst in the country-more than 50 operated out of buildings that should have been condemned. The system was corrupt, incompetent and bankrupt, a contributor to juvenile crime and drug abuse and the reason many companies refused to locate in New Orleans. Today, the system is being remade from scratch; thanks in part to seed money from the Eli Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 23 charter schools are up and running, including one for special needs students. Four public schools are open, and an ambitious pre-kindergarten program is under way.

Also, some of the city's neighborhoods are resurrecting themselves without the benefit of leadership. The residents of the mixed-race Broadmoor neighborhood, which took on up to 10 feet of water, have taken the recommendations of the mayor's recovery commission, even if the mayor himself has not. The commission suggested that the city require all neighborhoods to prove their own viability, a process that was due to start in February and end in May, but that has yet to get off the ground. The Broadmoor residents have not only proven that enough residents are returning to warrant city services, they've hired a Harvard city planner to help with a recovery plan and "BROADMOOR LIVES!" yard signs abound.

"Somebody's always got to make the first move," says Reiss, who is working with the local Harrah's casino on a private/public partnership, so that the Regional Transit Authority can continue to provide timely bus service for casino employees. Like it or not, he adds, the recovery is "going to come about largely through individual initiative, not by government alone. When one move is successful, other people will say, 'Hey, that works, maybe we can do that'."

Richard Gruber, director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the first of the city's museums to open, on October 27, agrees. Gruber's operating budget and his staff have been reduced by two thirds, and half the remaining staff, including himself, lost their homes. Still, 600 people turned out on opening night for the museum's weekly "After Hours" musical presentation; since then it has mounted 15 shows, hired more than 300 musicians and published a book, "Missing New Orleans." Today the doors of all of the city's major museums are open, and the city's restaurants—at least as important a part of the culture—also have re-opened in huge numbers. Most striking is that since Katrina, 87 new establishments have opened, ranging from Gourmet Soul on Wheels, which helps feed hungry construction workers, to Cochon, the latest brainchild of James Beard finalist Donald Link, who also owns the critically acclaimed Herbsaint.

"The news is that small businesses all over town are doing it for themselves," says Gruber. "They're the miracle workers, they're the people who are going to save the city. They're also dancing on a tightrope, but they came back because they had to, it's their city, they can't think of living anywhere else." Link, who had offers from all over the country, said he couldn't imagine re-locating. "We built more than just a restaurant with Herbsaint. There's a group of people here who are really dedicated. Their families are here, their lives are here. I couldn't just blow that off." Link re-opened Herbsaint-with a staff of six rather than his usual 40 -on October 7, the date he'd planned to open Cochon. Now he has 35 employees in each restaurant, all of whom work long hours to keep both operations thriving. "We just need people. They're out there, but it's a question of getting this housing thing fixed. We're doing really well with our base business, and just imagine when you add people moving back, tourists coming back, conventions returning. I really think there's a lot of opportunity in this city."

Gruber too, is optimistic, but, he laughs. "I'm not sure why." Maybe because it's just possible that after all this time, New Orleans finally really is "ready to take off." Maybe now that the mayor no longer has to defend his job or his performance during Katrina, he can focus on the enormous problems at hand. Even people who voted against him admit there's something to be said for a mayor entering his second term. He is freed from the political pressures that require him to be as timid as he and Landrieu were in the campaign. And he can put his controversial independent streak to good use by telling the people of New Orleans what they may not want to hear at long last.