Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Report from New Orleans

It has been 21 months since Katrina struck New Orleans, but big chunks of the city are still uninhabitable. Something like 200,000 of the displaced people are still unable to go home. Beyond the damage to the culture, the ongoing human suffering overwhelmed me: people paying mortgages and taxes on their destroyed homes while they are stuck in shelters in other states - two years after the disaster - trying to clean up and rebuild their lives, but being prevented from doing so.

In the days I spent there last week, I could almost believe there was a conspiracy to keep residents from coming home. Things preventing people from rebuilding their homes include:

- Promised government funding that hasn't come through.
- Inadequate compensation by government (I saw a house that was purchased for $200,000 just before Katrina; the house was destroyed by a nearby faulty levee, so the government must compensate the owners, except the government will only pay $70,000 for the house and land, which is less than the mortgage).
- Government incompetence. FEMA paid contractors $44/ton to remove debris. The contractors subcontracted for $34/ton. The subcontractors hired locals at $9/ton to do the work.
- Insurance companies refusing to compensate people even though most people had flood insurance as well as regular home insurance.
- Water, sanitation, electricity and other infrastructure that are still unavailable in some areas.
- Lots of confusion around new building regulations.
- Levees that are still not safe - and won't be safe even after they're rebuilt, because of restrictions on government disaster funds that allows only replacement and prevents improvements.
- No progress in getting rid of "Mister Go" (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), a useless canal that was the cause of much of the flooding.
- Unsolved, ongoing problems with pumps and with flood prevention procedures.

Out in the affected neighborhoods I saw thousands of empty, wrecked houses, some still furnished but made toxic by mold; a boat stuck in a house roof; a car floating in the lake; ruined roads; piles of debris; block after deserted block.

The residents have done a ton to get their city back on track. Locals drive out to the City Park with their own lawn mowers and try to keep the grass cut. People have set up soup kitchens and public washing facilities. People are still rescuing pets. One school is being manned by teachers who live in a makeshift trailer park across the street. Locals also seem extremely well-informed in what needs to be done to protect the city, and have become very politicized - necessarily, after being treated with criminal indifference by their government.

The French Quarter is as lovely as ever, but the problems show. All those great music halls and restaurants were made possible by the people who are the local culture, and many of those people aren't there anymore. One restaurant I went to has managed to hire 7 people, but they had 27 employees before Katrina struck. They get by with a reduced menu and hours. One of the joys of New Orleans is the food, drink, music and architecture of fine old establishments like Antoine's and Arnaud's. Those establishments are hanging on, but I can't imagine they'll last much longer.

The Disneyfication of New Orleans seems to be well under way, with more tourist glitz on top of less authentic culture, but the seedy side is also greatly on the rise. Bourbon Street is worse than ever, a place for drunk college boys looking for the sleaziest of strip clubs. The murder rate has skyrocketed, making New Orleans the murder capital of the US. Until two weeks ago there wasn't even a forensic lab in the city after Katrina. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "wide open city."

Locals insist that the events of August 2005 were not a natural disaster. Katrina passed the city with very little damage. The disaster was a canal to the gulf (the MR GO) that brought a storm surge; levees that were so inadequate that they were breached from below; the entire Mississippi River system being mismanaged (which resulted in the marshes dying south of NO, which in past hurricanes had cushioned the blow); and negligence during the aftermath.

The country was so outraged about government negligence and incompetence after Katrina and was so vocal about it that afterwards we all believed we had been heard and that government (federal, state and municipal) would take this disaster seriously and handle it responsibly. In fact, the government response to New Orleans has only got worse and worse. It's mind-boggling.

See also my collection of emails sent by locals during Katrina: Voices From Katrina

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