It’s a mid-summer evening at Alice M. Harte elementary and many of those jammed into the school’s gymnasium are fanning themselves with anything they can find. The city is in the midst of a nasty heat wave, with scorching temperatures made worse by wilting humidity.
The few hundred people occupying rows of neatly aligned aluminium chairs and side-court bleachers are getting restless. Soon, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, steps up to the dais at the front of the room, his tie loosened, the sleeves on his white dress shirt rolled up over thick forearms, his bald head glistening under the lights. “Y’all so quiet,” he begins, while pulling the microphone out of its holder. “Guess that’s going to change.”
The mayor is accompanied by the heads of every department at city hall, including his chief of police. It’s a meeting Mr. Landrieu and his staff hold twice a year in the five biggest districts in the city, this one being in Algiers, a working-class neighbourhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River that was largely spared the devastation wrought when Hurricane Katrina hit the city 10 years ago Saturday.
While the gatherings are ostensibly to seek the public’s input ahead of the next city budget, they’re just as importantly a means for Mr. Landrieu to gauge how he’s doing. And this year, it’s an opportunity to massage a theme he has been promoting: New Orleans as a post-Katrina exemplar of resilience and determination; a city that overcame a near-death experience to become great again.
“We came out of 9/11 weak because our tourism economy stopped functioning. Just when it got strong again, Katrina hit, then [Hurricane] Rita hit, then [Hurricane] Ike hit and then [Hurricane] Gustav hit and then the national recession hit, then the BP oil spill hit. I’m waiting for locusts.”
He pauses for effect. “No physical space in America has gone through as much trauma as we have, and there is no group of people who have come back from as far as we were.”
But the mayor also knows that journalists descending from all corners of the globe to look at how his city has recovered a decade out from the worst weather-related disaster in American history are going to expose ugly truths.
The two-hour meeting in Algiers will be an opportunity for residents to vent about problems shared by many living in New Orleans: crime, blight, bad roads, unemployment and racial inequality.
“Mayor, I don’t feel safe in my city,” says one man, whose sister was shot and killed while sitting on her front porch. “Crime is out of control.”
Another woman recounts how two bullets recently entered her home from the street. People talk about having cars and homes broken into. A few in the largely black audience reference the lack of jobs for African-American men. Some mention that they haven’t had working street lights since Katrina hit. The most common complaint, however, concerns the state of the streets. Many are so riddled with pot holes they are almost impassable.
“They were bad before Katrina,” the mayor says. “That’s what happens when your city is built on a swamp.”
“I don’t care,” says one man. “I pay taxes. I want my street fixed. This isn’t good enough.”
The crowd erupts in a boisterous cheer.
I’ve been to New Orleans three times. The first was for the National Football League’s Super Bowl in 1997. The second was for Katrina. And now I am back to see where the city is 10 years after.
It certainly looks more like it did the first time I came. Bourbon Street is Bourbon Street. Tourists pack the restaurants and jazz joints along the strip. As you walk, you can still detect the smell of vomit and urine, an olfactory delight that is part of the Bourbon Street experience.
It is easy to see how far the city has come from those dark days of a decade ago. The economy seems vibrant. Real-estate prices, often a sign of fiscal health, are steadily increasing. Education reforms have been heralded nation-wide.
And yet, as one prominent citizen tells me, New Orleans is still “the city that everyone wants to date – but not marry.”
As I soon discover, that is largely because deep and disturbing issues linger behind all the gains it has made. Racism is endemic – a problem that is not just refusing to go away but getting worse. Violent crime is eating away at the fabric of the community and scaring people off. Those holding the guns are often disenfranchised blacks, the majority of whom continue to live on the margins of society.
Too many are being left out of the city’s inspiring renewal.
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
When the community meeting ends, the mayor and I sit in the bleachers to talk. He looks drained and exhilarated at the same time. Elected to a second term last year, Mr. Landrieu took over in 2010 when New Orleans was being likened to Detroit for the scope of its urban decay, including rot at the political level. His predecessor, Ray Nagin, was found to be lining his pockets with bribe money from contractors hoping to cash in on the tens of billions in federal aid pouring into the city. He’s currently serving a 10-year prison term, and wasn’t the only public official on the take.
“When I came to office,” Mayor Landrieu tells me, “we were hundreds of millions in debt, we didn’t have enough money to meet payroll … We had to completely reorganize city government because, frankly, it was a dysfunctional mess.”
