In the three years since Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans’s levees and flooded it, the historic city has made poignant progress. The gains are obvious: stores in still-half-empty neighborhoods have reopened or are reopening; more cars are parked in driveways; more lights are on. But just as progress creates hope, it also creates dread that all the hard work could be lost. Paramedics have a term—“the golden hour”—for the critical period after a patient’s injury, which makes the most difference in whether he lives or dies. New Orleans remains in its golden hour.
Since Katrina flooded out pretty much everyone on August 29, 2005, 72 percent of households have returned, according to the most recent data. True, more than one-quarter of New Orleans’s neighborhoods are home to fewer than half their pre-storm families. About 40 percent of residents have returned to middle-class Lakeview, for example, still a remarkable achievement in an area where Katrina’s floodwaters had ruined nearly every house. New Orleans’s Vietnamese-American neighborhoods, also heavily flooded, are pretty much rebuilt; Father Nguyen The Vien, a Catholic priest and the de facto leader of the Vietnamese-American community, is through with acute recovery and concentrating on overseeing, through a community group, a new charter school that aims to teach both English and Vietnamese to nearly 300 students, divided about evenly between black and Vietnamese-American kids. Some moderately flooded neighborhoods, like Broadmoor and Bywater, have recovered well. Others that didn’t flood much have barely lost any population. The trendy Marigny; the French Quarter, the engine of the city’s tourist economy; and Uptown, home to Tulane and Loyola Universities, are nearly unscathed, if a bit more worn than they were a few years ago. And a few areas—like the Irish Channel, a historic working-class neighborhood—have higher populations than before the storm.
But the city’s recovery, while impressive, has slowed. New Orleans has had just a 4 percent increase in households over the past year, bringing it dangerously close to the stagnation it had experienced long before Katrina. With every month that passes, it becomes more unlikely that the city will win back the middle-class evacuees who have put down roots elsewhere. So the city has to attract new residents. The tens of thousands of young post-Katrina volunteers who have made New Orleans their home for part of the past three years represent an opportunity to do so. But New Orleans has always attracted young people for a few years; it has never been good at keeping them. It’s too early to tell whether this time will be different.
The most immediate risk to the city’s fragile recovery is Gustav, the new storm brewing in the Gulf. Gustav could become the first major test of the Army Corps of Engineers’ repairs and ongoing improvements to New Orleans’s flood-protection infrastructure. The storm could also test the post-Katrina state government. Governor Bobby Jindal, nearly a year into his term, has ordered 700 buses to stand ready in case they’re needed to evacuate the estimated 30,000 New Orleanians who lack other means of transportation. And Gustav might show the world that New Orleans’s local governance hasn’t improved markedly post-Katrina. Mayor Ray Nagin, on his way home from the Democratic National Convention, might surprise observers with better crisis-management skills, but it would truly be a surprise. Six years into his administration, Nagin seems to know little about governing a city in either ordinary or extraordinary times. Strangely, the one thing New Orleans is good at is garbage collection; citizens rave about that, but about little else.
The sharpest example of how New Orleanians’ government continues to fail them is the city’s violent crime rate. The Big Easy has had 132 murders this year, a rate of nearly 70 per 100,000 residents annually—off the charts for a First World city. The Times-Picayune has a depressing roster of those killed so far, including one 24-year-old who was previously a suspect in three murders and in one attempted murder but was never charged. Armed robbery is also pervasive, even in the once-safe French Quarter, imperiling the city’s unsteady but all-important tourism industry. Just last week, a local blog reported, a French Quarter hotelier was so alarmed about the situation that he wrote to the district’s city councilman: “I believe it is at a point where it will be affecting commerce and I have told the hotels I am involved with to warn guests to be careful. . . . I am not sure that there is a safe place in the Quarter. . . . We need to do something before someone (a tourist) gets killed.”
Controlling crime doesn’t take a miracle, only leadership. City after city has proven exactly what works in making streets safe, as my colleague Heather Mac Donald has written: rational police work, competent prosecution, and strong sentencing of criminals. Even Newark, with virtually the same demographics as New Orleans and without the resources of a powerful tourist industry, has made huge gains. But New Orleans’s public- and private-sector leaders appear uninterested in what works, preferring to believe that the politically easier tasks of investing in education and jobs can do the trick. Middle- and upper-class citizens are responsible, too, since they tend to dismiss crime as “thugs killing thugs,” assuming that any young black man dead on the street did something to deserve that ultimate sanction.
Some hope flickers on the political front. Last year, the city got rid of its incompetent district attorney, Eddie Jordan, after shaming him into resigning—an almost unheard-of feat in the Big Easy. The city council is superior to its pre-Katrina predecessor. And next month, Congressman William Jefferson, facing federal corruption charges, could finally lose his seat to a rival during the Democratic primary. Still, what New Orleans needs above all is a mayor who will help citizens understand that violent crime shouldn’t be as uncontrollable as the city’s oppressive weather. If a real leader emerges in time for the next mayoral election in 2010, New Orleanians just might give him or her a chance. For now, the city is stuck with Nagin, apparently more interested in accepting awards from his friends for his post-Katrina performance than in governing his suffering city. Last week, federal recovery coordinator General Douglas O’Dell complained publicly that Nagin’s own recovery coordinator, Ed Blakely, wouldn’t even return his phone calls.
One stark scene illustrates the tenuousness of New Orleans’s painstaking recovery: the Lower Ninth Ward. Nearly two years ago, I made my first post-Katrina visit to the decimated neighborhood, taking the drawbridge across the man-made Industrial Canal, which separates the area from much of the rest of New Orleans (and carried some of Katrina’s floodwaters into the city). As my cab got closer to the newly repaired, gleaming white floodwalls built to protect the land from the canal, the structural soundness of the remaining houses deteriorated until houses were no longer houses but debris. Human activity had ceased on the potholed, grass-sprouting streets and on the land to each side. For blocks and blocks, the remnants of homes by the floodwalls were dark, broken, and empty, tufted by uneven grass and weeds. A tall white bird perched in the open wreckage that had once been someone’s home.
I visited again two weeks ago to find that nature, with the help of debris-removal contractors, had consolidated its victory. The houses in dozens of blocks near the floodwalls were gone almost entirely, with weeds taller than people growing in what were once separate lots. Only the odd driveway and staircase remained to show that someone had once lived there. The roads and their hand-lettered street signs, along with a couple of half-built, fenced-off houses sponsored by nonprofit groups, seemed out of place.
A few members of the nearly all-black Lower Ninth Ward have returned, though: 601 out of 5,363 pre-Katrina residents, according to the latest reports. Away from the floodwalls and closer to the rest of the city, but still within the ward, lots and homes in various states of repair are taking shape again. Once or twice each block, someone has carved out a win for civilization: cut grass, new windows, or shining electricity. Amid the desolation, an occasional person sat on his front stoop or rode a bicycle, trying to beat back a three-year-old wilderness still freighted with urban danger. So far, two people have been murdered in the ward this year. With two years to go until the next mayoral election, hardworking New Orleanians seem a bit like the few brave souls in the Lower Ninth Ward. They’re staking out a precarious claim against the gloom, and hoping for the best in an environment that sometimes looks like progress but can easily look like despair.