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1095 DAYS
By Mike Longman and Jarrett Murphy
A stopped clock inside a ravaged Lower Ninth Ward high school. Cover image: Steps to a vanished house. Photos: Jarrett Murphy
This special edition of City Limits Investigates is a departure for us as our focus shifts from AUGUST 29, 2008
New York to another great American city: New Orleans. As chroniclers of critical urban is-
sues, we felt the third anniversary of Katrina could not pass without our taking a close look
at the current state of affairs in the Crescent City.
New York’s horrific experience of 9/11, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the great
Chicago fire of 1871 notwithstanding, Katrina is the greatest urban disaster this county
has ever experienced. The hurricane and its flooding left more than 1,800 dead, caused
more than $80 billion in damages and forced more than one million people from the central
Gulf coast to migrate. Katrina precipitated the largest Diaspora in the history of the United
States. It also was the occasion of arguably the worst emergency response to a major disas-
New Orleans,
ter in U.S. history. The images of those left behind at the Convention Center or the faces of
the desperate stranded on rooftops in the Lower Ninth Ward remain etched by anger and
Three Years Later
shame into the consciousness of the nation.
Now three years later, after much of the attention and initial outpouring of concern has
begun to fade and the last of the $105 billion in federal assistance to the Gulf Coast is in I. The forecast p.5
the pipeline, New Orleans faces new challenges. Rebuilding the city successfully requires II. Best-laid plans p.6
answers to a set of complex questions: How to reconcile big plans and individual initiative, III. Radical surgery p.9
how to harness private action and responsibly guide public investment, and how to balance IV. After math p.12
the fragile state of many neighborhoods and grassroots striving with efficiency, business
growth and infrastructure needs. V. HOPE and fear p.15
As meaningful large-scale planning efforts have only just now worked their way through
VI. Safety first? p.18
the thickets of politics and process, the face of progress up until to this point has been the VII. Guess who’s coming p.21
dedicated efforts of individuals. Since 2005, 80 percent of the building permits in New Or- VIII. Salvage operation p.26
leans have been filed by owners of one- or two-family residences. Mike Longman and Jarrett
Murphy take a look in this issue at how these efforts are shaping New Orleans and how the IN FOCUS
efforts of the city, state and feds collide to empower or frustrate such individual and com- Katrina on the Stump p.8
munity based initiatives. The nominees on New Orleans
Besides dealing with the transformative hand of nature and the consequences of fed- Ready or Not p.15
eral malfeasance, the city struggles now as before with a crippling crime rate and troubled In NYC, waters and risks rise
schools. New Orleans lies in a flood plain. It also remains the cradle of indispensible pieces
Firm Plans? p.19
of our culture and national identity. Thousands call it home. Thousands have left and we
A vote on post-storm visions
don’t know if they will ever come back.
This issue tries to get at just what kind of city is being made. Whose interests are protected
and whose neglected? What forces will determine the character of the “new” New Orleans?
New Orleans is a city filled with questions—questions we all have a stake in answering.
—Andy Breslau,
Jarrett Murphy
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Like blank slates, slabs from destroyed houses dot the landscape
in hard-hit New Orleans neighborhoods. Photo: JM

with research by Kalyn Belsha

A smaller New Orleans faces the future
AS LATE AS LUNCHTIME on the last Friday in August of 2005,
the National Hurricane Center predicted that Hurricane
Katrina could make its second landfall anywhere from
Tampa, Florida to Galveston, Texas—a swath of the Gulf
Coast spanning five states and 500 miles. At that hour, the
storm (which had already roared through the Miami area)
was deemed more likely to hit the area around Pensacola,
on the Florida panhandle, than New Orleans. Over that
afternoon, as Katrina strengthened, it tracked further west
than expected, then swung north. The forecast changed.
What happened in the days that followed was
emblazoned on collective memory: A great city under
water, desperate people screaming from rooftops
and attics, families wading through chest deep water
or sweltering in the Superdome, a dead woman left in
her wheelchair. The outcry over the television images
beamed from New Orleans forced the White House to go
beyond its initial flyover approach and send President
Bush to a generator-lit Jackson Square to pledge:
“Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do
what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help
citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And
all who question the future of the Crescent City need to
know there is no way to imagine America without New
Orleans, and this great city will rise again.”

But now the city does have a plan, and
it could either empower or enervate the
individual efforts that have kept the
city alive. Several rounds of sometimes
competing and conflicting discussions
of how to rebuild ended last summer
with the adoption of the Unified New
Orleans Plan, an effort funded by the
Rockefeller Foundation. Now people in
New Orleans’ neighborhoods wonder
how much of their input to that plan will
get action—and how much action of any
kind there will be, since the plan is un-
derfunded by anywhere from hundreds
of millions to several billion dollars.
New Orleans is coming back. But
no one knows what kind of city will ar-
rive when the comeback is complete—
whether it will be a place with room for
those who rebuilt with their own hands
and those on the outside who still want
to return.

II. Best-laid plains
The president speaks from an empty Jackson Square in September 2005. Photo: White House
When the floodwaters reached their
Three years later, New Orleans’ out- ing deadline to vacate temporary trail- peak, 80 percent of New Orleans was
look is as uncertain as was Katrina’s path ers are going to get the city moving, or under water—some under two feet, but
that Friday before the storm struck. merely hurt people trying to regain a parts under 10. “It’s hard for people
There is real progress: Houses are be- foothold. Many streets are barely pass- to understand how pervasive Katrina
ing rebuilt, even in hard-hit areas. Most able, the sewer system is in worse shape was,” says Chris Bonura, a resident of
schools are up and running. Improved now than when it was leaking raw sew- the Mid-City neighborhood. “It’s as if
flood protections are going into place. age before Katrina and in a matter of somebody pushed the reset button on
The last streetcar line to be repaired re- months the city is going to take respon- our whole civilization.”
sumed service this spring. Blues, jazz, sibility for thousands of properties that Destruction is still visible in much
zydeco and funk still mingle in the air fleeing homeowners sold to the state. of the city today. “The storm is every-
out on Frenchman Street. Overstuffed These obstacles are just the latest where,” says transplanted New Yorker
‘Po Boys and blazing-red crawfish are that New Orleans has faced. For many Eve Abrams. The areas that tourists fre-
still on the menu. of the first, critical months of its re- quent, like the French Quarter, never
But for all that seems back to nor- covery, the city had no blueprint for flooded because they sit on a natural
mal, at least 150,000 New Orleanians rebuilding. Into the vacuum stepped rise of ground and look about as they
displaced by the storm have not re- individuals and grassroots groups who did before the calamity. In the part of
turned to their city. They are believed decided to rebuild their own parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, however, where
to be overwhelmingly—although not the Crescent City. Homeowners bor- water burst from the levee with enough
exclusively—black and poor. And with rowed money or applied life savings force to toss houses on top of houses,
population re-growth slowing in the to pay for repairs. Volunteers gutted many blocks have nothing but slabs left
past year, there is a growing feeling old houses and constructed new ones. from demolished homes. In the nearby
that those who are coming back to New These uncoordinated, autonomous St. Claude neighborhood, houses are
Orleans have already arrived. acts of survival are the face of redevel- standing but several still bear markings
Thousands of people who have re- opment in New Orleans to date. Of the from the teams that searched for corps-
turned are still waiting for rebuilding 30,000 building permit applications re- es after the storm—a spray-painted X
grants. Levees and flood barriers are corded in New Orleans since the storm separating the date of survey, the agen-
still under construction. It’s unclear if struck, 80 percent were filed by owners cy that searched and the number of
a new crackdown on blight and a loom- of one- or two-family residences. bodies found. Even in middle-class ar-

6 SPRING 2008

While much of the city suffered, the devastation in the Lower Ninth was most dramatic because the water moved through at high velocity. Photo: JM

eas of the city like the Carrollton neigh- homes. In some cases, the storm made the third-worst performance in the
borhood on the city’s western flank, a existing problems worse. Thanks to Ka- state. Civic leaders said they wanted
street of healthy-looking houses might trina, local analyst Peter Reichard tells the post-storm plan to address these
include a vacant lot or a severely dam- City Limits, “All this rotten infrastruc- pre-Katrina problems. The slogan was
aged residence. ture was marinating for weeks under that New Orleans should come back
New Orleans neighborhoods have al- salty water.” from Katrina, but come back better.
ways had a patchwork feel. Before Ka- The pre-storm decay was on the Since then, New Orleans has certainly
trina, one could walk through a block of minds of people who, as the waters not wanted for plans. The Federal Emer-
gorgeous Garden District homes, cross dropped, began thinking about the city’s gency Management Agency (FEMA)
a street, and find oneself among struc- future. For all its singular charms, New drew up a plan for the whole city. Har-
tures resembling shacks more than Orleans was a city plagued by poverty, vard students crafted one for the Broad-
houses. The very rich and the very crime and failing schools. The city’s moor neighborhood. The Association
poor lived across the street from each poverty rate was roughly 23 percent in of Communities Organizing for Reform
other; the postcard shot was always a 2004, higher than New York City’s 20 Now (ACORN) made a plan for the Low-
quick camera-pan from an illustration percent. In 2004, a New Orleans resi- er Ninth. New Orleans East had already
of urban decay. That pre-existing mix dent was eight times more likely to be drafted a Renaissance Plan before the
makes it hard to discern why a par- murdered than a person in New York. storm. Other neighborhoods also forged
ticular house looks wounded. “Was it And among U.S. states on fourth grade their own visions of post-Katrina rebuild-
always like that, or is that because of math and reading scores in 2005, Louisi- ing. These efforts have taken a back
the storm?” is something Abrams often ana ranked 47th and 48th, respectively; seat, however, to three successive waves
asks herself when she sees damaged that year, New Orleans students posted of citywide planning.

