Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Revisiting NOLA

By Carol Gee

Today is the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming ashore in New Orleans, Louisiana. I dreaded writing this post and have avoided it for days. Why is it so hard to write about this? I am safe and dry, having been in my current home for years. I have no painful memories of living in Louisiana, I personally know no one who is now a member of the New Orleans Diaspora, nor do I plan to visit New Orleans any time soon. I feel ashamed that I complain about this simple difficulty. And my shame is perhaps the collective shame of a nation associated with what happened to our neighbors in New Orleans. I feel as if I know some of the people personally because KERA, our PBS station, broadcast a powerful story at 8:00 PM last night, that is still with me this morning. (See link. For scheduled rebroadcast times, click on last night's 8:00 program box.) The title is,

"Still Waiting: Life After Katrina - The story of a large New Orleans family's struggle to return home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Today the President visits NOLA again - Our current president (OCP) will be making his predictable in-person visit. OCP has visited before. People are not impressed, because he has said lots of things about this in the past, according to Free Republic. They remain skeptical with good reason. To quote,

YOU SAID: "Out of New Orleans is going to come that great city again."

WHAT HAPPENED: Before Katrina, New Orleans had 128 public schools, only 83 have reopened. Before Katrina, the city had 13 public libraries, today it has nine. Fewer than two-thirds of pre-storm hospital beds are available. Just 98 out of the 276 child-care facilities have reopened. Only 60 percent of its pre-Katrina population of 455,000 reside in New Orleans today.

Local musicians -- the city's heart and soul -- are barely making it. Once numbering 3,000, musicians have dropped to 1,800 -- with many begging to be paid minimum wage. So desperate, a few dozen took to the streets Sunday protesting the cut-throat wages.

What remains in parts of New Orleans is a ghost of what was. Many homes are still in disrepair and unoccupied, their front stoops leading to piles of splintered two-by-fours and dangling wires.

What we're asking, Mr. President: How can New Orleans achieve greatness, when so many residents can't go home?

The private sector will not by itself be able to save New Orleans, though they were there early and have stayed long. An upbeat LA Times story was atypical of most of the big newspapers' articles. It optimistically headlined, "Old city revels in a new spirit of innovation." And according to the Boston Globe, Citizens are still trying hard to make it better. The quote from the Boston Globe story is about the Gentilly neighborhood,

Two years after their city was nearly annihilated by a massive levee failure, the residents of this New Orleans neighborhood acknowledged that their surroundings still look pretty bad. But they also insisted that things slowly are getting better. Just 31 percent of Gentilly's 16,000 addresses were reoccupied or renovated as of March, according to a survey by a Dartmouth College professor. But another 57 percent finally were being fixed up.

Private citizens, not the government, deserved the credit, they said -- a source of grim humor among those laboring to mend the neighborhood.

"Of course, we should also thank [President] George Bush, [Governor] Kathleen Blanco, and [Mayor C.] Ray Nagin," resident Robert Counce said sarcastically as the meeting wrapped up.

The renaissance in America's most beleaguered city, such that it is, is a complex, dynamic, and messy affair. Progress lives alongside stagnation; hope alongside despair.

"Where's the money?" CNN asks the question. Congress appropriated billions for hurricane relief and rebuilding. USA Today says that the pace of rebuilding depends on who pays. Much of New Orleans still resembles an abandoned war zone. And thousands of people living in other parts of the nation are still waiting for help to come home. To quote CNN,

Domestic Marshall Plan

Nobody expected the private sector to rebuild New Orleans by itself. It was assumed the federal government would step up, especially given that the worst of the damage was caused not by the hurricane but by flooding attributed to shoddy levee construction and maintenance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What seemed to make the most sense was a kind of domestic Marshall Plan, or at least the appointment of a politician with disaster experience who would be as empowered as Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was when river flooding destroyed Greenville, Miss., in 1927.

What New Orleans got instead is Donald Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Powell's title is federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding. His role is to be President Bush's ambassador to the disaster-stricken region, meaning his job is to deflect the considerable flak local residents send the feds' way.

Unlike Hoover in the 1920s, Powell has no real power, only a bully pulpit and an ability to play referee when local governments have a beef.

Hat tip to Wounded Bird for planning to attend this meeting: Rising Tide 2 Conference August 24-26, 2007. But, like many of us, she is having a lot of trouble writing about this Katrina Anniversary thing: "It's what happened to New Orleans that I can't write about," she laments. Read further at her blog.

cross-posted at South by Southwest

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