While he wouldn’t be the first politician pleased to look like a redeemer, few would disagree that he inherited a mess.
The city is on a much sounder fiscal footing now, but the mayor has had to say no – a lot. Take the roads.
True, they were bad before Katrina: New Orleans is the only American city below sea level. For 300 years, it has slowly been sinking, which wreaks havoc with the infrastructure. But the big storm also brought in saltwater that sat for weeks, eating away at the asphalt, creating pot holes big enough to swallow cars. A recent report rates more than half of the streets as “poor.”
Mr. Landrieu says it costs $7-million to fix one mile of road. To fix them all would cost $9-billion.
Recently, the mayor gave his annual state-of-the-city address, which trumpeted many of his achievements: the addition of 9,100 jobs; the reduction of homeless numbers to 1,900 from 10,000; lower incarceration rates; better education outcomes.
But he’s also being forced to talk about less-flattering aspects of the post-Katrina resurgence. For instance, murder rates are as high as ever – already 114 this year versus 150 for all of 2014 (although that was the lowest total since 1971).
According to the mayor, crime is cyclical. This year homicides are up and other crimes are mostly down. Last year it was the reverse. But he also draws a straight line between crime numbers and the disparity evident in his city. “A lot of income inequality, housing, poverty, all of those things lead to crime, and crime shuts down economic opportunity, it feeds off of it,” he says. “What we see in New Orleans is a symptom of a weakness that America has had in the last 30 or 40 years by not targeting its investments in human capital. Of course, the poor get the shorter end of that, and most of the poor are African-American. We call it income inequality but it could be called opportunity inequality.”
The next day I visit Michael Hecht, chief executive officer of Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic-development organization that has helped to shape the city’s turnaround. Many believe the 45-year-old graduate of Yale and Stanford has the smarts, charisma and ambition to become a political force beyond Louisiana one day.
We meet in a boardroom overlooking the Louisiana Superdome, home of the NFL Saints and, during Katrina, a refuge for thousands dislocated from their homes.
“New Orleans never really recovered from the oil bust of 1980,” Mr. Hecht says, pointing to a graph on his laptop. So, many thought the hurricane would be the city’s death knell. But “as it turns out, Katrina was like pruning the bush,” he says. “It was what was needed in order to blossom.”
Well, that and about $140-billion (U.S.) in disaster aid, with about half coming from the federal government and the rest from insurance companies, philanthropic organizations and other private-sector outlets. The cash allowed the city to reimagine itself. A $2.5-billion medical complex has replaced the old charity hospital system. More than $1-billion went into building new schools, which accompanied a transformation of the education program. Hundreds of millions went into replacing ancient, deteriorating infrastructure.
“I like to compare what happened post-Katrina to a private-equity takeover,” Mr. Hecht says. “We threw out the old management at the political level, business level and community level. That’s incredibly important because … everybody was protecting their own little empires.”
I ask what is going to happen now that the aid taps have been turned off.
“That,” he replies, “is the key question.”
Still, he is optimistic the city can continue to ride the economic edge that money provided. For one thing, its economy is more diversified. The city boasts the fastest-growing tech area in the country in terms of jobs, and is now marketing the water-management expertise developed in the wake of Katrina – knowledge increasingly in demand as the oceans rise, forcing coastal cities to protect themselves. Also, snake people have poured into the city, bringing an entrepreneurial spirit that has been instrumental in the rebirth.
Mr. Hecht hopes that, eventually, the city can expand its image beyond Bourbon Street. “To change a brand takes time and money – it usually requires 30 years,” he says, adding that his wife “gets mad” when he calls New Orleans the city everyone will date but not marry. However, it’s true, and, he says, “we need to change that.”
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Of all the areas damaged by Katrina, none received more attention than the Lower Ninth Ward.
On one side it has the Mississippi, while its western flank is bordered by the Industrial Canal, a shipping channel connected to the Intracoastal Waterway that effectively separates the Lower Ninth from the rest of the city.
The waterway, in turn, is linked to the 122-kilometre Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet built in the 1960s as a commercial short cut between the Gulf of Mexico and the New Orleans inner harbour. Instead, it funnelled Katrina’s rage into the heart of the city.
