'Home. This Was Home.'

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

NEW ORLEANS If you haven't been here, you can't really understand what happened to this city one year ago. Both words and pictures are inadequate; no elegy is poignant enough, no lens able to capture the full breadth and depth. Spike Lee's film "When the Levees Broke" probably comes closest, but even after four hours you feel the movie has just sketched the outlines.

As the inevitable anniversary commemorations take place, the people of New Orleans can point to the progress they're making toward recovery, house by house, block by block. An occasional visitor like me, though, is struck by how much of the city remains in ruins, and is saddened by how much of it seems gone forever.

It's not really fair to look at the year-old mounds of filthy, sodden debris and just slam the city government for not having an effective reconstruction plan. Mayor Ray Nagin may have been shooting from the lip when he pointed out that Manhattan still has a "hole in the ground" five years after Sept. 11, but he was telling the truth. You don't fix a whole city in a year.

And there is an emergent renewal plan. It's just not something people are ready to talk honestly about.

Last year, with most of the city still underwater, George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and promised to rebuild New Orleans. He could have made good on that promise -- this is the United States of America, after all, and we undertake to rebuild entire countries (Afghanistan, Iraq) and even continents (Europe after World War II). The White House says it has earmarked $110 billion for Gulf Coast reconstruction, but less than half that money has been spent. Even assuming New Orleans gets its fair share, that's not enough to ever put this city back together again.

Call me cynical, but I didn't really expect this administration to come up with serious Marshall Plan money to rebuild a poor, mostly black city that was already in decline before Hurricane Katrina and the Army Corps of Engineers administered the coup de grace. (They still toss in a lot of French words down here.)

So, as everyone understands but no one wants to plainly acknowledge, New Orleans will become a smaller, whiter city. The Big Easy once was home to more than 600,000 people and had around 450,000 residents as Katrina approached. Now the population is under 200,000. A major city has become minor.

The Lower Ninth Ward -- poor, black, utterly devastated and cursed with precarious geography -- will never be the same. Some hard-hit white areas, such as parts of Lakeview, also may have to be written off. But for a variety of reasons, including the remorseless logic of the marketplace, black New Orleans will lose more. For-sale signs abound throughout the city, and as its infrastructure gets put back together, some parts of town will even experience a real estate boom. But a flooded cottage in the right neighborhood might be worth good money to a developer, while the same cottage in the wrong neighborhood isn't worth what it would cost to haul the debris away.

The Lower Ninth hasn't changed much in the past year. Some houses that were washed into the middle of the street have been demolished and removed, but block after block lies untouched. Electric wires dangle menacingly, but there's no danger, because there's no power. In the worst-hit sectors there are no people, just wrecked houses and heaps of debris. What became perhaps the most-photographed piece of post-Katrina graffiti -- the word "Baghdad" marking a smashed house on Reynes Street -- is still there. On an abandoned two-story brick house up the street, someone has spray-painted a simple truth: "HOME. THIS WAS HOME."

What broke my heart was a drive through Holy Cross, the slightly elevated strip of the Lower Ninth that was battered by the flood but not destroyed. It, too, looked almost exactly the way it did a year ago. Some families had returned; there were a few FEMA trailers, but not many. A house being rehabbed as a demonstration project by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans had a fresh coat of pink paint and obviously was undergoing major repairs, but the rest of that block was a mess. And the next block, and the next, and the next.

Those homeowners who have resources will rebuild and get on with their lives. Those who have no resources will not rebuild, and their neighborhoods will be lost. Those poor black people we saw stranded on roofs and trapped in the Superdome will get on with their lives, too. They'll just have to live those lives somewhere else.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company