So where are we in the recovery of New Orleans, two years after the great disaster?
It’s been slow going, that’s for sure. I expected that. It’s killing people in less fortunate circumstances, but personally I can survive the slow pace of recovery — as long as I can see some progress being made. But sometimes it feels like we aren’t even moving in the right direction.
This second year after the flood has been, in some ways, more difficult than the first year.
Something like 200,000 people are still displaced. It seems increasingly likely that a good percentage of these will never return home. What is there to return to, anyway? Housing remains a huge issue. Rents are sky-high, and the homeless squat in abandoned buildings which then catch fire. Many people are still living in government-issued trailers, which are full of chemicals that make you sick, a fact the government tried to suppress. Blight abounds, yet perfectly good homes are put on the demolition list. The Road Home program has been a massive boondoggle. The public schools are still in crisis. Health services are scarce. The criminal justice system is dysfunctional and abusive. The local economy is weak. Poverty is widespread. Insurance companies continue to screw people over. Government has proven itself thoroughly incompetent, not to mention corrupt, time and time again. Flood protection is still inadequate.
And, worst of all, there’s the violence. This was made painfully clear to me in January, when my friend Helen Hill was murdered in her home. I felt at the time that Helen was killed by the city itself. Apparently I’m not the only one. It’s only gotten worse since then.
From crime to government to infrastructure, everything seems to be broken, and it all needs fixing at once.
There’s a streetlight on Jefferson Davis Parkway which was knocked over by the high winds of Hurricane Katrina. Back in the dark winter following the storm, I was drawn to the light of this lamp which was the only illumination for blocks. In the months since, it’s been disconnected from the electrical system and rolled to the side. At some point its neck was broken, and its valuable bulb was stolen long before that. City workers mow the grass around it, but it’s still there.
As I’ve observed many times before, this lamp is not very important in the big scheme. There are many other problems that are much more pressing.
On the other hand, if we can’t address those big problems, shouldn’t we at least address the little ones?
In the process of writing about all these negatives, I was given pause to reflect on the positives as well.
There are some signs of progress. My neighbor Charles finally got his Road Home check, and he’s working on his house. With luck he’ll be living there this fall.
Around the corner, Gwen is almost out of her trailer and back in her house. Almost.
A new report estimates that over one million volunteers have come here to help us since Katrina, including my parents (twice).
And although we’ve lost a lot of population, we’ve also gained some new people, brave souls who’ve come here expressly to rebuild a once great American city.
There’s a higher level of civic engagement than before the flood. Ordinary people are getting more active in their community, working to build a better life together.
In all, the positives seem much fewer than the negatives. Yet just the process of writing about them has made me feel better. In fact, I feel much better than I have any right to feel. It seems almost irrational. Despite all the challenges, I cling to the hope that we can make things better here, and that New Orleans will be a great city once again.