SPRING 2008 7

City government launched its first which became known as the Lambert
planning process with the Bring New Plan, produced 42 separate strategies
KATRINA ON Orleans Back commission, which
Mayor C. Ray Nagin appointed in
for the city’s neighborhoods.
But by the time the Lambert Plan
THE STUMP September 2005. In January 2006, the
commission issued a battery of reports
had been completed in October 2006, a
third and separate planning process was
The nominees on covering everything from land use to underway—the Unified New Orleans
New Orleans infrastructure, culture and economic Plan, run by the Greater New Orleans
When Sen. John McCain visited the Lower development. The plan called for a fast- Foundation and anchored by a $3.5 mil-
Ninth Ward in April, he made a promise. track neighborhood planning process lion grant from the Rockefeller Foun-
“Never again, never again will a disaster of to be completed by May 2006. It also dation. Support for UNOP grew out of
this nature be handled in the terrible and recommended a moratorium on build- a sense that neither Nagin’s nor the
disgraceful way this was handled,” he said. ing permits in heavily flooded areas and Council’s plan would contain the level
At a New Orleans rally in February, Sen. called for the consolidation of lightly of detail needed to convince the Louisi-
Barack Obama had almost the same cri- populated sections. The plan said that ana Recovery Authority to release mil-
tique of what happened in 2005, describing neighborhoods would have to prove lions in federal recovery funds.
“a trust that was broken—the promise that their viability as loci of redevelopment From July until the following Janu-
our government will be prepared, will pro- before the city would invest in them. ary, the UNOP process unfolded in doz-
tect us, and will respond in a catastrophe.”
Planners now look back on the ens of community meetings and design
In September 2005, both McCain and
BNOB with some admiration for its am- sessions. Residents got to model what
Obama voted for a bill providing emer-
gency assistance to the Gulf Coast. Later bition and its attempt to reduce the pop- their area could look like. Different re-
that month McCain opposed extending ulation’s exposure to floods and create covery scenarios were discussed. The
unemployment insurance for people af- denser neighborhoods to which a cash- Nagin administration, however, was
fected by the storm; Obama backed it. strapped city could actually provide ser- cool to the UNOP idea. One of the plan-
Obama also voted for and McCain against vices. But when the Bring New Orleans ners who worked on UNOP was Laurie
a commission to investigate the govern- Back plan emerged, only 150,000 peo- Johnson, a disaster planner who’d done
ment response to the storm. ple were back in town—a third of the work in Los Angeles and Kobe, Japan
Since then, most funding for Gulf Coast pre-storm population. The plan seemed after devastating earthquakes, as well
recovery has been attached to bills provid- like a prelude to writing some areas of as Grand Forks, Iowa after their 1997
ing supplemental appropriations for the the city off before people had a chance floods. The tepid support from City
war in Iraq. On the first such bill in late
to return and fight for them. Hall complicated the UNOP effort. “It
2005, McCain called $29 billion in hurri-
cane recovery money “non-germane” to
The backlash was intense. Nagin, was hard to know who your client was
the Iraq mission. He did not vote on final who faced re-election later in the year, in that atmosphere,” says Johnson.
passage. Obama voted “yes.” immediately pulled back, disavowed In early 2007, UNOP presented its
In a speech in April, McCain applauded the moratorium on building permits report—a nearly 600-page epic that de-
state-led efforts to improve workforce de- and added red-ink addenda to the plan, scribed the assets, damage and wish-list
velopment in New Orleans and called on including a promise that, “The areas of every planning district, as well as a
businesses to invest in areas like the Low- where people are investing and rebuild- citywide infrastructure plan. There was
er Ninth. He said he’d ask corporations to ing now are where the city will invest an emphasis on sustainable development
help with the response to future emergen- in immediate neighborhood redevelop- and a greener city: bike paths, green ma-
cies. And he decried post-storm spending. ment. That is not to say that all areas terials, mass transit. The Lower Ninth
“In the conduct of Congress in the year won’t be rebuilt.” Ward plan, for example, called for better
after Katrina and Rita, we saw the same
With the mayor’s plan stalling, the flood protections, wetlands restoration,
excesses, lack of focus, and short-term
thinking that left New Orleans vulnerable New Orleans City Council in April 2006 an improved community center, busi-
in the first place,” he said. launched a rival planning process. This ness incubation, parks rehabilitation,
Obama’s position paper on New Or- was controversial from the start: The rental assistance, better mass transit,
leans sets an “ultimate goal of protecting Bureau of Governmental Research, a and senior housing, among other items.
the entire city from a Category 5 storm.” It local watchdog group, said the Coun- On the crucial question of whether to
also calls for incentives to lure doctors to cil violated city rules by awarding $2.9 rebuild in severely damaged neighbor-
to the city, more rental housing and having million to the planners without taking hoods, UNOP charted a path between
the federal rebuilding coordinator report bids. But unlike the mayor’s plan, the the mayor’s plan, which suggested
directly to the president “so that rebuild- council effort had a substantial out- some areas might never return, and the
ing remains a national priority.” —JM reach component, involving dozens council plan, which simply assumed that
of community meetings. The effort, every area would. “One of the things

8 SPRING 2008

Mayor Nagin makes plans. Photo: City of New Orleans

[UNOP] started to say was that all the release of $117 million in federal one of New Orleans quieter neighbor-
neighborhoods were coming back—a Community Development Block Grant hoods. Its racially diverse population is
portion of the Lower Ninth would come funds—and opening a new debate over so laid back that in better times, it was
back, it just might not all come back,” whether the months of community considered a prime spot for families to
says Johnson. For flood-prone areas, planning will actually shape how New take their kids to Mardi Gras parades,
the UNOP district plans backed a volun- Orleans rebuilds. which elsewhere can range from in-
tary land-swap to concentrate smaller tense to downright raunchy.
populations in safer zones. People with Now, the area is the target of state
property close to the floodwall would
III. Radical surgery and city leaders who want New Or-
exchange their land for a vacated parcel In one neighborhood in the heart of town, leans to have a new, better version of
on higher ground and closer to other that debate is playing out in sharp relief. “Big Charity.”
returning residents. If you have ever taken the cab ride Louisiana has a method for providing
The UNOP effort, which the Bush- from Louis Armstrong International healthcare to the poor that differs from
Clinton Katrina Fund joined Rockefeller Airport into New Orleans, odds are you most other states; rather than running
in funding, triggered some resentment remember the city swinging into view insurance programs to cover uninsured
on the ground—reflecting a suspicion from the elevated expressway. If you people, the state funds a system of public
that outsiders wanted to use New Or- happened to glance to your left while hospitals to which indigent people can
leans as a laboratory. “Most of the you topped that span you could spy the go for care. The origins of this system
nonprofits and organizations that have old Dixie Brewery and then blocks of go back to 1736, when the first Charity
come to New Orleans have come with houses, restaurants and corner grocery Hospital opened in New Orleans only
their own agendas, instead of asking stores that make up the neighborhood six weeks after New York’s Bellevue,
the people what they want,” says Ward called Mid-City. the oldest continuing public hospital in
McClendon, head of a grassroots re- In the heart of Mid-City is a corner joint the United States. That “charity system”
building organization called the Lower called Luizza’s that still cooks up fried expanded in the 1920s and 1930s under
Ninth Ward Village. But as a planning potato Po’ Boys, a starchy concoction Huey Long, who founded Louisiana
document, UNOP was crucial to con- of French fries on French bread that is State University’s medical school to lure
vincing state officials to release federal served dripping in beef gravy. According doctors for the state’s poor. After several
funds to New Orleans. “The state and to local lore, the small morsels of meat in earlier structures were destroyed or out-
federal government said we’re not go- that gravy were a regular source of suste- grown, Charity Hospital in New Orleans
ing to give you money until you’ve got nance for longshoreman and other blue took its modern form in 1939 as a loom-
a plan in place,” says Al Petrie, a com- collar workers who settled into working ing art-deco structure on Tulane Avenue
munity leader in the Lakeview section, class neighborhoods like Mid-City. in downtown. Nicknamed “Big Charity,”
“Thank goodness for Rockefeller.” Most of the dock work was mecha- it was an anchor of poor peoples’ health-
The City Council passed the UNOP nized and those types of jobs were care in the metropolitan area.
and the Louisiana Recovery Authority gone long before Katrina came swirling LSU runs the statewide charity hospi-
accepted it last June, paving the way for through this part of town. Mid-City is tal network and for years argued that it

