Varying Rates of Progress Seen in Katrina Recovery
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
It's been more than five months since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. Across the region, the recovery is mixed. Some New Orleans neighborhoods are back, but the picture there is mostly one of devastation.
In Mississippi, where some communities actually saw more of Katrina's fury, the pace of rebuilding is accelerating. NPR's Greg Allen reports on why some areas are recovering more quickly than others.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
On the blocks in Bay Saint Louis closest to the Gulf, the scene is hardly encouraging. Huge piles of rubble are the only indication of where houses once stood. A block or two inland, where resident Tom Williams lives, there are more signs of life.
Mr. TOM WILLIAMS (Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi resident): There's quite a bit of roofing going on, and there's some, a couple new houses that's been put up. Somebody told me there was about 15 or 18 new permits let out by the city. So, people are rebuilding.
ALLEN: A few blocks away, Chuck Hill is cutting and laying ceramic floor tile in a one-story duplex, that, like nearly every house in Bay Saint Louis, was flooded by Katrina's storm surge. Hill says in this house, renovations are nearly complete.
Mr. CHUCK HILL (Construction worker, Mississippi): The guy I work for, he put the new roof on, did some other structural stuff. Did drywall, painted it. It's almost ready for it to be lived in, probably about a week and a half, it can be lived in.
ALLEN: This house is further along than most, but throughout Bay Saint Louis, rebuilding is under way. And many residents, like Barbara LeMoine(ph), are living next to their houses in FEMA-issued trailers.
LeMoine says volunteers from Baptist churches have already gutted and cleared out her house. They're coming back soon, she says, to replace the roof and begin putting up sheetrock. Although her home received more than six feet of water, LeMoine says many of her prized antiques survived.
Ms. BARBARA LEMOINE (Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi resident): Because it was a tidal surge coming in, it wasn't like in New Orleans. My things didn't just sit there in the water, it went back out. So, they had time, you know, to dry out. So, I'm getting to save, like, my king-sized canopy bed, and some hutches, and my dining table, which is an antique, and things like that.
ALLEN: But just 60 miles away, across the Louisiana state line in New Orleans, things are completely different. In the Gentilly neighborhood, block after block of homes sit empty; mostly gutted, but with little rebuilding going on. There are few signs of life in the area.
Freddy Pellegrin(ph) has been driving in from his mother's home in Chauvin each day to work on clearing out his house.
Mr. FREDDIE PELLEGRIN (Louisiana resident): I don't see anyone really living here. I've seen like, about three FEMA trailers here, but I don't think that they're powered up so that people can actually move into it. But there's no one really living in the neighborhood now.
ALLEN: Pellegrin is taking it slow. He's been hauling out debris and seeing which of his books he can salvage. Moving aside some debris on an interior wall, he shows the flood line.
Mr. PELLEGRIN: See, it came up to about here. You can see...
ALLEN: So what's that about, seven feet off the ground I guess?
Mr. PELLEGRIN: More like eight feet.
ALLEN: Eight feet? And how long was the water here, what do you think?
Mr. PELLEGRIN: At least three weeks. Not more than a month, but not less than three weeks.
ALLEN: In Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, and other communities along the coast, the powerful storm surge washed in, but then it washed out. Here in New Orleans, the water washed in after the levees broke, and it was weeks before crews could plug the holes and pump out the water. In the meantime, flood waters undermined foundations, corroded electrical systems, and ruined everything.
In New Orleans alone, more than 220,000 homes were destroyed; more than three times the number in the entire state of Mississippi. New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagan, says the scale of the destruction makes it an unfair comparison.
Mayor RAY NAGAN (Democrat, New Orleans): I mean, New Orleans had 61 square miles of area that was flooded. Mississippi is different. This is an urban environment. It's a bowl. We spent a lot of time pumping out water, number one, and then number two, there was a lot of time spent on what type of levy system we would actually build. And that delayed our recovery somewhat.
ALLEN: It wasn't until December, nearly four months after Katrina, that Congress and the White House committed three billion dollars to restore New Orleans' levees, convincing many that it would be safe to return to the city. Another key factor holding up rebuilding is that New Orleans is still awaiting new FEMA flood maps.
