New Orleans, one year after the flood
Based on national media depictions, one might believe all of New Orleans still looks like the post-Katrina, devastated Lower 9th Ward. Granted, much of the city is still a ghost town. Yet, even with this state of affairs certain areas are essentially back to pre-K conditions. In general, the neighborhoods close to the river--Uptown and Downtown--were less affected by the floodwaters than those near the Lake or bordering the eastern Industrial Canal. On a bike ride through the Downtown, I notice many of my local coffee shop comrades, as well as familiar street characters, are back--walking, biking around, and socializing on their stoops.
Marvin's Lake Levee Tour
Recently Marvin Ragas, a friend from my favorite Marigny coffeeshop, took me on a tour of the parts of the city I hadn't seen since before Katrina. Marvin's family has been in New Orleans for more than 3 generations, and he grew up in Lakeview--a neighborhood close to Lake Ponchartrain. We started off by visiting his old family home, which got water up to the eves. His parents gutted it, put it up for sale, and are now living in the suburbs. Lakeview was deserted except for a few pioneers with FEMA trailers in front of their homes. Much of the neighborhood consisted of houses with untouched flood lines or gutted homes with "For Sale" signs on them. The nearby 17th Street canal levee break site was blocked off by fencing as a new temporary storm surge barrier gate is being built there. The Corps of Engineers also recently expropriated land on the Orleans parish side of this canal for possible widening of these levees. While exploring, we climb up on the London Ave. levee to view the construction of another temporary storm surge barrier gate. Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers are still working 7 days a week just to get these levees, as well as those on the infamous Industrial Canal up to pre-Katrina strength. As Marvin and I ride around, we discuss why many of the residents of these neighborhoods have not returned. One of the basic reasons is that, in many of the areas that were heavily flooded, there is still no electricity, gas, or even drinkable water. Another reason is that, with the levees in disrepair, no insurance company is willing to insure a homeowner in these post-flooded areas. Also, the current high rents and lack of infrastructure make it difficult for families, older folk, or disabled persons to live in the city.
The Housing Crisis
Even with the almost normal feeling of the Uptown and Downtown sectors, anyone who is a renter--and the city has traditionally been majority renter--is under stress from the post-K skyrocketing rents. A shortage of viable housing has led to rents that are almost double what they were pre-Katrina. Since I returned in February, it seems as if there is always someone in my social circle who is either facing eviction or quietly deciding to move because they can no longer handle the juggling act that goes along with trying to find a reasonably-priced place to live.
Continued Lack of Infrastructure
While New Orleans has never been known for having an impeccable infrastructure, the limited public services that were available before the storm are now almost non-existent. Only half of the hospitals open before the storm are back up and running. Charity Hospital, the biggest public healthcare provider before Katrina, is now closed with no plans of reopening. The few public health clinics available are over-burdened and typically involve a long wait to get seen. The public school system hasn't fared much better. The city has handed many of the best public schools over to charter groups to run, and the rest are under control of the state government. Quite a few of the public schools damaged by Katrina are--a year later--just starting to be gutted and refurbished. The public transit system has also been downsized with a fewer bus routes, and bus services are even more erratic than before Katrina.
Self-Sufficiency & Community
While the local and federal authorities neglect the infrastructure and still have no specific emergency plan for the next big hurricane, people are taking care of business for themselves and their communities.
In a place where people are not strangers to bureaucratic corruption or extreme economies, there is a strong sense of doing-it-yourself and helping one's neighbor. On our tour, Marvin and I happened to witness this spirit in our visit to Little Vietnam, a neighborhood east of the Lower 9th Ward that got around 5 feet of flooding. In the New Orleans Vietnamese community, which is known for being very cooperative and tight-knit, it was hard to tell that a storm had even hit. By diligently working together, this community has managed to bring back the neighborhood. Other signs of hope are palpable in natives like my old 7th Ward neighbor Fred. Fred stayed through Katrina sharing his stockpile of food and water with the neighbors and making rounds to check on neighborhood elders. When I returned to New Orleans for the first time post-K in October, he had already fixed up his apartment, which got about two feet of water. Talk about industrious! LeRoy; a 70-something, co-worker of mine; is also inspiring. Over the last year, he has been fixing up his extensively flooded house. After a year of hauling countless household bits and pieces in his truck and doing construction every day by himself, he is almost ready to settle back in. When wirey, old Leroy tells me about how he moved a toilet by himself earlier this morning, I can't help but have a little more hope for the rebuilding of the city. This is the spirit that founded New Orleans and will ultimately mend it.
Suzanne Sheridan is an ex-Gainesvillian who moved to New Orleans 2 years ago. She is a photographer.
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