SPRING 2008 9

While some of the footprint of the proposed LSU/VA hospital is blighted, other parts are repaired and occupied. Photo: Bobbi Rogers

needed a new hospital in New Orleans. during the disaster, which flooded the no corporate base since the oil industry
“Certainly the physical structure, the building, but shortly after the storm, fled in the 1980s, the city has been look-
layout, is just not the layout of a mod- LSU shut Big Charity down, saying the ing for an economic engine that could
ern hospital. The ward structures. The storm had done irreparable damage. power the city the way the old wharves
spread-out nature,” says Fred Cerise, Cerise says the hospital system had lit- did—something offering higher-wage
chief of LSU’s health care system, about tle choice. “The fact is that LSU did not work than the tourist and entertain-
Big Charity. “There’s a fair amount of close Charity after Katrina,” he says. ment industry on which the city now
inefficiency built in to the Charity cam- “Katrina closed Charity.” depends. The LSU/VA proposals’ back-
pus.” The physical shortcomings led to The closure of Charity and other ers say constructing, running and ser-
financial problems and difficulty main- hospitals in town, including the U.S. vicing the hospital will bring plenty of
taining accreditation, Cerise says. Re- Department of Veteran Affairs facility new jobs and, they hope, lure the biosci-
ports from the Joint Commission, the downtown, built momentum for a new ences industry to New Orleans. Beyond
national body that accredits hospitals, facility—a much larger one than con- the economic argument, there’s a medi-
show that Charity received accredita- ceived before the storm. In mid-2007, cal one: A top-notch hospital will bolster
tion “with conditions for improvement” the LSU hospital proposal suddenly the appeal of local medical schools and
in 1996, 1999 and 2002. swelled to cover 70 acres in order to reduce or reverse Louisiana’s shortage
In 2005 a consultant hired by LSU accommodate a new VA hospital next of doctors. Says Louisiana Secretary of
suggested that 35 acres of Mid-City door. The proposed side-by-side hospi- Health and Hospitals Alan Levine: “We
would be the right place to locate a new- tals would cost $2 billion to build. Pro- do need to have a destination teaching
er, more modern hospital. Then came ponents see that as a worthy investment hospital in New Orleans.”
Katrina. Staff kept Big Charity running in New Orleans’ economic future. With But Mid-City is not a blank slate.

10 SPRING 2008

critical question facing all New Orleans: as in nearby Jefferson Parish. LSU says
How much of its past should the city sac- it’s looking at other options from doing
rifice in the name of progress? nothing to rebuilding on the current
Even supporters of the plan acknowl- Charity site. The review process is just
edges that the proposal is far-reaching. getting underway, with the FEMA orga-
“They’re not talking about eliminat- nizing public hearings about the plan.
ing a historic building here,” says health But New Orleans government is
secretary Levine. “They’re talking about clearly already preparing the Mid-City
eliminating an entire historic district. site for a new hospital complex. Last
There’s bound to be hard feelings.” November, it inked a memorandum of
Some of the area’s value is of more agreement with the VA in which the
recent mint—it’s the work of volunteers city agreed to acquire and clear land
Republican Gov. Jindal backs the hospital
plan. Photo: McCain 2008 who helped rebuild houses there. Wes- for the new facility, complete a site as-
ley Bayas picked up a hammer, working sessment, shift water and sewer lines,
While pocketed by blight and damaged the past year for The Phoenix of New improve nearby roads, run new gas
by the post-Katrina flooding, a neigh- Orleans, a non-profit founded by a Tu- and power lines and move businesses,
borhood exists now on the 25 blocks lane Medical student that gutted and residents and even a sewer pumping fa-
that would be bulldozed for the hospital then rebuilt homes in Mid-City. “We’ve cility—all at no cost to the VA. The VA
complex of the future. already estimated that we’ve saved $1.3 is also granted exemptions from local
million dollars in labor costs,” says zoning and building codes. In return,

T he proposed LSU/VA hospital’s
footprint contains a typically New
Orleans, eclectic mix of 150-odd struc-
Bayas. “That’s not even talking about
materials. Materials in the homes
that are getting rebuilt, you’re talking
the city could obtain the site of the cur-
rent VA hospital, but the VA decides
whether to let the city own or lease it. If
tures that are now in danger of demoli- [$15,000 to $25,000] worth of materials. the city fails to accomplish its assigned
tion. The area is not pristine. Only one So, I would say it’s close to $5 million or tasks on time, it could pay fines to the
in five residents owns their home and, $6 million dollars that’s [in danger of] VA of as much as $10,000 a day.
on average, residents take home some getting thrown away.” The City Council has yet to hold a
of the smallest paychecks in the city. A A few million bucks is chump change hearing on issuing the hospital proposal.
handful of properties in the footprint are compared to a $2 billion hospital with Yet in December, the Council imposed
listed in a city database as tax delinquent the potential to attract high-paying a moratorium on building permits for
or blighted. Proponents of the new med- jobs, and historic preservation might properties in the footprint. It’s not en-
ical facility point to those houses as an seem like a distraction in a devastated tirely clear why, because none of the
argument that favors the project. city. But historic properties weren’t Council’s seven members responded to
But most of the footprint falls within tertiary to New Orleans’ pre-Katrina interview requests on the matter, but by
the Mid-City National Historical Dis- identity; they were integral. And just as preventing any new improvements on
trict. There’s the Dixie Brewery, a land- integral to the recovery effort has been the land, the move limits the potential
mark high school that dates back to the the kind of sweat equity that renovated cost to the city of expropriating property
1870’s and a German cultural center houses in the proposed footprint. For for the project.
known as the Deutsches House. Some homeowners acting in the absence of a The city could face obstacles other
federal historic preservation grant reconstruction plan, with relief money than cost, however, in obtaining that
money was used to fix housing in the only trickling in, a simple coat of primer property—if current owners refuse to
area that could be demolished for the was more than the mere application of sell. After the U.S. Supreme Court in
new facility. This year Charity Hospital paint—it was taking a stand. Bulldozing 2005 backed the right of governments
and the adjacent neighborhood were over that effort would have more than a to expropriate land and transfer it to a
added to the National Trust for Historic financial cost. private entity, Louisiana voters approved
Preservation’s List of Eleven Most En- Complaints about the hospital plan, a constitutional amendment—Amend-
dangered Places. however, aren’t just about the proposal ment 5—that restricts such transfers.
Walter Gallas, director of the National itself. They also concern the entire plan- It’s unclear whether a public university
Trust’s New Orleans field office won- ning process. Officially, the site in Mid- like LSU or federal department like the
ders why, in a city where many areas City is only one of several options be- VA would be considered private entities,
were leveled by the flood and subse- ing considered as part of a mandatory but the amendment could complicate
quent demolitions, the new hospital has federal environmental review of the VA the hospital deal.
to rise on a blocks where historic prop- project. The VA says it is considering an The one court test to date found that
erties stand. To him, the proposal begs a alternative site in New Orleans as well Amendment 5 did not restrict the city’s

SPRING 2008 11

Cost of
Iraq War
to Date
700 Cost of ($648)
600 Prescription
Drug benefit
500 2004-2013
Cost of '01
and '03 ($394)
400 tax cuts
Post- in 2008
Iraq’s price tag tops Katrina’s. Photo: DOD 300 ($233)
Post-9/11 aid to
The federal government has allocated a lot of money to

aid to
the Gulf Coast, but plans to rebuild New Orleans are still ($20)
underfinanced. Here’s how the funding sent to Louisiana
compares to other recent big ticket items: Sources: Louisiana Recovery Authority, Congressional Budget Office,
NYC Independent Budget Office, Army Corps of Engineers

