New Orleans, Mon Amour
From the March/April 2007 Issue
What’s really been happening since Hurricane Katrina? Tom Bethell, dismayed by media coverage, traveled back to the beautiful and tragic city where he once lived for a firsthand view. He found this story of rebirth.
My arrival in New Orleans—a city where I would live for a decade, working for the district attorney and writing a book about jazz—preceded by a few weeks the arrival of a hurricane called Betsy.
Betsy lingered in the Atlantic Ocean, then swooped southwest, spent two days in the Gulf of Mexico, and finally came ashore in New Orleans as a strong Category 3 storm on the night of September 9, 1965. Levees failed, and homes in parts of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, were up to their eaves in water. The hurricane caused $1.4 billion in damage—the most devastating storm in American history to that point. In Louisiana , 76 people died.
Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans the next day, shined a flashlight in the face of a startled bystander—electricity still had not been restored—and said: “This is your president, and I’m here to help.” He then flew back to Washington, his performance widely praised as the pinnacle of activism. Robert Dallek, his biographer, later said that Johnson showed he “believed in using federal authority to make the lives of people better.” By contrast, after Hurricane Katrina, a storm that bore many similarities to Betsy and made landfall almost precisely 40 years later, Dallek said that president Bush showed that “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.”
A casual reader or television viewer would surely have come to the same conclusion. The Katrina storyline, faithfully observed by the media, was that New Orleans was a victim of malign neglect. At best, Bush didn’t care. At worst, he was part of a conspiracy to drive African Americans from Louisiana and secure the state for the GOP. In a news article in December, New York Times correspondent Adam Nossiter casually mentioned “Washington’s failure to get New Orleans back on its feet.” And Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian whose book The Great Deluge was published last year, accused the federal government of “inaction” that was “deliberate.”
In fact, the federal government spent only a pittance on repairing New Orleans after Betsy, and, so far, it has committed $123 billion, according to The Washington Post, to rebuild the Gulf region and compensate residents after Katrina and a second hurricane, Rita. Adjusted for inflation, that figure is almost precisely the same as the amount the Truman administration spent on the Marshall Plan to help resurrect Europe after World War II. Certainly, the damage from Katrina, in both Louisiana and Mississippi, was immense—$81 billion is one estimate—but the notion that New Orleans had been neglected was simply wrong.
A resident of Chalmette, a part of southeastern New Orleans that was hit hard in both hurricanes, was quoted by the local journal CityBusiness as saying of the post-Betsy period: “We didn’t even see the federal government. We all worked by ourselves, on our own. Everybody helped everybody. The only federal involvement was the Small Business Administration, which made low-interest loans.”
After Betsy, the SBA approved 490 loans totaling $3.2 million. A year after Katrina, the same agency had approved 123,291 loans totaling $8.7 billion. As for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, it didn’t exist in 1965. In 2005, however, it mailed $2,000 checks and debit cards to more or less anyone who phoned a well-advertised telephone number, many more to those who didn’t, and more still to some who had already received a check.
It’s true that George W. Bush, unlike LBJ, merely flew over New Orleans after the storm and did not land in the city until two weeks later. But on the ground, in his first speech, he said, “I have asked for, and the Congress has provided, more than $60 billion. This is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis.”
It was only half of what would later be committed. By comparison, for the top three U.S. disasters before Katrina, government spending at all levels came to $16 billion for the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, $14 billion for the 2004 Florida hurricanes, and $11 billion for hurricane Andrew in 1992.
A resident of Chalmette was quoted as saying of the post-Betsy period: ‘We didn't even see the federal government. We all worked by ourselves, on our own. Everybody helped everybody.’
The Brookings Institution, which has mounted a continuing post-Katrina survey of the Gulf region, said in August that while the dollar amounts allocated for relief “appear quite large, widespread uncertainty exists over how much of this money has been spent and where.” Don Powell, the chairman of the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding office, said a week or two later that Washington had spent a total of $44 billion by the time of the Katrina anniversary.
That a great deal of allocated money still has yet to be spent should not come as a surprise, considering the way governments work. But it tells us that if recovery depends on cash, plenty more is coming.
It also tells us that the assertions of Dallek, Nossiter, and practically every other observer hardly fit the facts. But the facts did not fit the preferred plot. In the public eye, New Orleans after Katrina went from being a city hit by the sort of storm that happens maybe every 200 years to a city victimized, not so much by nature or by local hoodlums or inept officials at all levels, but by a demonic George Bush and his henchmen. If New Orleans is not yet back on its feet, then Washington—and, more specifically, Bush—is to blame.
The hectoring of Bush was incessant and soon became tiresome. It made me suspect that the reporting on the progress in New Orleans since the storm was just as biased. In December, with rebuilding underway, the 2006 hurricane season behind us, and billions beginning to pour into the city, I decided to return to New Orleans to take a look for myself.
Even before I reached my destination in the French Quarter, I heard unexpected confirmation that a flood of money was coming. Sharing my van from the airport were two young women from Boston who work for an organization called NeighborWorks America, a congressionally chartered contractor. They were attending a training conference at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street.
I said I was planning to write something about the reconstruction of New Orleans, adding that I had heard that one of the problems was a shortage of housing.
“And a shortage of housing counselors!” one woman said.
A lot of people would soon be receiving “very large checks” from the government, she added, and this would be an unprecedented and hazardous experience. They would need counseling—to encourage them to decide wisely and so on.
