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Half empty, half full after Katrina

August 25, 2007|Miguel Bustillo and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

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

The members talked public high schools; they said it'd be nice if Gentilly had one again. They talked about the storm-blasted tree canopy, and 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 a month: That day the police chief had announced that the citywide burglary rate had increased 73% since before Hurricane Katrina. Angele Givens, the 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 Katrina, and she is hoping to rebuild. She isn't even living in Gentilly these days.

Two years after their city was nearly annihilated by a levee failure, the residents of this middle-class New Orleans neighborhood acknowledged that their surroundings still looked pretty bad. But they also insisted that things were slowly getting better. Just 31% of Gentilly's 16,000 addresses were reoccupied or renovated as of March, according to a survey by a Dartmouth professor -- but an additional 57% were finally 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 George Bush, Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin," resident Robert Counce said sarcastically of the president, the governor and the mayor as the meeting wrapped up.

The renaissance in America's most beleaguered city, such as 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 African Americans lived, remain urban graveyards pocked with empty lots and moldering shotgun 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 had been searched for bodies after the Aug. 29 storm. Progress is evident, however: Freshly renovated houses are increasingly rising amid the decay.

On paper, at least, the Crescent City is plotting an ambitious rebirth, and has finally begun embracing new ideas to repair civic institutions that were broken long before the hurricane. Yet despite promises by countless politicians -- including President Bush, who declared after the storm that "we will do what it takes" to bring New Orleans back -- many 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 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 greatly from the kindness of volunteers, more than a million of whom have come to the Gulf Coast to aid in recovery efforts, according to a federal report.

The Road Home, the government grant program created to help Louisianians rebuild, has not been so giving. It has sent checks to about 43,000 of the 184,000 people who sought assistance, and is $5 billion short of what it needs to help the rest. That's progress: At the start of the year less than 1% had gotten a dime from the program, which pays up to $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 the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversees the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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