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A year later, 'New Orleans is rotting away'

Bob Newman's handsome brick house is a beacon of hope for a city still very much on its knees. Two rocking chairs sit on the veranda. The lawn is manicured and the shrubs are covered in pink blooms. And behind stately white columns, the lights are on.

This is Mr. Newman's dream home: He designed it himself, and then watched it go up on the same corner lot where he spent his childhood. Construction finished just 15 months before hurricane Katrina unleashed flooding that submerged the house and half of New Orleans.

Soon after the waters receded, Mr. Newman and a team of tradesmen spent months gutting and rebuilding the entire first floor. He and his wife, Louise, moved back in late February. Each day, their home looks more like it did before the storm.

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"It feels good," the 65-year-old small-business owner said as he worked in his garage one evening this week. "We're pretty much 100 per cent now as far as everything that's necessary, but I've still got a lot of things to do."

Most of the other residents in the Newmans' mostly white, middle-class neighbourhood of Lakeview haven't come back yet, and many never will. Next door, there's a For Sale sign in front of a white house that still bears a three-metre-high rust-coloured water line. The paint on the bungalow across the street is peeling and the lawn is overgrown with waist-high weeds. The red brick manor beside it is an empty shell.

The storm devastated much of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and a year later, parts of the city still resemble a ghost town -- largely, many critics say, because the rebuilding process remains stymied in government inertia.

New Orleans is a tale of two cities. Areas largely spared by the storm, including the posh Uptown district and the historic French Quarter, carry on as if the hurricane never happened. People go to work, stores are open and cars clog the streets.

But in flooded neighbourhoods, which were disproportionately poor and black, it looks like the storm hit just weeks ago.

In the ruined areas, tens of thousands of homes are empty, and many haven't even been gutted of the rotting debris the floods left behind. Power lines dangle on the streets, businesses are boarded up and schools are still closed. Electricity, gas and sewage services have not been restored in much of the Lower Ninth Ward. Bodies are still being found.

"They're not functioning urban neighbourhoods," said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at the city's Tulane University who wrote a book about the hurricane. "New Orleans is rotting away."

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New Orleans' population is now estimated at about 225,000, about half the pre-storm figure of 484,000. However, about 150,000 New Orleanians lived in neighbourhoods that sustained little damage and there has been an influx of workers. It is unclear how many owners of badly damaged homes have come back, a key indicator for the city's viability.

"As far as we can tell, there's been very little return, other than to neighbourhoods that were pretty much spared by the flooding," said John Logan, a professor and urban sociologist at Rhode Island's Brown University who conducted the first in-depth demographic analysis of the storm's impact.

In fact, 12 months after many residents lost everything, homeowners have still not received government rebuilding assistance, seen as a crucial step toward repopulating the city because many lacked flood insurance. Just this week, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco announced a new application process for those wishing access to as much as $150,000 (U.S.) in aid. The funding, which is bankrolled by a $10-billion federal allotment, is expected to start flowing next month.

By contrast, Mississippi residents started receiving cheques last month. The delay in Louisiana, where the damage was more widespread, is partly because Ms. Blanco is putting more strings on aid to encourage homeowners to rebuild in the state.

In New Orleans, the recovery is being slowed even further by the city's lack of action.

Mayor Ray Nagin, who was re-elected in May, has not yet announced which neighbourhoods should be forsaken and which will be rebuilt, complete with a full complement of municipal services, including schools, libraries, parks and fire stations. The issue is highly charged and politically dangerous: During the campaign, Mr. Nagin suggested that every neighbourhood could be rebuilt, something few planners recommend given the risk of future flooding.

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"You're going to have to prioritize somewhere to start realistically having people come back, but because of his pandering to the population during his election campaign, Nagin now finds himself painted in a corner. Any move he makes, he's going to get battered, so he's decided just to not move at all," Prof. Brinkley said.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly poor black neighbourhood that was flattened by the storm, Albert Florida sits on a milk crate on his porch.

He did all the gutting himself, punishing work for which he now wears wrist braces. His tiny white home with coral trim on the corner of Burgundy and Alabo Streets is now just a shell: studs, a warped floor, exterior walls and the roof where he spent two days without food or water waiting to be evacuated.

Like so many others, Mr. Florida didn't have flood insurance --he said he was told he didn't need it -- and his salary as a heating and cooling technician at a local university isn't enough to finance the restoration of the home he has owned for 11 years. He now lives in a FEMA trailer at a site set up by his employer; his ailing wife is a five-hour drive away near Shreveport, La. He desperately wants to move home, but needs help.

