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Residents muster the will to rebuild in New Orleans

Two years after Katrina, progress slow but evident

A chair moldered yesterday on top of a slab of a Lower Ninth Ward home destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago today. About 274,000 residents are back in the city, which had a population of 455,000 before the storm. A chair moldered yesterday on top of a slab of a Lower Ninth Ward home destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago today. About 274,000 residents are back in the city, which had a population of 455,000 before the storm. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS --The middle-class homeowners who gathered on a recent weeknight call themselves the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association. It's an unexceptional name, one that belies the challenges they face.

The members talked about public high schools. They said it would be nice if Gentilly had one again. They talked about the storm-blasted tree canopy and the playgrounds neglected by a challenged city government. They wondered whether grant money might help. Maybe bake sales.

They talked about forming a security patrol, with each household chipping in $26 per month. That day the police chief had announced a 73 percent citywide increase in burglaries.

Angele Givens, association president, liked the patrol idea but raised an interesting issue, "If you own an empty lot in Gentilly right now, you don't have much impetus to pay it."

Givens should know. She tore down her house after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and is hoping to rebuild. She isn't even living in Gentilly these days.

Two years after their city was nearly annihilated by a massive levee failure, the residents of this New Orleans neighborhood acknowledged that their surroundings still look pretty bad. But they also insisted that things slowly are getting better. Just 31 percent of Gentilly's 16,000 addresses were reoccupied or renovated as of March, according to a survey by a Dartmouth College professor. But another 57 percent finally were being fixed up.

Private citizens, not the government, deserved the credit, they said -- a source of grim humor among those laboring to mend the neighborhood.

"Of course, we should also thank [President] George Bush, [Governor] Kathleen Blanco, and [Mayor C.] Ray Nagin," resident Robert Counce said sarcastically as the meeting wrapped up.

The renaissance in America's most beleaguered city, such that it is, is a complex, dynamic, and messy affair. Progress lives alongside stagnation; hope alongside despair.

Locals seem confused as to how to measure it all. About 274,000 residents are back in New Orleans, which had a population of 455,000 before the storm. Is that reason to cheer or a troubling sign of a great city halved?

When another elected official is indicted or pleads guilty -- a common occurrence -- is it a setback or proof that the notoriously unclean milieu of Louisiana politics is finally getting the scrubbing it deserves?

Good times roll on in the famous Creole restaurants of the French Quarter and on the refined streets of Uptown. This unblemished high ground has become known after Katrina as the "Sliver by the River." But it's also been called the "Isle of Denial," because many other neighborhoods, especially ones where blacks lived, remain urban graveyards pocked with empty lots and moldering shacks.

More than half the city remains in a state of shocking disrepair, with block after block of historic cottages still bearing the spray-paint scars that showed they were searched for bodies after the Aug. 29 storm. Progress is evident, however; freshly renovated houses increasingly are rising up amid the decay.

On paper, at least, the Crescent City is plotting an ambitious rebirth and has begun embracing new ideas to repair civic institutions that were broken long before the hurricane. Yet despite promises by countless politicians -- including Bush, who declared after the storm that, "We will do what it takes" to bring New Orleans back -- many people feel that the country no longer cares.

"America should be ashamed," said the Rev. Bill Terry, whose church delivers roses to the mayor and police chief each week to mark the grim tally of homicide victims: more than 125 so far this year. "The nonprofit organizations have really responded. But all they can do is run the life-support systems to keep the city alive until the real help arrives."

New Orleans has benefited from the kindness of volunteers, more than 1 million of whom have come to the Gulf Coast to repair homes and churches, according to a federal report.

But "The Road Home," the government grant program created to help Louisianans rebuild, has not been so generous. It has sent checks to only about 42,000 of the 184,000 people who sought assistance, and it is $5 billion short of the money it needs to help the rest. But that's progress. At the start of the year less than 1 percent had gotten a dime from the program, which pays as much as $150,000.

"So far, the folks who have been most successful rebuilding are those who could borrow more money, who had large insurance settlements, or who had sufficient savings to get underway," not those who needed the grants, said Andy Kopplin, executive director of Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up its efforts to protect this famously low-lying metropolis, set precariously between the Mississippi River and the nation's second-largest saltwater lake and fewer than 100 miles from the storm-carrying Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps, which was criticized heavily after the hurricane, has spent more than $1.7 billion to raise sinking levees, rebuild retention walls, and install massive floodgates at the points where the city's three outfall canals join Lake Pontchartrain. That has made some parts of the city far less likely to take water, but neighborhoods such as Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward remain extremely flood-prone.

By 2011, the Corps hopes to complete a broader flood-protection program. But the plan has yet to secure full funding from Congress and would not guarantee that New Orleans would be safe when the next Katrina hit. Instead of making more promises, the Corps released maps earlier this month to let residents -- and insurance companies and banks -- see how much each neighborhood could flood so they can decide where to rebuild.

Other safety issues are just as pressing. City leaders are embracing community-oriented policing changes and are giving officers raises in hopes of professionalizing a force that long has been one of the laggards of the South. Still, New Orleans has the highest number of homicides per capita in the country, and the number of rapes increased 44 percent in the first half of this year compared with the year before.

"This is America, and you'd expect better," Police Superintendent Warren J. Riley said. "We're all struggling to not let our current conditions become the new norm."

A brash federal prosecutor has forced former presidents of the school board and City Council to admit they took bribes, and he is digging deep to expose New Orleans's dirty politics. Most residents cheer those efforts, but some citizens are petitioning Bush to pardon former governor Edwin Edwards, the ultimate living symbol of Louisiana corruption, who is serving a 10-year sentence for racketeering and extortion.

"Let the good times roll might be a fun state of mind, but it's no way to run a government," said the US attorney for New Orleans, Jim Letten. "Corruption contributed to the shrinking of the city, to the failures of the public school system, to the stagnant economy. In a post-Katrina world, that can't be tolerated."

One emerging bright spot is New Orleans's tourist economy. Visitor figures are approaching 70 percent of prestorm levels, said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. This is a good sign for a city that relies on its cultural economy for about one-third of its revenues. Medical conventions are returning in full force this fall, he said, and next year will bring the Sugar Bowl, as well as college football's championship and the NBA All-Star Game.

Still, the pace of progress in many neighborhoods has caused even optimists to rethink the city's fortunes. Fred D. Smith, a Los Angeles banker, serves as managing director of Hope Coalition America, a group that is providing financial advice to those struggling to decide whether to rebuild.

"Unfortunately, and I did not think this a year ago, most of the homes here will never be rebuilt," Smith said during a march through the Lower Ninth Ward to remember the children who died during the hurricane. "People are weary. They thought that within six to eight months they would be back. Now they're finding that if they come back, they'll still be the only person on the block."

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