New Orleans Residents Take Post-Katrina Rebuilding Into Their Own Hands

Political infighting, local corruption, red tape have tied up federal recovery funds.

Nearly two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina tore New Orleans apart, and the media seems to have moved on. But just how much progress has been made in restoring the city? And with hurricane season just weeks away, and billions in aid promised by federal and local governments, why are citizens the ones doing most of the heavy lifting? Just how safe is the Crescent City?

First off, there's some good news: Neighborhoods like the historic, tourist-friendly French Quarter and hipster Marigny were hardly damaged by the storm and are on the rebound. (Although eccentric indie-music venues like One Eyed Jacks have sparse summer calendars.) Plus, in spite of the glacial pace of rebuilding in devastated areas, locals seem to be finding jobs: Unemployment in the city is now lower than the national average.

But New Orleans is now at only about half its pre-Katrina population, and less than half of the city's public schools have reopened, with the additional 6,000 or so new students this fall not sure whether they'll have classrooms to go to. Many roads are still difficult to travel, and authorities are strangely boasting that the hurricane pumps, used to drain flood water from the city, are now back up to "pre-Katrina" levels. (Um, didn't we all see that wasn't good enough?)

According to Colonel Terry Ebbert, Homeland Security director for New Orleans, the levees have been repaired and, in some spots, increased in height — although they are still "much lower" on the West Bank than the East. Construction on the system, he says, will take another four years. Meanwhile, a report last week found that, ironically, recent repairs have actually left the French Quarter and Marigny more vulnerable than before. "We do know that we have that problem," Ebbert admitted.

New Orleans has a new evacuation plan in place to respond to a Category 3 or stronger storm. (Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana.) Buses will arrive at more pickup points throughout the city, and buses, trains and planes will be used to move out locals and tourists. The focus of the new plan is on the "transportation-challenged" — anyone watching the news in August and September of '05 knows what that means — including the many people still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers. While the evacuation would be "mandatory," citizens cannot be removed forcibly from their homes. But within about six to 12 hours of the storm's arrival, anyone not on their property may now be arrested. No emergency shelter will be provided for citizens — meaning that the Superdome, which in 2005 housed about 20,000 people who had stayed behind in what quickly became horrible conditions, will remain shuttered. In addition, security will be ramped up: About 2,000 of the state National Guard will be moved into New Orleans 80 hours before the storm hits to work with the local police force. "It's important for people to see the presence of security," Ebbert said. "We think that will have a great calming effect."

Beyond security, though, a question remains: With billions in federal funding, why has rebuilding taken so long? The answer is simple and embarrassing: political infighting, local corruption and loads of red tape. According to Ed Blakely, the city planner appointed just this winter to lead the city's recovery efforts, New Orleans has received absolutely no federal funding for long-term community recovery. Last week, the Louisiana Recovery Authority approved funneling millions into 17 "target zones" in the city to help support natural patterns of resettlement — part of Mayor Ray Nagin's larger $1.1 billion recovery plan announced in March. But with construction in those zones starting as soon as September, Nagin's plan has yet to receive financing. Topping it off is the fact that the very first public-works project, a library in the middle-class Broadmoor neighborhood, was funded not locally but by a private foundation in New York.

One of the massive failures in the long path to restoring New Orleans has been the federal government's $7.5 billion Road Home program, which Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter has called a "debacle." Road Home should have provided aid to homeowners who wanted to stay in the city and rebuild — but only one-fifth of eligible applicants have seen a cent, and any checks have been slow-coming. So while they were promised up to $150,000 each to work on their houses, only residents able to spend their own money upfront have had the chance to make any progress, leaving those in poorer, less organized communities to fend for themselves or leave town. This is altering the landscape of New Orleans. The upper-middle-class neighborhoods of Gentilly, Broadmoor and Lakeview, for instance, are recovering at a fairly quick pace, while poorer areas such as Central City and the Lower Ninth Ward are largely abandoned. "The pockets which are recovering the quickest are those with people who have resources," City Council member James Carter said. "Those who are of lower income and lower resources are more dependent upon the government, and the government has been unjustifiably slow with regard to providing those resources."

