Lots of roofs still leak in New Orleans today, long after the flood waters receded and well before the appearance of any coherent plan to rebuild the city. A toxic combination of federal neglect and local mismanagement has many local leaders worried that it will take generations of suffering and scrapping to rebuild what one catastrophic flood destroyed in a week.
Notorious for having one of the higher murder rates in a violent country, one of the higher incarceration rates, one of the worst public-school systems, an average income in the bottom five among U.S. cities and a sobering stock of already blighted housing, New Orleans before Katrina was already a civic basket case. Now, with most institutions and businesses still closed and local government drastically reduced in size, it is a wreck.
Faced with the spirit-sapping reality of so much destruction -- not just a few blocks but whole square miles, with about 350,000 housing units damaged or destroyed, according to the American Red Cross -- local leaders worry New Orleans may never get up after the Katrina knockdown. The count is on.
"I hope it will come back," says Reed Kroloff, dean of architecture at Tulane University and a member of the planning committee Mr. Nagin hastily assembled to map the way to a brighter future. "But it's too early to tell, because all the signs of the old system are still there. . . . You can just see it grinding to a halt right in front of your eyes."
Like many other local leaders, Dean Kroloff credits Mr. Nagin for calling on the best and brightest across the city to develop a speedy recovery plan that addresses "the terrible set of ills that had befallen this city prior to the storm." And like them, he directs most of the blame for the continuing paralysis on Washington. "The ineptitude of the current administration on this issue is startling," he says. "The Republican Party has been dreadful, repulsive, all the way through this. It's everything that's wrong with American politics."
If Washington's original response to Katrina was bad enough to shock the world, the follow-up -- a classic example of laissez-faire urbanism -- is scarcely better. Federal emergency relief, centring on supply and equipment contracts, does not reach out to foundering local governments and other vital but totally incapacitated institutions.
One of the first actions the city took after Katrina, facing bankruptcy due to the almost total loss of its tax base, was to lay off thousands of employees, drastically diminishing its already limited capacity to undertake the most rudimentary rebuilding. Across New Orleans today, renovations are stalling simply because the city lacks the inspectors needed to approve them.
At the same time, directors of the wealthy Entergy Corporation moved to protect profits by plunging their New Orleans subsidiary into bankruptcy, likewise impairing efforts to restore electrical and gas service, for which the bankrupt company remains the monopoly provider. Last week, Bell South, the local telephone company, announced the layoff of 1,500 staff.
While the administration of President George W. Bush pours billions into the reconstruction of conquered Iraq (a particular sore point among Mr. Nagin's grieving constituents), basic services remain patchy in even the most readily recoverable parts of their city.
In places such as suburban St. Bernard's Parish, where every home and business was flooded and most were destroyed, tax revenue from one gas station and a few convenience stores is the only local resource currently available to rebuild a region that once had a population of 67,000. If and when it does come, the federal support will be in the form of loans.
"How the heck are they ever going to repay the loans they need to keep the bare minimum of civil society going?" asks Alan Drake, a consulting engineer volunteering as an electrical inspector, filling one of the many vital recovery-related jobs the stripped-down municipality can no longer afford to do itself.
St. Bernard's Parish is still chillingly dark and empty, its recovery visible only in the occasional undeployed FEMA trailer and a few huddles of workers warming themselves around oil-can fires. Hopeful graffiti scrawled on the sides of ruined houses can do little to relieve the impression of total waste.
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