[StBernard] 3 years later, Katrina is reshaping area's life

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 25 20:42:44 EDT 2008

3 years later, Katrina is reshaping area's life
by John Pope and Andrew Vanacore, The Times-Picayune
Saturday August 23, 2008, 10:53 PM

Three years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the New Orleans area,
there is indisputable evidence of recovery.
Houses are being repaired or built. New and long-established restaurants are
seeing busier days. Health care institutions are reopening. Music is pouring
out of crowded clubs lining Frenchmen Street. Streetcars are clattering once
again along the entire St. Charles Avenue line.

And sales of cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde's legendary French
Quarter stand have climbed back to about 80 percent of what they were before
the storm struck on Aug. 29, 2005, said Jay Roman, vice president of the

But Xavier University President Norman Francis has a warning for the overly
cheerful: Don't be deceived.

For Francis, whose home near the London Avenue Canal was wrecked by
floodwaters, Katrina has left a lingering presence that he likens to a
garish dye stain in a rug.

"The deeper you go, you see more," he said. "You keep rubbing and say, 'I
think I've got it.' No, we don't have it all."

While communities that didn't flood have few visual markers from Katrina, a
reshaped physical and human landscape is found in places that sustained high
water. In Plaquemines Parish, for example, some riverside hamlets were
virtually wiped off the map by storm surge, and residents have recongregated
on higher ground around Belle Chasse.

John Hopper sees reminders if he deviates only slightly in his daily commute
from his Uptown home to City Park, where he is chief development officer.

"Either direction you go, left or right, there's still a whole lot of empty
houses and vacant lots," he said. "The biggest optimist in the world would
go there and acknowledge that there's still a whole lot of work to be done."

For Tulane University President Scott Cowen, that's an unwelcome fact of
life -- and a source of frustration.

"I wouldn't have expected that, at this point, we'd still be talking about
the issues of funds recovery, whether they're from FEMA or the Road Home,"
he said. "Those issues are still outstanding, and I would have expected at
this moment that the great policy issues would have been settled.

"After three years, you can't use the excuse of this being the biggest
disaster ever," he said. "This was appropriate for a year or two, but not
three years out. .¤.¤. Even though there are no benchmarks to compare this
with, certain things should have been improved."

Sparse neighborhoods

The signs of Katrina's legacy are both visible and subtle. Although a
smattering of homes are rising in the Lower 9th Ward, much of that
working-class neighborhood -- and swaths of Gentilly, eastern New Orleans
and St. Bernard Parish -- remain virtually untouched.

Thousands of people who fled Katrina's wrath are still struggling to come
back home from what they had envisioned as temporary havens across the
country. And the storm left its psychological impact on just about everyone,
even if it amounts to little more than tensing up when storm clouds form.

"I think that, since Katrina, everyone reacts in a much more hypervigilant
way than we did before," said Joy Osofsky, head of the pediatric
mental-health division at LSU Health Sciences Center.

Although she said tests have shown that the number of people suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder and depression has dropped by about 30
percent since the storm, Osofsky, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry,
said the symptoms are more acute among some people with those conditions.

"The recovery has been slow," she said. "There are neighborhoods still with
just a couple of houses on the street. Families are still separated."

Even in neighborhoods that have bounced back, stubborn reminders of the
hurricane linger in the form of blighted properties. A report released last
week showed the percentage of vacant homes in New Orleans outranks any other
American city by a huge margin, with New Orleans' rate, 34 percent, nearly
doubling that of Detroit.

And despite stiff new blight regulations passed this spring,
code-enforcement hearings that have hauled homeowners before judges to
explain tall weeds and rotting homes and a new brand of activism in many
neighborhoods, the signs of frustration are unmistakable.

Highs and lows

Connie Uddo heads the blight committee in Lakeview, one of several
neighborhoods that, like Broadmoor and Mid-City, have attacked the problem
aggressively, contacting homeowners who haven't addressed their
storm-damaged houses and even threatening them with lawsuits.

She sees huge progress in cutting down the number of unkempt properties in
the area, but she laments the pace of the city's code enforcement. "They're
working hard, bless their hearts, but they're just not as together as they
need to be," she said. "At this rate, we'll be doing this for the next 20

The sharp contrast between restored neighborhoods and communities that look
almost as if they haven't been touched since the floodwaters receded is a
visual metaphor for New Orleanians' conflicted emotional state three years
out, said Richard McCarthy, a founder of the Crescent City Farmers Market.