In Bay Saint Louis and other Mississippi communities, FEMA has already released preliminary maps, providing guidance on how and where rebuilding should take place. But in New Orleans, where levees and canals complicate the situation, those maps have been delayed.
Andy Kopplin, the Head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says until those maps are released, those in flooded areas who begin rebuilding are taking a big risk.
Mr. ANDY KOPPLIN (Head of Louisiana Recovery Authority): Now, we have a lot of pioneers, and there are folks in lots of neighborhoods who are back gutting their house, and who are coming back and doing what it takes to start putting their houses and their lives back together. But they're also taking a leap of faith. And hopefully, by the end of March or the beginning of April, that flood guidance from FEMA will be out, so people can, with confidence, know that they're using the best available data to rebuild.
ALLEN: But perhaps the biggest challenge facing New Orleans is that, unlike most other communities along the Gulf Coast, it can't simply rebuild bigger and better. Planners and elected officials agree that when New Orleans is rebuilt, it will be a different, smaller city. In fact, much smaller. Today, only about a third of the city's former population is once again living in New Orleans. Even after rebuilding, planners estimate the city will be just half of its former size.
That means the city itself will have to be downsized, and some residential neighborhoods may have to be raised and redeveloped. Janet Howard is the President of New Orleans Bureau of Governmental Research, a watchdog group involved in planning issues. She says downsizing is absolutely critical if New Orleans is to avoid widespread urban blight that could turn much of the city into a no-man's-land. To accomplish that, she says, the city and the state must set up a redevelopment corporation that can buy and sell properties from residents in flooded areas.
Ms. JANET R. HOWARD (President, New Orleans Bureau of Governmental Research): They need to be able to offer an alternative to people, saying, you know, we can help you out here, we'll give you some funding, but it may not be where you were before. How do you say that to somebody if you don't have a mechanism in place for funding it?
ALLEN: A plan to form a redevelopment corporation that would do just that has been proposed by Congressman Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge. People in Louisiana have rallied around the Baker plan, seeing it as a cornerstone for rebuilding. But the plan was dealt a significant setback last week when the White House said it wouldn't support it. That leaves homeowners like Freddie Pelligren in Gentilly in limbo, not knowing yet whether they should rebuild or not.
Mr. PELLIGREN: Cause you have to look at all your options. One of the options that I have is that, well, if I'm gonna rebuild, what is the Baker plan gonna offer me for the house? I think some people might be thinking of, well, let's go to another part of town that somebody might want to just sell you a lot. If you're gonna rebuild, you can buy a lot in a better neighborhood, and build there, instead.
ALLEN: Officials, business leaders, in fact, nearly everyone in New Orleans still are pinning their plans and hopes for rebuilding on the Baker Bill. They're working now on building support in Congress. But not all of the political obstacles to rebuilding come from outside of the region. New Orleans has long had a reputation for fractious, local politics, and those divisions did not go away with Hurricane Katrina.
Disputes between Mayor Nagin and members of city council have held up creation of temporary trailer parks in New Orleans necessary to bring back displaced residents to the city. And suspicions within the black community that developers have designs on their neighborhoods, led to fight that temporarily halted demolitions in the Lower 9th Ward. Susan Howell is a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.
Professor SUSAN HOWELL (Political Scientist, University of New Orleans): The city was racially polarized before Katrina. It's probably more so now, because the decisions to be made are so huge that it brings out the preexisting cleavages in the city. I think it will be an obstacle to recovery; it's already an obstacle to recovery.
ALLEN: Yet another obstacle is economic; whether residents of poor neighborhoods, many without insurance, will have the resources to rebuild. Even the most optimistic say rebuilding may not really begin in New Orleans neighborhoods until at least the summer. But before that can happen, political leaders in Washington, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans have to make some tough decisions. Among the toughest are which neighborhoods can be rebuilt, and what to say to residents of those neighborhoods which may have to be abandoned. Greg Allen, NPR News.
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