ability to grab and sell properties—if that are coming in seizing private recovery czar in late 2006. Blakely
the properties were deemed blighted. homes, small businesses in an histor- worked on recovery planning for
There are indeed some blighted parcels ic district—in fact, lopping off a good Oakland and Los Angeles after earth-
in the footprint. Bayas argues that the third of that public district,” says Mary quakes in 1989 and 1991, respectively,
City Council, by banning any new work Howell, a civil rights attorney whose as well as in post-September 11 New
in the area, is exacerbating that blight. office is near the footprint, and who York City. Blakely is a former dean of
“There are people who want to come describes the hospital plan as “the first the Milano School at New School Uni-
back home, but they can’t because they great post-Katrina land grab.” versity in New York.
have put on stop on any permits in the Jack Stewart, a member of the In March of 2007—before the City
area,” he says. The moratorium, in oth- Deutsches House, the German cultural Council or LRA approved UNOP—
er words, could lay the groundwork for center, echoes Howell. “If it has to be Blakely articulated his vision for how the
the city to seize the land as “blighted,” done, and we need the room for the ex- city would rebuild. He picked 17 “target
and avoid Amendment 5. pansion—that’s one thing. But to do it in areas” across New Orleans where the
Meanwhile, private investors are grab- such a ridiculous, heavy-handed manner city would invest its own money and pro-
bing parcels in the area. Cesar Burgos, is another thing,” he says. City leaders, vide incentives for the private sector to
the chairman of the Regional Transit he adds, “are going, from saying, ‘Here’s follow suit. “When one area starts to do
Authority whose law firm has donated the plan’, to saying, ‘There is no plan’, so well, investors will want to invest near-
$12,500 since 2006 to Mayor Nagin’s you don’t know who there is who can be by,” Blakely said at the time. “This will
campaign fund, in late 2006 purchased trusted.” Adding to the confusion is re- allow the city to redevelop wisely and
a $2 million building on the site that he cent word that the VA is considering an will help residents make smart choices
says he wants to turn into condos for entirely different site in Mid-City. about where to rebuild.”
nurses who will work at the new hospi- The target areas include “Renew”
tal. LSU itself bought up a chunk of prop- zones where modest public investment
erty in the footprint last July. And Pincus
IV. After math can bolster ongoing development, “Re-
Friedman, a real estate investor who lo- While a hospital proposal was included develop” neighborhoods that have the
cal media reports say is from New York, in UNOP discussions for Mid-City, the raw materials for recovery but need a
has purchased at least 28 parcels within talk concerned a campus of 35 acres— more substantial nudge in the right di-
the area from 2006 on. not the 70-acre plan currently on the rection, and two “Rebuild” sections that
The moves by city agencies and table. Now other neighborhoods are need intense help—the Lower Ninth,
private investors in the absence of wondering how much bricks-and-mor- where the plan calls for a new fire-
any real public discussion about the tar reality will match the Unified New house, restoring blighted housing and
plan—more than the hospital proposal Orleans Plan that they helped shape. assisting small businesses, and New
itself—is what gets people angry. “You Much of that question will be an- Orleans East, where Blakely’s plans in-
are having developers come in, both swered by Dr. Edward Blakely, whom clude a renovated park and library as
private developers and public plans Mayor Nagin appointed New Orleans’ well as streetscape improvements. The

12 SPRING 2008

Plans for new hospitals, less public housing





VA Facility

LSU Hospital




Public housing redevelopment
©2008 Google – Imagery ©2008 Digital Globe, GeoEye

SPRING 2008 13

a second life as part of a new citywide
Master Plan that an outside contractor
is now preparing for the city. (see “Firm
Plans?”, p. 19)
The price-tag is a big barrier to do-
ing more now. To date, Blakely has only
mapped how he’ll spend the first $117
million of an expected $400 million in
recovery funds. Blakely’s target areas
plan alone will cost at least $1.1 billion.
And for city leaders to deliver UNOP’s
total wish list? “I think they need anoth-
er $10 billion,” says Johnson.

T he proposed new LSU/VA complex
itself won’t be cheap. It will cost the
state around $100 million to run. Just to
build it will require at least $1 billion of
state borrowing. “There’s a long way
to go before we have this thing fully
funded,” says health secretary Levine.
Even before testing the bond market—
where investors might pass on such an
ambitious project in a storm-scarred
Charity Hospital operated from 1939 until shortly after Katrina, when LSU closed it down.
city—the plan has to earn the approval
Photo: Infrogmation of the state’s bond commission. “The
challenge there is we’re near our debt
“Rebuild” areas are slated to receive crying infrastructure needs.” capacity now,” Levine says.
30 percent of the recovery money ear- In picking what to do, Blakely says The hospital would be much more ex-
marked so far. he’s been “guided” by UNOP. The Loui- pensive if post-Katrina federal money—
Backers of Blakely’s approach say siana Recovery Agency is supposed to in the form of community development
it strikes a balance between nuts and review each project to see if it adheres block grant and FEMA funds—weren’t
bolts recovery and more symbolic proj- to UNOP, but it’s unclear how rigorous in the mix. “I do think the people in the
ects that are intended to show the pri- that vetting will be. Given the size and LSU system saw this as a once-in-forever
vate sector that the city is serious about breadth of the UNOP, it’d be hard for opportunity to be eligible for some fund-
rebuilding. The strategy also has its Blakely to pick a project or area that ing that just wouldn’t have been there
detractors. A few criticize the distribu- wasn’t encompassed by UNOP. Planner and to start from scratch and build a new
tion of recovery money so far, includ- Laurie Johnson says Blakely has at least hospital facility,” says Errol Laborde,
ing Pearl Cantrelle, a civic leader who adopted UNOP’s recommendations on publisher of New Orleans magazine. The
believes New Orleans East—given the process—for example, he’s formed a VA’s interest just adds more impetus to
level of damage it received—isn’t get- parish-wide recovery council. However, get it done now. Bobby Jindal, the state’s
ting its fair share. Others, like Bureau some specific recommendations of the Republican governor, backs the plan.
of Governmental Research president unified plan, like UNOP’s call for a vol- Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen.
Janet Howard, think that New Orleans untary relocation program within dis- Barack Obama’s campaign literature
ought to spend its money on fixing the tricts, are not on Blakeley’s list. “He’s also supports “a major medical complex
streets rather than, say, a facade pro- done as much as he can do,” given the in downtown New Orleans” and “a new,
gram for small businesses in one area. political environment, Johnson says “If state-of-the-art Department of Veterans
“One of the things that has stunned me it had been up to me there would have Affairs hospital in New Orleans.”
in this whole redevelopment effort is been more implementation in terms of But one major premise for the LSU/
the lack of apparent interest in putting educating of city officials. It’s a com- VA plan—that Big Charity cannot be
infrastructure funds in rebuilding the plex, integrated thing. You don’t just revived—is not a settled issue. There’s
basic building blocks of the city,” How- do pieces of it.” While Blakely might an ongoing lawsuit by former patients
ard says. “You can look at the populated abandon some of them, the UNOP in- over LSU’s decision to close Charity; it
parts of the city and know that there’s dividual neighborhood plans could get alleges that LSU violated state law by

14 SPRING 2008

closing the hospital without seeking legislative approval. The
lawsuit doesn’t demand that Charity be reopened but asks for
all the services it once provided to be offered again. However,
a separate inquiry may have put the Charity site itself back on
the table: At the request of the state legislature, the Founda-
tion for Historical Louisiana hired engineering firm RMJM
Hillier to examine whether Big Charity could be used as a
hospital again. Hillier reported in mid-August that “there are
no fundamental flaws that would impede the rehabilitation of
Charity Hospital into a state-of-the-art modern facility.” Advo-
cates say that the finding could block the new hospital. But
LSU insists Charity will not be reused.
LSU reports that its New Orleans healthcare system, con-
sisting of an interim hospital and clinics, now offers 90 per-
cent of pre-storm clinical services, but it still has only about
63 percent as many beds as it did before Katrina—and while
the city’s population is significantly smaller now, the closure
One entry from a contest to design emergency housing for a hyp-
of other hospitals means the LSU system must pick up a lot tothetical storm-struck New York City. Photo:
of slack. The proposed new hospital would go some way to
closing that gap between health care demand and supply.
There are doubts, however, about whether the new Charity
would serve the same people as Big Charity did.
“Their whole idea for this new hospital is to attract sub- In NYC, waters and risks rise
stantially more private-insured, private pay patients,” says New York City’s Office of Emergency Management says that in a
Jacques Morial, an advocacy associate at the Louisiana Jus- Category 3 or 4 hurricane, up to 2.3 million city residents would
tice Institute whose father and brother served as mayor of need to evacuate and some 600,000 would require temporary
the city. “It’s an image problem. They just don’t believe that shelter. In other words, a population the size of Houston would
middle class patients, insured patients are going to go to any- need to leave home and a subset as big as Boston would need a
thing that has a remote connection to Charity.” place to stay.
Storms of that intensity have been unlikely in New York because
When the state hospitals department reviewed LSU’s busi-
nearby ocean waters are relatively cool, but climate change could
ness plan for the new facility, it adjusted the numbers to as- increase the risks as waters warm and sea levels rise. By 2100, the
sume that the future hospital will treat fewer people lacking city might see today’s “100-year storm” every decade or two.
health insurance. Asked why, health secretary Levine says, Without cold water to protect it, New York City is very vulner-
“I think a lot of it has to with the changing demographics able to a major storm. The city has 600 miles of coastline and
resulting from Katrina. A lot of people left. And a lot of the lies at a point where the Atlantic Coast makes a nearly 90-degree
people who left are uninsured.” bend that could amplify a storm surge. Major bridges are so high
that winds might force their closure, obstructing evacuation. Co-
lumbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research reports
V. HOPE and fear that flooding during storms in 1960 and 1992 came within a foot
Backers of the LSU/VA plan don’t see it as an end in itself. or two of causing “massive inundation and even loss of life” in
the subway system. The Army Corps of Engineers has said that if
The new campus is supposed to be a spark for a larger bio-
1985’s Hurricane Gloria (which veered east) struck closer to the
medical district encompassing a broader slice of downtown
city and at high tide, the impact would have been devastating.
New Orleans. But just as the LSU/VA plan has people in the The marketplace and government are starting to respond to the
proposed footprint worried or at least wondering about the fu- risks. Insurers are writing fewer policies in the city’s coastal areas.
ture of their homes, the concept of a larger New Orleans medi- A 2002 proposal by scientists at Stony Brook University to create
cal district also raises questions about who might be left—or four storm surge barriers at points around the city’s coastline is on
pushed—out. In a 2007 strategy paper, supporters of such a a list of “potential adaptations” being examined by the city’s Cli-
bioscience corridor identified as one of its “success factors” mate Change Task Force. Earlier this year, the Bloomberg Admin-
the transformation of the downtown Iberville area, site of an istration selected 10 designs in its “What If New York City …?”
821-unit public housing project, “into a mixed-use, mixed-in- contest to design temporary disaster housing. One entrant pro-
come community.” posed housing elevated on scaffolding; another had units stacked
That idea hasn’t received much attention, but public hous- on barges. First-round winners submitted further-developed plans
to the city this summer. —JM
ing has been a major battlefield in post-Katrina New Orleans—
an important part of the social and political context in which

