New Orleans: A City Gets to Its Feet, Slowly

By Jonathan Capehart, a member of the editorial page staff (THE WASHINGTON POST, 26/05/07):

When I boarded the flight to New Orleans this month, I was ready. Ready to be angry and heartbroken all over again. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, the images of people clinging to their rooftops and waving for help that came too late won’t soon leave me. Nor will the haunting chants of «help!» from evacuees at the Superdome. Nor will the photos of dead bodies.

And then I got my feet on the ground in New Orleans. The anger I was ready to embrace never materialized, because the people I met were moving beyond it.

The horror that gripped New Orleans, rocked America and shocked the world has given way to a painfully slow, yet determined, rebound. «You can’t be angry every day,» said David Meeks, city editor of the Times-Picayune, who kayaked 3 1/2 miles from the paper to his home to rescue his dog. «You can’t.» Jim Kelly, president of Providence Community Housing, who volunteered at the Superdome and the airport as the city flooded, said, «We’re dealing with the stages of grief. People are now trying to say, ‘Been through the stages. How do I move forward? What can I do?’ »

What they are doing is driving the recovery. «Recovery is being done by the people, not by government,» Meeks said. Norman Francis, president of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the revered president of Xavier University, a Catholic and historically black college in New Orleans, echoed that sentiment: «The people in the different neighborhoods have decided, ‘Well, we can’t wait for government.’ »

Waiting is something they’re used to. Homeowners are waiting for the trickle of grants from the state’s Road Home Program to increase. Now that there’s a $2.9 billion shortfall, the waiting may continue while Baton Rouge and Washington fight over ways to fill the gap. And the long refusal of the Bush administration to lift the 10 percent match requirement for FEMA grants to cash-strapped localities didn’t help. The waiver, which would yield about $775 million for Louisiana, was included in the just-passed Iraq funding bill that President Bush is expected to sign.

«Regular people are figuring out what’s smart, how they can make their house stronger, how they can be built, how to piece together resources,» said Terri Troncale, the Times-Picayune’s editorial page editor . The people of New Orleans «have been moving forward almost since day one, when the water went down.»

Martha Knight described herself as a «Louisiana girl [who] just kept moving further south» when Gulf Coast rebuilding czar Donald Powell and I ran into her walking her dog, Jeff, near her new home on Dauphine Street in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward. «I got a grant as a first-time home buyer,» said Knight, who has lived in New Orleans for 17 years. «They’re focusing on this area to help rebuild it. It’s like the best of both worlds. You feel like you are in a country community and then [in] minutes . . . you’re in the French Quarter.»

Knight’s neighborhood looks like many that were flooded in New Orleans. Everywhere are boarded-up houses with haunting X’s spray-painted on the front to denote that they were searched, by whom and how many bodies were recovered. But the debris piles out front are considered good signs. The FEMA trailers in driveways, such as in the African American neighborhood built around Pontchartrain Park, are clear signs that the owners have returned — and are most likely awaiting a Road Home grant to finish repairs.

It’s a different story on the north side of North Claiborne Avenue, a thoroughfare through the Lower Ninth Ward. The massive piles of debris are long gone. What was once an enclave of generations of mostly poor and mostly African American homeowners is now an expansive field of wildflowers and abandoned foundations of washed-away houses. To see it from the rebuilt levee wall, as I did, is to understand the power of what happened there.

While there might not be overt anger, there are concerns among New Orleanians. Francis worries about education, health care and affordable housing. And Kelly worries about residents’ mental health. But he takes it as a good sign that people are adjusting to the reality of the recovery’s pace. When I asked Knight how long she thought the recovery would take, she said, «I really have no clue.» But she said five years, «because it makes me feel like it’s possible.» Would she ever consider packing up Jeff and her three cats and bidding the Big Easy adieu? No way. «It’s so diverse, from uptown rich to downtown poor,» she boasted. «Everyone’s got something that brings really the charm and everything about the city that just takes your heart and keeps you here.»