Basic Services Stall New Orleans Recovery New Orleans is working hard to get back on its feet, but its inhabitants -- including residents of Honeysuckle Lane -- continue to be frustrated with the lack of electricity, water and other basic services.
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Basic Services Stall New Orleans Recovery

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Basic Services Stall New Orleans Recovery

Basic Services Stall New Orleans Recovery

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Last week, I was in New Orleans checking on the city's progress. Here's the lead. It is a sluggish discouraging effort. The people laboring to make New Orleans habitable once again are more often than not homeless themselves. It's a city full of people with fatigue showing in their eyes. Every hour, someone tells you what the big problem is, but you seldom hear about a big solution.

We've been focusing on one street, Honeysuckle Lane. It's in the built-up wetlands called New Orleans East, a part of the city that was developed in the 1970s and '80s, a destination for black flight from the west side of the city. It is neither historic, like the French Quarter, nor opulent like the Garden District, nor was it quite so devastated as the nearby Lower Ninth Ward.

Honeysuckle Lane is a middle-class street a few blocks south of the levee that keeps Lake Pontchartrain in its place. Being near the water was a plus when it came to flooding. The land gets lower the further you go away from the lakeshore, but the elevation didn't help when Katrina's winds blew in.

Mr. JOHN BROWN(ph): I was one of the luckier people out here in the east.

SIEGEL: John Brown's duplex on Honeysuckle has an upstairs bedroom with the roof peeled off. Now it's more like a porch, and then there are the two chimneys on the north side, the backside of the building, one for each unit of the duplex.

Mr. BROWN: You can see the back of the house here.

SIEGEL: Whoa.

Mr. BROWN: See the duplex here.

SIEGEL: That's your neighbor's half that really took it, huh?

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. Right.

SIEGEL: Oh, my gosh, the chimney is just...

Mr. BROWN: See the chimney--right.

SIEGEL: ...caved right in.

Mr. BROWN: Just caved in and it caved in the roof inside of the house.

SIEGEL: An insurance adjuster has seen it and Mr. Brown has a contractor lined up. He's looking at an $80,000 rebuilding project. He is a 60-year-old divorcee who's retired from the veterans' hospital. He's a former college golfer, and, before Katrina, he was living the life of one day a week he worked as a golf course marshal at the nearby Eastover Country Club in exchange for six days of playing there. He says he shoots in the 70s.

Mr. BROWN: They say another year or so before they can possibly get one of the golf courses in operation.

SIEGEL: The grounds took such a beating from all this.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, they took a beating, the greens and fairways.

SIEGEL: If everyone comes back to Honeysuckle Lane, John Brown says he's coming back, but not if he's just one of a couple of residents. There are now several homes on the street whose contents are piled at the curb waiting to be carted. That's progress. But no one can live here yet. Water service is rare, there's no electricity for miles, and, at the local malls, there's nothing open. We looked through the wind-ripped bay doors of a Midas auto repair shop. The brown sludge on the walls reminds you how high the floodwater stood. The owner is John DeVincent(ph).

Mr. JOHN DeVINCENT (Owner, Midas Shop): We took about six feet.

SIEGEL: Six feet of water.

Mr. DeVINCENT: Unbelievable.

SIEGEL: What do you think's going to become of that store in New Orleans East?

Mr. DeVINCENT: I could only hope in due time that's the ...(unintelligible) that will repopulate. It'll become a viable store, but I think it's a five-year time frame and that could even be conservative.

SIEGEL: The New Orleans East shop was John DeVincent's expansion project in the 1990s. Twenty-five years ago, he took over his first Midas shop from his grandfather. It's on Canal Street near the center of New Orleans, where the city at least has a pulse, if not a very vigorous one.

(Soundbite of men talking)

SIEGEL: Last week, some workers were still cleaning the Canal Street shop up. John DeVincent says he could handle more business on Canal Street if there were more people with cars and if he had some of his seven employees back.

Mr. DeVINCENT: No one has returned. We find it so odd. We even gave them a bonus to retain them after the storm, thinking that that would help retain them, but what they did was they just took the bonus and evaporated.