SPRING 2008 15

Nearly three-quarters of the 1.7 million people who received FEMA disaster assistance still
live in Louisiana or Mississippi, the two states hit hardest by hurricanes Katrina and Rita of
2005. But as of last year, some were living farther away, like the 120,000 who moved to Texas
or the 72 who got their relief checks in North Dakota. Here are the top ten metro areas for
Katrina relocations (NYC ranks 15th):
Source: FEMA


HOUSTON 68,187 AUSTIN 6,028


ATLANTA 26,026 CHICAGO 4,780


the LSU/VA plan will unfold. Iberville is more reparable than most of the hous- Orleans’ (HANO) redevelopment plan
the only large, traditional public housing ing. The problem is more of a contract- isn’t just about improving public hous-
development left in the city that stands ing problem,” explaining that a flooded ing. It’s also about shrinking it. Today,
as large as when it was built. Last De- building is unattractive to contractors New Orleans public housing shelters
cember, the City Council approved the or insurers because it is difficult to only 1,800 families, compared to the
demolition of the four other large public guarantee that mold will not surface 5,100 families who lived in HANO hous-
housing projects to make way for mixed- years down the road and force an ex- ing before the storm. Even before Ka-
income developments. pensive repair. trina, HANO had shut more than 2,000
Much about the state of public hous- Housing advocates, however, dispute units of public housing that were in
ing in New Orleans is in dispute and that verdict. Bill Quigley, a lawyer active disrepair. Some 5,000 units were still
has been since Katrina, when residents in the fight against the demolitions, says in service. If the redevelopments go ac-
were barred from returning to many the worries about mold are overstated. cording to plan, only 3,340 public hous-
of the projects. With rents soaring “That is totally untrue and absurd,” he ing units will remain in the city, along
after the storm and low-income New says. “If that was true, no house in New with 1,770 new low-income rentals or
Orleanians trying to get back to the Orleans would be rebuilt.” Section 8 units (some of which might be
city, advocates wondered why more New Orleans has been looking at re- off-site), 900 new market-rate units and
units weren’t opened for people’s re- vamping its public housing since well 900 new homeownership units. At the
turn. HUD says the physical state of before Katrina; as early as 1988, the four sites where demolitions are under
the buildings made that impossible. city considered destroying half its pub- way, the number of public housing units
“We realized the urgent need for any lic housing. In the years since, Iberville will drop by a combined 70 percent.
and all housing. However, after careful (located on valuable land just blocks According to a 2004 survey by the
environmental and economic review, from the French Quarter) was eyed as a Urban Institute (a nonpartisan research
we decided it simply made no sense to potential Saints football stadium by one organization) of literature on the first
restore these dilapidated buildings that developer and a mixed-income commu- decade of HOPE VI, the program’s per-
now had even more serious problems, nity by another. Then along came the formance is the subject of contentious
including mold, mildew and severe HOPE VI program, launched by HUD debate. Since each city that undertakes
structural damage,” wrote then-Hous- in 1992 to replace traditional public HOPE VI designs a slightly different
ing and Urban Development (HUD) housing with mixed-income, develop- program, it’s hard to draw broad con-
Secretary Alphonso Jackson in an edi- ments. By housing the poor and more clusions about success or failure. What
torial last year. affluent together, HOPE VI strives to is undisputed is that most residents of
There is no denying that many of the alleviate the economic isolation of the the projects that get demolished do not
projects took on some water. A person projects and improve their manage- return to the redeveloped sites, despite
involved with one of the redevelopment ment by creating a more sustainable some survey evidence that most intend-
teams tells City Limits, “Frankly, the balance betweens rents and costs. ed to. It is an open question whether
public housing buildings were probably But the Housing Authority of New those residents simply changed their

16 SPRING 2008

minds, or wanted to return but could
not. HANO and housing advocates have
wrestled in federal court over whether
the authority honored its pledge to give
former residents of the St. Thomas A timeline of post-flood New Orleans
houses preference for new spots in the August 28 C New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin orders a mandatory
redevelopment of that site, known as 2005 evacuation as Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm, bears down on the city.
River Garden. Some of those who cannot evacuate take shelter in the Superdome
Jackson resigned from HUD in August 29 C Katrina makes landfall near Buras, Louisiana—about 60 miles
March amid news reports that he was southeast of New Orleans. By dawn, parts of the New Orleans’s levee system
under federal investigation for award- are leaking. By lunchtime, much of the city is underwater.
ing one of the New Orleans redevel- September 2 C Nagin vents frustration at slow relief efforts, tells radio
opment contracts to a firm with which listeners “I am pissed.”
he had financial ties. Meanwhile, as September 3 C Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, where up to
demolition continues on the four sites, 25,000 had taken shelter, are finally evacuated.
there’s word that developers are having September 26 C Residents are allowed to return to the Algiers neighbor-
a hard time making the numbers work hood, the first to re-open.
for the new developments. The proj- September 30 C Nagin appoints the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
ects are largely financed by low-income December 1 C Residents are allowed to return to the Lower Ninth Ward, the
tax credits, which the developers sell last area to reopen. An estimated 91,000 people are in New Orleans at this
to investors in exchange for money to time, from a pre-storm population of 454,000.
pay for construction; investors usually
also take an equity stake in the proj- January 11 C Bring New Orleans Back urban planning committee calls for
ect—they become investors in the new 2006 moratorium on building in flooded areas. Nagin soon disavows that approach.
housing, in other words. Usually, states April C City Council commissions its alternative plan, which becomes known
get those credits in proportion to their as the Lambert plan.
population. After Katrina, however, May 30 C HUD approves Louisiana’s Road Home program to provide relief
Louisiana received almost as much as to homeowners.
California—eight times its usual share. July 30 C Meetings begin for the Unified New Orleans Plan, or UNOP.
“The problem is no one is ready for December 4 C Nagin appoints Dr. Ed Blakely as recovery chief. The city’s
that,” says the person involved with the population is now believed to stand somewhere around 250,000.
redevelopment. “New Orleans doesn’t
really have a corporate base that can January 20 C UNOP teams make final presentations to audiences of residents
support that investment. And national 2007 inside and outside New Orleans.
investors want to spread their risk.” March 29 C Blakely announces the first 17 target zones, where the city will
That’s just one problem. Construction concentrate recovery efforts.
costs in New Orleans are significently June 25 C Louisiana Recovery Authority accepts the UNOP plan, freeing
higher than elsewhere in the south. millions of federal relief dollars for New Orleans to use.
Insurance is extremely expensive (the July 31 C Deadline for homeowners to apply for Road Home benefits.
Louisiana Insurance Department ap- November 19 C The Department of Veterans Affairs inks a deal with the city
proved $221 million in rate increases to acquire a site for a new hospital.
from 2005 through last year). And con-
structing housing in a flood zone is com- February 19 C Demolitions begin at the first of four public housing
plicated: The buildings must be elevated, developments that are being replaced with mixed-income residences.
but also handicap accessible, and build- June 18 C Louisiana health department accepts plan for new LSU/VA hospital.
ing a ramp to a building set 18 feet off July 1 C City-set deadline for people to vacate trailers. Hard-hit areas are given
the ground costs millions. Those costs an extension until September.
make it even harder to sell tax credits August 4 C Brookings Institute and Greater New Orleans Community Data
because investors are leery that the new Center report that, based on postal service volume, New Orleans population is
developments will make enough money. at 71.8 percent of its pre-storm level.
Developers are under pressure to com- August 20 C A consultant’s report says that Charity Hospital
plete construction by the end of 2010, or could be reopened.–JM
else the tax credits could lapse.
Not all the city’s HOPE VI develop-

