Battle of New Orleans an uphill struggle

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113761268911132.jpg’, ‘Photo by Brock Hutzler’, ‘Owners of damaged homes and businesses have to choose between reconstruction and demolition.’);

The second battle of New Orleans is being fought right now. Four months have passed since Hurricane Katrina leveled much of the city, but only scant progress has been made in the recovery, despite claims by the George W. Bush administration and developers’ spokesmen.

Battle lines have been drawn, pitting the destitute low-income residents of the city against the politicians, developers and bankers. President George W. Bush paid another visit to the city last week and claimed great progress was being made toward rebuilding and revitalizing it.

Earlier this month, however, two journalists from New Orleans, Jason Berry, New Orleans magazine and Lolis Elie, New Orleans-Picayone, addressed the National Press Club in Washington. They painted a much different picture of where things stand in the Crescent City.

For one thing, they said, out of a population of nearly 500,000 only about 100,000 have returned to take up residence. The two journalists said claims that the city is coming back are not accurate and, in many cases, may be just wishful thinking.

The government’s promises of aid have largely gone unfulfilled. FEMA has yet to bring in any trailers for temporary housing, and many remain homeless. They and others in New Orleans say there is a sense of abandonment in the city.

Mental health professionals on the Gulf Coast say a large number of survivors and evacuees are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after the ordeals of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These workers report a rising number of suicides and murder-suicides in the coastal states.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who originally were sharply critical of the Bush administration’s response, have grown silent. Investigative reporter Wayne Madsen says President Bush, in one of his early visits to the city, threatened to abandon the city and the state unless they kept quiet.

Since the hurricanes, storm-damaged Mississippi, a Republican state, has received five times the federal aid that Louisiana has received.

Other politically-tinged developments are occurring as well. Residents in the flooded areas and among the African-American majority are fighting a plethora of committees advising the mayor and the governor. The mayor’s commission to oversee rebuilding the city is the prime mover behind the rebuilding master plan. The commission is headed by New Orleans developer Joe Canizaro, who also is a Bush “pioneer” donor; that is, he gave a certain amount of cash to the President’s re-election campaign.

Canizaro was the one who brought in the Urban Land Institute to advise the commission on how to rebuild the city. The plan has generated strong and angry reaction from the newly returned residents. It advises against a citywide effort and instead urges rebuilding in stages. That means the poorer neighborhoods, such as the flooded 9th Ward, would be leveled and turned over to developers. Residents of these areas would have four months to show strong support for rebuilding, or they may be forced to sell their properties to the government, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun.

“None of us want to be in this particular place,” said Mayor Nagin, “but Katrina has forced us to take a good, hard look at what we need to do to rebuild our city. The realities are that we will have limited resources to redevelop our city.”

Nagin’s plan, called “Bring New Orleans Back,” is to take effect on the 20th of this month. At that time, the city would impose a moratorium on building permits in those areas most severely ravaged by floodwaters. Residents then would have to demonstrate enough support for rebuilding to justify public investment in schools and other facilities.

Wade Rathke, who lives in New Orleans and is an official of Service Employees International Union, wrote on, “We in New Orleans are so desperate for resources that we’ll support any measure that promises them. For instance, no matter how good or bad Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, and his proposed recovery funding bill might be for the city, we almost have to have a bill, any kind of bill, in order to finally get started and move forward. Alas, the $29 billion for Gulf Coast recovery passed last month by the U.S. Senate was only a start.”

Funds obtained through Baker’s Recovery Corporation Bill would be used to buy up destroyed properties and resell them to developers for exploitation. One problem is that 300,000 indebted residents aren’t in the city any longer, and the First Bank & Trust Co. of New Orleans has become a major player in redevelopment.

One of the major impediments to New Orleans’ recovery is insurance. Insurers are avoiding the place. They fret about safety, regulations and future risk. Homeowners wrangle about payouts while prospective home buyers try to find any insurance at all. Unless you have insurance, getting a mortgage on a house is usually impossible.

Muffin Labourisse, a New Orleans Realtor, told Planet Ark, an environmental news Web site, “There are only a few companies that are writing policies right now, and everything is running slowly.” His company continues to show and sell houses despite the dilemma. “Some (insurance) companies are only writing for current customers if they are moving, others are not writing at all. There are so many areas that are so badly damaged that nobody wants to insure there, because there is no guarantee what is going to happen next hurricane season, or next time there is a big storm,” Labourisse said.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, a top U.S. insurance industry group, some $40 billion in claims will be generated by Katrina. Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Institute, said that’s twice the $21 billion (in today’s dollars) caused by Hurricane Andrew more than 10 years ago. He said the number does not include several billion dollars for damaged offshore energy infrastructure or $25 billion in federally financed flood insurance. He added it all means higher insurance costs.

“The city of New Orleans is not prepared to withstand another event like this in the future,” Hartwig said. “We know that the levees can be breached, and we know that the level of fire and police protection in these communities is not what it once used to be. All of that factors into the riskiness associated with insuring a home.”

John Marlow, of the American Insurance Association of Austin, Texas, told Planet Ark that things in New Orleans are slowly improving and said he was much encouraged by new building codes just introduced in the state legislature. The new codes call for homes in hurricane-prone areas near the coast to be built to withstand winds of 130 to 150 miles per hour.

“That’s going to go a long way toward spurring redevelopment and building properties that will withstand similar events in the future to a greater degree,” he said. “That’s a good move and sends a good message to the insurance community that when things are rebuilt and redeveloped, they will be safer and will be able to withstand storms in the future.”

Some fear that if the politicians and developers have their way, New Orleans will lose much of its distinctive culture and charm and become a Disneyland-like amusement center, devoid of many of the ethnic elements that helped make the city great.

Whether the original flavor and quality of New Orleans is to survive will depend largely on its residents. As Patricia Gay, director of the Preservation Resource Center told a small group at the facility: “We citizens have to take the bull by the horns.”

from the Jan. 18-24, 2006, issue

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