"Everybody's waiting on the same thing, getting government assistance," the 48-year-old said, as he smoked a cigarette in the rain.

In a city where so much of the post-Katrina response has been coloured by issues of class and race, the government's lethargy has compounded the disparities.

Without insurance or savings, low-income homeowners like Mr. Florida must wait to rebuild. Many don't even live nearby, making fixing up their properties all the more difficult, and unlikely. In the aftermath of the hurricane, poor blacks were more likely to be bused out of state, where they have since gotten jobs and rented apartments. Long drives back to New Orleans are expensive and time-consuming, especially since there is still so much uncertainty and some people are talking about turning their neighbourhoods into parkland.

Those with money, however, tended to stay closer to the city, had insurance and are better able to start rebuilding.

"Money's a big factor now and if you don't have none, you've got to wait it out and survive day by day like I'm doing," Mr. Florida said. "They got hit, too, but the rich and the wealthy come back quicker than the poor. The poor depend on whatever helping hand they can get."

Two doors down Alabo Street, Cheryl Luke sits in a beige pickup watching hired labourers gut the turquoise home she has owned for nine years. The debris spills from the sidewalk into the narrow street, and the stench spreads farther still. There are TVs, mattresses, a teddy bear, photos, the bed her mother died in and clothes still damp from the floodwaters. She counts 281 relatives past and present who have lived in the Lower Ninth.

"We've got a lot of history here, you know," the 55-year-old said, eyes scanning the neighbourhood. "This is our roots, this is where we live. We've been out here all our lives."

Ms. Luke's insurance payout was meagre. She has been living in New York, and saved up money to come back and have her home cleared. But it will take much more to make it livable again.

Across town in Lakeview, which was also devastated, there was no question that Mr. Newman would fix his four-bedroom, two-storey home at the corner of Canal Boulevard and Lane Street.

The father of five was relatively well insured, and received $250,000 for the flooding and $30,000 for the contents. In a tight construction market, where prices have soared and tradesmen are in high demand, Mr. Newman, who owns an overhead door company, drew on his extensive contacts.

Today, the renovation is almost finished. Just a few tasks remain: a marble countertop in the main-floor bathroom, furniture for the dining room and office, Venetian blinds and light fixtures. "Trimming this, adjusting that," he says. "You know, just minor stuff."

Earlier this week, he and his wife held a party and served Mexican food to friends as they watched the New Orleans Saints get pummelled by the Dallas Cowboys.

With the recovery so slow and uneven one year later, the future of New Orleans is still very much in question. But observers are certain of one thing: Many residents will simply never return, a reality that will forever change the face of the city.

"The longer people have to wait to make decisions, the more likely it is that they'll choose a more clear course of investing elsewhere," Prof. Logan said.

A smaller New Orleans is likely to be richer and whiter. While construction is spotty no matter the area and there are stark differences from street to street, there is more activity in middle-class districts like Mr. Newman's than in poorer places like the Lower Ninth Ward. If that trend continues, it is unlikely that disadvantaged neighbourhoods will fully recover.

In a study of randomly chosen streets in neighbourhoods in April and May for the Army Corps of Engineers (which recently finished repairing New Orleans' levees), Louisiana State University sociologist John Beggs found strong links between income and reconstruction.

At the time of Prof. Beggs' study, work had started on about half the homes surveyed in Lakeview, which borders the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. In the Lower Ninth, it was closer to zero.

"The more uncertain a neighbourhood's future is, the more difficult it will be for people to go back and try and do something with it," he said. "No one has any clear picture of what New Orleans is going to look like."

While New Orleans was two-thirds African-American before the storm, experts figure it is now about evenly split between blacks and whites. Though Mayor Nagin, who is black, said he wants New Orleans to return to its majority African-American status, the lack of a rebuilding plan means there are still more questions about the future of poor black neighbourhoods than prosperous white ones.

"When it becomes clear that some parts of the city will not be rebuilt, then the question's going to have to be faced: What to do with these people? Is there a place in New Orleans for the kind of people that are going to be displaced?" Prof. Logan asked.

So far, the answer is: Not really.

The damage

Recovery has been slow since New Orleans was flooded last year:


Number of residents who have applied for federal grants to rebuild through the Louisiana Recovery Authority


Number of residents who have received the grant


Percentage point increase in the proportion of white residents


Percentage point decrease in the proportion of black residents


Decrease in the number of housing units


Percentage point decrease in the proportion of impoverished residents


Increase in the median household income


Increase in the price of rental housing


Percentage of hospitals open


Percentage of public schools open


Percentage of city buses running


Percentage of homes with electricity

Sources: Brookings Institution; U.S. Census Bureau

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