SPRING 2008 17

The Corps of Engineers replaced the floodwall that collapsed and inundated the Lower Ninth Ward. Photo: U.S. Army

ers complain of such troubles. The they could, happy instead to have a sec- error, as opposed to natural events.”
Lafitte projects, which are being rede- tion 8 voucher to use. Others won’t or That’s a reasonable feeling. New Or-
veloped by Catholic Charities-affiliated can’t return to the city. leans flooded not just because of Ka-
Providence Community Housing, have trina’s might, but because flawed levees
partnered with Enterprise, a national and floodwalls built by the federal gov-
tax credit syndicator, whose experi-
VI. Safety first? ernment gave way or were overtopped.
ence gives Lafitte a leg up. According to Fear is probably keeping some away. What’s more, federally constructed
Providence CEO James Kelly, the new One study found that 40 percent of peo- waterways built for the shipping indus-
Lafitte will replace all public housing ple treated by doctors in the days after try—like the Gulf Intracoastal Water-
units with either new public housing or Katrina showed symptoms of post-trau- way and the Mississippi River Gulf Out-
low-income units in an enlarged devel- matic stress disorder. A 2006 Harvard let—helped pipe the storm surge from
opment. And former residents will have survey found that one in four survivors the Gulf of Mexico to the city’s shores.
first dibs on the new units. had nightmares about the disaster, These manmade waterways also con-
Some of the other public housing which killed more than 500 people in tributed to the loss of wetlands that
redevelopment plans also boast that the city. A separate survey of college would have formed a barrier against
former residents will get preference students displaced by Katrina found Katrina’s surge.
over new ones, but they aren’t building that “over one-half of students experi- New Orleans residents believed
enough units for everyone to exercise enced a significant degree of fear from this system of levees and canals would
that right. Perhaps they don’t need to. the storm.” That poll also found that shield them. Instead, it exposed them to
Some former residents of the projects “over one-half felt that the disaster was destruction. “Before Katrina we thought
wouldn’t return to public housing if largely caused by human/technological we were protected from the worst storm

18 SPRING 2008

characteristics in the region,” says Sandy Rosenthal, execu-
tive director of, an advocacy group that has called
for better protections. While Katrina was a Category 5 storm
at sea, by the time it reached land it was a Category 3, and it
swung east to spare New Orleans a direct hit. At Rosenthal’s
house in the Uptown section, “the papaya didn’t even fall out
of my papaya tree,” she says. “It looked like we had just had a
bad thunderstorm.”
After the flood, New Orleans attorney Joseph Bruno filed
a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers alleging that the
Corps was liable for damage to the western part of the city.
(Neither Rosenthal nor were involved in the suit).
A federal judge agreed that the Corps’ record was shame-
ful, but found that the feds have immunized themselves with
a 1928 law. “I’m not totally shot down yet,” Bruno tells City
Limits. He’s pursuing a separate case against the Corps for
flooding in the east of the city. At the same time, Rosenthal’s
group continues to press for an “8/29” investigation—similar
to the 9-11 Commission, an independent inquiry with sub-
poena power—of what caused the floods. She says the Corps’
study of its own performance was flawed. In the 1940s, Robert Moses proposed a highway through historic
Meanwhile, the Corps is in the midst of a $15 billion set parts of New Orleans. Photo: Library of Congress
of projects to improve flood protection around New Orleans.
Together, these projects are supposed to protect New Or-
leans from a storm of unusual strength--one that would be ex-
pected to occur once every 100 years. For Rosenthal, that’s A vote on post-storm visions
not enough. The Netherlands, after all, protects against a One silver lining to New Orleans’ enduring post-Katrina cloud is that
10,000-year storm. Rosenthal wants 1,000-year protection for the Crescent City now has the money and the workload to attract top
New Orleans. planning firms. That’s a break from the past. “New Orlean’s reputation
It’s unclear what the additional cost of that would be. For was such that you couldn’t get decent planning firms to come in here
now, however, the city’s planning process has had to operate and do the work, because they knew they couldn’t get the job because
under an assumption that New Orleans will be protected. that was given to friends of politicians,” says Bill Borah, an author.
When the city began planning for recovery, there was hope “There was no predictability, no transparency.”
that the rebuilding approach would factor in flood risk. While In a book he co-authored with Richard O. Baumbach, Jr., “The Sec-
New Orleans is sometimes depicted as being entirely below ond Battle of New Orleans,” Borah chronicled the long fight by commu-
sea level, half of the city actually lies at or above sea level. nity groups against city leaders who, following a suggestion by Robert
Moses in 1946, wanted to run an expressway along the Mississippi
A 2007 Tulane/Xavier University study concluded that New
River through the French Quarter. It was by the closest of margins that
Orleans could accommodate its entire current population
preservationists were able defeat the planned expressway.
on that high ground. When the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Now preservationists are again battling with the powers that be,
Back plan pulled back from factoring risk mitigation into the especially over the fate of Big Charity and the plan to demolish an his-
city’s recovery strategy, however, the issue was permanently torical district for a new hospital. Planners, meanwhile, have provided
placed on the back-burner. “The city basically took the po- the city with a road map via the Unified New Orleans Plan. UNOP is
sition that the free market would determine the location of likely to help shape the city’s new master plan, which respected Boston
recovery,” says Allen Eskew. firm Goody Clancy will work on for the next year or so.
It’s tempting to fault people for wanting to move back into a In November, New Orleanians will vote on a ballot measure to
flood plain. But Johnson points out that, “For so many families, change the city charter and give the master plan the force of law.
white and black, it’s hard-earned soil.” Beyond the historical City Planning Commission Executive Director Yolanda Rodriguez says
weight of the land they left, low-income families had practical the city’s zoning laws, which will implement the master plan, already
have the force of law. But Borah argues that’s not enough for the kind
reasons for returning. “What you see is people going back to
of changes New Orleans needs. “If the charter is not changed, then the
what they have left,” says Mary Croom-Fontenot. “Why are work that Goody Clancy would do in a master plan will go on the shelf,
they rebuilding? Because it’s all they have left.” or be cut up like a Christmas turkey because that’s the way the existing
UNOP called for a voluntary program allowing people to process is,” he says. —Mike Longman
swap their vulnerable property for a parcel in the same neigh-

SPRING 2008 19

20 SPRING 2008

borhood but on safer ground. The city hasn’t adopted the idea.
“There was never the money to relocate the interests that were
there prior to the storm,” says Greg Rigamer, a demographer.
He thinks such a relocation could happen anyway. “I think
what you will see after time are market-driven considerations
driving that. Insurance is more expensive, the lack of services
available. The market speaks louder than policy.”
The fits-and-starts and politics of the planning and rebuild-
ing process haven’t helped New Orleans’ recovery, but they
haven’t stopped it dead, either. “I think we’re sort of drift-
ing towards the right track,” says Rob Couhig, a prominent
lawyer. “The citizens are leading the charge, which is good.
Government is struggling to catch up and as a result it’s not
as supercharged a recovery as many would hope.”
But there is one great mystery hovering over Blakely’s
strategy, the master plan, the hospital proposal and every
other vision for the New Orleans of the future: How big will
that New Orleans be?

VII. Guess who’s coming
In July 2005, the Census Bureau estimated New Orleans’
population at 453,726. After the largest evacuation in Ameri-
can history, it is believed to stand at around 300,000 today—
although that figure, which is largely based on the number of
people receiving mail in the city, is substantially higher than
other estimates. Even by the postal service measure, popu-
lation growth has slowed considerably. It grew 40 percent
from 2006 to 2007 but only 4 percent over the past year. And
it varies greatly across neighborhoods: While 93 percent of
households in Algiers are receiving mail, only 19 percent are
in the Lower Ninth.
While most current residents today are believed to be
returnees, the city certainly includes some new people. Be-
sides the usual turnover that all cities experience, New Or-
leans has attracted laborers, volunteers, planners and others
who’ve come to work in the rebuilding. Some of these new
people will leave; there’s already evidence that the laborers
are moving on as the supply of work levels off.
The slowdown in people moving back leads several people
City Limits interviewed to conclude that New Orleans is about
as big as it’s going to get—at least 150,000 people smaller than
before the flood. “I think we’ve kind of crossed that point. The
repopulation has basically plateaued.” says John Lovett, a law
professor at Loyola University who has monitored rebuilding
policy. “More or less who’s coming back is back.”
Not everyone wanted all of pre-storm Katrina back. “Only
the best residents should return,” then-HUD Secretary Al-
phonso Jackson said in 2006 of the city’s public housing resi-
dents. “I don’t mean rich, because everybody’s low-income.

