• U.S.

New Orleans Today: It’s Worse Than You Think

13 minute read
Cathy Booth Thomas/New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, the neon lights are flashing, the booze is flowing, and the demon demolition men of Hurricane Katrina are ogling a showgirl performing in a thong. The Bourbon House is shucking local oysters again, Daiquiri’s is churning out its signature alcoholic slushies, and Mardi Gras masks are once again on sale. But drive north toward the hurricane-ravaged housing subdivisions off Lake Pontchartrain and the masks you see aren’t made for Carnival. They are industrial-strength respirators, stark and white, the only things capable of stopping a stench that turns the stomach and dredges up bad memories of a night nearly three months ago. Most disasters come and go in a neat arc of calamity, followed by anger at the slow response, then cleanup. But Katrina cut a historic deadly swath across the South, and rebuilding can’t start until the cleanup is done. In much of New Orleans, the leafy coverage of live oaks is gone. Lingering in the sky instead is a fine grit that tastes metallic to the tongue. Everyone’s life story is out on the curb, soaked and stinky–furniture and clothing, dishes and rotting drywall, even formerly fabulous antiques. Dump trucks come periodically to remove the piles, taking some to a former city park, now a heap of rubbish several football fields long, towering above the head. The smell is sweet, horrific.

They’re still finding bodies down here 13 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit–30 in the past month–raising the death toll to 1,053 in Louisiana. The looters are still working too, brazenly taking their haul in daylight. But at night darkness falls, and it’s quiet. “It’s spooky out there. There’s no life,” says cardiologist Pat Breaux, who lives near Pontchartrain with only a handful of neighbors. The destruction, says Breaux, head of the Orleans Parish Medical Society, depresses people. Suicides are up citywide, he says, although no one has a handle on the exact number. Murders, on the other hand, have dropped to almost none.

Mayor Ray Nagin opened up most of the city to returning evacuees last week, but only an estimated 60,000 people are spending the night in New Orleans these days, compared with about half a million before Katrina. The city that care forgot is in the throes of an identity crisis, torn between its shady, bead-tossing past and the sanitized Disneyland future some envision. With no clear direction on whether to raze or rebuild, the 300,000 residents who fled the region are frustrated–and increasingly indecisive–about returning. If they do come back, will there be jobs good enough to stay for? If they do rebuild, will the levees be strong enough to protect them? They can’t shake the feeling that somehow they did something wrong just by living where they did. And now the money and the sympathy are drying up. People just don’t understand. You have to see it, smell it, put on a white mask and a pair of plastic gloves, and walk into a world where nothing is salvageable, not even the mildewed wedding pictures.

Beyond an island of light downtown, most of Orleans Parish is still in the dark. Of the city’s eight hospitals pre-Katrina, only two are open to serve a population that swells to 150,000 during the day. The public school system–destroyed by back-to-back hurricanes–is in limbo while the state considers a takeover and charter-school advocates vie for abandoned facilities. One lone public school for 500 students is set to open this week.

The once flashy city has become drab. The grass and trees, marinated for weeks in saltwater, are a dreary gray-brown. Parking lots look like drought-starved lake beds, with cracks in the mud. Within a few hours, anyone working outside is covered in a fine layer of grit. The trees that gave New Orleans such character–the centuries-old live oaks with their grand canopies and graceful lines–are toppled, exposing huge root balls 10 ft. or more in diameter. It’s all the more surreal because the Garden District, which survived the flood, is lush and beautiful once again.

The tax base has been shredded, forcing New Orleans to limp along on about a quarter of its usual income of $400 million to $500 million per year. The city has lost an estimated $1.5 million a day in tourism revenues since Katrina, and only a quarter of the 3,400 restaurants are open. Moody’s has lowered the city’s credit rating from investment grade to junk. The latest insult? The nation’s flood-insurance program ran out of money for the first time since its founding in 1968, and some insurers temporarily stopped issuing checks.

