New Orleans making strides, but a full recovery is a long ways off

A mud-caked Nativity rests on a shelf inside a flooded house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
A mud-caked Nativity rests on a shelf inside a flooded house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

NEW ORLEANS - As they waited for an evacuation bus ride out of this wrecked city two years ago, four close neighbors - three elderly, one mentally challenged - vowed to one day return to the home they love, a place serenely named Peace Lake Towers, which had been battered and flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

"We'll get back," Myrtle Day promised as she sat in the hot sun, several days after the Aug. 29, 2005 storm, without a clue where she and her friends, Margaret Bickham, Barbara Clark and Ulysses Robinson, would land.

All they knew, Robinson said then, was that "we'll be together" ... through it all.

But that was when they thought New Orleans would bounce back; before they realized that, even now, nearly half of the city's hospitals and medical clinics remain shuttered, the police are still working out of FEMA trailers, schools are hurting and officials are worried the city's ancient network of water pipes may soon spring a major leak.

Of the four friends, only Clark, 49, a grocery store bagger, has returned to New Orleans.

Day, now 83, lives in Arlington, Texas; Bickham, 78, is in Austin, Texas; and Robinson, 81, lives in Baker, La., 91 miles northwest of New Orleans.

For them, the thought of returning only brings back memories of a horrific time when they struggled through the chaos of Katrina.

"I don't want to go back to New Orleans to live. It was too scary for me," Day said. "I never want to go through that again. I don't want to risk my life there," she said.

Experts say she has a reason for concern.

The Brookings Institution, in a comprehensive analysis of the state of affairs in the New Orleans area, found that available medical care is lagging - in a place where people are hurting, mentally and physically, because of the lasting ravages of the storm - and that police protection is not up to par.

Sixty-six percent of the city's "pre-Katrina" population has returned, "but only 40 percent of students have returned to New Orleans public schools," with an even smaller percentage of them black students, the report said.

Here's a look at some of the key indicators in the city's rebuilding effort:

—FLOOD PROTECTION — It has been predicted that it will cost between $2 billion and $4 billion to rebuild New Orleans' flood protection system to a "minimal" 100-year level, with better floodgates, pumps and walls. To actually guard against the most dangerous "Category 5" hurricanes will cost "much, much more," said a panel of experts, called "Team Louisiana," that was assembled by Louisiana State University.

In June 2006, Congress allocated $3.1 billion to the cause, including $170 million for "armoring" the levees with materials such as concrete slabs and "wire baskets filled with rock."

There is also talk about somehow doing away with the manmade 76-mile ship channel, which connects New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, because some believe the little-used channel can actually track the brute of a storm into the heart of the city, like a "hurricane highway."

The Corp of Engineers has predicted that work will not be completed until at least 2010, leaving residents in the "Big Easy" to worry about what will happen if another powerful hurricane hits before then.

— MEDICAL CARE — Before the storm, New Orleans had 23 major hospitals and other medical facilities. According to the Brookings report, as of last month, 10 remain closed, including acute-care hospitals, psychiatric clinics and long-term disability and rehabilitation facilities. The slow recovery in the availability of health care is especially disturbing since "the New Orleans area struggles with (an) increased prevalence of mental illness, acute conditions and death."

St. Bernard Parish, among the hardest hit by Katrina, still does not have a single hospital in operation.

— THE JUSTICE SYSTEM — "Crime remains unacceptably high in the city, eliciting real and legitimate concerns from residents and business owners," the report said. The reasons are "multi-faceted, not just limited to the level of policing," but one "critical aspect" is that officers continue to work out of stations that remain in disrepair from Katrina.

Police headquarters, two sub-stations, and departments such as traffic enforcement, recruiting, special operations and the juvenile division continue to work out of FEMA trailers.

Crucial evidence in criminal prosecution cases is also kept in trailers, unprotected "in the event of a significant wind event," and the city's all-important crime lab is only "partially functional." Such conditions, which include little space to interrogate suspects in crimes and interview victims, "undermines the quality" of police officers in a city where they are badly needed.

— PUBLIC SCHOOLS — Seventy percent of students have returned to classrooms in the metropolitan area, but that number drops to 40 percent in New Orleans itself, where fewer than half the schools have re-opened. An even smaller percentage of black students have returned to city classrooms, while a greater number of Hispanic students are attending schools in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

Disturbingly, the report said, "student achievement has declined across the region, likely reflecting stresses and learning interruptions related to the disaster."

— JOBS AND EMPLOYERS — Hurricane Katrina washed away 118,500 jobs in the New Orleans area, primarily in the fields of health care, education and tourism, and 4,000 businesses were shuttered. In the past 10 months, 17,000 of those jobs have been regained, putting the area's job force at 80 percent of what it was before the storm. The most available data shows that in the fall of 2006, 72 percent of the employer base had returned in the city and 85 percent had returned in the area.

Recovery efforts have fueled job opportunities and have "helped push wages upward since the storm in almost all categories." Wages for professional and technical services have increased a "whopping 53 percent," construction wages have "skyrocketed by 41 percent," earnings for food and "accommodation" services have increased 23 percent and health care wages jumped 28 percent.

— HOUSING — More than 5,500 housing units have been demolished in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, 91 percent of them in Orleans Parish, a central part of the city that was among the hardest hit by the storm and subsequent flooding. During the first year after Katrina, only 205 permits had been issued to rebuild housing units. By last June, however, an additional 2,200 new housing units had been approved.

Home prices have increased 25 percent in places where recovery efforts are strong, and housing is in short supply, while areas of continued devastation, such as in the hard-hit 9th Ward, home prices have dropped as much as 40 percent.

— ECONOMY — Before Katrina, New Orleans garnered average sales tax revenue of $13.3 million a month. The month after the hurricane, the revenue had plummeted to $1.1 million. But this year the monthly average has risen to $11.2 million, a respectable rebound considering the city still has fewer people living there than before the storm.

— TOURISM — Revelers who attended this year's Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest paid the city $3.4 million in hotel sales taxes, a 25 percent drop from when those events took place in 2005, before Katrina. Officials, however, consider the added revenue an encouraging sign that the tourist trade is returning.

— WATER SYSTEM — New Orleans has an ancient network of water pipes, prompting fears that a major leak could cause a significant city-wide drop in pressure and contaminate tap water. A failure to address the city's "leaking water system" could hamper efforts to put out fires, the report said.

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