The Industrial Canal ruptured, propelling a massive barge into the Lower Ninth and leaving the district completely under water. There were more Katrina-linked deaths there than in any other part of town.
Those still in their homes scrambled to their rooftops for safety. Robert Green Sr. took refuge on his mother’s roof, along with several family members, including three small grandchildren. His mother collapsed and died amid the tumult. As the house fell apart, he and the others had to abandon her, seeking sanctuary atop houses nearby. One granddaughter was swept to her death.
Today, Mr. Green lives in a new home on the same street. A cross made of light bulbs sits outside as a memorial to those who died. On his front lawn, he has a table with Katrina-themed coffee mugs and T-shirts for sale. I purchase a shirt emblazoned with The Original Roof Top Riders. The words sit over a drawing of a family on a roof with water nudging the eaves. The man holds a flag.
“People need to understand what happens,” Mr. Green says. “It’s important people know, so it never happens again.”
While distinctly black, and distinctly poor, the Lower Ninth also had one of the higher rates of home ownership by African-Americans anywhere in the U.S.
According to The Data Center, a locally based news and information collective, the city has regained 94 per cent of its pre-storm population of 484,674 while the Lower Ninth’s return is just over 35 per cent.
To find out why, I visit M.A. Sheehan, a community lawyer and a director of the non-profit agency, House the 9 Program.
“Welcome to our headquarters,” she says with a laugh when I find her tiny, cramped office in the back of a Lutheran church.
Her organization is almost entirely focused on helping residents navigate the dark labyrinth of regulations for getting money out of Road Home, a federal program set up in 2006 for homeowners who want to rebuild.
Road Home will pay whichever is less: the repair bill or what a home was worth before Katrina. In the case of the Lower Ninth, where the damage was most extensive and home values the lowest, residents inevitably do not get nearly enough.
The money, in most cases, is dispensed in instalments. But after Katrina, many in the neighbourhood found themselves out of work, and so used some of it to pay the rent. This, in turn, kept them from ever being able to fix their homes properly.
At the same time, there has been little replenishing of the services the community lost. Where once there were seven schools, now there is one. A fire station recently opened. There are two corner stores, attached to gas stations, and no supermarket.
“People have been reluctant to come back because there just isn’t anything here,” Ms. Sheehan says. “There have been a whole lot of things stacked against the people here, and you can’t separate race from what’s happened.”
History is rife with decisions feeding a belief among African-Americans that white America wishes the Lower Ninth would just go away. During the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, government officials blew out a levee and swamped it in order to protect downtown New Orleans. When Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, the levees failed, many believe suspiciously, flooding 80 per cent of the area.
In 1960, the Lower Ninth became the first neighbourhood in the Deep South to desegregate its schools. White residents fled, and the African-American segment of the population soon went from 31 per cent to 73 per cent. By 2000 it was 98 per cent, and the neighbourhood was among the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the country.
After Katrina, the Lower Ninth didn’t have water for almost a year. “Why?” Ms. Sheehan asks. “So there could be better water pressure in other parts of the city. Consequently, with no water, the folks here missed the volunteer groups who arrived after the storm to help rebuild homes.”
Actor Brad Pitt’s foundation, Make It Right, has put up 120 homes here (30 more are on the drawing board). But they have been criticized for their unorthodox design, not to mention the cost of making them environmentally leading-edge. In fact, the homes are so valuable that some fear their owners, having been heavily subsidized by the foundation, may turn around and sell to wealthier white people moving in as part of the broader gentrification of New Orleans.
“The joke in the neighbourhood is they should call the organization Make It White,” says Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org, a non-profit that helps area residents rebuild by providing volunteer labour.
“Look, I think they are full of good intentions, and it’s not the biggest concern here, not by a long shot. I think the recovery in the Lower Ninth provides lessons for the country and makes the point that institutional racism is alive and well in America.”
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
After Katrina, water sat in the streets for weeks, and today the Lower Ninth remains a blighted mess, with many lots unoccupied and now overgrown, bug-infested swamps.
The home owned by Darrial Sharp is the only one on his side of the street (the other side has two). He has been trying to rebuild – first on his own, now with the help of Ms. Sheehan and House the 9.
The home was constructed by his father in 1964 for what was once a large family, but now only he and his older brother remain. Clarence Sharp is 68 and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Darrial wants the house restored to help bring back old memories for his brother.