SIEGEL: What you're describing in terms of your business is a labor shortage.

Mr. DeVINCENT: The problem is there's no one to advertise to. There's nobody at their homes.

SIEGEL: But for a worker to come here and work on Canal Street in New Orleans or some day conceivably at your place in New Orleans East, workers have got to live some place.

Mr. DeVINCENT: That's the problem, too. There's no housing. It's the chicken-or-the-egg scenario.

SIEGEL: You hear a lot about chickens and eggs in New Orleans nowadays. Who comes back first, the schoolchildren or the school, the doctor or the patient? One thing is for sure. The creditors are there before the customers.

Mr. DeVINCENT: No income but here are all your bills, and that's what we're faced with right now, massive bills and no income.

SIEGEL: Well, some people who have massive bills and no income seek the protection of the courts and they declare bankruptcy.

Mr. DeVINCENT: I don't want to do that. It goes against everything that--I'm going to try and pay my creditors.

SIEGEL: Such reticence did not inhibit the local power company, Entergy New Orleans. It is now in Chapter 11, working with a $200 million loan from its parent company, Entergy Corporation. The bankrupt local utility is not winning the hearts and minds of its customers.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): Testing. Let me just welcome everyone for another one of our series of town hall meetings.

SIEGEL: At last week's New Orleans town meeting, chaired by Mayor Ray Nagin, one New Orleans East homeowner, Dennis Scott(ph), vented his fury at Entergy, posing the question on everyone's mind.

Mr. DENNIS SCOTT (Homeowner, New Orleans East): When will there be power for people to come home? OK? We can't even start rebuilding our homes until we have power. So Entergy needs to be placed on the carpet. I know they're having some financial difficulties, but we're talking about a Fortune 500 company here who's talking about they're working on a $200 million loan. We've got thousands of people spread out throughout the United States who wants to come home, but Entergy say we don't have power. The basic necessities--Entergy, you need to be, I hate to say it, shot.

SIEGEL: Dennis Scott later apologized for that last remark. His city councilwoman had told him there would be no power until summer. Entergy now says otherwise.

Mr. ROD WEST (Executive, Entergy): All of the East will have power before the end of the year.

SIEGEL: That's Rod West, the Entergy executive in charge of restoration. On Tuesday of this week, that's a few days after we spoke with him, Entergy New Orleans, under pressure from the city council, announced that it is doubling the number of workers restoring electricity. After it went to bankruptcy court at the end of September, the company sent home hundreds of out-of-town utility workers. So work actually slowed down. Again, Rod West.

Mr. WEST: We're managing this restoration effort with the resources that are available to us, keeping in mind that Entergy New Orleans, that is the company that manages the New Orleans area, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain this, though, to people who don't understand how utilities work here. Entergy New Orleans is in Chapter 11.

Mr. WEST: That's correct.

SIEGEL: It's a utility with about...

Mr. WEST: One hundred and ninety thousand electric customers and 146,000 gas customers.

SIEGEL: Entergy, writ large, has 2.7 million customers.

Mr. WEST: You're talking about the Entergy Corp...

SIEGEL: Yes.

Mr. WEST: ...not Entergy New Orleans, but yes.

SIEGEL: And it earned $900 million last year. How does Entergy Corporation...

Mr. WEST: Right.

SIEGEL: ...$10 billion revenue, $900 million in earnings--how does a company that's owned by that larger corporation go bankrupt?

Mr. WEST: Entergy New Orleans is a separate operating company. Entergy Corp. is only the parent company or predominant shareholder of Entergy New Orleans.

SIEGEL: And predominant shareholder of millions. It holds...

Mr. WEST: It holds the outstanding shares of the company.

SIEGEL: All of them.

Mr. WEST: Yes, it's--that's what I mean when I say a wholly owned subsidiary, yes.

SIEGEL: Even with double the crews, Entergy New Orleans faces a huge task. This is an Entergy bucket truck crew. They were on a New Orleans East levee working on a power line when we caught up with them. Fred Wallace is the supervisor.

