A Quiet Progress in New Orleans

Three years after Katrina, residents are finding new reasons to hope.

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NEW ORLEANS—At night, Genevieve Bellow's house is a lantern on a lonely block. After sitting under 3 feet of water from Hurricane Katrina, her modern two-story home in the affluent African-American neighborhood of New Orleans East has been gutted and put back together with new wood floors and a pool shimmering in the backyard. But while Bellow's house is back, her neighborhood is not. From her window, Bellow looks out at boarded-up homes and weeds bristling in the yards. Most area stores are shuttered. Debris chokes drainage canals, raising anew the fear of water.

Throughout much of New Orleans, recovery from Katrina has been hindered by the city's many prestorm weaknesses and delayed by false starts. Doors to ruined homes still creak in the breeze. Whole city blocks of the Lower Ninth Ward closest to the Industrial Canal breach are now a field of prairie grass pockmarked with concrete-slab foundations and driveways ending in wildflowers. Community anchors are boarded up or abandoned, and in the case of Gentilly's Provincial House convent, scarred by fire and rotting from water.

All this and more has people like Bellow wondering when, or if, evacuees still in cities like Houston and Atlanta will return and what will happen to all the empty shells that dot New Orleans.

Now, almost three years after Katrina, the answers are starting to come—and with them, a glimmer of promise. The federally funded Road Home program, the largest housing recovery program in U.S. history, has doled out $6.4 billion to storm victims looking to sell or rebuild their homes. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority will begin acquiring rights to as many as 7,000 properties that homeowners sold, often at a loss, to the program. Armed with these property rights, the city can now begin the emotionally fraught and painstaking process of weaving the properties back into the tattered fabric of New Orleans. Some will be kept for parks, community centers, and the like. Others will be sold to neighbors, new homeowners, or developers—largely distrusted here—to bundle together for large projects.

At the same time, New Orleans is pouring $1.1 billion into 17 target zones, attempting to jolt life back into commercial corridors across the city. "None of us knows how this thing is going to shake out," says Rob Olshansky, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois who monitors New Orleans's progress. "They are making policies and plans in an extremely unpredictable environment. [Success] all depends on how people perceive the recovery."

By most accounts, the perception is that the recovery is slow but may be gaining momentum. Throughout the city, homes are being rebuilt. Electricity, water service, and trash collection are running. Schools are opening. Plans to attract big money are being hatched. In short, many are finding reason to hope.

Dreamscapes. That hope comes partly from simply having a master rebuilding plan—especially as it comes after some high-profile failures to unite the city. Mayor Ray Nagin's first rebuilding commission publicly debated whether some low-lying areas should be rebuilt at all, enraging already anxious residents. Its proposal—a dreamscape of interwoven neighborhoods, each with its own retail zones, schools, and amenities—showed some low-lying areas marked with green dots, indicating potential parkland. Some residents interpreted the dots as whole neighborhoods converted to green space. At the proposal's unveiling, residents hurled insults at the panel. Recalls Commissioner Reed Kroloff: "When you combine our errors in graphic design and our inability to correctly explain what we intended, it created a vortex." Nagin promptly ditched the plan.

More failed commissions followed, slowing the arrival of federal funds, which were contingent on an approved master plan. Last year, the Unified New Orleans Plan emerged from the scrap heap, explicitly allowing resettlement everywhere while focusing on 17 zones in the best condition. Officials increased the resources of the long-negligent urban redevelopment agency NORA to handle the influx of Road Home properties. Now steering the ship is Joe Williams, a banking executive lured out of retirement by a sense of duty to his adopted city. Nagin also imported a recovery czar, Ed Blakely, the urban planner who guided the recovery after California's 1989 earthquake. At a press conference last March, the tough-talking 70-year-old promised "cranes on the skyline" within months.