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Looking back at Katrina


NEW ORLEANS, La.–Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, its legacy remains a challenge for visitors to this $5 billion-a-year tourist destination. That’s because the remnants of death, destruction and desertion reside just outside the city’s popular downtown and French Quarter.

To locate remnants of the 2005 disaster, leave Bourbon Street–where on any given night folk stroll down narrow streets, bar-hopping with grenade- and fishbowl-shaped alcoholic concoctions in their hands as music and the sounds of good times roll through the atmosphere–and head east.

Continue traveling in that direction, away from the revelry of bachelor parties offering cheap bead necklaces from balconies to young women who lift their blouses, and keep going until you reach the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest areas in New Orleans. That is where on some blocks gutted houses and empty, unmaintained lots fill neighborhood landscapes more closely resembling war zones than neighborhoods.

Or, take Interstate 10 east to another African American residential area. Here, among the thousands that have made it their home, are some houses with manicured lawns whose owners live in Houston or Atlanta, but return often to maintain their properties or hire others to do it.

Or pick up the Times-Picayune, but make sure it’s Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, the three days of the week that it will be published, beginning in the fall. It then becomes the largest major newspaper in the nation to not print daily. That’s because the devastation that was Katrina has caused circulation to dip markedly.

Also, try to keep track of the number of City Council members (three) found guilty of bribery, plotting to loot taxpayer-funded charities, or conspiring to commit theft of government funds and submitting false documents to a government agency after Katrina. Or note the police officers (five) convicted of killing two civilians and wounding four others–all helpless–in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and who then engaged in a five-year cover-up of their crimes.

The public corruption exposed after the nation’s most devastating natural disaster in modern times extended to those directly responsible for assisting the city’s poor: In 2009, a director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans utilized a voucher to pay his rent for two years. At the time, his annual salary was $114,400.

But change is in the air.

“Post-Katrina, the expectations of voters are laser-focused on performance and accountability,” said local political strategist Silas Lee, Ph.D., who also serves as an assistant professor of sociology at Xavier University, one of the city’s historically Black colleges. Lee’s polls and research have been cited by print and electronic media in more than 600 publications worldwide.

“In a community that is still physically and psychologically rebuilding,” Lee continued, “the demographics and agenda of voters have changed and become less tolerant of inefficiency.”

No wonder that in July, the Times-Picayune called the latest charge–this time against City Councilman Jon Johnson, once an example of what was right in New Orleans–“another black eye to the city and its legendary reputation as the wild west of Louisiana politics.”

“It wasn’t as much of a surprise, but it was a disappointment,” Vincent Sylvain, a veteran political strategist, said during “Sunday Morning Journal,” a popular talk radio show. “He’s a church member of mine. I see him in church with his little girl who lost her mother, and now has the possibility, at least temporarily, of not having access to her father. Many viewed Councilman Johnson as the voice of East New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, and this is a crushing blow for them.”

New Orleans has enjoyed its share of improvements since Katrina, from infrastructure to education. The New Orleans Saints and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome serve as an example of its pride.

For the most part, the national housing bust and recession passed over the Crescent City, and knowledge-based industries are making it easier to recruit and maintain some employees. Unlike the months, years proceeding August 2005, residents no longer have to drive across town to buy milk, make photocopies, check out a book at a library and take a child to a park or some other form of adolescent entertainment.

Still, Hurricane Katrina exposed the best and worst of New Orleans, proving that aside from the food, music and hospitality, its problems are many.

“There’s sort of a positive and a negative of essentially every aspect of what we see,” said Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a co-author of “The New Orleans Index at Six,” an annual analysis of the city’s recovery.

Not everything that is wrong with New Orleans can be blamed on Katrina. It’s just that the storm, in an ironic way, gave the city and others an opportunity to rethink the way folk live their everyday lives here.

Before Katrina, the Orleans Parish School System was arguably the worst in the country, said Barry Erwin, president and chief executive officer of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit state advocacy group.

