Hurry Up and Wait

By Jennifer Moses
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- It is a source of unending perplexity in Louisiana that so far America has spent some $320 billion in Iraq for nation-building, whereas in New Orleans, homeowners have so far seen precisely zero.

Not that there isn't talk. A federally funded program with the Disneyfied name of "The Road Home" is due to start distributing thousands of dollars to uninsured homeowners . . . eventually. Additional billions have been poured into the coffers of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose design flaws caused the city's levees to rupture in the first place, and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, according to a just-released report, awarded more than 70 percent of its contracts through a no-bid or limited-bid process.

Meanwhile, it's the same-old same-old: Those whose mortgage companies insisted that they carry flood insurance -- exactly the people whose resources would have allowed them to get back on their feet with or without insurance money -- are rebuilding. Those without, which means just about everybody, have to hurry up and wait.

Even for those brave souls who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt their homes with sweat equity, a larger problem remains: infrastructure. All but a handful of public schools are shuttered; the hospitals are so badly crippled that in case of an emergency most people assume they'll need to drive to Baton Rouge; the courts have gone from limping along to entirely dysfunctional; the electric grid is so fragile that regular power outages are a non-event; and in many parts of town, water lines still haven't been laid. Firefighters: Who needs 'em? Police? Oh, well.

According to Collette Creppell, chief architect at Tulane University and a former New Orleans city planner, ever since President Bush faced the nation from Jackson Square a year ago and declared that "the work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," New Orleanians have been holding their breath, waiting for a construction boom. But without delivery of basic services, they might as well wait until doomsday.

In addition, though the Bush administration claims to have allotted some $110 billion for the Gulf Coast region -- which isn't chump change by anyone's standards -- only a small fraction of it is going to New Orleans, and a huge percentage of those dollars came from federally backed flood insurance programs. That Uncle Sam is all but absent on the street isn't surprising, given how long he dillydallied before showing up in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina ripped a hole in the landscape and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.

In the largely affluent South Lakeview neighborhood, where houses took in an average of 11 feet of water, the work of getting infrastructure up and running is being shouldered entirely by an all-volunteer organization called Beacon of Hope, created and run by a local homeowner, Denise Thornton. According to Thornton, "Help from the government simply isn't going to come -- no one has seen a penny."

Even among residents whose homeowners' policies should allow them to rebuild there is great uncertainty, in part because people are still fighting with their insurance companies, but more often because without, say, electricity or sewerage, it's hard to get up and running. On top of everything else, it's almost impossible for individual homeowners to negotiate the mountain of bureaucracy that you have to climb just to get going. "The average Joe just can't do it," Thornton said. "It's not just about people in the Lower Ninth. It's everyone."

Today the population of the city is the same as it was in about 1880, but that would include the thousands of undocumented Mexican immigrants who are doing the bulk of the repair work -- and whose presence is an open secret -- and the additional thousands of largely white, largely unskilled blue-collar workers who have come to New Orleans in search of employment.

Along with the first anniversary of the catastrophe, New Orleanians are bracing for the height of the hurricane season, which starts just about now. Happily for them, a whole bevy of politicians -- you might even say a veritable storm of them -- are flying down from Washington to mark the occasion. I can't say for sure, but I'd hazard a guess that a whole lot of pretty words will be said.

Jennifer Moses is a writer who lives in Baton Rouge.

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