Pay heed to New Orleans’ plight: Next time, it could be your town

Published 12:28 am Monday, August 27, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE — Brian Schwaner is the Louisiana news editor for The Associated Press, based in New Orleans. A New Orleans native whose family traces its roots in Louisiana to the 1760s, Schwaner is a graduate of East Jefferson High School in suburban Metairie and the University of New Orleans. Much of his career in journalism has been spent covering culture, politics and business in Louisiana. He joined AP in 2006 from The Cincinnati Enquirer, where he was assistant managing editor/business.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is my hometown.

And it’s dying.

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Despite billions of dollars in aid, recovery programs with catchy names and an outpouring of volunteer effort, New Orleans is not recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Beyond the happy mayhem of the French Quarter, entire neighborhoods are in ruins and the business district sags from the shattered economy. Thousands of people are homeless and squatting in vacant and storm-damaged properties, some just a few blocks from City Hall.

More than 160,000 residents never returned. For those who did dare to come back home, little resembles normalcy.

For the people with the power to save it, New Orleans is a forgotten place.

It’s a national disgrace. People should pay attention. The next time, it could be your town.


Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and laying waste to the Mississippi coast. The feared worst-case storm lived up to every promise of horror.

Local, state and federal disaster officials bungled the rescue effort from the start, but in the city’s darkest hour a presidential promise offered hope.

Barely two weeks after Katrina, President Bush stood in deserted Jackson Square before the majestic, eerily lit St. Louis Cathedral and pledged the nation to a massive reconstruction effort.

“When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm,” Bush said. Earlier, Bush told relief volunteers that government would be the solution, not the problem. “Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people,” he said.

Nearly two years later, New Orleans is neither better nor stronger, and a bureaucratic stranglehold is choking off its recovery.

From a tinted window 25 stories above the New Orleans business district, I can see the city rotting from the inside out.

Across the street, Dominion Tower, once bustling with office workers and sprinkled with upscale retailers, is abandoned.

The adjacent Hyatt Hotel, where Super Bowl, Sugar Bowl and NCAA Final Four fans relaxed, also is empty.

Rows of camouflaged Humvees wait in a nearby parking lot for the military police who patrol lawless neighborhoods.

Just out of sight are wastelands where people live in cramped trailers or try to rebuild as best they can.

The only attention the city gets these days is as a campaign prop for some of the presidential contenders.

Among citizens, there is anger. There should be. For those who see New Orleans as someone else’s agony, a caution: This kind of governmental and political nonchalance could greet you at your most dire moment.

The main program to help homeowners rebuild from Katrina — the $8 billion federally funded, state-administered and inaptly named Road Home _ is going broke and may be short as much as $4 billion. Public schools, firehouses, police stations and transit routes are closed. Hospitals have not returned to normal capacity, and those that are open say they are losing millions of dollars providing medical care for the poor. There is little political will to build a levee system that would prevent the kind of flooding Katrina caused.

Federal, state and city officials can’t even agree on priorities, or get aid dollars to where they are needed now. Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and White House recovery director Don Powell play a blame game for the failed recovery. There are even whispers among the leaders of the effort that the city’s problems are overblown.

They are dead wrong.


If Katrina was the perfect storm, New Orleans was the perfect victim. Political corruption and incompetence in city government and an anemic economy made the city as vulnerable to turmoil as the levees that failed.

Sadly, the situation has worsened, and many of the leaders New Orleans must count on are fading from the scene or mired in scandal.

Take, for example, the representatives closest to the seats of power. U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has been charged in an alleged international bribery scheme. He has denied wrongdoing. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been caught up in a Washington sex scandal. Blanco has thrown in the towel and isn’t running for re-election following the failure of state-led recovery programs and largely ineffective pleas to Congress for more aid.

Even the city’s emerging leadership was dealt a shock when City Councilman Oliver Thomas, seen as one of the “good guys” of the recovery effort and maybe a future mayor, pleaded guilty this month to federal bribery charges,

Meanwhile, the police chief and district attorney are feuding while the city grapples with a murder rate that is the worst per capita in the nation.

Even the mayor may be checking out. Nagin is raising money to campaign for a new political office _ perhaps governor or congressman, he won’t say which. With three years left on his term, the city needs his undivided attention.

President Bush, the city’s self-declared savior, has been here 10 times since Katrina, half the visits in the first six weeks after the storm. In the past year, as the true scope of the failure of the recovery unfolded, Bush visited only twice. The city didn’t even get a mention in his State of the Union address last January.


Many of the 270,000 people now living in New Orleans wonder how the nation can spend a half-trillion dollars in Iraq while this city remains wrecked.

“I can’t believe this is the United States and after so long, so much is still not fixed,” said Melanie Ehrlich, a Tulane University researcher. “It’s scandalous, unforgivable.”

It’s worse than that.

Not far from the Ehrlich home, the 6000 block of Paris Avenue is deserted. Weeds obscure gutted houses. Gruesome gang-like symbols painted on their doors tell cryptic tales of what rescuers found when they pushed through Katrina’s floodwater.

“It’s like looking at the rapture,” said the Rev. Jeremy Evans, 31, as he gazed out from the nearby Edgewater Baptist Church. Like the biblical call of the faithful to Heaven, people seem to have vanished.

Paris Avenue is not an exception. Hard-hit neighborhoods across the city could rot for years at the mercy of process-oriented bureaucrats.

Ilene Powell has had her fill of it.

Powell’s home in Lakeview was hit hard by Katrina’s flood. She applied to Road Home for a rebuilding grant, then spent 16 months in a maddening process of confusing paperwork, interviews and phone calls. Like thousands of others, she is shaken by the experience. “Just who are the rocket scientists running this mess?” she quips.

Actually, New Orleans does have rocket scientists at the Lockheed-Martin plant that serves the space shuttle program. But the remainder of its economy is shaky.

Perhaps taking cues from the leaderless, chaotic recovery, a crisis of confidence has tainted the local corporate contingent. Companies have heaped charitable contributions on the city, but some are pulling jobs out. There are murmurs that more may do so. Companies have a hard time getting executives to transfer here. Meanwhile, a University of New Orleans poll showed public sentiment is so bad that 29 percent of the current resident population may leave.

America should not allow New Orleans to die a slow death.

“No one in government has a true sense of the reality of what is happening here,” Powell observed.

A great American city is withering. The people with power must be made to care.

And you should care — that it could be your hometown that is abandoned when the crisis is yours.