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."
For any passerby, the vast arrays of empty subdivisions, abandoned shopping centers and vacant office complexes pose a troubling riddle: What happened to everyone who once populated these homes, these shops, these playgrounds? Will they ever return?
To better understand the decisions facing Katrina's displaced, The Post selected a typical abandoned street and tracked down as many of its former residents as possible. Beechwood Court in New Orleans East represents one of the city's largest middle-class areas, just the sort of neighborhood that must come back if the city is to recover.
If Beechwood Court is any guide, many city neighborhoods will be sparsely populated for years to come.
Eighteen families, most of them African American, lived in the handsome brick homes facing the street, a pleasant suburban cul-de-sac of big yards and picturesque live oaks. Everyone worked -- there were a couple of truck drivers, a few small-business owners -- and residents enjoyed a community pool and tennis courts. Most had at least some flood insurance coverage.
Then came Katrina, which flooded homes up to 10 feet. Now on Beechwood Court there are waist-high weeds and an unnatural quiet. Houses yawn open, their front doors creaking with the breeze. The community pool is filled with murk. Nearby commercial strips contain shuttered banks, vacant grocery stores, empty parking lots.
"It's kind of like a wilderness now," said Errol Smith, 58, a consultant to an accounting firm and a former Beechwood Court resident. Like most of his neighbors, he has no immediate plans to return, which he says would require "living like a pioneer."
"Too desolate," he said.
The Post was able to find and speak with members of 15 of Beechwood Court's 18 households.
Five of them have plans to be living on Beechwood by the end of the year. The biggest holdup for these people has been securing contractors and getting the work done from afar.
"Every day you do a little," said William Atkins, a 45-year-old truck driver who, along with his wife and children, is living with relatives in nearby Gretna, La. "Hopefully next month. I'm waiting on cabinets now."
But 10 other families, living as far away as Dallas, Nashville and Cape Cod, have no immediate plans for returning.
Eight of those 10 said they had bought homes elsewhere or were otherwise unlikely to return. Two said they were holding out hope that they could get enough federal housing aid to rebuild their Beechwood Court homes.
Many asked: What is there to come back to?
"We loved our neighborhood, we loved our life, we loved our home," said Denise Charbonnet, 53, a Navy contractor whose job was transferred from New Orleans to Memphis. "But it's not the same. There are no stores. There are no gas stations. They do have streetlights on the main streets, but within the communities, it's dark. Can you imagine being the only person living on a block?"
Lester and Cynthia Horne and their two children were drawn back almost as soon as electricity was restored. They parked a trailer in front of their flooded two-story home and posted a sign outside that says, "I Will Rebuild! I Am New Orleans!"
"I was just so happy," said Cynthia Horne, 46, an executive assistant. "I figured lots more would come home, too."
But nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, the Hornes are the only ones who have moved back to Beechwood Court.
Some people ask: How could so much of a major American metropolis and the adjoining Gulf Coast have been abandoned for so long?
The federal government is planning to spend more than $107 billion on the region's recovery. But a year out from the storm, even the cleanup has not been finished.
Nearly a third of the hurricane trash in New Orleans has yet to be picked up, according to federal Gulf Coast Recovery Coordinator Donald E. Powell, and there is still some to be cleared in Mississippi, as well.
Debris-removal efforts have been hampered by complicated regulations meant to protect against hazardous waste and the destruction of private or historic properties.
"We talk a lot about debris -- it's the most symbolic evidence of things moving forward," Powell said. "You might say, 'Well, gosh, it's been a year.' But it's important to realize how large a catastrophic event this was."
The amount of insured damage from Katrina was more than $55 billion, greater than that from Hurricane Andrew, the World Trade Center attacks and the Northridge earthquake combined.
More than 124,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged throughout the South in last year's hurricane season, a large majority of them in Louisiana and Mississippi, according to statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But while the impact of the natural disaster was certainly vast, there have been plenty of man-made complications in the recovery.
It wasn't until this spring, for example, that people got an idea of how safe New Orleans would be from flooding in the next storm. The federal government initiated spending about $5.7 billion for the New Orleans area levee repairs.
Even then, uncertainty remained: The flood-protection system is not guaranteed to hold when a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane strikes.
Moreover, because so many people lacked the money to rebuild, Congress eventually ponied up more than $13 billion for affected former residents -- $9 billion in Louisiana and $4 billion in Mississippi. But that money has just begun to flow into homeowners' hands.
And even among New Orleanians who have enough money to rebuild -- and several on Beechwood Court do -- some are daunted by the possibility that their neighborhoods will never return to life, and that the city will for financial reasons suspend services such as police and fire protection there.
The trouble is that the city has yet to settle on a rebuilding plan. A committee appointed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin developed a conceptual plan in January, but it was never carried out. The City Council tried coming up with a plan, too. Then in July, city leaders announced that they were taking a new tack, setting up another panel to develop rebuilding plans.
"It was just the perfect storm of bad policy," said Reed Kroloff, the architecture dean at Tulane University, who worked on the mayor's first rebuilding plan. "If you wanted to kill a city, this was the way to do it. . . . God help the people of modest economic circumstances waiting from Nashville, Tennessee, wondering if they can ever come home."
Many families who tired of waiting have set up lives elsewhere. And even for those people who have the money to rebuild, and who have a job to come back to, the decision to return can be a difficult one.
Many must weigh coming back to "ghost town" circumstances -- living in a largely abandoned subdivision, driving miles to find an open grocery and transferring their children to another school because most have been closed.
It is inconvenient and gloomy, and working on many people's nerves is the fear that the city, geographically vulnerable, will be struck again.
Beechwood Court and much of its surroundings in New Orleans East lie about four feet below sea level.
Like many others, Frank Stallings, 42, the owner of an industrial cleaning service and a father of four, is torn between the pull of his roots in the city and the fear that another catastrophe could strike.
These days, the New Orleans native has been reluctantly trying to restart his business in the Houston area.
"We intended to be there [on Beechwood Court] forever -- it was the true 'Brady Bunch' setting," he said. "But a smart man knows that's swampland -- and eventually nature will take it back. So you tell me: Does it make any sense to rebuild there?"
He is only trying to be realistic, he says, but he sounds exasperated. Then he mentions the five times he has returned to his home town, and his voice cracks.
"Do I cry every time I go back there? Yes, I do," he said. "It was home."
Staff writer Catharine Skipp in Miami and researchers Rena Kirsch and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.