A Quiet Progress in New Orleans

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

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Global center. A year later, residents are still waiting. Mostly, there are big plans. City leaders are seeking seed money to lasso the resources of three of the city's universities, Tulane, Xavier, and the Louisiana State School of Medicine, into a 2.4-square-mile biosciences zone that would re-create New Orleans as a global research center. And the mayor and others are pushing a $300 million "Reinventing the Crescent" plan that would replace eyesores along the waterfront with 6 miles of parks and promenades. "New Orleans in many ways has lost sight of its greatness and lost sight of the need to reinvent itself," says developer Sean Cummings, who's spearheading the effort. Funding, however, is an issue.

Indeed, Blakely's Office of Recovery and Development Administration has largely blamed the slow start on funding delays, mostly from the federal government, while state and federal authorities blame local disorganization. Still, the 17-zone plan to entice private investment is showing signs of picking up speed. Developers are carving condominiums out of a Falstaff factory north of downtown, thanks, in part, to $1 million in city funds. Another lot nearby was sold by the city for half its appraised value to lure in another developer. And in the trashed Hollygrove neighborhood, where used tires are simply tossed in an empty lot, the city is cultivating new apartments for low-income seniors.

Ghost town. Yet there's no escaping the blocks of warped and ruined homes. Pontchartrain Park, north of Gentilly and bordering the lake that is its namesake, was occupied primarily by retirees. With most residents too overwhelmed by the effort to come back, the neighborhood today is a ghost town. Citywide, the population of New Orleans is far below its pre-Katrina level of 454,000. The numbers are in dispute, but local demographer Greg Rigamer puts it around 308,000—a rebound of about 180,000 since the months after the storm. Most agree resettlement is leveling off. "There is a tipping point" for those people who haven't yet returned, says Rigamer, who estimates the population will likely peak at 360,000. "The sense of urgency is past. After 2½ years, you start to think of things of a practical nature, getting your kids in school, sound infrastructure, employment." With fewer people, a jack-o'-lantern effect of households and darkened lots, as in Genevieve Bellow's neighborhood, is taking hold.

Part of encouraging resettlement means allowing it everywhere, even in flood-prone areas. New homes are being built higher and "smarter," says Tony Faciane, a deputy to Blakely. "But keep in mind that emphasis for flood protection is always the levees." And the levees hardly instill confidence. While the Army Corps of Engineers argues that dramatic repairs have significantly strengthened the system, critics like Robert Bea, a civil engineering professor at the University of California-Berkeley, are dismissive. "It may be able to withstand a Category 3 storm," he says, "but not likely." That level of protection won't be fully in place until 2011. And it's unlikely the system will ever be strong enough to protect against a Category 5 storm.

In its efforts to rebuild neighborhoods, NORA is confronting many of the city's other weaknesses. More than 150,000 jobs were lost in the storm. And one of the city's two Fortune 500 companies, the mining enterprise Freeport-McMoRan, recently jumped to Phoenix. "We had a weak economy to start with," says Ivan Miestchovich, director for Economic Development at the University of New Orleans. "Then we got pummeled."

Economics has complicated New Orleans's comeback in unexpected ways. The city has had difficulty even ascertaining who owns what property, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward, where many houses passed through generations of families with no changes in the deeds. And at least half the city's pre- storm residents were renters, few of them with insurance. Now the city is aggressively pushing homeownership for all. In a bold move, redevelopment agencies have launched a generous "soft second mortgage" program that provides down-payment assistance of up to $50,000. So far, $2 million of about $10 million has been distributed. Meanwhile, NORA is pressing 350 lawsuits to forcefully confiscate blighted property from negligent owners. Williams optimistically describes the agency's progress as "halfway up Everest."