Academically, children were grades and grades behind where they should have been. Teachers set aside books and lesson plans in favor of student card games, and finances were so dire at the board office that an outside firm took over the financing system.

So when residents and their children started to return after 80 percent of the city flooded, one of the first questions civic leaders asked themselves was what could they do differently? At the same time, the civic community became involved and engaged in public education, allowing for two aspects often missing pre-Katrina–oversight and accountability.

The Recovery School District (RSD) had already been created, a mechanism to take over a small number of failing schools. But with the needs so high, the RSD opted to take control of all of the city’s failing schools.

Erwin said education in New Orleans is “light-years” ahead of where it was before Katrina. Test scores for the last five years have continued to improve, often pacing the state.

“For too long, we just tolerated failing schools that just didn’t affect our own children,” Erwin said, referring to those children from families of privilege.

“In New Orleans and a lot of south Louisiana, it’s almost two school systems. You have the public schools and the parochial school system that’s pretty robust. And whether we liked it or not, we just chose to ignore the public school system, if we could get out of it or put our child in a magnet school.”

The bad news is that the schools were so far behind, they have a lot of catching up to do, say officials.

“But they are making up that ground in a very spectacular way, and that’s drawing attention from all over the country,” Erwin added. “There’s no place in the country like Orleans Parish when it comes to broad, districtwide innovation going on in public education.”

New Orleans is the only city in the nation where charter schools educate the majority of public school students. There are no school attendance zones, which gives parents full choice of where they send their children. However, many schools cannot accommodate all those desiring to attend because of enrollment restrictions, but there is healthy competition among the schools.
Also, a voucher system allows students to attend private schools at no cost.

Not all charter schools have enjoyed success. Some have been shut down for failing to provide adequate services, but Erwin said the failures of a few cannot overshadow the accomplishments of the many.

The question for the future: Should the Recovery School District, which was never meant to be a permanent solution, return once-failing schools to the Orleans Parish School Board or maintain them?

Crime has always been an issue in the city.

Over the years, New Orleans native Ann Rabin has heard all the statistical analyses and media reports–highest murder rate per capita, the most adults incarcerated per capita, etc.

Kids, often Black, are arrested at younger and younger ages, their crimes often against other teenagers and young men.

Despite this, she and her colleagues at Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit group of residents, are optimistic about the city’s ability to fix the crime issue. She knows communities can have great schools and wonderful jobs, but citizens must find ways for residents to reside in safer environments.

The reforms include the Young Empowerment Project, which focuses on capturing youth no longer in school and supplying options for education via GED programs, job training and mentoring.

Also, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana fights for juvenile rights. In 2010, the organization, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 6-year-old boy who was handcuffed and shackled at school. The case resulted in a settlement banning fixed restraints in the schools and the handcuffing of children under 10.

“Do these types of reforms happen overnight? No. Are they happening quick enough? No. But it is our observation that there has been traction,” said Rabin, who sits on her organization’s Criminal Justice Reform Committee.

“I think citizens now feel like people are not willing to sit back and think this is happening to somebody else, or this is happening in another neighborhood, or this is happening to young people. I think the citizens in New Orleans are willing to say it’s all of our problems. We’re all affected. And if we want a city with an excellent quality of life, and if we want to attract new people to our city, if we want to maintain and keep young, idealistic people who come here, it’s all of our problem, and we’ve got to find a solution.

“And it’s not just arresting people and throwing them in jail, which has really been the pattern throughout the state of Louisiana and Orleans Parish.”

Meanwhile, it’s hard to do your job when you’re unhappy at work. This includes the city’s police force.

In June, nearly one-third of the police force took part in an anonymous survey, which revealed several startling factors:

* 97 percent believe that the NOPD does not have sufficient manpower

* 80 percent of officers said they would change police agencies, if they could do so without losing seniority or other benefits

* 68 percent said they worked off-duty paid police details

* 69 percent said they would leave the NOPD, if they lost their ability to work off-duty details. (This is a hot subject in the city because of recent scandals involving high and low-levels of officers.)

