Frustration and Optimism in New Orleans
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated their city, New Orleanians are deeply dissatisfied with the rebuilding and feel overlooked by the federal government, the national media and the American public.
Still, a new poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation also reveals a deep-rooted optimism among residents of Orleans Parish, many of whom think that the area's revitalization efforts are headed in the right direction, even if they have yet to yield clear dividends.
Overall, nearly three-quarters of residents feel hopeful about the future of the greater New Orleans area. This comes despite broad pessimism about their economic prospects -- nearly two-thirds said good jobs are rare -- and low ratings for the multibillion-dollar recovery effort.
For Wanda Bailey, 54, a community activist from the Algiers neighborhood, the pace of the rebuilding is the most frustrating part. "It's just moving too slow," she said. "After three years, it's unbelievable that everything is taking so long to get moving."
More than half of New Orleans residents, 52 percent, are "dissatisfied" or outright "angry" about the amount of progress that has been made. Twenty-three percent say that their lives are "largely back to normal" since the storm hit in August 2005, and nearly a quarter are seriously considering leaving the area.
Few residents think there has been significant progress in dealing with key issues such as crime, access to health care and the public school system. More than seven in 10 are dissatisfied with efforts to increase the availability of affordable housing. Overall, few are very satisfied with their own lives, and nearly six in 10 said it is a bad time for children to be growing up in the city.
"I think it's bad," said Merline Kimble, 59, a music promoter from the Treme neighborhood who recently returned to New Orleans. "For people who want to come home, rent is more expensive, utilities are more expensive, everything's more expensive. Nobody's doing anything to get people home. A lot of people are in bad health because of stress."
One of the starkest changes compared with a similar Kaiser poll two years ago is a sharp rise in the percentage of residents reporting health problems. In part, the increase may stem from greater access to health care and professional diagnoses -- more people are now covered by health insurance, and fewer rely on emergency rooms for primary care -- but the numbers are dramatic.
Three in 10 residents rated their health as "fair" or "poor," more than double the percentage saying so in the fall of 2006. The share saying they have a serious mental illness has tripled to 15 percent, and 17 percent now take medication for "emotions, nerves or mental health." Nearly four in 10 said they have hypertension.
About eight in 10 of those surveyed said the federal government has not provided sufficient support; most think the rebuilding of New Orleans is simply not a priority for the president and Congress.
But Crescent City residents aim their criticism not only at elected representatives in Washington. Nearly two-thirds think that the American public has largely forgotten about their problems. Even more, eight in 10, are dissatisfied with insurance companies, and nearly half rated the national media's coverage negatively.
Local officials are not spared. More than seven in 10 respondents believe that the federal money allocated to the recovery effort has been mostly misspent. Nearly all of those polled said political corruption is a problem in New Orleans, with nearly six in 10 calling it a "very serious" concern.
"The problem is that too many people have their hand in the cookie jar," said Hanson Smith, 45, a firefighter from the Irish Channel section of the city. "A lot of people are thinking too much about themselves and not looking at the bigger picture. . . . That goes for city government all the way up to the federal government. Politicians will promise you the world, but when it comes down to it, it's politics as usual."
Most residents see New Orleans as split along racial and economic lines, and many see that as a problem. Among blacks, nearly half see the recovery effort as biased against them; few see their lives as back to normal; and they are more apt than whites to report physical health challenges, problems with health-care coverage and access, and inadequate wages. Twenty-six percent of blacks said they are "living comfortably," compared with 56 percent of whites who said so.
The survey was conducted March 5 to April 28 with a random sample of 1,294 adults living in Orleans Parish who were interviewed by telephone, over the Internet or face to face. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Special correspondent Mike Perlstein in New Orleans contributed to this report.