Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mayor Ray Nagin, shown here in February, tells NPR that recovery in New Orleans — including fixing the levees and bringing in investors — is "moving."
Mayor Ray Nagin, shown here in February, tells NPR that recovery in New Orleans — including fixing the levees and bringing in investors — is "moving." Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Cheryl Gerber for NPR
John Koerner, a New Orleans businessman and flood control advocate, says that the man-made waterway called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is the city's "greatest vulnerablity."
John Koerner, a New Orleans businessman and flood control advocate, says that the man-made waterway called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is the city's "greatest vulnerablity." Cheryl Gerber for NPR
Cheryl Gerber for NPR
Three months ago, the Army Corps of Engineers finally started plugging up the man-made waterway called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — also called "Mr. Go."
Three months ago, the Army Corps of Engineers finally started plugging up the man-made waterway called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — also called "Mr. Go." Cheryl Gerber for NPR
NPR started following Honeysuckle Lane in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Read previous stories on its progress — or lack thereof.
In the brackish waters east of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has finally started plugging up the man-made waterway called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — also known as "Mr. Go."
The Army Corps started work three months ago to block the canal that was built in 1965 and is sometimes called the "hurricane highway," according to John Koerner, a New Orleans businessman and flood control advocate.
"This will be a major work to protect the city of New Orleans," he said. "This is probably our greatest vulnerability at this point. It's going to be rectified to the 50-year or 2 percent storm level hopefully by August '09. And then by 2011, it will be completed to the 100-year protection."
But Mayor Ray Nagin estimated the work will be completed by June as he recently talked about the city's recovery with NPR's Robert Siegel.
Nagin said the perception and the reality that the levees are "still not where they need to be" to protect the city from floods has "hurt the pace of recovery in New Orleans East more than anything."
Once the Army Corps of Engineers has the last structure in place, Nagin said, "then you should see an explosion of investors." He also said that $700 million in federal aid for New Orleans is finally about to start flowing.
Impatient For Stability
The people who live on Honeysuckle Lane in New Orleans East are impatient for stability. Only about half the population has returned to that part of the city since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. And until the levees are certified, it's unlikely that hospitals or big businesses will return either.
Before the storm, the area had a Wal-Mart and two hospitals: Lakeland and the larger Methodist Hospital. Now there is only one supermarket to serve 60,000 people — and no hospital.
When asked whether he had any questions for the mayor, Honeysuckle Lane resident John Brown responded: "Whether they have forgotten the east part of New Orleans."
Nagin pointed out that after great disasters, recoveries typically take 10 years. In New Orleans, not even four years have passed since Katrina hit.
He also said the company that owned Methodist Hospital is willing to sell the property, but that the price has gone up from the original $8 million. The city has a letter of intent to purchase it for $40 million, Nagin said, and will have to invest another $100 million to $140 million to "get it operational."
"We hope to get that in place in the next couple of months," he said.
Addressing the lack of stores in New Orleans East, Nagin said the city gave incentives to Winn-Dixie and "a couple of other retailers" to come to the area. He noted that others haven't come because the population numbers that would show retailers it's worth the investment haven't been "clear."
He said they're clear now, and that "the retailers are coming."
Derelict Homes Dragging Down Real Estate
New Orleans East is also facing another issue: Some people are rehabilitating their homes, but others aren't — dragging down property values. Nagin says that's been a challenge to recovery efforts.
"The city and the government have cleared out all of the public space," he said. "Now we're dealing with private property owners' rights. There's a whole process you have to go through. We've had so many structures we've had to deal with. And our enforcement has to sweep the entire city and come back again and start the process of fines and what have you, and adjudication. We've been fairly assertive about trying to demolish as many homes as we can when they become a nuisance to the neighborhood."
Nagin added that the city established a "Lot Next Door" program that allows some people to take ownership of adjacent properties. "So, we're trying to address it a couple of different ways," he said.
"The thing I can tell anyone out in New Orleans East is this recovery is moving, the pace is going to pick up," Nagin says. "And total, when you look at the Corps of Engineers and everything that's out there, including the private sector — it's over $20 billion worth of construction. [Homeowners] know from building their own homes that that takes a little time.
"You should start to see, touch and feel unprecedented construction, and their neighborhoods will come back bigger, better and stronger."