Road Home gave him the home’s pre-Katrina value, which was less than half of what he needed to cover $200,000 in damages. He went as far as he could before the money ran out.
About two years ago, he became aware of Ms. Sheehan and her organization. By then the home had been sitting unoccupied for some time. Rot had set in, and vandals had smashed windows and stripped out the copper wiring. Ms. Sheehan had someone from Habitat for Humanity see how much work was needed to make the place livable. The verdict: It should be torn down.
As he recalls hearing that, Mr. Sharp bows his head and gently starts to cry.
“He’s working so hard,” says Ms. Sheehan, sitting across the room. “He’s working so hard”
Mr. Sharp looks up. “But the closer I get,” he says, “the farther it goes away.”
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
There are similar stories – discouraging, yet inspiring – all over the Lower Ninth.
Errol and Esther Joseph are rebuilding with the help of Laura Paul’s organization. While some homes nearby floated away during Katrina, theirs (built by Mr. Joseph’s father, who knew which end of a hammer to use) shifted barely four inches off its foundation. Even so, the damage was so extensive that they are in a position to go ahead only now – and only with the help of volunteers.
For 20 minutes Mr. Joseph walks me through his agonizing fights with Road Home bureaucrats unsympathetic that the amount he was receiving didn’t even cover the expenses he’d incurred while waiting for the money to arrive.
Mr. Joseph is big and strong, but clearly the past 10 years have taken a toll. He stops, sighs and shakes his head as he details the many dead ends he encountered. He tried the banks, only to discover there “weren’t no loans for our community out there.”
“The black community?” I ask.
“You’re a wise man,” he replies, with a smile.
A few steets over, I find the home of Baptist minister Charles Duplessis and his wife, Lynne. Just a block from where the Industrial Canal ruptured, it was a complete write-off, but they rebuilt with with some Road Home money and the kindness of strangers. Then they learned about the drywall.
Because of the high demand for building products after Katrina, contractors imported drywall from China that had high amounts of sulphur, which didn’t mix with the moist, humid climate of the U.S. Southeast. People started getting sick and eventually it had to be ripped out of every home – thousands of them.
“So,” says Rev. Duplessis, “we had to start all over again.”
His church was even harder to fix – it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today all that Mount Nebo Bible Baptist has is a foundation and some metal girders. It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete the job, money Rev. Duplessis doesn’t have. Sunday service is held in his home.
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Erika McConduit-Diggs embodies the spirit of many people here: To live in New Orleans you have to be a bit of a risk-taker.
When Katrina hit, the 38-year-old lawyer and head of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans was nine months pregnant. She couldn’t imagine staying at the Astrodome in Houston, where she first found herself, so she kept going – to New York City, where she had extended family. The drive took two and half days, with her five-year-old daughter and a dog in tow.
She gave birth a couple of days after arriving – the first Katrina baby in the Big Apple. “People thought I was crazy driving all that way,” she says.
What would she have done, had she gone into labour?
“I have no idea,” she howls.
Perhaps, but now she, if anyone, understands one thing: the true state of black New Orleans. In less than two years at the helm of her organization, Ms. Conduit-Diggs has earned a reputation as a fair-minded but relentless fighter on behalf of African-Americans.
I read to her a quote from an essay on the subject: “Black New Orleans suffers from deepening marginalization due to institutional discrimination based on race, class and gender. As New Orleans has become whiter in population and higher in income, its black citizens have become fewer in number, poorer, more jobless, more incarcerated, and priced out of the city.”
An accurate depiction? “Yes,” she replies. “I’d have to say it is.”
The numbers speak for themselves: Life for black New Orleans has got no better since Katrina. In many ways it is worse. The income gap between whites and blacks in the city has grown. In 2005, the median income for African-Americans here was $23,394 – 47.5 per cent of the $49,262 that Caucasians earned. In 2013, the percentage had dropped to just 41.5 per cent ($25,102 versus $60,553).
In the same period, the percentage of black children living in poverty rose from 44 to 50. In 2011 (the last year for which statistics are available), 52 per cent of African-American men were unemployed, while last year, one in seven was either in prison, on parole or on probation.
One of the few positive stories is that while only 56 per cent of black children finished high school in 2004-05, by last year the number had climbed to 73 per cent.