"The highs are higher, and the lows are even lower," he said. "The challenge
is how to hitch yourself to the highs because you're going to need it to get
through the lows."

But even with the stresses that residents of New Orleans face every day,
resilience and strength are easy to find.

'Slight blip' of progress

In the past year, Francis, the former chairman of the Louisiana Recovery
Authority board, said he has noticed "a slight blip" of progress in housing,
schools, employment and nearly every other aspect of life that Katrina

"Is that enough? No," he said. "But the process has started. .¤.¤. There
are those of us who say you just can't come back to where you were. You've
got to come back to where you should have been."

Doris Voitier sees that happening. She's the superintendent of the public
school system in St. Bernard Parish, where everything was flooded by

"In the first few months after the storm, we thought: 'My God, nobody's
going to help us. We've got to get together and make this happen,'¤"
Voitier said. "We dug in our heels. .¤.¤. We know it's going to be a long
road, but we're going to achieve that success."

Three years out, "we do have a lot of people (who are) frustrated," Voitier
said, "but I think we're also beginning to see what the important things in
life are. Our kids are being educated. We have a much closer community
feeling. The civic organizations and groups are pulling together."

If Katrina had any positive impact, Voitier and Cowen said, it is this: By
forcing some educators to build school systems from scratch, the storm has
given them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape public education.

In St. Bernard, Voitier said, two brand-new schools have been built, and six
others were renovated, all with state-of-the-art technology.

"We feel we are coming back strong," she said.

In New Orleans, Cowen, working through the Tulane public education think
tank bearing his name, is helping to bring about what he calls the largest
transformation of an urban school system in America. Dozens of charter
schools have turned New Orleans into a potent laboratory for testing new

"It's always been my belief that after the levees, the single most important
thing for New Orleans is public education," Cowen said. "If we don't get
that right .¤.¤. we'll have a population of poor people, and that will be
a reflection of the poor educational system."

Scarce housing options

But in this case, solving one problem only forces policymakers to struggle
with another: If schools and businesses are going to lure people to New
Orleans, they will have to have affordable homes.

With a large slice of the area's rental stock destroyed, meeting the need
for affordable housing will pose a challenge for years, experts say.

"At Tulane, we have a lot of open positions," Cowen said, "and we'd like to
hire them, but there's a lack of affordable housing, particularly in
midlevel management and below. .¤.¤. The cost of housing is so much more
than it was before the storm."

And some New Orleanians who have returned from their storm-imposed exile
have found that getting back home to New Orleans didn't bring the sense of
relief they had longed for, Joy Osofsky said.

"They thought their problems would be solved," she said, "but people weren't
happy. Even though they were back in a house, there are all the reminders."

And among the people who come back, there are nagging questions about the
wisdom of that decision, said her husband, Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of
the psychiatry department at LSU Health Sciences Center. "There are people
who are wearing down," he said. "It's still a hard town, even though things
are improving."

Everyone agrees that the rebuilding of New Orleans will take a long time.

"There is no silver bullet," said Melissa Flournoy, director of the RAND
Gulf States Policy Institute. "It's going to take 20 to 25 years to build
the city of New Orleans in a way that we can be fully proud of."

Has population leveled off?

Population estimates increased in parishes across the metropolitan area in
the past year, in nearly every case by small margins.

While estimates for Orleans Parish rose sharply, by 21 percent in the view
of one national research firm, several experts think New Orleans' population
has reached a plateau of about 320,000 as the third anniversary of Katrina's
onslaught approaches. That assessment is based on such factors as school
enrollment and the number of building and demolition permits.

"We're starting to get a glimpse of the post-Katrina city that we all
wondered about back in the days of the uncharted future of the autumn of
2005 and early 2006," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University
geographer who wrote "Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the

In assessing current conditions in the city, "I would put the
characterization of good and bad to the side," he said. "This is the reality
we have to deal with. I don't think anyone could look at the potential loss
of about 100,000 people, the people who make up the culture of New Orleans,
as a good thing, but this is the reality now."

John Pope can be reached at jpope at timespicayune.com or 504.826.3317. Andrew
Vanacore can be reached at avanacore at timespicayune.com or 504.826.3358.

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