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New Orleans Endures the `New Normal'

Sure, Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest came back. But everyday life in the city remains shattered.

July 15, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — They are signature scenes of the city: tourists on Bourbon Street, diners savoring breakfast at Brennan's, revelers dancing at Tipitina's, crowds at the street fairs and music festivals.

Almost 11 months after Hurricane Katrina struck, these scenes suggest the city is "back."

But most New Orleanians are stuck in a different scene, one set against a backdrop of moldy sheet rock, plywood, broken tiles and twisted metal littering median strips for miles at a stretch, and in which every park or defunct strip mall has become a trailer city.

Much attention has been paid to the storm's death toll and massive property destruction, but what is remarkable today is how much everyday life in this city has changed.

People make their homes in temporary lodging that offers neither stability nor the familiarity of their own belongings. The market where they shopped: closed. The schools their children attended: still shuttered and empty.

Lifelong bonds with cherished neighbors have been broken; in many neighborhoods, few are left. In their version of life in New Orleans, people wonder how their lives will feel normal again.

Marie Benoit, 52, feels the disjunction between the New Orleans the world wants to see and the one she lives in.

"They saw carnival. They saw Jazz Fest. They think everything is OK. 'Get over it; it's over,' " said Benoit, an elementary school teacher sent into premature retirement by Katrina. Her house remains a pile of rubble in the city's Lower 9th Ward. "But it's not over."

In fact, it's far from over.

At least 125,000 properties in New Orleans were damaged or destroyed by wind, water and fire. Rebuilding those that could be salvaged is only now, with the recent passage of the federal spending bill providing hurricane relief, beginning on a large scale. At the end of the school year, 25 of 128 New Orleans public schools had reopened; and just 12,000 of the city's 60,000 students had returned. By September, 57 schools with space for up to 34,000 students are expected to be open, although according to school officials, there only will be staff to handle 22,000.

Three of 11 hospitals are open in Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is located, according to Louisiana state statistics. The police force is down by about 200 officers from its pre-storm strength of 1,668.

Although power has been restored to most of the city, in severely ravaged neighborhoods, street after street remains dark after sundown. Water service is generally back, but the pressure is often very low due to leaks in the city's storm-fractured system.

Residents still complain of delays in mail delivery. Postal officials say service has resumed throughout inhabited areas of the city, but hundreds of residents in districts hit hardest by the storm are limited to retrieving their mail once every 10 days at a post office.

Twenty-eight of the city's 46 bus routes are operating; transportation consultants have recommended the routes be further cut to 24. More than 550 of the Regional Transit Authority's 1,340 employees did not return to work after Katrina. Scores of traffic lights throughout the city are still malfunctioning.

Dry cleaners are hard to find, and even in neighborhoods where some people have moved back and are trying to rebuild, there are no supermarkets, no banks, no restaurants, no churches.

On Sunday afternoons along the banks of Bayou St. John near the Mid-City neighborhood, people used to walk their dogs, bike and barbecue. Today, silence has replaced the shouts of children. In fact, most playgrounds have been converted into trailer parks, and many recreation centers have been shuttered -- though the city recently announced that it would resurrect youth recreational programs this summer, including several pools.

One source of daily frustration is a constant eyesore: the mountains of storm debris still piled on backstreet sidewalks and lining median strips on some thoroughfares. For months, rat-infested graveyards of storm-wrecked cars clogged many freeway underpasses. They are only now beginning to be cleared away.

Despite a joint cleanup effort by government agencies that has removed 17.6 million pounds of waste, the city's unintended new emblem is a pile of storm debris.

"If you're not in the French Quarter, you live with trash, blighted houses and abandoned cars," said Patricia Meyer, who was flooded out of her home in the Bywater neighborhood. "There isn't one person who isn't touched by the devastation and the lack of assistance in cleaning it up."

Some neighborhoods of the Lower 9th remain officially off-limits. Electricity is erratic or nonexistent. If water flows, it is not safe to drink, or even take a shower in, without boiling it first.

Authorities are still finding bodies in abandoned homes.

Post-Katrina life is one of challenges and indignities. "I call it 'the new normal,' " Benoit said. The expression has become a common one here.

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