I tried to imagine the federal government paying housing counselors to attend training sessions in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. At the Marriott drop-off I said goodbye to the women and vowed that at some point I would stop by their conference.
The federal government has committed $123 billion to rebuild the Gulf region and compensate residents after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Adjusted for inflation, that amount is about the same as was spent on the Marshall Plan.
Initially, President Bush promised that, in addition to emergency housing, “federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure.” He mentioned streets, schools, levees, and the like. Later, another $8.5 billion was thrown in to include compensation for private homes lost or damaged. Known as “Road Home,” this program is administered by the state and paid for by the federal government. The Road Home website calls it “the largest single housing recovery program in U.S. history.” Eligible applicants may receive up to $150,000, and these are the “huge checks” that my NeighborWorks friends warn Orleanians to be ready for.
By early January 2007, 97,000 people had applied. Grants have averaged $65,000, but few checks have actually been written yet. The program is immensely complex. The contractor administrating it says 40 steps are involved, including personal interviews with the applicants, so delays are practically built in. Note also the moral hazard, or reward for acting irresponsibly: homeowners may be reimbursed only if they were not insured or were underinsured.
Carl O. Brown, a lawyer who lives not far from Tulane University, told me, perhaps cynically, perhaps realistically, that he expects the checks to arrive in greater volume during the election season. Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, who did not distinguish herself through leadership during the storm, goes before the voters this year. She trails in the polls.
Later, I would go uptown to see Brown, who is a part-owner of the Maple Leaf Bar, a prominent venue for live music. But as a preliminary step I paid a call on an old acquaintance, Thomas B. Lemann , a lawyer well known to the city’s establishment. He lives not far from Audubon Park in an area that was not flooded. Although he recently turned 80, he still practices law and nowadays has an office on the 50th floor of One Shell Square on Poydras Street.
Tommy Lemann, as he is called by nearly everyone, is a colorful figure with the air of a mandarin. He is married to the New Orleans novelist Sheila Bosworth, and he’s a great collector of facts on obscure topics—Scottish glens, these days. For years, he made meticulous notes on the quality of the oysters he consumed daily for lunch at an oyster bar called The Pearl, in the Central Business District. Today, however, The Pearl, also prominent for the huge roast turkey in the window that was carved each day for sandwiches, is closed, and the consumption of oysters now requires a trek into the French Quarter. Tommy Lemann doesn’t have time for that. But he has kept all his “oyster grades” in an elaborate filing system, and he thinks that they should be published someday.
From his lofty office perch, the city looked much the same as I recalled it, with little sign of flood or wind damage. The nearby Superdome, site of squalor and sanctuary during the storm, was quickly patched up in time for the New Orleans Saints football team to kick off what turned into a very good season. A huge billboard down Poydras touts the construction of a 67-story skyscraper to be called Trump International Hotel and Tower, which, when it was announced a week before Katrina hit, was going to be Louisiana’s tallest building. Its future is uncertain.
Anyone you speak to in New Orleans will soon relate his Katrina experience, and Tommy Lemann told me his. He had planned to stay on in the city but was driven out after a few days when the water was cut off. He left for Houston in what his son Nicholas Lemann, writing in The New Yorker, described as an armed convoy. (Nick, while still in high school, began his career in journalism at the same time I did, and working for the same French Quarter newspaper, The Vieux Carre Courier; today, he is the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.) Tommy Lemann didn’t particularly enjoy his two months in Houston, calling it an “exile.”
On the subject of New Orleans, he was cautious and judicious, sometimes insisting that he not be quoted. There’s a labor shortage, he said, and this is possibly the city’s most serious problem. Many positions are unfilled, and shop windows all over the city have “Help Wanted” signs. New workers need housing, but there is also a housing shortage. To get housing, you need a job. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I was to hear others mention the same apparent conundrum.
I had already read plenty about the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward, in the part of the city east of the French Quarter, so I wondered if he could recommend some other, less advertised destination in the Tour of Ruin that is on every visiting journalist’s itinerary. Tommy Lemann suggested Metairie Club Gardens, “the most affluent flooded area of town.” Submerged under five feet of water, it is the only place where he has seen abandoned mansions. The owners in some cases are up in years, and don’t want to rebuild, he said, or they have no mortgages and are rich enough to move elsewhere. Or they worry that the area will flood again.
Activity at the Port of New Orleans is back up to pre-Katrina levels, and law firms “are doing pretty well from what I hear,” Tommy Lemann said. “So much business is coming out of Katrina.” Tulane University had a lot of damage, and freshman enrollment fell. But it has been sustained at the professional schools. According to the indispensable Katrina Index, published by Brookings, Tulane started the 2006–07 school year with four-fifths the number of students it had before Katrina. “It would be adverse if we couldn’t get the young professionals to stay,” he said.
George Schmidt paints historic New Orleans scenes, including such Mardi Gras moments as the time the Duke and Duchess of Windsor bowed to the King of Comus in 1950, a thrill for the city’s most prominent clique.
Like many other residents of a city frequently visited by disaster, Lemann doesn’t particularly worry about New Orleans. “It is not in my temperament to do so,” he said. In the long run the city, which has, through its 289-year history, suffered malaria, smallpox, attacks by the British during the War of 1812, horrifying storms and fires, and occupation during the Civil War, will come back, “but how we solve these short-run problems I don’t know.”
