Competing Interests Stall New Orleans' Recovery

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As the year draws to a close, we'll take look at where recovery efforts stand in New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods that soaked more than 80 percent of the city. Federal, state and local officials are still working out competing interests as the rebuilding effort tries to take shape.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's likely no American city was more ready to put 2005 behind it than New Orleans. The fury of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding it caused destroyed much of the Crescent City to the point where many have wondered if it can ever fully recover. Those who've decided to return face a host of challenges: Debris must be removed, neighborhoods rebuilt, power turned on, and that's just for starters. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

From a population standpoint--and many others, for that matter--New Orleans is just a shell of the city it once was. Before Katrina, nearly half a million people lived here, but now officials say just 65,000 or so are making it their full-time home. And as it turns out, that's actually plenty for nurse Helen Ruez(ph) and her overworked staff in the emergency room of Truro Infirmary, the city's only working adult hospital.

Ms. HELEN RUEZ (Nurse): They say the population is only 60,000 people in New Orleans. It can't be. If they are, they're all sick because all of the hospitals are just bursting at the seams.

BURBANK: With an ample supply of work, the daytime population does get up to around 150,000, which might account for some of the strain. But the bigger problem is lack of hospital staff.

Mr. CHRIS EICHAMINA(ph) (Nurse): Ed, you got the chart?

BURBANK: You see, Truro has plenty of beds but not enough people to tend them. That's means lots of improvising for nurses like Chris Eichamina.

Mr. EICHAMINA: Just treating them in the halls, treating them in triage, wherever we can. It's field triage, you know; you do it where they're at.

BURBANK: And it's unlikely things will get better until some of the city's other hospitals get up and running, something that could still be months away.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mrs. JERRI LOMAX(ph) (Oschner): Good boy.

BURBANK: Jerri Lomax works as an administrator at Oshner, a hospital and clinic in neighboring Jefferson Parish. She slept at Oshner for a period after the storm so she could help out in the ER. Her husband David thinks that might have been part of why they were lucky enough to get a FEMA trailer, which is parked in front of their ruined house in the Lakeview neighborhood.

Mr. DAVID LOMAX: It takes about eight seconds to tour this mansion. On the south wing is the bedroom, which is a whopping eight feet wide. But it has a shower stall, a toilet facility.

BURBANK: Currently there are only about 1,600 such trailers in use in New Orleans, even though FEMA has some 17,000 additional units ready to go. The communities, including a country club where large numbers of the trailers were supposed to go, have balked at the idea. Mayor Ray Nagin has declared himself the ultimate authority on the locations, but the City Council is putting up a fight. Nobody's fighting the Lomaxes(ph) because, well, nobody else is around.

Mrs. LOMAX: And you just don't see your neighbors or any green trees, any green grass. It's just all dirt and mud, you know, and that can get a little depressing. But we were lucky in that I still have my job and we have a trailer.

BURBANK: A cozy unit they share with two dogs and a fierce cluster of mosquitoes.

(Soundbite of swatting noise; laughter)

Mrs. LOMAX: Ooh.

Mr. LOMAX: Oh, he had been fed.

Mrs. LOMAX: Probably by me.

Mr. LOMAX: Oh, all right. What a bloody mess. There you go.

Mrs. LOMAX: OK.

(Soundbite of swatting noise; generator)

BURBANK: The not-so-gentle hum of a generator whirs 22 hours a day. The couple estimates they're spending $900 a month just on gasoline. Entergy, New Orleans' bankrupt electric utility, says it can't make any promises to the 15 percent of New Orleanians who are still in the dark until a bankruptcy judge gives it the go-ahead. Standing in the darkness outside the trailer, it's easy to feel like the rest of the world has forgotten about you.

Mr. LOMAX: At night you can see the lights from Metairie, where civilization has resumed. And just to the southwest, there's an office tower; the lights from that at night serve like a lighthouse. And other than that, it's the stars; you can even see some of the satellites if you know how to look for them. And it's nice and quiet.

BURBANK: At least when it's dark you can't see the piles and piles of debris that still block the sidewalks and yards in the neighborhood. Even though the Army Corps of Engineers have been working day and night, they've still only removed a fraction of the 45 million cubic yards they estimate the storm created.

Many people are also waiting to see what happens with the city's levees before they return. Bill Curl has no such reservations about the future of the city or the Louisiana Superdome, which is where he happens to be on about the 50-yard line.

Mr. BILL CURL (Superdome Spokesman): Now, look, we're standing in one of the greatest buildings in the world. And I'd suggest to you if the Tower of Pisa leaned another inch, would they tear it down? I mean, yeah, we took some damage here, but we're going to put this baby back together again.

BURBANK: Curl serves as the Dome's spokesman. He's quick to admit that the facility was the scene of some of the absolute darkest hours of the disaster. Even with its grim history, Curl thinks fans will come back. Last week it was announced that the Saints will play at least part of next season in the Superdome. With crews working at a fevered pace, the hope is that the building can be functional in time.

Unidentified Man #1: United 601 Abernathy(ph).

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Unidentified Man #1: 10218 Pressburg(ph).

Unidentified Man #2: Right here.

BURBANK: Just across from the Superdome, surrounded by a chain-link fence and guards, are a series of low-slung, temporary buildings that, if not for the generally pleasant people walking in and out of them, would feel a little like a work camp. It's actually a temporary processing center for the Postal Service. With roughly 100,000 homes uninhabitable, only half the city has enough residents to justify home delivery. For the rest, like 61-year-old Willie Solomon, that means making a trip here to get her mail, mail that doesn't include magazines and sometimes comes late.

Ms. WILLIE SOLOMON (New Orleans Resident): No, I'm gonna tell you what you get on time now: the energy bill (laughs). You get the energy bill, you get the water bill, you get the phone bill, but you don't have to pay it because you don't have a phone.

BURBANK: Most people seem happy to wait, though, appreciating the normalcy of something as mundane as getting a credit card bill addressed to them. Willie Solomon knows it could be a long time before her mail is hand-delivered to her home in the Ninth Ward, but she says she's fine with that.

Ms. SOLOMON: Put it this way: If the world wasn't built in one day, then that's going to take a while to get here. You don't have everybody back working for the post office. People are just beginning to start coming back in.

BURBANK: And as those people slowly come back, they'll start to gut their houses, which will mean more debris; their kids will need to go to school, only a handful of which will be open. And if they happen to hurt themselves, they'll end up at one of the area's few hospitals, like Truro Infirmary. There's no question New Orleans needs its residents back if it's to survive. The question is if the city will be able to handle them once they're here. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to NPR News.

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