TWO STREETS, TWO FUTURES: Katrina's Disparate Impact

The Economics of Return

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- It was a Thursday, the first of September, just four days after Hurricane Katrina, and floodwater stood seven feet deep in the living room of Robert Bouchon's big brick house on Memphis Street in Lakeview, this city's largest middle-class, white neighborhood.

The Bouchon family, though, had already assembled an interim middle-class life on the outskirts of Houston, where Robert and his wife, Cathy, together with their three young children, had fled in their minivan.

They moved into a furnished two-bedroom apartment in a gated enclave in a suburb called Kingwood. They had enrolled the children in a Roman Catholic primary school similar to the one that was still underwater in Lakeview. They had also called State Farm Insurance to collect on their house and their BMW X3, a three-month-old SUV that was submerged in the driveway back home. They registered online for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and decided for the sake of family mental health not to watch news coverage of "the craziness" back in New Orleans.

"Everything was out of control, so we just kind of put on blinkers to our little Kingwood experience," Bouchon, 43, a soft-spoken structural engineer, said in a recent interview as he sat on a sofa in his Houston apartment.

When Katrina blew in and levees gave way, the high water, in many neighborhoods, was colorblind and classless. It clobbered Lakeview, a leafy and serene white area where longtime residents cannot remember serious flooding, as cruelly as the Lower Ninth Ward, a black neighborhood with a long, dismal history of high water.

But in New Orleans, where affluent whites live high and working-class blacks live low, the privileges of neighborhood quickly asserted themselves. For many, race and class predicted patterns of escape, dictating whether flight would be a nervous drive out of town or a caged week of torment and humiliation.

These days, as planners and politicians look ahead, many realize that the future of this city, which before the storm was more than two-thirds black and nearly one-third poor, swings on two simple questions:

Are residents coming home? If so, which ones?

It now appears that long-standing neighborhood differences in income and opportunity -- along with resentment over the ghastly exodus -- are shaping the stalled repopulation of this mostly empty city.

On the same day the Bouchons moved into the apartment in Houston, Ora Goines, 59, a retired hospital secretary, remained mired in chaos here, together with her daughter, her son-in-law and her two grandchildren, who are 13 and 2.

Their one-story, wood-frame house was underwater on Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, and they had evacuated to one of the city's public hospitals, where Goines's daughter, Germaine Mills, 33, worked as a clerk and where employee families had been offered refuge.

But it soon turned into a prison, as storm water rose eight feet deep around University Hospital. Power, plumbing and air conditioning failed, and backup generators flooded. Most of the hospital's food reserves flooded before they could be moved to higher floors.

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