That may have consequences for people like Marguerite Simon, 82. She worked hard cleaning other people’s homes, earning just enough to buy into the Ninth Ward, one of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods. She was wearing rubber gloves, rubber boots and a paper face mask last week, cleaning black amoebic splotches of mold off precious family treasures. Inside the small house, her well-made furniture, with its carved arms and curved legs, lay scattered as if some giant Mixmaster had been whirling away. Sitting on her tiny porch, she managed a laugh. “You have to laugh,” she said, “but it don’t come from the heart.” She wants to stay in her neighborhood, even though bodies are still being found there. Across the street, a widower was found dead by his visiting son just last week. Simon had a small flood-insurance policy, but even so, she’s not sure she can afford to rebuild or that she will be allowed to. The cost of demolishing a house is several thousand dollars and rising. For now she’s living with her daughter Pamela Lewis in nearby Algiers, but Simon hates the loss of independence. “Inside, I’m hurt,” she says. “I miss having things my way.” Lewis is helping her complete Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paperwork to get a trailer to place at the back of the lot in Algiers. “I believe there’s a lesson and a blessing in everything. We just haven’t found it yet,” says Sharon Welch, another daughter who is visiting from Chicago, and the women laugh.

Real estate agent Sherry Masinter, 46, lived with her lawyer husband Milton, 73, in the Lakeview neighborhood until the 17th Street Canal levee broke and flooded their house with 8 ft. of water. Today mold grows up the walls. The couple paid for flood insurance faithfully for 20 years and were reimbursed, but their neighbors are still battling with their insurance company over arcane formulas. Milton argues–as did independent experts from the National Science Foundation and the American Society of Civil Engineers recently–that poor levee design by the Army Corps of Engineers caused the flood, not Katrina. That puts the burden on Washington to help, he says. The breached levee, shored up with sandbags, is still leaking onto city streets. “It’s very frustrating,” says Sherry, “to the point where we’ve talked of going to Washington for a peaceful protest just to say, ‘You’ve forgotten us.'”

Repair and cleanup are linked, to some degree, with planning what New Orleans should look like five years from now. The Louisiana Recovery Authority, appointed by Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, met in November with hundreds of New Orleans residents to develop priorities, brainstorm ideas with planners and businessmen, and present a unified voice. The Authority vice chair Walter Isaacson petitioned Congress last week for help in establishing a “recovery corporation” as a vehicle for the city’s rebuilding neighborhoods. Donald Powell, the new hurricane czar appointed by George W. Bush, said his job is to listen and gather facts to help the President “understand the vision of the local people.” The one-time banker, who admits he has a little boning up to do on levees, says he will spend the next few weeks shuttling in and out of the hurricane area, developing a blueprint for federal reconstruction help.

Washington approved $62.3 billion to help hurricane victims after the trifecta of Katrina, Rita and Wilma. With an additional $8.6 billion in tax breaks and programs for the region, the total tab of nearly $71 billion is far beyond the $43.9 billion dedicated to emergency spending after the 9/11 attacks. But congressional Republicans are picking up strong signals from the White House that the Administration is not going to move forward with any grand coastal plan. “There’s not a sense of urgency anymore,” says a senior House Republican aide.

Louisiana’s recent request for $250 billion, perilously short on details, got a contemptuous reception from Republicans (“Nonstarter,” said a Senate aide), editorial writers (who dubbed it the “Louisiana looters’ bill”) and even a few Democrats (“They’re thieves,” said a House aide involved with budgeting for Louisiana relief). Michael Olivier, Louisiana’s secretary of economic development, points out that Katrina devastated a far larger area–23,000 acres–than 9/11 did and destroyed nearly 284,000 homes. With 71,000 businesses shut down by Katrina and a further 10,000 by Rita, and with local governments short on tax revenues, he says, “We’re looking at potentially the largest business insolvency since the Depression, and a government insolvency.”

FEMA continues to be a four-letter word in Louisiana. In Kenner and Metairie, suburbs west of New Orleans, blue tarps provided by FEMA dot the roofs of homes damaged by wind, but there are few in the worst-affected neighborhoods like Lakeview, the Ninth Ward and East New Orleans–a policy defended by the agency. “What’s to protect?” asks FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews in Washington. She argues, like the insurance companies, that most of the damage east of New Orleans was from floodwaters, not wind. Tarps, she says, would be a waste of money. “There are still houses left standing, but you wouldn’t let any living thing you cared about get near them [after they had soaked in] standing black water for four weeks,” says Andrews.