“The findings were really stunning. The actual comments were even more dramatic,” said Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf, Ph.D.

Last year on July 24, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a series of reforms in the nation’s most expansive consent decree to date, a 492-point, court-enforced action plan for overhauling New Orleans Police Department policies and practices, from when officers can pull weapons to off-duty details.

Residents who returned to New Orleans and the surrounding areas after Katrina saw a different city. And crime was not their only concern. So was finding a job that allows them to support their family. In some cases, it proved to be easier said than done.

“It’s better for some folks, and worse for other folks,” said Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. “And that largely falls along the line of income. If you were low-income before the storm, life is probably harder for you now. Rents have gone up dramatically. You might have had a home handed down to you, and mortgages are up, and housing has gone up.

“The experience of going through the storm was very challenging and typically, low-income people have more health challenges.”

According to “The New Orleans Index at Six,” an annual recovery analysis published in 2011, the U.S. Census confirmed that despite being one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the nation, the city had 29 percent fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000–a loss of 150,000 for a metropolitan area once comprised of 1.3 million. Surrounding parishes did enjoy gains, including Jefferson, 5 percent; St. Bernard, 47 percent; Plaquemines, 14 percent.

St. Tammany’s population grew 22 percent, and St. Charles Parish 10 percent, as residents, especially African Americans, moved to nearby, mostly non-Black areas within reach of the city.

Meanwhile, African American households earn 50 percent less than White households. Hispanic households, which are a growing, but still a small population, earn 30 percent less than Whites.

A 2010 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that the typical New Orleans resident pays about one-third more in their pre-tax income to housing costs than before Katrina. Meanwhile, wages have not followed the same arch.

Tourism works in New Orleans because its primary labor costs are cheap–blue-collar workers from out of town and many from the city’s poorest neighborhoods working as cooks, waiters and janitors. They survive off low wages because many live in public housing or take advantage of Section 8 vouchers or other government programs. Still, it’s a cycle that doesn’t end.

Maybe it is getting better. Hundreds of millions of dollars have transformed the city’s four largest public housing developments into mixed-income complexes.

But a July 17, 2012, picture in the Times-Picayune shows that the city still has a ways to go. Tensions between Black and White, affluent and poverty-stricken, still dominate the comment section of any crime or political story at, the online version of the Times-Picayune.

Recently, a story was written about residents of the Iberville public housing development and their fears that the implosion of a nearby hotel would make them sick. The accompanying picture showed an 8-year-old boy using what appeared to be an iPad. Uproar ensued. How could someone so poor own an iPad? some asked.

On, garyb1956 wrote: “Where to draw the line? An IPad does not bother me nor does a laptop or other device that can be used to educate and inform. What does get to me is seeing a new Escalade and a new Ford Explorer parked in front of tax-payer subsidized housing here in Thibodaux (the same household by the way) and know that the rents are subsidized based on reported income. I cannot afford to buy one new vehicle but once every 5 to 10 years and here they have two?”

Natosha Thickbutcute, presumably the kid’s cousin, rejoined:

“Some people are so judgmental . . . the little boy happens to be my cousin, and he does not live in the projects and yes both of his parents are employed . . . and he was in fact visiting a relative . . . and what his parents choose to spend their hard-earned money on is their business … and also not everyone that reside in the Iberville development are unemployed, receive food stamp/welfare, or pay low rents . . .  really hate when people be so quick to judge others or past [sic] racial comments and then be so quick to say they’re not racist . . . wtf . . . wasn’t too much said when the Whites lived in the Iberville Project . . . for the people that are posting these racial comments, talk on why the White guy took his anger out on all those innocent people at the theatre in Colorado and went on that killing spree . . . and stop worrying on my little cousin and his galaxy pad idiots.”

The tourists are back, the floodwaters are long since gone along with much of the misery Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. Harder to forget, though, are the hard times that many a residents suffered before the storm, and even now. Many will continue to carve out better lives for themselves and their families, due to improvements in education and employment. Others will continue to struggle, from check to check, in the city some call the Big Easy.