Sometimes You Wonder

Author: Michelle Krupa '00


Standing in the driveway of her three-bedroom brick ranch, complete with iron window bars twisted in the decorative New Orleans style and a dingy water mark 4 feet off the ground, Dale Atkins ’80 offered an inventory of her immediate neighbors.

“The Cantrells, they’re not coming back,” she said in early January as she pointed across Kennon Avenue toward a house that, like her own, had been gutted to the studs and shuttered with boards for the better part of the past two years. Directly next door, a manicured lawn and fresh white paint revealed a family recently returned. But just past that house, another blank slate.

“The Smiths, they’re not coming back,” Atkins said. “They didn’t have flood insurance.”

When Atkins, pictured above, moved in 1986 to this block in the sprawling section of town known as Gentilly, she quickly picked up on the neighborhood code. A single attorney just six years removed from her days as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, Atkins found that whenever she rolled in late at night, a few faces would peek out their blinds to make sure she got safely into the house. Soon Atkins started keeping an eye out, too, and learning the names of neighbors she would come to know as family.

“When there was a celebration,” she said of her old stomping ground, “everybody just joined in.”

Since the federal levees collapsed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, discharging a lake into Kennon Avenue—and into more than 134,000 houses in this city—the area has idled. Atkins, who has been the Orleans Parish Clerk of Civil District Court since 1990, visits her lot frequently to make sure her brother has cut the grass. But she now lives with her mother and 13-year-old niece a few miles away in a house that escaped flooding on a strip of high ground abutting Lake Pontchartrain.

Back in the old neighborhood, Atkins’ street offers a snapshot of New Orleans nearly two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina. Of the 15 lots on her side of the street, only six appeared inhabited in early 2008, including two with FEMA trailers on the front lawn. One lot held nothing but a concrete slab, the telltale sign of a post-flood demolition. The others displayed varying levels of vacancy, from newspaper-covered windows to wide-open front doors.

Similar scenes stretch out for miles across the disaster zone, reflecting the slow pace of progress that has dogged the recovery since the city was pumped dry in September 2005. While municipal services have returned across all of New Orleans, some of the worst-hit neighborhoods lingered for more than a year without potable water. Twice-weekly trash pickup didn’t return until 2007. And still, many sewage lift stations run on temporary diesel pumps and a patchwork of rubber pipes—precarious fixes susceptible to breaking.

Some neighborhoods surely have begun to bounce back—almost always because of re-investment by property owners and nonprofits that ventured ahead of the sluggish market—and areas of high ground have become a hive of activity. Hundreds of houses, however, continue to molder with abandoned furniture and appliances, most of them still held by original owners undecided about the future.

Official statistics are hard to come by, partly because New Orleans City Hall in September quietly shut down a program that had been tracking blight and forcing delinquent property owners to clean up or face expropriation; lack of inspectors partly forced the decision. A spokesman for Entergy New Orleans, a private utility that restored the city’s electrical grid—save three small areas near levee breaches—by January 2006, said in February that the company was back to serving only about 65 percent of its pre-Katrina customer base of 192,000 sites on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where the flooding occurred.

In another indicator, the homeless population in New Orleans and suburban Jefferson Parish has doubled since the flood, with an estimated 12,000 people going without shelter on any given day. Advocates say many of those living on the street, in shelters and in abandoned buildings are former renters and homeowners, including the elderly, who have found it impossible to resume their former lives.

Bureaucracy rules

Reasons for this state of affairs abound. Homeowners have spent months haggling with insurance companies, frequently over whether Katrina’s wind and rain—or the flood—caused property damage. If wholesale blame goes to rising water, the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program must cover the loss, easing significantly the burden on private insurers. However, residents ignorant of levee weaknesses often carried too little flood coverage to offset the cost of their every ruined possession, so even those who finalize insurance settlements sometimes get too little cash to begin rebuilding.

At the same time, the state-run, federally financed Road Home grant program has tripped on its own bureaucracy. The program, which pays as much as $150,000 per applicant to cover the difference between insurance proceeds and actual losses, had closed 97,000 grants by early February. Many of those recipients, however, had filed appeals claiming they were shortchanged, and as many as 63,000 additional awards still were creeping through the pipeline. As with insurance settlements, delays in Road Home payments have kept private rebuilding money from hitting the streets.

Public investment also has been slow. Though Congress approved about $110 billion for hurricane relief, the bulk was spent quickly for emergency needs such as debris removal. Since then, unlocking hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the long-term restoration of public assets has proven difficult. Because federal law requires the money to be paid as reimbursements, local leaders who depleted their rainy-day funds to keep government operating in late 2005 have lacked seed money to start recovery projects. While some fixes have been found—the Louisiana Legislature last year financed a $300 million revolving fund for New Orleans—city officials blame the slow pace of restoring police stations, playgrounds and other public buildings for feeding residents’ discomfort over investing their own dollars to rebuild.