A friend drove me out to the lakefront area, which suffered some of the worst flooding, and into the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards. I was also driven to Metairie, and I saw those abandoned mansions just as Tommy Lemann described them. The houses in this flooded area are large, sometimes single-story, and the high-water mark often shows as a discolored stripe wrapping the entire building. The houses, which took on several feet of water, often don’t look so bad from the outside, but they sit there silent and unoccupied—a few are being repaired—and the interior mold means they will have to be gutted.
Despite the damage to richer sections in Metairie and near the lake, it is true that Katrina turned out to be a storm that hurt the poor the most. The oldest, most historic, and most attractive parts of the city—sections built a hundred years ago or earlier, including the French Quarter and the Garden District—were not flooded. They were built, quite naturally, on the only high ground that existed at the time. The ground elsewhere, some of it landfill on top of swamp, isn’t getting any higher. In fact, it is sinking, a restoration contractor and urban planner named Jack Stewart told me. The city had flooded seven times in the last 200 years, he said, and its central “bowl” has sunk three feet since the 1830s.
Stewart owns the home of Jelly Roll Morton, the great New Orleans pianist from the golden age of jazz in the city (around 1900 to 1920). The house, on Frenchmen Street, in an old area below the French Quarter called the Faubourg Marigny, was battered by Katrina but still stands. Stewart is also an amateur musician with the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra, and I listened to the band rehearse one pleasant evening at the Julia Street gallery of the artist George Schmidt, a painter of historic New Orleans scenes, including such Mardi Gras moments as the time the Duke and Duchess of Windsor bowed to the King of Comus in 1950. (That episode was a thrill for the city’s most prominent clique, which lunches at the Boston club and dominates the social side of Mardi Gras but today is far less powerful than it was for most of the 20th century.) The row houses on Julia Street, not far from Tommy Lemann’s office, have been well restored, and they did not flood either.
The levees along lake Ponchartrain held firm, as did the higher ones on the Mississippi River. It was along canals connecting the river and the lake that floodwalls gave way. There is no guarantee that they won’t do so again, but, of course, in cities ravaged by earthquakes, such as San Francisco and Kobe, Japan, there is no guarantee against future earthquakes.
The population of the city, about 450,000 pre-Katrina, is now estimated at around 200,000. New Orleans may now be the second-largest city in Louisiana (Baton Rouge is probably first). The labor force in the New Orleans metropolitan area, which also includes suburban Jefferson Parish, has dropped from 640,000 before Katrina to 438,000 last October, according to Brookings. In the latest U.S. Census estimate, Louisiana had lost five percent of its population, a quarter-million people, mostly to Texas and Georgia.
New Orleans probably has a smaller population today than it had in 1880, when, with 216,000 people, it was the tenth-largest city in the United States, just behind San Francisco and ahead of Cleveland and Detroit. An article in The Times-Picayune—a transformed newspaper since the 1970s, with copious and excellent post-Katrina coverage—reported before Christmas that 84,000 residents have moved to Atlanta. Many went by car (unlike Houston, to which refugees were herded in buses), and “significant numbers” are doing well. “They consider themselves Georgians and say so.” It seems likely that many will not return.
The racial composition of the city has changed since the storm. Because black areas suffered more destruction and because many blacks lacked the means to resettle in New Orleans after Katrina, the African-American share of the population of the city, according to a survey commissioned by state agencies last summer, has fallen from 67 percent to about 46 percent. By income, Orleans Parish, which is contiguous with the city, was the eighth-poorest county in America before the storm, and New Orleans over the years has maintained an entrenched culture of poverty and entitlement, epitomized by its vast public-housing projects.
New Orleans probably has a smaller population today than it had in 1880, when, with 216,000 people, it was the tenth largest city in the United States.
Americans got a televised taste of that culture at the convention center after the storm. As some Orleanians pointed out, the scenes were probably not so different from those that prevail on any other day—minus the dreadful shortage of food and water—in the worst parts of the city’s housing projects. Katrina drove many of the poor to cities (possibly as many as 100,000 to Houston ) with a stronger work ethic and a different attitude toward welfare. In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its final post-Katrina report, said that the unemployment rate among displaced evacuees was 17.9 percent, down from 34.7 percent in March; by contrast, the rate among return evacuees had actually risen, from 5.3 percent to 7 percent.
What no one says in public, but is widely conceded in private, is that, while tragic in many ways, the storm’s displacement of families may, in fact, encourage greater independence and better lives for the refugees. In New Orleans, many of them had become inured to state support and its perverse incentives.
Next, I contacted Jeannette Hardy, a veteran journalist who, years ago, was the editor of The Courier, the alternative weekly where I published my first articles. Ginny later became editor of New Orleans, the city magazine, and then joined The Times-Picayune. She drove me uptown to a coffee shop on Magazine Street. Between the Mississippi and St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street is well located, and it is thriving. The neighborhood is a swath of cafés, bakeries, restaurants, antique stores, and clothing boutiques that runs five miles. Lately called the “isle of denial” because it was so little affected by Katrina (though it suffered serious wind damage), the area is likely to be central to the city’s recovery in the years ahead.
“This town is traumatized and everyone in it, including me,” Hardy said as we sat down to coffee. Katrina’s aftermath was “so much bigger than one poor little city can deal with—a poor, divided city with different cultural values.” People are paying mortgages on houses that don’t exist anymore for fear of ruining their credit ratings, she said. “New Orleans needs Washington. We need a Marshall Plan. We did it for Germany. Why not New Orleans?”
