Sunday, August 19, 2007

The City the US Forgot

Although the blog post itself is a couple months old, it gives a flavor for what post-Katrina New Orleans is like:
Something like 200,000 of the displaced people are still unable to go home. Beyond the damage to the culture, the ongoing human suffering overwhelmed me: people paying mortgages and taxes on their destroyed homes while they are stuck in shelters in other states - two years after the disaster - trying to clean up and rebuild their lives, but being prevented from doing so.

In the days I spent there last week, I could almost believe there was a conspiracy to keep residents from coming home. Things preventing people from rebuilding their homes include:

- Promised government funding that hasn't come through.
- Inadequate compensation by government (I saw a house that was purchased for $200,000 just before Katrina; the house was destroyed by a nearby faulty levee, so the government must compensate the owners, except the government will only pay $70,000 for the house and land, which is less than the mortgage).
- Government incompetence. (FEMA paid contractors $44/ton to remove debris. The contractors subcontracted for $34/ton. The subcontractors hired locals at $9/ton to do the work.)
- Insurance companies refusing to compensate people (most people had flood insurance, as well as regular home insurance).
- Water, sanitation, electricity and other infrastructure that are still unavailable in some areas.
- Confusion around new building regulations.
- Levees that are still not safe.
- No progress in getting rid of the MR GO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), a useless canal that was the cause of much of the flooding.
- Problems with pumps and with flood prevention procedures.

Out in the affected neighborhoods I saw thousands of empty, wrecked houses, some still furnished but made toxic by mold; a boat stuck in a house roof; a car floating in the lake; ruined roads; piles of debris; block after deserted block.
Well, there has been some development, but not in a way that benefits those displaced:
The Disneyfication of New Orleans seems to be well under way, with more tourist glitz on top of less authentic culture, but the seedy side is also greatly on the rise. Bourbon Street is worse than ever, a place for drunk college boys looking for the sleaziest of strip clubs. The murder rate has skyrocketed, making New Orleans the murder capital of the US. Until two weeks ago there wasn't even a forensic lab in the city after Katrina. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "wide open city."
If you read the rest, you'll find that there are folks still trying to rebuild, but it seems largely a DIY endeavor - and it may well be varying DIY approaches that will be necessary for survival in any community visited by natural or human-made disaster. Of course the assertion remains that NOLA's situation was less the result of Mother Nature (the worst of Katrina bypassed the city) and more the result of decades of US government neglect of the levees, waterways, and marshlands in and around NOLA. Two years later, there is still a diaspora, and little sign that the Lower Ninth Ward will receive any substantial assistance from a government that never really gave a damn to begin with.

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