Without much activity in some neighborhoods, private businesses have been slow to reopen, creating another hurdle for residents itching to return. In some areas, grocery stores remain scarce. The problem is typified by an online map hosted by the New Orleans Food & Farm Network that helps residents locate the closest food store or charity pantry—sometimes several miles away—by typing in their address.

School struggles
Also challenging has been restoring the city’s education infrastructure. The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ student census has dropped nearly a quarter since the flood, to about 40,000 students, with 86 of 106 schools reopened in February, a spokeswoman said. Meanwhile, 79 public schools in New Orleans have opened their doors, a little more than half the number as before Katrina. Among them are new charter schools that now serve more than half of city students—a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. In many low-performing schools still under local control, students who struggled before Katrina, then missed months of school after the flood, remain at least one grade behind their peers.

Crime, too, has posed obstacles to recovery. Though uncertainty about the true population makes crime rates somewhat dubious, New Orleans vied last year for the ghastly distinction of being the nation’s most murderous city, with 209 killings. The numbers of assaults and burglaries are at pre-Katrina levels, even though at least 100,000 fewer people live here. Police say a reduction in their ranks following the flood challenged officers’ ability to keep the streets safe but things are improving. Meanwhile, Governor Bobby Jindal in January authorized 300 Louisiana National Guard troops to remain in New Orleans through June to help patrol areas where few residents have returned.

Amid the dreary news, some success has emerged, usually on patches of high ground that escaped severe flooding. A local demographer recently reported that in some areas that stayed dry, current population rates exceed the pre-Katrina census, a statistic that also indicates the tight housing market. The city’s famous streetcars again roll down Saint Charles Avenue. The Louisiana Superdome in January hosted the BCS National Championship, and the NBA All-Star Game came totown the following month. More than 90 percent of the city’s 31,000 hotel rooms sold out for the weekend leading up to Mardi Gras, the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association reported. And the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival recently unveiled a star-studded lineup for its two-weekend event in April and May, with Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and the hometown Neville Brothers.

Against that backdrop, daily life in the Crescent City has taken on a decidedly “roller coaster” quality, said Helen Read Smith ’92, whose property in the Uptown neighborhood retained 4 feet of flood water, including 6 to 8 inches in the raised main house.

Some days, knowledge that the Army Corps of Engineers has not finished designing the infrastructure to protect the region from the sort of violent hurricane expected to hit once every 100 years prompts thoughts of packing up and moving north. Just as frequently, though, the reappearance of a favorite dish at a newly reopened restaurant or the report of a new population figure—an estimated 300,000 people were living in New Orleans in December, compared with 454,000 a month before the hurricane—arouses the desire to never say die.

“Sometimes you wonder: Where is the recovery? When is it coming?” said Smith, a mother of two who traces her New Orleans roots back seven generations. “Then again, maybe you’re just grateful at this time for small victories.”

Signs of hope
Among the glimmers of hope are the people from every corner of the country who have donated their sweat to New Orleans’ revival. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 1.1 million volunteers visited the area in the two years after Katrina, contributing almost $263 million in free labor. The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Catholic Charities office has hosted some 20,000 volunteers, many of whom hoisted sledgehammers to tear out ruined Sheetrock and floorboards so homeowners could make a fresh start. The Notre Dame Alumni Association has dispatched to the Gulf Coast more than 500 volunteers who have mucked out ruined buildings, rebuilt houses and constructed a playground. Other major projects have made significant impacts, including Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village and actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right initiative to build 150 homes for residents on the lots where their old ones once stood.

In March 2006, Allison DeJong participated in Notre Dame’s environmental justice and human rights seminar in New Orleans. Then a junior, she toured some of the city’s newly infamous attractions: the 17th Street Canal breach, the interstate overpasses where people took temporary refuge after being plucked off rooftops, the spot in the Lower 9th Ward where a barge landed after floating through the breached Industrial Canal levee. Like many visitors, she passed her judgment on the lifeless scenes.

“I figured out that the government wasn’t going to do a damned thing,” DeJong recalled. “I figured out that the money wasn’t coming down, so we had to do it with labor.”

Responding to what she saw in the Lower 9th Ward—a virtually empty field dotted with the occasional cleared slab or concrete front stoop leading to a vanished house—DeJong vowed to return that summer. For eight sweltering weeks, she slept in a tent and worked for the aid organization Common Ground Relief, a grassroots collective that formed after Katrina to provide food and supplies to residents moving home.

She witnessed extreme hardship. Residents needed bleach to kill mold. They needed diapers and canned baked beans and drinking water. At the charity depot, DeJong, who would settle in New Orleans after graduation to work for Catholic Charities, soon noticed that some recipients visited daily and always walked away with their arms filled. Their apparent greed infuriated her.

People were coming home to the city every day, she thought. These residents should take only what they absolutely need, or there might not be enough to go around. Then it clicked: “They were taking it for everybody on their block.”