Her outlook was similar to that of The New York Times: critical of Bush and Washington for not doing enough, and of local government for incompetence. City Hall, beset by an ongoing brain drain, “couldn’t operate at the best of times,” she said.
Her house, in the Mid-City area near the Fair Grounds racetrack, was surrounded by water but undamaged. It has kept its value. In fact, in areas that were not flooded, property values have risen, in some cases substantially. Real estate ads promise that a house is “high and dry,” and realtors working in the area around Magazine Street say they have had their best year ever. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that a two-bedroom apartment, which rented for $661 on average in 2004, now rents for $978. In better neighborhoods near the river, rents have doubled since the storm. The same is true of the French Quarter. Even with a reduced population, the city’s housing demand is pushing up against a limited supply.
Hardy’s roofer moved his whole family to the city, she said, and electricians, plumbers, and painters are doing well. “A new class of entrepreneurs in the building trade is making a great contribution.” She admires the Hispanics who have come pouring in. In December, newspapers reported an immigrant “baby boom,” almost all Latino. Two healthcare units that saw over 1,200 pregnant women in 2006 said that virtually all were Hispanic. “Before the storm, only 2 percent were Hispanic,” the head nurse in Metairie said. “Now about 96 percent are.”
According to the Louisiana health and population Survey, the number of Latinos living in households in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes has increased by about 20 percent since 2004, even as the total population of the two parishes has fallen by 25 percent.
On the whole, however, Hardy was apprehensive—worried about the loss of the professional classes, the fate of local business, and the possibility of a nonstop exodus. She was critical of the constant emphasis on the return of street crime—a point that others raised. When stories about violence are picked up nationally, they are likely to scare away tourists who are not, in fact, in danger.
Jim Thiers, proprietor of an art gallery in the 500 block of Royal Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, told me that business has been down by 80 to 90 percent since Katrina, and he thinks the crime scares have played a role. Several Royal Street antique shops have quietly closed. But the crime—mostly turf wars by drug gangs—typically takes place in areas where tourists never go. A visitor can stay at a hotel at the foot of Canal Street, stroll to the Mississippi, and walk throughout the French Quarter all day and never be in danger.
Concern about crime did flare up in January. Eight murders occurred in the first ten days of the month, including the shooting of Dinerall Shavers, a popular drummer and music teacher, and of a filmmaker in the arts-conscious Faubourg Marigny. The murders triggered a middle-class protest march to City Hall—a rare event indeed. In overall numbers, violent crime is down, but, proportionally, it has returned to its pre-Katrina levels, which were high by national standards.
Although tourism has lagged, conventions are beginning to return, and, according to the Brookings study, 89 percent of the hotels have reopened, as well as nearly all the well-known restaurants, such as Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, and Brennan’s, and the best relative newcomers, such as Emeril’s and Herbsaint. A friend was in town shortly after the gala reopening of Galatoire’s on New Year’s Day 2006 and said it was the same as ever, with local socialites and artists spending entire Friday afternoons drinking Myer’s Rum and soda and dining on trout amandine and oysters en brochette. Antoine’s, the most famous restaurant in the city, which opened in 1840, reopened just four months after Katrina. Since then, however, it has lost about $5,000 a day, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune. Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District, did not reopen until November, more than a year after the hurricane.
Meanwhile, in December, more than 25,000 visitors came for a convention of the National Association of Realtors. March will bring, among others, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, with 20,000 conventioneers, and the American
College of Cardiology, with 25,000. Paul Roney, manager of Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, where the jazz is traditional, told me that business was stronger than expected over the New Year’s holiday, what with the Sugar Bowl football game and some big cruise ships in town. As long as six months after the storm, more than 2,000 cabins of cruise ships were being occupied as refuges for Orleanians under a FEMA program. Now, the ships are for tourists.
Jazz, the city’s great cultural contribution to the world, was only appreciated after its pioneers were all gone. In 1918, the New Orleans Picayune sniffed that “it has been widely suggested that this particular form of musical vice had its birth in this city—that it came, in fact, from doubtful surroundings in our slums. We do not recognize the honor of parenthood.”
Fifty years later, vice had become heritage, and the culturally ambitious have ever since sought to preserve what they once disdained. The city’s airport was named for Louis Armstrong. After Katrina, Harry Connick Jr. teamed up with saxophonist Branford Marsalis to raise money for a Musicians’ Village. Built by Habitat for Humanity, it would “help restore New Orleans’s musical heritage.” The Ninth Ward site, where the first 73 single-family homes (of an eventual 300 or so) are under construction, soon became “a must-do photo op for visiting VIPs,” as The Times-Picayune put it. President Bush and former President Jimmy Carter have hammered nails there. Oil companies have shelled out. Proceeds have flowed in from New York society benefits.
The deal on offer is a two- to four-bedroom house with a no-interest, 20-year, $75,000 loan. Average monthly payment: around $550. But, as always when something of value is offered below market, demand exceeds supply, so gatekeepers must pick and choose. Applicants must not have too much or too little money and must submit to a credit check. Musicians have been flunking that one, and a habitat spokesman said that only about one in four applicants in the final stages of approval is a musician. No doubt that will unleash another storm—of indignation. Then, the credit checks will be eased, and the gatekeepers will have to use other criteria to exclude some and admit others.
In December, more than 25,000 visitors came for a convention of the National Association of Realtors. March will bring the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the American College of Cardiology.
