Night and Day in New Orleans

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The arched spine of high ground along the Mississippi River here pulses again three months after Hurricane Katrina -- the $19 appetizer has returned to the French Quarter restaurant scene, guys in suits ride office-tower elevators, hipsters linger over chicory coffee on Magazine Street, and jazzy eighth notes pop and sizzle in the Faubourg Marigny.

But New Orleans's beguiling bustle can be deceptive.

Nighttime tells the truth. Nighttime tells that the city is not whole. Then, the great expanse of the city's center and much of its lanky eastern edge lie dark and silent and creepy. Block after block of homes, mile after mile, rot in pitch-blackness. Streets in the Treme neighborhood, home to so many musicians, echo in their emptiness, and fancy pads out by Lake Pontchartrain are hollow. Mid-City's little camelbacks and side-hall shotguns, archetypes of New Orleans architecture, sit vacant, their doors smashed open by men in protective masks -- the houses' innards hacked apart and stacked on the sidewalk.

This city of feathery Mardi Gras masks and chilling vampire yarns grapples with its new realities: More than 100,000 homes and businesses remain uninhabitable. More than three out of four residents live elsewhere. More than 5 million tons of storm debris is still on the ground. The power company is bankrupt. Workers are in short supply. Its pro football team is playing in Baton Rouge, its pro basketball team playing in Oklahoma City, its thoroughbreds racing in Bossier City, La. Its first -- and so far only -- public school reopened Monday. The police force is in disarray. Scientists are recording alarming mold levels. Suburban suicide rates are spiking. Local doctors are operating out of tents. The Catholic Archdiocese is $40 million in the red. The mayoral election scheduled for February is in doubt because of logistical problems.

The concern for many here is simple, which makes it even more terrifying: Will New Orleans ever be itself again? Its storied but impoverished Lower Ninth Ward may never be rebuilt. Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said the city will probably shrink to half of its pre-Katrina population of about half a million. It will be far more difficult for a city that size to support the same amenities -- including professional sports franchises and cultural attractions -- as before, let alone supply the jobs it once did.

What's more, there is a creeping fear here that the nation has moved on. Nagin fretted about "Katrina fatigue" after a recent visit to Capitol Hill. The Times-Picayune worried in a front-page editorial that Washington power brokers now consider the city a burden: "They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble."

Financial aid from Washington, once expected to reach $200 billion, has stalled out at about $70 billion. President Bush's proposal to offer breaks to businesses investing in the Gulf Coast region, broadcast on national television from here, has passed the Senate. But a similar House bill failed to come up for an expected vote this month, in part because some Republicans are demanding that Gulf Coast casinos be exempt from the tax benefits. And bipartisan Senate efforts to temporarily expand Medicaid eligibility for Katrina evacuees have been stymied by vociferous White House opposition.

"There is a perception the rest of the country is uninterested," said New Orleans psychiatrist Candace Cutrone. "People are angry, disillusioned, indignant, insulted."

New Orleans meanders across more than 11 miles of low-dipping land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, and none of it has completely returned to pre-hurricane normalcy. Far from the tourist havens, on the scruffy streets of the neighborhood known as New Orleans East, Bobby Rideau's post-Katrina reality takes shape around a camping stove. Like nearly half the city, Rideau's street has no residential gas service and no power. For this 66-year-old retired liquor store clerk, that means winter approaches with no lights, no heat and no stove, unless he gets creative.

Rideau, whose car was destroyed by Katrina, hitches rides now to a hardware store that sells the propane tanks he needs to fire up his amateur-rigged heater and camping stove. "You gotta learn to improvise," he said. "This propane is worth its weight in gold on a cold night."

The highway that leads out of Rideau's New Orleans East neighborhood, and up over the Industrial Canal, flows above a graveyard of waterlogged cars stashed beneath overpasses. Each displays thick, ugly lines of brown that illustrate how high the floodwaters rose. More than 350,000 vehicles were ruined by the storm, and most remain.

Farther west, Hezzie McCaleb -- transformed by the storm into a refuse vulture in a red pickup truck -- on any given day can be found picking through the piles of debris with a discerning eye. His city has become a scavenger's refuge, a smorgasbord of junk for the desperate or the foolish or the tinkerers -- all of whom have no trouble beating cleanup crews to the street-side booty.

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