Some Bright Spots in New Orleans

There's been nothing but bad news about New Orleans in recent days. Louisiana's largest commercial property insurer has announced that it's pulling out of the ...
by | December 8, 2006 AT 3:00 AM

Nola_1 There's been nothing but bad news about New Orleans in recent days. Louisiana's largest commercial property insurer has announced that it's pulling out of the city, citing the bad shape of the levee rebuilding program. There's enough violent crime that you see local students wearing t-shirts with guns on them and jokes about surviving a modern "battle of New Orleans."

A recent audit has found that FEMA is squandering millions (probably more than a billion) in Katrina-related funds. Louisiana's "Road Home" program, which supposedly will give $150,000 to each affected homeowner, minus insurance and federal assistance received, promises to spend upwards of $7 billion, with extra help for those who will stay and rebuild.

The state estimates that this program ultimately can help 123,000 residents. And yet, by the beginning of this month, fewer than 100 families had actually received checks. Natalie Wyeth, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says she believes that, with 10,000 offer letters now in people's hands, money will start to flow and contractors will be hired in the new year.

But 15 months after the storm, people in New Orleans already seem tired of waiting for some illusory recovery that is promised in the new year or with the next tourist season. The city feels underpopulated and simple things, such as getting your car fixed and buying groceries, have become more difficult. As a result, a recent poll finds that a third of those who have returned are considering packing up and leaving with the next couple of years.

So that's the bad news. You have to look harder to find good news.

Nola2 One small positive has been the success, on an admittedly limited scale, of nonprofit groups in building and renovating housing.

With electricity, water and other utilities still unavailable in some areas or just starting to come back online, the nonprofits are rebuilding in clusters. This makes good sense for safety reasons as well. Although the numbers involved are small, rebuilding a dozen or so homes in a neighborhood has had the side benefit of encouraging nearby homeowners to come back and rebuild as well.

Easily the most famous project is the Musicians' Village, the brainchild of Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, working in tandem with Habitat for Humanity. This set of homes, being built on the site of an old high school, has received national publicity and is the go-to place for visiting volunteers, including high-profile visitors such as President Bush.

The village, which is at the less-damaged end of the Ninth Ward, is comprised of small homes painted in an array of pastel Easter egg colors, an especially bright and cheering site amidst a forlorn quarter of the city.

Obviously, being a musician is not a federally-recognized housing qualification, so there will be a mix of residents. But Habitat for Humanity did go out of its way to recruit and provide information to musicians, so there are a dozen have signed up. The project will include a small performing arts center, named for Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of that musical clan.

Habitat for Humanity, which is also building homes a few blocks away from the celebrated village, has completed about three dozen altogether and begun construction on a total of 55 homes. The group is scheduled to build 250 by the end of 2007 and has as its goal 1,500 area homes over the next five years.

Its actual numbers in terms of getting people into housing so far, however, has been exceeded by the Preservation Resource Center, a 30-year-old group that rehabilitates properties to provide housing for seniors and other low-income residents. The center also runs a program in conjunction with the National Park Service to renovate homes that have belonged to jazz legends.

The Preservation Resource Center has completed work on about four-dozen homes and recently acquired 25 more houses. Although much of the volunteer labor has been provided by staff from the state attorney general's office, says Sue Sperry, the group's grant director, the various levels of government remain insufficiently nimble about changing their rules in response to the ongoing crisis and getting things done.

"One thing that we have had to complain about since the storm is that we wanted the cavalry to come, but government agencies aren't taking this over," she says. "All that progress that we've made, and this is just in housing, has been through nonprofits and corporate donations."