President to find city still struggling 18 months after Katrina

Published 7:25 pm Thursday, March 1, 2007

Marilyn Crump has a message for President Bush: Don’t forget New Orleans.

Bush is scheduled to visit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans Thursday, making his first trip here in six months to meet with state and local officials and visit a charter school. What he will find is a city of extremes, where life abounds in isolated areas, spurred by the determination of residents, and is eerily lacking in others, a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.

“On every level, I want our government to get together,” said Crump, who is living on the second floor of her house in the Broadmoor neighborhood while she repairs the flooded first floor. “Don’t forget us. Cut out the crap, and let’s rebuild.”

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Progress has been made, but slowly.

Health care is limited. Violent crime has surged; so have rental costs. Many public schools have been re-opened, most as charter schools, but some are struggling to hire teachers.

Meanwhile, a blueprint for rebuilding is still making its way through city government.

Parts of the New Orleans still lie in ruins. Just last week, two residents got the keys to what are believed to be the first houses built in the Lower 9th Ward since Katrina. There, and in other areas, houses have yet to be gutted or are otherwise empty. Many small businesses, including retail and specialty shops in the French Quarter, are struggling.

“It’s important to have better progress, and we certainly want to make sure that everybody works together to get the situation cleaned up as soon as possible,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said in Washington on Wednesday in advance of Bush’s visit.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said people are losing patience and that he plans to press Bush to speed the flow of federal aid to his cash-strapped city. The Democrat-led Congress has held hearings, introduced legislation to cancel storm-related bureaucracy and pressed the administration to do more.

Not everyone is waiting on government. That’s obvious driving through hard-hit neighborhoods like Broadmoor or Lakeview, where houses are being rebuilt, business is slowly returning and residents are leading redevelopment.

“Frankly, the goverment is a problem,” Hal Roark, executive director of the Broadmoor Development Corp., created to raise money and find partners to help rebuild a neighborhood once eyed by planners as post-Katrina green space. “It is a resource to be tolerated, not an asset to be celebrated. You can quote that.”

The neighborhood, which flies “Broadmoor LIVES” banners on utility polls, plans to charter a school for the upcoming term; it’s working with universities to help design buildings and expects about 70 percent of its houses to be renovated by December, he said.

In Lakeview, volunteer groups have helped repair playgrounds and spruce-up common areas. The neighborhood is considering hiring a grant writer and hopes to plant hundreds of trees and shrubs and clear debris with the help of West Point cadets later this month.

“Psychologically, there’s a huge difference between driving into a neighborhood with damaged homes that looks like someone is there and taking care of things rather than (being) empty and with intermittent trees,” Bari Landry, president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, said.

Even if the federal government provided more money, it likely wouldn’t be enough to create the kinds of neighborhoods many residents envision, she said. The cost of the city’s rebuilding proposal, which excludes many neighborhood wish-list items, is $14 billion.

“We need the federal government to do its part. We need to see the beginning of an avalanche of help,” city council member Shelley Midura said.

“This should be a no-brainer. … The levees breaking was their fault,” she added, speaking of the federally designed and built flood control structures that failed during Katrina

Among the city’s requests: the forgiveness of $240 million in disaster loans that it’s relying on to operate.

The government has dedicated about $110 billion to the Gulf Coast since the 2005 hurricanes, and Bush remains committed to the region, Donald Powell, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, said. He said his office will work with state and local officials if and when the need for more funding arises.

As of Friday, just $368 million of the $1 billion set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm-damaged infrastructure had made its way to the city from the state agency charged with disbursing it. The contractor hired by the state to buy-out homeowners or help them rebuild has given out a fraction of the program’s $7.5 billion.

For Wilbert Wilson, the time for fingerpointing is over. The barber is struggling to re-establish his business, he hasn’t even started rebuilding his flood-damaged houses, and, like Crump, wants to make sure he and others like him are not forgotten.

“Overall, I think the government will get better, even though they have a black eye for not taking care of business,” said Wilson, who got startup help from a local investment group but worries about the next few months.

“You have to be hopeful,” he said, “because this is what we live by.”