November 9, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans

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Rami Chami is a former editor at the Indiana Daily Student. He graduated from Indiana University in August and was to begin his graduate studies at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Since then, he has been taking classes at Cornell. He returned to New Orleans on October 28 to collect his belongings and survey the city’s recovery process.

The last time I left New Orleans I was being evacuated on the back of a military truck that was navigating through the city’s flooded streets against a backdrop of war-like destruction. Two months after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, I returned to New Orleans for a brief visit. I was both impressed and disheartened by what I saw in terms of the city’s recovery. The ferocity of the hurricane is still clearly evident two months later. Fallen trees, fences and parts of houses are common sight. Blue plastic tarp covers the damaged roofs of several homes. Thousands of refrigerators line the streets of residential neighborhoods. The food within these discarded refrigerators has rotted so dramatically during weeks without electricity that the refrigerators have to be sealed shut with duct tape and disposed of by the city. City Park and Lafreniere Park have been converted to vast dumping grounds for fallen trees and branches that are now being churned into wood chips.

Evidence of the flooding that affected 80 percent of the city is widespread. In the districts that flooded, orange spray-painted markings on the front of every building are a reminder of the grim task city officials went through while searching for corpses and gives these parts of the city a surreal feeling. On the street side, unclaimed cars that flooded sit caked in a ghostly white film.

Insulation, floor panels, sheetrock, carpets and mattresses from the gutted interiors of houses whose residents have started to rebuild are piled on street corners waiting to be collected and disposed of. Small boats that had been used to navigate deep within the city during the flooding that exceeded 15 feet of water in some places now lay awkwardly on dry land by the side of major thoroughfares. On St. Claude Ave. and Elysian Fields Ave. the hauls of a few burnt-out buildings and cars attest to fires that raged unchallenged in the aftermath of the storm. Few traffic lights work in the city and most intersections operate as four way stops.

The infrastructural, economic, and social devastation and disruption created by Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding is literally colossal. Katrina resulted in the largest metropolitan diaspora in U.S. history. Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, which is the largest private employer in New Orleans, estimated during a speech in New York City on October 29 that only 11 percent of the city’s pre-storm population of 468,000 remained or had returned. Located in the less affected Uptown District, Tulane University had to cancel classes for their fall semester, but President Cowen plans to have the university up and running again in January 2006. He hopes that within the next one to two years the city’s population will increase to about 200,000 or 43 percent of its original size.

Some parts of the city appear to have made remarkable progress in their recovery or were fortunately relatively unscathed by the storm and subsequent flooding. Without conducting extensive investigation, the rehabilitation of the Central Business District and the nearby touristy French Quarter appear very impressive. The world famous 143-year old Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street reopened on October 19 and display an outdoor banner that proudly proclaims “The Beignets are Back” in reference to their signature treat. Aside from the unusually small number of people walking on the streets and customers at cafes and restaurants, there is a feeling of considerable normality in these parts of town.

However, further away from the downtown area a smaller percentage of businesses appear to have reopened, especially in the areas that were heavily flooded. I can only guess a few reasons for this: business owners may not have returned, stores and their wares may have sustained significant damage, or the businesses don’t have a large enough customer base to justify reopening yet. Due to the combination of closed businesses, lost employment, and financial disruption free food and water are still distributed at 11 Red Cross food distribution sites throughout the city and the Salvation Army uses canteen trucks to carry out direct food deliveries to some areas.

During my visit I stayed in the Bywater area of the Upper Ninth Ward in the eastern part of New Orleans. There are still police-manned entry checkpoints from 8 p.m. to dawn in that area, and non-residents are not allowed to pass through at night. As of late October there were parts of the decimated Lower Ninth Ward that were restricted to civilian access. There is still a military presence in the city; military humvees and trucks drive back and forth during the day and I was told by a resident of the Bywater area that the military conduct patrols there at night. Nearby where I was staying a group of local firefighters work out of a church cafeteria building because their station had been destroyed. Not far from the makeshift fire station is a stretch of road that was painted with the word “HELP” in 10 foot tall letters during the flooding and a house with the warning “You loot, you dead” spray-painted on it.

I attended a bilingual English and Spanish service at the Blessed Francis Seelos Parish Church with my host. The roof of the historic church sustained damage during the storm and some of the beautiful stained-glass windows had been blown in. During the service Father Joseph Benson spoke of members of his parish who despite losing their homes, belongings and jobs kept coming to him and asking how they could help other people in the community.

In parts of the city, civilian volunteers from other parts of the U.S. can be spotted. Some of them proudly wear t-shirts with the name of their respective organization or church and words to the tune of “Disaster Relief Volunteer” printed in large letters.

A lot of commercial rehabilitation and reconstruction activity is going on in various parts of the city. Street signs and posters near demolition, cleanup and reconstruction crews advertise $10 per hour wages and immediate employment. Several restaurants and stores are advertising position openings on their windows.

It appears to me that community support, volunteerism and business opportunity will play as significant a role, if not an even larger role, than government assistance in the uneven recovery of this city. Yet, despite all the construction work and recent progress there are parts of the city that seem starkly lifeless and neglected.

The future of New Orleans and its former and current residents is vague to me. I have no doubt that a significant proportion of the city will be rebuilt and repopulated in the next few years, but the demographic make up, rates of district recovery, social and economic vitality, as well as the future population size of the city will only be known with time. As of now there are still residents in the city who face various adversities and who continue to suffer incredible personal, family, and financial disruption. Some of the minor hurdles faced by some of the city’s residents include few convenience stores being opened in the residential areas and residents having to travel considerable distances to get food and water with the limited aid of the city’s now-crippled public transportation system. Some city residents never owned personal modes of transportation and others lost their vehicles in the storm. Another issue is that not all the residents who have returned have had their home gas heating restored and evenings in the city can be cold. Average daily low temperatures in New Orleans in November and December are expected to be 52 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit respectively.

The vast majority of New Orleans’ residents remain scattered across the Un
ited States. Some people never left the city, others have returned to rebuild and will soon be followed by more. A fortunate number of people may find their homes intact, while others have nothing to return to. Some will choose to settle in new cities.

People who have never lived in New Orleans may decide to move there and take advantage of various housing and job opportunities. All these people are more important than the physical city of New Orleans itself, and I hope their needs and future aspirations are assessed and addressed through means that are satisfactory to them. That is a tall order and one that I fear will likely be ignored.

Archived article by Rami Chami
Special to The Sun