The lesson stuck. While New Orleans could never rise from destruction without the efforts of strangers who gave their money and elbow grease, the city’s revival also would hinge on residents banding together to restore their broken neighborhoods.

Civic activism
Therein lies the other significant, if unforeseen, blessing of Katrina. While the flood forced an upheaval unseen in America since the Dust Bowl, it also sparked a surge of civic activism unprecedented in this laissez-faire town. Beginning with neighbors who searched desperately for each other at Red Cross shelters and in Internet chat rooms, the citizens’ efforts have grown into a sophisticated network of neighborhood and nonprofit groups that from the first months after the flood have worked to pull up New Orleans from its grassroots.

The movement developed, in part, of out necessity. Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration has been criticized for failing to offer sufficient support to residents, from not issuing a firm and early decree about which neighborhoods could rebuild—after some waffling, the mayor granted building permits everywhere but warned residents of unspecified “low-lying” areas of potential danger—to failing to properly notify property owners whose buildings the city intends to demolish. Meanwhile, the administration of Governor Kathleen Blanco, who left office in January after one term, faced constant haranguing about the Road Home program, as well as its poor performance as middleman between local governments and FEMA.

“We’ve had leadership that’s been shoddy and minimally present,” Smith, who is development director at the local Catholic Charities branch, said of politicians at the city and state levels. “The recovery is coming from people who believe that things are going to be better.”

Among the most prominent have been the Women of the Storm, a nonpartisan alliance of Gulf Coast women who traveled again and again to Washington with their trademark blue umbrellas to press members of Congress to visit the disaster zone and view the destruction first-hand. Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans united industry and society elites to push first for consolidation of the region’s antiquated and patronage-laden levee boards, then turned their attention to the similarly dysfunctional property assessment system in New Orleans. Even a project started as a simple tool exchange for residents repairing their own homes turned into the Beacon of Hope Resource Center, now with more than a dozen locations where residents can find information and resources to rebuild their houses—all of it provided by neighbors.

Such work has been, for many, a kind of therapy. The rebirth of long-dormant neighborhood groups helped residents focus on progress. Meetings advertised on lamppost fliers drew hundreds to debate what should become of the ruined local library, or to rally for more police surveillance to thwart thieves who steal brand-new appliances from homes under renovation; in devastated areas, so few neighbors have returned that no one notices the burglaries.

Saving a neighborhood
Kathleen Coverick, a Notre Dame senior, saw the crusade first hand when she signed on last summer as an urban planning intern for a neighborhood association that faced a particularly distressing challenge: saving their community from being wiped off the map.

In November 2005, news leaked out that the Urban Land Institute, the professional group engaged by Mayor Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, had created a map that proposed turning a handful of low-lying areas into green space. Among the neighborhoods covered by green swatches was Broadmoor, a working class enclave at the heart of the city. Though Nagin quickly distanced himself from the proposal, neighbors in Broadmoor didn’t take chances.

Almost overnight, they secured written commitments from residents who intended to rebuild. They reduced the cost of membership in the Broadmoor Improvement Association and nailed down their vision of the future. As plans developed, they got the Clinton Global Initiative, Harvard University and others to provide planning support unavailable through City Hall.

By the time Coverick arrived, Broadmoor residents knew what they needed: a community hub. But rather than simply restoring the local commercial strip, they would convert it into in an “educational corridor” where service providers like the YMCA could locate.

Coverick, whose work was financed by a grant from the Hesburgh Program in Public Service, spent months trying to figure out how many children would return to the area and making lists of service providers that might get on board. Working beside residents who had lost their homes, she glimpsed the community spirit that has grown into the engine of recovery. “A lot of people couldn’t really do anything to their own homes because they were waiting for Road Home money or other money for their personal houses to come through,” she said. “The homeowners association is kind of a dead concept; people are self-centered, and they do their own thing. But the Broadmoor Improvement Association gave them an opportunity to help. It wasn’t just about a single house. It was about a bigger picture.”

Atkins, at her most dismal moments, bemoans all the hardships that have followed in Katrina’s wake. She’s most angry that federal leaders never stepped in to mitigate the squabbles between property owners and private insurers, several of which have wound up as court cases highly publicized across the region. And she laments the malady of blight that continues to plague her old neighborhood, where she first laid down her own roots in the city of her great-great-grandparents.

“The hardest part thing for us was just losing a way of life,” she said as she stood in her driveway. “I don’t know if we’ll get that again. I mean, how can we when we’re over two years and, look, this is what we have? We keep hearing that New Orleans is going to be better: the new New Orleans is going to be a better New Orleans. I don’t know what that means.”

Then, in Atkins’ very next breath, comes a commitment she has made to her neighbors when their paths have crossed on trips to check on vacant houses, a commitment that echoes even through this city’s loneliest streets, where recovery seems little more than a hopeless wish. Though she cannot say when, Atkins will one day build back in Gentilly.

“I’m just not going to let Katrina beat me,” she said.

Michelle Krupa is a reporter at The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. She can be reached at

Photos by Matt Cashore