Rushing water apparently tore the wall off this Lower Ninth Ward
school, photographed in 2007, but did not reach high enough to dis-
turb the lesson on a second-floor blackboard. Photo: JM

SPRING 2008 21

survive: the affluent who can afford

SOME PEOPLE ARE NOT EQUIPPED to rebuild, and to stay or pay higher
rents, the healthy who can get by de-
FOR THE DAILY BATTLE. “THEY spite a disrupted health care system,
the young who can do the heavy lifting
DON’T HAVE THE EDUCATION SKILLS of rebuilding their house, people with
cars who don’t depend on a reduced
AND THE SOCIAL SKILLS TO FIGHT,” mass transit system. Other people are
not equipped for the daily battle. “They
SAYS MELVIN JONES, A PASTOR IN don’t have the education skills and
the social skills to fight,” says Melvin
MIDDLE-CLASS, MAJORITY BLACK Jones, a pastor in middle-class, majority
black New Orleans East. “Older people,
NEW ORLEANS EAST. “OLDER PEOPLE, they’ll give up.”
The bright side, says Greg Rigamer,
THEY’LL GIVE UP.” is that people who are in New Orleans
now must really be committed to the
Those who paid rent on time, those tem,” says Jennifer Jones, a resident city; you wouldn’t chose to move to a
who held a job and those who worked.” of New Orleans East who evacuated to place with high crime and poor servic-
Then-City Council president Oliver the East Bronx. “Because I have two es unless you really wanted to.
Thomas said in early 2006, “We need young children, I’m not sure I want to
committed people. We don’t need soap
opera watchers all day.”
But a wide array of New Orleanians
put them through moving and entering
a substandard school system.”
But individual choices to return or
O n the neighborhood level, advo-
cates we interviewed still insist
that more people will return. After all,
voiced support for “right to return”— stay away aren’t made in a vacuum. many homeowners are just now getting
lingo that local activists borrowed from Virginia, who asked us not use her last the rebuilding grants that will allow
international law and applied to the name, was allowed back to her Gen- them to restore their homes. Jones, for
claim that pre-storm residents had on tilly Terrace neighborhood just before one, is optimistic about New Orleans
living in post-storm New Orleans. Na- Halloween 2005. After 30 years on that East. “It’s coming back,” he says. “We
gin publicly embraced the concept. In street, she told herself she’d rebuild were a neighborhood of hard-working
his letter introducing the Bring New her house, which had taken on 12 feet people that, no matter what, we were
Orleans Back plan, the mayor wrote of water. Her family, however, worried going to come back.”
that the plan’s goal was to make it pos- about the 65-year-old surviving the A recent survey by the University of
sible for “all citizens can return to and next big storm. “So I started thinking New Orleans found that rebuilding was
reclaim their citizenship as members of about it and then the question almost complete or underway on 62 percent of
this unique city that we call home.” got answered automatically because all the city’s parcels, a very hopeful sign.
That is not happening. If New Or- of a sudden nobody’s going back,” she Some neighborhoods, though, are see-
leans’ population settles at its current says. A few of her neighbors are return- ing more of that activity than others;
level, it means about a third of the pre- ing. Many aren’t. “You don’t want to Along Dublin Street in the middle-class
Katrina city is not coming home. be the only person living within a few Carrollton neighborhood, more than
To some in the city, that fact does blocks,” she says. About once a month, 95 percent of the houses are rebuilt
not reflect a policy failure. “People she looks online to find an apartment or in process. On Delery Street in the
who wanted to come back could come that she can afford close to the city, traditionally black, lower-income Lower
back,” says one prominent New Orlea- but nothing has been within reach. Ninth, more than half are still derelict.
nian who asked not to be named when “Make no mistake about it: I love New But even in the Lower Ninth, the dif-
discussing the third rail of local politics. Orleans. I love Louisiana. It has many, ference between last summer and this
“Was the city supposed to pay for them many faults—many—but there is a feel- one is visible to even a casual visitor—
to come back?” ing there, and people do care on a daily the progress is slow, but it’s there. Slabs
Clearly, some people have decided basis and they are interested and I just are being laid for new houses. Utilities
to leave New Orleans behind—those miss that,” she says. “I really learned a service is improving. The neighborhood
who are afraid of the next hurricane, or lot more about missing New Orleans is still devastated, but organizer Mary
who’ve found a better life, job or schools than I ever thought I would.” Croom-Fontenot sees hope. “Citizens,
for their kids. “One of my biggest con- In post-Katrina New Orleans, per even a week after the storm, wanted
cerns is the New Orleans school sys- Darwin, the fitter are more likely to to come back. We are not only coming

22 SPRING 2008

A large homeless encampment under Interstate 10, which cuts through the city’s center, drew national attention this year. Photo: Lizzie Ford-Madrid

back, we are back,” she says. In recent months, the city has an- many people “are just waiting to get their
Across the city in Lakeview, a middle- nounced an aggressive anti-blight check from Road Home.”
class, majority white neighborhood, all campaign of fines and citations, as well
7,000 houses were flooded, says Lakev-
iew Civic Improvement Association pres-
ident Al Petrie. “It’s going to continue,”
as a deadline for people to vacate tem-
porary trailers.
The impact of such measures is com-
T he Road Home program was fund-
ed by the federal government but
designed and administered by the state
he says of the resurgence, but adds, “We plex. Homeowners who have been un- to help homeowners whose property
will never get back to 100 percent.” able to return might be hurt by the anti- was damaged by the storm rebuild or
Indeed, for all the hope, huge obsta- blight effort, but blight is undeniably relocate. The program, which a com-
cles remain. Some date back to the first a barrier to the recovery of the hard- pany called ICF International has been
days of the recovery: trouble with insur- est hit areas. “It has to happen,” says paid more than $900 million to run,
ance companies, FEMA, the Small Busi- Tom Pepper, a leader of the Common has encountered problems since it was
ness Administration, high construction Ground Collective that has gutted and launched in 2006.
costs and fierce demand for contractors. rebuilt houses in the Lower Ninth. “It’s Some troubles stemmed from the
Legal advocates have gone to court twice a horrible thing to fine someone $500. design of the policy itself. Road Home
to get the city to revise its procedures But you have to assume responsibility offered homeowners a choice between
for demolishing properties, alleging that for securing your property. “ selling out to the state or staying in their
New Orleans was tearing down houses People also want the trailers gone, but home and receiving a rebuilding grant.
where rebuilding was underway; more it’s not as if everyone has somewhere Most people (124,000, or roughly 90
than one house in the Lower Ninth is to go. “I think it’s rushing things,” says percent of those who got awards) chose
spray-painted “Don’t Demo!” Pepper of the trailer deadline. After all, the latter. But the formula was frustrat-

