Silence After the Storm

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- When it was fresh, the epic wreckage of Hurricane Katrina inspired rallying cries of "We will rebuild!" But a year after the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, vast stretches of this city and the Gulf Coast are still largely abandoned, and many here wonder whether the destruction may be more permanent than anyone could at first conceive.

Tallies of electric bills and school enrollment figures show that less than half of New Orleans's pre-storm population of 455,000 has returned. The population of adjacent St. Bernard Parish has shrunk from 65,000 to less than 20,000. In small towns along the Mississippi Coast from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, fewer than 5 percent of destroyed homes are being rebuilt.

Exactly how long the damaged areas will take to recover -- if they recover -- has been a matter of intense speculation ever since the waters receded. But with each passing day, more of the displaced are buying houses or signing leases in faraway cities, and the weeds in the abandoned yards grow higher.

By one measure, this "ghost town" effect may be long-lasting. On one typical middle-class New Orleans street that was flooded, 10 of 15 families surveyed by The Washington Post said they have no plans to return this year, if ever. Only one family of the 15 has gone back so far.

"Don't assume those people who've left the city are just waiting to come back -- they're not," said Rob Couhig, a New Orleans businessman who chairs a mayoral panel to kick-start the recovery. "Katrina has fundamentally changed the population of this city."

The prolonged absence of people -- tens of thousands of them -- is perplexing officials all along the 80-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast whacked by Katrina, from New Orleans to Biloxi.

"We thought there'd be a lot more people pulling building permits by now," said Jerry Creel, Biloxi's community development director. "We're not sure where they are."

Money is one problem. The billions in federal relief funds for homeowners began to flow just a few weeks ago. Some insurance settlements have been contentious and slow.

Some people have stayed away out of fear -- no one knows what the next hurricane might do because the levees are not guaranteed to protect in a major hurricane.

And as the economy has shriveled along with the population, jobs have disappeared. Employment in the sprawling New Orleans region has shrunk to 437,000 jobs, off about 30 percent from pre-storm levels, and within the city, the percentage is considerably higher.

Today, visitors of all kinds -- tourists, volunteer crews -- come away shaken by the scope of the disaster and its lingering aftermath. Despite extensive television attention, it is one of the few natural disasters in the United States that may have been understated by the coverage. The extent of the wreckage -- block after block of darkened windows and trash-strewn yards -- is simply too far-reaching to be captured in video clips.

"Halfway through every tour, there is silence like a funeral," said Isabelle Cossart, whose New Orleans tour company used to focus on the French Quarter and other historical sites. It now depends on giving people a 3 1/2 -hour glimpse of the devastation. "Even if they've seen every bit of television coverage, they all say, 'It's so much worse than we thought.' They're just so surprised that it goes on for miles and miles."

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