Lars Edegran moved to New Orleans from Sweden in 1965, the year of Betsy, to practice his chosen art. He plays piano, guitar, or banjo—whichever is needed for a job—and has no intention of moving to the Musicians’ Village. He already has a house in Lakeview that took on four feet of water, but it was insured and now is restored. He lost some instruments on the ground floor, including an upright Steinway piano, but it was replaced “by one of those organizations that have been helping musicians.” The formation of those groups has been an encouraging post-Katrina development. Gibson Guitar, the company that also makes Baldwin pianos, has been especially generous.
Music has been good to Edegran. After a few weeks as a roofer in the wake of Betsy, he has earned a living as a musician ever since, with no need for day jobs. He’s a regular at preservation hall, where bands have resumed playing Thursday through Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons after a hiatus of eight months.
Before Katrina, I could have taken the streetcar all the way out St. Charles Avenue to Carrollton, a lovely ride along a median strip planted with camellias. But the line has been repaired only as far as Lee Circle, so I had to drive to the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street to have a chat with someone I have known for years, Carl O. Brown, the lawyer-bar owner who, as I noted earlier, commented on the checks coinciding with the election.
After the storm, the Maple Leaf received a good deal of national publicity, mainly because it was the first live-music club to get back in business, just a few weeks after Katrina. The headliner on that reopening night was Walter “Wolfman” Washington, who plays guitar and sings and gave what was, by all accounts, a highly emotional performance. When I was there, the place was practically empty—it was a Sunday evening—but normally it’s crowded. Right next to the Maple Leaf is a small restaurant called Jacques-Imo’s Café, which some reckon the best in the city for casual Creole food, that indigenous mixture of French and Italian. But on this day it was unexpectedly closed.
“After Katrina, we became a gold mine,” Carl said, sipping a drink. The joint reopened even before electricity was restored to the city. “We hardly even closed,” he said. They brought in ice from Jefferson Parish and sold washtubs filled with beer. Because so little else was happening, the Maple Leaf was rewarded with television coverage.
“We own the middle of the week,” he said. “We don’t compete with the house of Blues and Tipitina’s,” popular clubs that are back operating, respectively, in the French Quarter and on Tchoupitoulas Street near the river. The Maple Leaf features a group called Poppa Grows Funk, which didn’t sound like my style at all, and another called the Rebirth Brass Band, which sounded better (it is more organized than the chaotic “street” sound for which New Orleans is famous).
Rebirth was founded by a well-known local musician, Kermit Ruffins, a vocalist and trumpeter about whom Carl spoke highly. Ruffins was less than a year old when I arrived in the city, so I never heard him play. Katrina drove him away to Houston, but he returned within a few months, and since then he has been working almost every night. “It has actually been nonstop,” he said in an interview. “New Orleans is going to thrive again,” he predicted, but adds that it will take “five, six, seven years.” He plays at a place called Vaughan’s Lounge, in the Bywater district, between the Marigny and the Lower Ninth Ward.
Nagin won reelection as mayor with mostly black support, but also with the backing of some conservatives and local businessmen. He has repeatedly predicted a coming boom in the city, and he may, in the end, be right.
“We have been living off construction,” Carl Brown continued. “There’s a lot of it going on uptown, and the Garden District is being restored as well.” Throughout the city there are “40,000 roofs to fix,” and the state is getting ready “to release this money to homeowners.” That’s the way Carl Brown saw it: Fat City ahead. The need for workers remains a problem. The hotels can’t find enough domestics, and for a while Burger King “was paying a signing bonus of $10,000.”
Lars Edegran had already encountered rising costs in getting his Lakeview home repaired. Plumbers, carpenters, roofers, electricians—all charge perhaps double what they did. “There is so much demand that they can just take the most expensive jobs.” He also has a couple of flooded rental units, still under repair. He has a gang of Bosnians working for him—“good workers, too.”
Matthew Lloyd, the foreman for a general contractor who works mostly uptown, told me that labor costs have risen perhaps 50 percent. “Business is crazy,” he said. One problem is that the boom has attracted many inexperienced workers who sometimes barely know what they are doing, but someone with carpentry skills can earn $18 to $20 an hour, with lots of overtime. “There is more work than anyone knows what to do with right now,” he said.
If markets work as Adam Smith says, then the rising price of labor should attract many more workers. For now, however, the big problem remains where to house them as the rebuilding goes on. Hispanic workers are living, six or eight to a room, in motels outside town.
Almost everyone, not just the greenest of the green, seems to accept that the “footprint” of the city should be reduced. But how? The question raises the vexed topic of planning. Since Katrina, one plan after another has been proposed. The Lambert Plan was followed by the Bring New Orleans Back Plan, then the Unified New Orleans Plan, or UNOP—a plethora of plans.
UNOP, the latest, is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. UNOP’s last “community congress,” in December, was interactive, with 2,500 participants in 21 cities. On this occasion, as always when planners meet, there was much talk of transparency, affordable housing, wetlands, bike paths, and light rail systems. (How about just getting the streetcars back onto St. Charles Avenue? I wondered.)
The lack of a plan, it has been argued, means people might be afraid to rebuild, lest they are the only ones doing so in a neighborhood that will be abandoned by the city’s revised infrastructure. Alternatively, the existence of a plan might prevent people who want to rebuild from doing so—because their old neighborhoods have been turned into an “open space,” for example. Plans are usually incompatible with property rights. “Comprehensive” plans, I have noticed, are always delayed while more information is gathered; then they are overtaken by events, and in the end they are usually shelved.
The mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, concluded that he could not prevent people from spending their own money to rebuild their own homes—probably a wise judgment, politically and economically, although The Washington Post has criticized the “helter-skelter return of residents.” Likewise, The New York Times reported in August that City Hall “has settled back into its habitual easygoing rhythms; a well-placed insider there reported, with alarm, no sense of urgency among its officials.” But was inactivity so alarming? The good news is that it indicated that nothing too authoritarian was in the works.
In the end, the smaller population that seems to be in the city’s future surely will yield its own smaller footprint, whether planned or not. But it looks as though, for the planners, their plans will remain stored in filing cabinets without becoming bricks and mortar.
Nagin was reelected in the May runoff, defeating Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor, brother of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and son of the city’s last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, who served between 1970 and 1978. In New Orleans, you hear almost as much grumbling about Mayor Nagin as you do about President Bush, particularly among the city’s establishment, which was disappointed that the Landrieu dynasty failed to reconquer City Hall.
When he entered the mayoral race in 2002, with no previous political experience, Nagin was an executive with Cox Communications, which has the local cable franchise, and a registered Republican, but he quickly re-registered as a Democrat. A year after his election, he supported the candidacy of Republican Bobby Jindal in the Louisiana governor’s race (Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar who became the state’s top health official at the age of 25, lost but was elected to Congress). Nagin won reelection as mayor with mostly black support, but also with the backing of some conservatives and local businessmen. He has repeatedly predicted a coming boom in the city, and he may, in the end, be right.
Nagin received attention last year when, in a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr., he said that New Orleans should remain a “chocolate city”—a comment for which he later apologized. He also said, in the same speech: “What are we doing? Why is black-on-black crime such an issue? Why do our young men hate each other so much that they look their brother in the face, and they will take a gun and kill him in cold blood?... We as a people need to fix ourselves first.” But those comments received no notice. Nagin has even gone so far as to praise Bush at strategic moments, and not without cause, given the levels of federal aid.
Critics portrayed Nagin’s reelection, in which he benefited from absentee ballots cast by New Orleans refugees in places like Houston and Memphis, as the city’s refusal to accept the need for change. Yet a case can be made that Nagin was the better choice, more attuned to exploiting the unforeseen opportunities that inevitably arise in a post-disaster period. Nagin is an improviser, not a planner, and that may be what is needed.
A case can be made that Nagin was the better choice for mayor, more attuned to exploiting the unforeseen opportunities that inevitably arise in a post-disaster period.
The leading Republican candidate in the mayor’s race was Rob Couhig, a lawyer with offices not far from the Superdome and City Hall. He came in fourth and threw his support to Nagin in the final round, declaring that the Landrieu clan had failed the city. One morning, I went to see Couhig, who told me that his office building at 1100 Poydras—just down the street from Mother’s Restaurant, famous for its Ferdi poor boy sandwiches—is full, and his firm is looking for more space.
About $25 billion in federal money will be spent in New Orleans in the next five years, he said. “The money is already in place.” He thinks that the fortunes of the city will depend more on the port, the universities, and a revival of the medical community (now much reduced) than on tourism.
“Our biggest need today is people,” he said. “We need fifty thousand people. There are employment opportunities for everyone from accountants to zookeepers.” But he is concerned that the powers-that-be have misdirected their talent search. Governor Blanco, for example, in a recent session of the state legislature, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds to attract a new German-owned steel mill with 3,000 jobs.
“But we don’t need jobs; we need people,” Couhig said.
The state now has an unprecedented budget surplus, mainly generated by a gusher of revenues from the sales tax, thanks to the post-Katrina replacement of consumer durables, such as furniture, automobiles, and refrigerators. Now is the time, said Couhig, to cut or even eliminate the sales tax in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, perhaps for a year, or even longer. This move would spark a purchasing surge in the metropolitan area and would do so more reliably than tourism. It seemed like a good idea, especially as the sales tax in New Orleans is so high—9 percent.
Couhig mentioned the new opportunities in education. The public school system was conspicuously failing even before Katrina. After the hurricane, it had to be shoved aside—with generally good results, as I would see later. Couhig’s overall message was not to expect the government to solve problems that were caused by the government in the first place, nor to expect the city to be revived by returnees but rather by newcomers who sense the coming opportunity.
After my visit with Couhig, I stopped by the NeighborWorks training conference at the Marriott. It was not yet noon, but the participants—1,900 of them, according to the website—were already streaming out to lunch. The conference area was deserted. There were sessions, I noted from the signs outside empty meeting rooms, on “Designing and Implementing Individual Development Account Programs,” among many others.
Deciding that the conferees had made a wise choice, I followed a few stragglers into the misty December sunshine. Two or three of them headed into what is one of my favorite restaurants in the city, Mena’s Palace, on Chartres Street (pronounced “charters” in New Orleans). Catfish plate with French fries is $7.75. In ways not intended, the conference was probably beneficial after all, I decided. Some part of the government millions spent on the meeting was at least trickling down to the city’s small businesses.
Mena’s was understaffed, the waitress told me, and now closes an hour early. Two shifts had been reduced to one, from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. “Nine hours is enough for me,” she said. Business had picked up lately, but not yet to pre-Katrina levels. While nearly all the tourist restaurants are back operating, Brookings reports that only 46 percent of “retail food establishments” have reopened—which makes sense in a city with half the population it once had.