SPRING 2008 23

A message in the Lower Ninth. Photo: JM

ing. The maximum grant was $150,000 anything [about the appeal] and we just not possible. “That program has been
but it subtracted insurance payments. have to wait ‘til they get to us,” she says. a massive failure,” says Lovett, the law
And the award was often based on the Another 6,000 applicants are listed as professor who has tracked Road Home.
pre-storm value of a home. That left “inactive,” which advocates say probably At least low-income homeownership
many homeowners with less money includes people who still want to pursue has gotten a boost from Habitat for Hu-
than they needed for rebuilding. The their claim but have been unable to. manity, which with volunteer labor and
average award was under $59,000. Advocates like Melanie Ehrlich, donated supplies has built or is building
But even getting the grant often re- president of the Citizens Housing Ac- more than 300 homes in the New Or-
quired a long wait and a lot of documen- tion Team, which has monitored Road leans metro area for families making be-
tation from the homeowner. Fears of Home, hope that policies will be im- tween 35 percent and 60 percent of area
fraud led the state to initially award the proved in the last months of the pro- median income. But since it is a private,
money in installments, which made it gram to increase the grants the hom- nonprofit group, Habitat is constrained
hard for homeowners to pay for repairs. eowners get. There won’t be enough in how much it can do. Habitat does not
That policy was reversed last year. Until money for everyone, however. And rehabilitate houses because of worries
recently, ICF refused to accept third- while Road Home undoubtedly helped about liability for mold and because its
party assessments of property value, thousands of people move back to New construction managers are trained to
and insisted on using its own formula, Orleans, the flaws in the program may build a limited set of house designs.
which homeowners said consistently have prevented some people from com- And Habitat isn’t active in the Ninth
undervalued their property. Last year, ing home. “I know it. I know it,” says Ward right now, because it “doesn’t
ICF changed its procedures to accept Ehrlich. “We’ve lost people because have services that are needed for our
post-Katrina appraisals. As time has this program was run so poorly.” homeowners such as grocery stores,
gone on, however, the price of building Road Home also almost totally ne- schools, health care and mass transpor-
new houses has only climbed. “Road glected renters, despite a pronounced tation,” says spokeswoman Aleis Tusa.
Home was supposed to be a gap-filling affordable housing crisis in the months Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is
program,” says Annie Clark from Poli- after the storm as thousands of units active in the Lower Ninth, where it aims
cyLink, a national think tank that’s been went offline. Rent statistics tracked by to build 150 homes.
working in New Orleans, “but that gap the local Maddera & Cazalot realty firm Some critics think New Orleans’ af-
has gotten larger as time has gone on.” show rents shot up 27 percent over- fordability problem stems from govern-
The program is due to end this year, all—and 37 percent for two-bedroom ment investing in the wrong kind of
but 2,300 people are in the appeals pro- apartments—between spring 2005 and low-income housing. Rather than help-
cess—a process where the rules were summer 2007. A vital part of the afford- ing mom-and-pop landlords, Louisiana
still changing in July. Legal advocates able housing stock in New Orleans is has directed million of dollars of low-in-
are making a final push to get people the supply of so-called double shotguns come housing tax credits to new multi-
through that pipeline. “This summer in which a landlord lives in one half and unit developments in New Orleans that,
is now or never,” says Davida Finger, rents the other. Road Home offered the Bureau of Governmental Research
a lawyer who has assisted homeown- assistance to these owners, but did so says, might just create new concentra-
ers with their claims. Ivy Parker, a New through a complicated program that re- tions of poverty in the city.
Orleans resident who evacuated to New quired the owner to secure a construc- What’s more, the creation of post-Ka-
York City, is waiting to resolve a dispute tion loan that the state then paid off. trina affordable housing is not immune
over $40,000. “So far we haven’t heard For owners with poor credit, this was from the traditional worries about cor-

24 SPRING 2008

For some, rebuilding is an act of defiance. This home still bears the markings left by a rescue team Photo: Pangaeus

ruption in New Orleans. In early August, ery Authority (NORA), which dates to meowners will have first right of refusal
Nagin and every member of the City before Katrina, will add to those prop- on empty lots adjacent to their property.
Council received subpoenas as part of a erties to a portfolio of 2,000 blighted NORA will also bundle parcels for sale
federal investigation of the city’s afford- and tax delinquent properties that it to developers, and reserve some for
able housing agency, which was subse- already has. Beyond that, NORA esti- community facilities and green space.
quently raided by federal agents. The mates there are 20,000 to 25,000 parcels “The question is,” says John Lovett, “is
investigation concerns allegations that of blighted land that the city could end there enough demand in the real estate
contractors received funds to renovate up owning. All that empty space is raw market? The problem with all these
blighted houses but did not actually do material for New Orleans’ recovery. properties is if you can’t move them and
the work. In a plan submitted to state regula- can’t transfer them they’re just going to
tors, NORA acknowledges the difficult be albatrosses around the city’s neck.”

T he next big thing to hit the real es-
tate market will be an outgrowth
of the Road Home program: the state
decisions it faces from neighborhood to
neighborhood: how to provide enough
land for development without swamp-
NORA’s goal is for at least 25 percent
of the parcels to be used for affordable
housing. Annie Clark worries that the af-
handing to New Orleans control of ing the real estate market. Letters will fordable housing will be unfairly distrib-
around 4,000 parcels from homeowners go out soon to targeted areas for the uted, as wealthy neighborhoods will buy
who sold out. The New Orleans Recov- “Lot Next Door” program, in which ho- up all available “Lot Next Door” parcels

SPRING 2008 25

and crowd out low-income housing. figure out a way to help those brothers VIII. Salvage operation
“In certain neighborhoods, homeown- and sisters.”
ers are going to get a windfall, increase A 2008 survey by the Kaiser Family
their property value and there’ll be no
requirement for affordable housing in
that neighborhood,” Clark says. “And
T he shifting racial and economic
makeup in Lakeview and New
Orleans East takes place within a city
Foundation found that a narrow ma-
jority of city residents think the city’s
going in the right direction, but nearly
in some neighborhoods where land is whose overall population mix is chang- half are angry or dissatisfied with the
cheaper, they’ll be stuck with all that ing. The influx of young professionals rebuilding effort to date. Three years
affordable housing. I’m kind of wor- is a hopeful sign, in the view of archi- out, that effort is still in its early stag-
ried about the re-concentration of af- tect Allen Eskew. “I am very proud of es: New Orleans’ recovery timeline
fordable housing in neighborhoods the fact that it’s probably the greatest could be 10 to 15 years long. As Chris
that traditionally have held much of single in-migration—sort of intellec- Bonura, the Mid-City resident, puts it,
that housing.” tual migration—the most we’ve had “Although New Orleans has made sub-
NORA’s executive director, Harlem in history,” he says. “We all need to stantial progress in its recovery, we’re
native Joe Williams, says all neighbor- be vigilant that the original residents going to be living in Katrina’s shadow
hoods should welcome housing for are not only welcomed but we do ev- for a long time to come.”
working people, but adds: “One size erything we can to make that return But while much is still in flux, some
does not fit all in terms of redevelop- possible. The other issue, which is not crucial decisions have already been
ment.” Since the damage from the mutually exclusive, is the embrace of made—by residents who have opted
storm wasn’t uniform through the city, new people who come into town. “ not to return to the city, and through
the distribution of Road Home proper- The mixture of new and old New policies that failed to assist those who
ties that were sold to the state is un- Orleanians has altered the city’s wanted to come back. “The people
even. According to a count provided makeup, from 67 percent black be- who were living marginally and were
by the Louisiana Land Trust, there fore the storm to around 58 percent shipped out in buses in the end,” says
are 21 such parcels in the zip code black now. “There has been a change. Road Home scholar John Lovett, “not
that contains, among other neighbor- It has not been what you would call a much was done to help those people.”
hoods, the well-to-do Garden District, significant shift,” at least in terms of From across the political spectrum
versus more than 500 in the zip codes racial politics, says Rigamer. “We’re people have admired the role of indi-
encompassing New Orleans East. still a majority African-American city.” vidual effort in the rebuilding of New
Some neighborhoods have already A reduced majority still wields politi- Orleans. The conser vative Manhattan
resisted the construction of affordable cal power. Nagin, who did not enjoy Institute recently cheered the absence
housing. Lakeview, for one, last year the support of most blacks when first of top-down management in New Or-
tightened restrictions on building size elected in 2002, relied on their back- leans’ rebirth. When visiting in April,
to block multiunit development. Civic ing in his 2006 mayoral race against a Sen. John McCain said of the Lower
association president Al Petrie says the white opponent. Ninth, “it’s inspiring to see the labor
neighborhood is increasingly diverse For those blacks who have re- and care that is going into the rebuild-
along racial lines. But, he adds: “Peo- turned, though, there are indications ing of that community.” To radical-left
ple want to be around people who are the welcome has been less than warm. New Orleans-based journalist Jordan
in the same economic category. You The Greater New Orleans Fair Hous- Flaherty, “Ever y house in the Lower
want someone who’s going to maintain ing Action Center found in a survey Ninth or New Orleans East is an act
their property the same way you main- conducted between September 2006 of defiance.”
tain your property, after we’ve made and April 2007 that six in 10 landlords New Orleans, however, is coming to a
the investment we’ve made.” treated white renters more favorably point where the fate of those individual
That feeling is not confined to tradi- than blacks. decisions will depend upon which way
tionally white Lakeview. It’s also pres- “It’s a very different city. The black the entire city moves. As it was when
ent in historically black New Orleans people are not coming back,” says poet the waters rushed in three years ago,
East. “Something we’re concerned Kalamu ya Salaam, a Ninth Ward na- people need more than their own roof
about is the number of Section 8 peo- tive. “They gave the majority of poor to take refuge on. Levees activist Sally
ple coming in. That concerns us in that black people a one-way ticket out of Rosenthal, for one, believes her house
when we get that, we get it in large the city and no way back. And if you is safe on high ground. “However, my
concentrations,” says Mel Jones. “The couldn’t afford to leave when it was city is not. Even if my house survived,
government doesn’t prepare them to mandatory evacuation, how can you I still need a post office and a grocery
take care of houses and they live like afford to come back when no one’s store and a school for my child,” she
they live in the projects. We’ve got to making any provision for you?” says. “I still need my city.” ◆

26 SPRING 2008
The demolition of public housing this year is one of the first—and most controversial—efforts to remake New Orleans. Photo: Edwin Lopez

CITY FUTURES 120 Wall Street, floor 20, New York, NY 10005



Estimates of post-Katrina population are based
on who’s receiving mail. Here, a dormant mailbox
remains where a house does not. Photo: JM

28 SPRING 2008