NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans locals say the city has two faces: downtown has been nearly restored after Hurricane Katrina put the whole city under water in August 2005. Streets welcome visitors with shops, restaurants and attractions in the famous nearby French Quarter.
The other face is the dwelling — the vacant neighborhoods, block after block of empty houses and shops, musty smells, stillness, and the occasional sign of life in a garden, a new roof, friendly faces.
While downtown New Orleans appears much stronger than many visitors would’ve thought, the outlying residential areas are worse than many could imagine. Life pre-Katrina and life post-Katrina are worlds apart, different as land and sea. “We all have Katrina memory damage – we can’t remember too far back,” says Arthur Sterbcow, president of Latter & Blum real estate brokerage.
Touring through some of the hardest hit neighborhoods – Holy Cross, the Upper Ninth Ward, Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard parish – it’s hard to believe that more than a year has passed. Some houses have for-sale signs on them; others – though very few – show signs of rehabilitation. The majority of homes sit untouched with no sign of progress nor sign that anyone will ever come back for them.
Working streetlights are a fairly new thing for much of the city – Sterbcow says that just four months ago, looking out from the top floor of the World Trade Center downtown at night would show only total darkness.
Even before Katrina, the New Orleans population was declining, and the city’s Preservation Resource Center was working on a project to bring back residents, called Operation Comeback. Representatives last week showed some of the housing projects they’ve been working on in the Holy Cross neighborhood, where former residents were not permitted to return until May 8 of this year.
Holy Cross drowned in seven feet of water just after the storm hit and the levies failed. The water left within 48 hours, but it was enough to make 1,600 buildings uninhabitable. Some people have returned since May and have made their presence known to others by writing messages on their houses like, “I’m back – Keep off roof.”
But even for those who have returned, it’s an eerie feeling with all the neighbors gone, all the corner stores closed, gas stations, grocery stores all vacant. Camille Strachan of the National Center of Historic Trust said security is an issue in this neighborhood as in others across the city. There’s been a lot of architectural theft in which people steal elements of the houses both inside and out – mantels, banisters, whatever looks worth something. With no streetlights and no noise, New Orleans is a strange place to be, she said in a charming accent. “The stars are really large.”
Stephanie Bruno of the Preservation Resource Center explained the red and blue markings on the fronts of houses: number of people rescued, number of dead bodies found inside.
For-sale signs hang on homes in Holy Cross and a few rehab projects are scattered about, but the majority of this neighborhood is vacant and most houses are not fit to live in. What people have realized is that 18 inches of water can do as much damage as seven feet, Bruno said.
As we moved along to St. Bernard parish, the destruction did not discriminate. Banks, homes, pizza shops, nail salons – even a Wal-Mart Supercenter were empty and abandoned. Where there is open business, offices are set up in trailers. A musty scent lingers from the water. It is quiet and apparent that rebuilding will continue to be a struggle for most people. Funding for the building projects that have started has mostly come out of people’s private pockets.
Prior to Katrina, St. Bernard was among the most affordable parishes – a median-priced home would sell for about $180,000. About 20,000 people have returned to this working class community, a representative from the parish council says. A sign in the window of the local government building reads: “St. Bernard Proud: We’re Coming Back.”
Don’t even think about asking where the help is coming from for the communities slowly coming back. “FEMA” is a four-letter word to anyone living in this parish because of all of the red tape and debacles associated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recovery efforts. Bruno said that nearly every local television news station has an ongoing segment looking at problems that continue to surface with the agency. A recent segment uncovered some elderly folks whose FEMA trailers were delivered without keys to get inside, Bruno recalled. And they were sleeping on cement slabs instead.
“It’s very strange living here in New Orleans,” she said as someone noticed a couple of chickens walking around the backyard of an abandoned house. That’s a common scene here now, the locals say. Chickens, dogs, cats and other animals that survived the flood are fending for themselves on the streets a year later.
And the people fend for themselves too, demanding Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac at the pharmacy; running their cars into storefronts, snapping at each other in corner stores.
As the rest of the nation loses interest in day-to-day rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, residents here urge everyone to come back for a visit. The city’s economic bread and butter for many years has been tourism and it’s clear it will need a boost from visitors to help in its recovery. The message from New Orleans residents today is clear: We’re still living this nightmare and we still need your help. Come to New Orleans and see for yourself.
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