At the time of the Katrina anniversary, President Bush returned once again to New Orleans—his tenth trip—and visited Warren Easton High School. It is about three miles out Canal Street, toward Lake Pontchartrain. Founded in 1913, Warren Easton is one of the oldest public schools in New Orleans and the best-known to have been turned over from the city school system to the state. It is now managed as a charter school. The Orleans Parish schools were in a sad state of decline long before Katrina. Over half the students lacked “basic competence” in math and English, and the state Department of Education had rated 68 of its 108 schools “academically unacceptable.” Enrollment, already in sharp decline, fell to just one-fifth the pre-Katrina level last spring; more than two-thirds of the school buildings were ruined. Enrollment has rebounded and modular classrooms were moved in, but at last count (November), there are 51 percent fewer students than there were at the end of the 2004–05 school year.
After the storm, the unions and school board officials who had resisted all reforms were swept aside. “It seemed that Katrina accomplished in a day—dismantling a derelict school system—what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying,” Kathryn Newmark and Veronique de Rugy wrote in Education Next, a magazine that focuses on education research.
‘It seemed that Katrina accomplished in a day—dismantling a derelict school system—what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.’
The washing away of the old school system is “one of the bright spots” in the post-Katrina picture, said Tripp Friedler, who lives uptown and runs a foundation called Free Gulliver. His father, Frank Friedler, was an insurance executive and popular city councilman in the 1970s. Tripp’s ties to the city are such that he worries about its future, pointing out that not just Atlanta and Houston, but Birmingham and Memphis have surpassed it by many indicators, including education. His concern is that New Orleans could become another Natchez—a little pearl of culture that people praise but also ignore.
Then came the deluge, and now practically everyone realizes something must be done. The magnitude of the disaster has opened the door to changes that politics would earlier have vetoed—not just in public education, but also in public housing.
Warren Easton, once with 1,400 students, now has 790. Katrina submerged its ground floor under six feet of water, and all activity now takes place on floors above. The students—all apparently black—had just emerged from the dining area when I arrived. The assistant principal, Joe Gilyot, came out of his office, blew a loud blast on a whistle strapped to his waist, and soon the students all disappeared and silence reigned. He would be with me shortly, he said.
In the hallway, meanwhile, I studied old photos of past graduating classes. The speed with which the school’s racial composition had changed was startling. A judge ordered New Orleans schools desegregated in 1961, and by the mid- to late-1970s Warren Easton, which had been all white, was essentially all black.
A young teacher came by and said out of the side of his mouth, “Lee Harvey Oswald was here,” and just kept on walking. I later checked, and according to the Warren Commission, Oswald matriculated at Warren Easton in 1955, but for just one month. The jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain (class of 1949) is among the better known alumni.
Gilyot, who is black, told me that he has much more freedom now that Warren Easton is a charter. “But we still have to keep to the core curriculum,” he said. “We can’t be a basket-weaving school.” His biggest problem? “Funding.” The state pays teachers’ salaries and covers necessary items for schooling, but there is nothing extra for sports or extracurricular activities. He has to improve and push hard for facilities. In an interview with National Public Radio last fall, Barbara McPhee, principal of New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, near City Park, said that running a charter school in the post-Katrina environment is like being the mayor of a small town. You have to fix everything yourself.
At schools like Warren Easton, kids are enrolled from all over, and charter schools introduce competition into the system, because if a school does well, ambitious parents will want to send their kids there. Poorly run schools, by contrast, lose students and have to improve to avoid shutting down altogether. Discipline didn’t seem to be a problem at Easton—possession of weapons or drugs means automatic expulsion. Gilyot has faced problems getting the lower floor rebuilt, he said, and to make matters worse his own house in New Orleans East was under four and a half feet of water. (His neighborhood, according to a map published in The Times-Picayune a month after the storm and which is reprinted on page 63 of this article, was submerged to an average depth of six feet, and is being rebuilt “in pockets,” he said.)
Later, I went to another charter school, McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter. It is run by KIPP, a widely praised organization founded in Houston in 1994 by two young alumni of Teach for America. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), got a big boost in 2000 with funds from Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of Gap Inc., and there are now 52 KIPP schools nationwide, enrolling 12,000 students.
The New Orleans principal, Gary Robichaux, is young and energetic and radiates idealism. Again, it appears that all the students are black, and the school day is nine and a half hours. Tardiness is not tolerated. “We don’t have to follow the red tape,” Robichaux told me. “We have to take the state test, but how we get there is up to us.”
A parent who helped get the school up and running said it was based on the premise, which sounded optimistic to me, that “every child wants to learn.” I was impressed to hear that Robichaux had personally recruited students by knocking on doors at the Iberville public housing project, less than a mile away. It is a hazardous place to visit; five people have been killed there since August.
I came away from the two schools impressed at the turnaround. Katrina has put one of the nation’s most retrograde school systems in the vanguard of reform. Currently, a significant majority of New Orleans public schools are charters, and that condition—different from any other large district in America—is likely to continue. A recent report estimates that 31 charter schools, enrolling 16,000 students, will be operating in the 2007–08 academic year, compared with 17 conventional public schools, enrolling 9,000 students.
As to whether charter schools can make a permanent difference, it is too early to say. Many of the students come from backgrounds that are hostile to learning. Can a relaxation of bureaucratic rules and the introduction of competition overcome that disadvantage?
In June came the surprising news that HANO, the housing authority of New Orleans, was planning to close over 7,000 units of public housing.
‘I think the romanticism that goes with the “good old days of public housing” belies the harsh realities of crime and social malaise that had been created as a result of a concentration of low, low-income folks,’ said the former public-housing director.