Carter is an example of a citizen who rose up to rectify government failures in the wake of Katrina. A New Orleans native who specializes in criminal law, Carter had considered running for City Council before but never taken action. But after watching chaos descend on his city from a hotel room in Houston with his wife and then-2-year-old son, Carter realized he "had no choice but to run [for office]." "I was able to see the pandemonium ... and I thought, 'Man, I have to offer what I can,' " he explained. "It was really an opportunity to stand up and offer myself and my love for this city and the best I have towards reconstituting New Orleans." Carter now represents District C, the most populated area of the city, which includes the French Quarter. And he says he's seen a number of younger, reform-minded people entering politics since the storm. "Hurricane Katrina has spawned more activism than this city has ever seen," Carter said. "We are rocking and rolling down here."

Civilians have also taken the lead in fighting crime, which has risen again to pre-Katrina levels. Through the Metropolitan Crime Commission, residents have organized and lobbied for the creation of a Violent Offenders Unit, designed to specifically target violent crimes. Since its founding in March, 21 cases have been tried and 20 criminals have been convicted.

"There is a lot of frustration — government has simply failed at all levels," local businessman and MCC co-chair Greg Rusovich said. "But one of the reasons for optimism for the future of New Orleans is its citizenry. We've simply refused to allow the political failings to deter us from coming back and building a better city." The MCC's success is "exactly the way democracy should work, in the sense of people leading and politicians following. It's new, actually. Katrina was a real wake-up call. And there are so many situations that require fixing that you have to have citizens' involvement or else there's no way to succeed."

Another coalition of business and civic leaders that has sprung up post-Katrina is Horizon Initiative, a nonprofit that is focused on reviving New Orleans' economy and includes members from throughout the community. "The real reason the money has not gotten into the people's hands is just complete and utter disorganization. ... And that's not why we elected these idiots!" Horizon Initiative co-founder Arthur Pulitzer said. "Horizon Initiative has members from all parts of the community, and we're getting lots of the local organizations to work together."

With private fundraising dollars, the group has managed to hire the Rand Corporation to survey the city and create a plan for economic development beyond the obvious French Quarter tourism. According to Pulitzer, Horizon just met with executives at the "Today" show in New York to "get out some positive stories about New Orleans" to help rope in tourists. In addition, Pulitzer has been meeting with the deans of area colleges to promote community service as a requirement for graduation — something recently put in place by Tulane University. "We're going to try to get all the five local colleges to get involved so all college students are working in New Orleans," he said. "Young people are making such a huge difference in New Orleans right now, it's not funny." (Learn more about the difference college students have made in New Orleans through Alternative Spring Break, right here.)

Even Hollywood has done its part to boost the local economy — thanks to some tax breaks from the state. Any movie that films in the area ends up spending at least 30 percent of its budget locally and giving local crew people jobs that can help them to stay put and spend on rebuilding their homes. "Déjà Vu," starring Denzel Washington, was one of first studio blockbusters to head to New Orleans after Katrina, while Brad Pitt's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" wrapped shooting in the Crescent City this spring. "Black Water Transit," starring Laurence Fishburne, is currently filming, and Fox's "K-Ville" cop series, starring Anthony Anderson — about two police partners patrolling the city and fighting corruption after Katrina — premieres this fall. Pitt, who moved to the Vieux Carré neighborhood with Angelina Jolie and their brood, has also been a big advocate of rebuilding New Orleans green. According to Global Green, an environmental group dedicated to fighting climate change, if 50,000 of the houses were rebuilt according to green standards, it would have the environmental impact of taking 100,000 cars off the road. Last year, partnering with Global Green, Pitt held a competition for an environmentally friendly design for new housing in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, with Home Depot helping to begin realizing the project in May. "We want to rebuild intelligently," Pitt said in a press statement.

"There was never that type of energy that there is in the community now," Rusovich said. "And people can see now that they can really have an impact. Citizens are committed to bringing New Orleans back — believe me."