“That is why our message to the rest of the world is we’re still a work in progress,” says Ms. McConduit-Diggs. “Even though we’re 10 years from one of the biggest disasters in our nation’s history, we are still not done. This is not a completed story, certainly not from our perspective.”
The systemic racism that exists in New Orleans was decades in the making, she explains. The problem for blacks will not be addressed until whites understand that the city will never truly rise again until everyone shares in the gains being made.
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on a $14.5-billion storm fortress around the city. Unlike its predecessor, which was supposed to prevent catastrophic damage, it’s being called a “risk reduction” system, “prevent” having been banned from the storm-defence lexicon.
Rene Poche, a public-affairs official with the corps, pulls out a large map with a green line around the city marking a 214-kilometre-long barrier dubbed The Great Wall of New Orleans. It is a sequence of concrete and earthen levees and flood walls, iron gates and enormous pumps able to discharge water at rates never seen before.
“This is a 100-year system,” Mr. Poche explains. “That means it was built to prevent the kind of flooding that has a one-per-cent chance of occurring in any given year.”
Not surprisingly, that level of defence has drawn criticism from those who point out that Katrina was a 400-year storm. On top of that, climate change is likely to make weather patterns, and storms, more harsh and unpredictable.
“That’s why it’s now called a ‘risk reduction’ system,” Mr. Poche says. “We get asked a lot, ‘Can New Orleans survive another one?’ The truthful answer is: It all depends on where it comes in.”
The new system has already encountered its first major problem: The delta it sits on is sinking faster than anyone thought. Consequently, many of the levees will have to be raised, costing tens of millions of dollars.
So just how safe is New Orleans today? Mr. Poche sits back, places his arms on his chair and recalls a comment made by a former corps commander.
“He was asked if there was a weak spot in the new system. His answer was: ‘Yes, between people’s ears – because they think, because we have this expensive new system, nothing can happen. But that’s just not the case.’”
Gary Mason is a national affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver.
Mother Nature or man: Who was really to blame?
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
The fact that the disaster that struck New Orleans is referred to almost universally as Katrina angers more than a few people here, perhaps none more than Sandy Rosenthal.
She is the founder of Levees.org – a nonprofit whose sole mission is to change how people interpret what took place. Now, with the media world focused on the 10th anniversary, she knows this is likely her last big opportunity to revamp the disaster lexicon.
For a decade, controversy has raged over what was really to blame: the hurricane or the failing of the levee system that was supposed to protect the city. I meet Ms. Rosenthal at the memorial her organization built at the point where the London Avenue Canal broke through its levee, flooding Gentilly, a middle-class, racially diverse neighbourhood in the northeast corner of the city.
The open-air exhibit is a history lesson on what happened after the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005, most of it a myth-busting chronology of what Ms. Rosenthal likes to call the most catastrophic failure in the history of American engineering.
It isn’t exactly flattering to federal authorities, but nothing on the information panels seems to be in dispute – even by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that built the doomed levee system and has been the object of Ms. Rosenthal’s unreserved criticism.
Her interest in the question of blame began shortly after the scope of the disaster was revealed. The narrative, she says, soon evolved into something like this: Corrupt city located below sea level gets what it deserves.
The storm was being blamed for all the damage; the fact that the levees failed in 53 places was sloughed off. “And that was just plain wrong,” Ms. Rosenthal says as we stand under a sweltering sun near the levee wall.
The list of the army engineers’ shortcomings is a long one – cited not just by Ms. Rosenthal but by experts and, more important, the courts. Even the corps now acknowledges its central role in the catastrophe; what it designed was a flood-protection system in name only. The levees were neither high nor sturdy enough. The design was flawed from one end to the other.
Next to Ms. Rosenthal’s exhibit stands a house devastated by the storm and never repaired. Perhaps the first thing a visitor notices is a hole in the roof through which people escaped as the flood waters rose inside. Ms. Rosenthal says she hopes to buy and maintain the building as a reminder of what happened.
Thanks in no small measure to her efforts, it is almost universally accepted here now that human error played the bigger role in the calamity, but Ms. Rosenthal concedes she has so far failed to persuade the media to refer to a “federal flood” instead of Katrina.
“I’m pretty persistent,” she says. “We’ve come a long way just in terms of getting people to understand what really happened here. Now the city can throw off the cloak of shame bestowed on it after the flood, and that’s big.”
– Gary Mason