Some had been partly submerged, others vandalized or stripped of copper and wiring. Four of the city’s remaining projects were deemed obsolete and have been ordered razed. Since 2002 HANO has been under receivership by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—money meant for upkeep had kept mysteriously disappearing—so it was a decision made in Washington, and a brave one. About 5,000 families—virtually all of them black—were to be displaced. They had been paying $85 a month in rent on average. The dismantling of huge public-housing projects has been a welcome and widely supported policy, pursued for years around the country. Among those under the wrecking ball were the notorious Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor homes in Chicago, together housing more than 50,000 at their peak. New Orleans had been resistant to the trend—until Katrina.
With the announcement by HANO, people who called themselves “advocates for the poor” swung into action. This was “a government-sanctioned diaspora of New Orleans’s poorest African-American citizens,” said a local law professor; it was a “payoff to developers.” And so on. The Washington Post saw the issue as “the most prominent skirmish in the larger battle of the post-Katrina balance of whites and blacks.”
But, as Michael P. Kelly, who directed HANO in New Orleans from 1995 and now runs its counterpart in Washington, D.C., said in an interview in December with The New York Times, “I think the romanticism that goes with the ‘good old days of public housing’ belies the harsh realities of crime and social malaise that had been created as a result of a concentration of low, low-income folks…. Women that would put their babies in bathtubs at the sound of gunfire, that was a reality; coming home from your job and having to walk through young people participating in drug trades.”
The projects are dangerous places. Violent crime in the St. Thomas project was seven times higher than in the city as a whole. When St. Thomas was demolished in 2002, the surrounding neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief. So the news that four more projects were to be razed was quietly welcomed by many citizens. A Times-Picayune writer who defended the projects in several columns received critical mail and conceded that maybe the tenants “should be required to pay utilities. Maybe properties should be subject to inspections to ensure that residents keep them clean and in good repair.” Maybe they should.
After a flurry of petitions and protest marches, however, a decision was made to readmit some residents, temporarily.
‘People have begun to look at government as something that is directly responsible for them and their situation—unlike at the time of Betsy.’
Canal and Basin Streets are two of the most romantic names in American history, but they form an intersection that today is bleak beyond measure. A sign at the intersection promised condos, with “pre-construction pricing from $139,000,” free parking, and great amenities. But I couldn’t help thinking that the Iberville project is a little too close for comfort. It is already partly closed. I walked closer and read the signs displayed on its red-brick buildings: “Only HANO residents and their invited guests are allowed on this project.” “No Trespassing!” A couple of elderly black ladies sat on stoops and said nothing.
Four youths with cornrows, oversized rigs, and chains stood at the corner of Basin and Iberville. Nonchalantly. They scanned the horizon as I approached but didn’t once look at me.
“Is this project staying open?”
“Gonna still be here,” one said. He jogged his shoulders up and down in a display of victory. Turf protected! One said he had been on a “protest at Lafitte” recently, indicating with a nod the project on Orleans Avenue that is due to be closed.
“Carried signs for that,” someone said.
A police car came by, slow and then slower. The gang conspicuously ignored it, but then, with further displays of nonchalance, began to disperse. A day or two later someone told me that before long it is likely that the Iberville project, too, will close. I thought back to Hurricane Betsy and the four decades that had passed since I first arrived in the city. The changes have been immense. At the time of the Katrina anniversary, Samuel Hyde Jr., professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, contrasted the two storms in CityBusiness: “People have begun to look at government as something that is directly responsible for them and their situation—unlike at the time of Betsy.”
It is an important point and hard to deny. Government at every level has become more and more activist and solicitous—almost to the point of aggression. By the time of Katrina, it was providing so many goods and services to so many people that they were finding it difficult to live without its life-support system. Over the last generation, the poor in New Orleans have been reared in an environment that treats them not just as victims but as helpless victims.
The question is whether the aftermath of Katrina—filled with both bureaucratic foul-ups and individual enthusiasm, hard work, and perseverance—has at last dispelled the inculcated passivity and victimhood that have been especially strong in New Orleans.
Looking back, I was reminded of something that Tripp Friedler had said. A familiar metaphor occurred to him as we spoke, and he applied it to New Orleans. It’s the story of the frog dropped into water that is being heated slowly. It doesn’t notice, fails to react, and dies. Turn the heat up suddenly, however, and the frog jumps out. In New Orleans, the deterioration has been going on for decades, and, on the whole, the city’s leadership, too absorbed both by Mardi Gras balls and racial politics, refused to acknowledge it. Then came Katrina, abruptly turning up the heat.
A change for the better could no longer be avoided. My impression, after a week in the city, is that it has begun.
Tom Bethell , who now lives in Washington, is the author of four books, including “The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography,” which, Tom Wolfe said, “establishes Tom Bethell as one of our most brilliant essayists.”
Photo captions: 1) Kermit Ruffins, founder of the Rebirth Brass Band; 2) Sign advertising a 67-story Trump skyscraper, as yet unbuilt; 3) Café Du Monde on Decatur Street; 4) Cousins Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, managers of Commander's Palace; 5) Commander's Palace Restaurant, in the Garden District; 6) Mayor C. Ray Nagin, reelected last year over Mitch Landrieu; 7) Rob Couhig, New Orleans lawyer, in front of the Superdome; 8) Barbara McPhee, principal of the Charter Science and Math High School.
All Photographs by Greg Miles