FEMA trailers for temporary housing are a rare sight in East New Orleans, largely because there is no electricity and inundated city inspectors are behind on approving utility hookups. Entergy New Orleans, which filed for bankruptcy protection after Katrina, plans to double its repair work force so that most of the remaining 75,000 customers will have power by year’s end, thus clearing the way for trailers to be installed. The move comes none too soon, since FEMA is cutting off payments for hotel rooms by Dec. 1 to encourage families to move into permanent homes, using money they were given for apartment deposits. Olivier told a gathering of planners in New Orleans that FEMA’S trailer parks had been held up by EPA requirements for an environmental study. “They told us that we have to protect the endangered species,” said Olivier, who then delivered his applause line. “I told them, ‘Hell, we are the endangered species!'” Andrews says the agency does not mandate such studies.

The delays and squabbles mean that Congress’s $62.3 billion largesse has mostly gone unspent. More than half–$37.5 billion–is sitting in FEMA’s account, waiting for a purpose. Under fire for being slow to respond, the Bush Administration had rushed two emergency supplemental bills to Congress with little thought about how the money would be spent or how fast. Now FEMA is “awash in money,” says a Democratic appropriations aide. Of the nearly $25 billion assigned to projects, checks totaling only about $6.2 billion have been cashed. As a result, a third supplemental-funding bill sent to Congress suggests taking back $2.3 billion in aid. Mayor Ray Nagin attempted to shore up support for the city’s recovery before Congress last week, but he came home with little new. The comment of a G.O.P. aide was typical: “We want to see them helping themselves before they ask us for help.”

The mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission has created buzz in the city by involving thousands of people in public life. But what residents want most is something the mayor pragmatically believes may be impossible for the moment–levees that will protect against Category 5 hurricanes. The Corps of Engineers plans to repair 40 miles of the 300-mile system before the next hurricane season. Nagin won promises from the Corps to rebuild the system to withstand a Category 3 storm “plus some,” which means they plan to fix the flaws that reputedly caused the levee breaks that flooded 80% of the city–for as long as four weeks in some areas. The improved levees will be 17 ft. high, vs. 12 ft. to 13 ft. pre-Katrina. With $8 million pending for a two-year Category 5 study, the mayor seems content to bide his time. “There is no science to build a Category 5 levee protection now anyway,” says Nagin.

New Orleans has a more immediate problem: its health-care system. “Should we have another hurricane, multiple accidents, a major fire or a flu epidemic, it could overwhelm our system,” warns Dr. Breaux. Fewer than 15% of the doctors are back, nurses are in short supply and medical records are missing or destroyed. The Navy hospital ship is gone, replaced by a makeshift treatment center that moved out of tents and into the New Orleans Convention Center last week. Level One trauma care, for the most seriously wounded, is available only in the next parish. “If you’re in a major car accident, have been stabbed or shot or hit over the head with a pipe, the soonest you could go into the operating room now is about an hour–and that’s if you ‘schedule’ your trauma between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” says Dr. Peter DeBlieux, an internist at the temporary convention center site.

Eighteen months before Katrina, business leaders in New Orleans created an economic development vehicle, GNO Inc., with a five-year goal of creating 30,000 jobs. They may make their goal quicker than that, but the jobs will be in Baton Rouge, or perhaps Houston and Atlanta, thanks to the hurricane. At a downtown job fair last week, Leo G. Doyle, a sales-training manager for UPS, said his company lost 30% of its work force after Katrina and was looking for drivers and package handlers. “We have a lot of good workers who have been displaced, a lot of good workers with loss-of-family issues, loss-of-spirit issues,” says Doyle. “If we had housing, they would return.” Burger King is offering a $6,000 signing bonus to anyone who will work in New Orleans for at least a year.

New Orleans will never again be the New Orleans of Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Katrina hit. But that New Orleans was not the city of 30 years ago either. There is no reason to think New Orleans will not once again be a vibrant place, but it will take time, and more time than one might have thought just a month ago. As Jim Richardson, director of the Public Administration Institute at Louisiana State University, puts it, New Orleans is not a traditional hurricane-recovery model. “It’s more like a war zone. You’re looking at a 10-year recovery, not two years.”

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