Mr. FRED WALLACE (Entergy New Orleans Crew Supervisor): And right now, we're trying to get them up. They was down, and we're trying to get them up.

SIEGEL: This is one pole right in front of us. We've got a man up there. How long will it take to just fix this one pole?

Mr. WALLACE: Well, right now we just trying to get it up on a pole 'cause we're going to pull further down the line and--pull it, just sag it, what we call a sag in the wire.

SIEGEL: You've got a lot of poles you've got to work on.

Mr. WALLACE: Oh, yeah. I got four or five more poles to go.

SIEGEL: Fred Wallace and most of his crew have lost their homes. And the same goes for the people you see repairing the New Orleans water system. All over New Orleans, crews from the Sewerage and Water Board are doing repairs. Trees blown over by Katrina have ruptured water mains. Clean-up workers damaged them, too. Larry Davis(ph) and his crew spend their days repairing them.

Mr. LARRY DAVIS (Sewerage and Water Board Employee): Yes, we're making repairs to a outlet service. It was leaking and we have several.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you have to explain the tree was uprooted by the hurricane.

Mr. DAVIS: Yes, that's--yes, sir.

SIEGEL: And what did it do to the water supply here?

Mr. DAVIS: Yes, it caused lines to snap. And main lines--a lot of main lines have been cracked because of damage from the trees, due to the storm. And we'll try and repair as many a day as we can.

SIEGEL: How many a day do you get to work on?

Mr. DAVIS: I'll give a average six.

SIEGEL: Marcia St. Martin is executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. The Water Board has relocated to the West Bank of the city where many of its employees are still sheltered, sleeping on cots. She told us last week that New Orleans East will have water soon.

Ms. MARCIA ST. MARTIN (Executive Director, New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board): We anticipate being able to have full water services restored to all of New Orleans East and have that water to be able to be certified as drinkable within the next 25 days.

SIEGEL: But water can add insult to injury. On Honeysuckle Lane, we heard flooding inside homes last week. Water gets turned on but washing machines or refrigerators with icemakers were dislodged in the flood and ripped from the pipes or taps were left open when no water was flowing. Another problem we've learned about is crime. One resident of Honeysuckle Lane saw two men looting a neighbor's house last week. That's something the police say that they're concerned about, too.

Lieutenant KIM WILLIAMS (Seventh District of New Orleans Police Department): A lot of people are coming home and their whole house is wiped out. They complained about a lot of looting. Just make sure whenever you see somebody packing up that they can verify that they're supposed to be there.

SIEGEL: That's Lieutenant Kim Williams of the Seventh District of the New Orleans Police Department addressing her officers. Their station house was flooded, so, for weeks, they've been tenants in the most unlikely station house you've ever seen. It's called The Crystal Palace. Captain Bob Bardy is the local commander.

Captain BOB BARDY (Local Commander): This is actually a brand-new wedding reception hall owned by the Vietnamese community out here. It's very well-kept. It's swept, it's mopped, it doesn't stink...

SIEGEL: You have more chandeliers and filigree than any police station I've ever seen in my life.

Capt. BARDY: We'd really like to stay here.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Has there been any crime committed out here in the past month?

Capt. BARDY: That gentleman over there with his back to us right now was arrested today as he was part of the clean-up teams that are out here from all over the state. And he decided that while he was cleaning up he would take a safe.

SIEGEL: The suspect was cuffed to a gold brocade banquet chair. Captain Bardy says there were 15 arrests last week. Most of his officers, he says, are homeless, their families dispersed. It is almost 12 weeks since Katrina hit, and if you want to see real activity in New Orleans East, this is the only place to see it...

(Soundbite of traffic)

SIEGEL: ...the landfill. On five lanes of gravel road, dump trucks of all sizes merge to deposit the debris of life before the flood. On one field, a dozen rows of white refrigerators wrapped shut with duct tape stretch off into the distance. One cannot resist the imagery, tombs of household memories like the tombs of New Orleans cemeteries that stand aboveground. This city has not yet come back to life.

NORRIS: You can hear other stories from our visits to Honeysuckle Lane at our Web site, npr.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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