New Orleans After the Hurricane

Three years after Katrina, New Orleans still a symbol of government failure.

A view from a boat cruising the lower 9th Ward, looking for evacuees days after Hurricane Katrina.

A view from a boat cruising the lower 9th Ward, looking for evacuees days after Hurricane Katrina.

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George W. Bush's New Orleans was a photo opportunity: floodlights glaring on him in New Orleans's historic Jackson Square as he promised that the city would be stronger than ever after Hurricane Katrina. Nearly three years later, the scene remains a grim reminder of failure at the federal, state, and city levels—especially for those of us who have been to New Orleans.

I've visited New Orleans many times as both reporter and tourist. My New Orleans? Meals at Brennan's, Galatoire's, and Commander's Palace. Or walks through the French Quarter at night, listening to the jazz or just taking in the sounds and smells of the place.

New Orleans has powerful journalistic memories, too—the fascination of Louisiana politics ranging from the days of Huey and Earl Long to Edwin Edwards and even the racist David Duke.

The 1988 Republican convention was held there, and the news organizations are probably still looking in awe at the expense accounts that reporters and editors turned in at that time. That convention was held at the Superdome, later the scene of the awful aftermath of homeless leaving the city in late August and early September 2005.

Nearing Katrina's third anniversary, the city shows signs of promise. Recent visitors report a city coming back—if too slowly for some residents.

Many African-American citizens who fled the low-lying wards will probably never return. There are few homes in those areas, and jobs are difficult to find. Some streets still look deserted.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found in a recent survey that 6 of 10 in the city are feeling better about their future—a positive sign. However, 7 in 10 said affordable housing was not available and rising crime was a concern.

Even this week there was another setback when the state gave up on a two-year contract for building homes because of an alleged conflict of interest with the two top bidders.

So it will take much more than promises from Baton Rouge and Washington to restore the horrific damage in Louisiana. The Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which was in the eye of the hurricane, has recovered faster, but problems remain there.

The pitiful job performed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been a lingering sore spot for residents. The Bush administration took such strong criticism that the GOP presumptive candidate for president, Sen. John McCain, visited this summer and vowed sternly that it would never happen again in this country. He didn't mention the president, but the message was clear.

New Orleans has always been a magnet for tourists, bustling conventions, and vacationers from home and abroad looking for fun in the French Quarter. The Big Easy will get there again, but it will never be quite the same.

One final note: Our eldest son, Jim, is a sportswriter in nearby Biloxi, Miss. He got out of the city with little more than the clothes on his back as Katrina approached. When he returned, his house more than a mile from the coast was pancaked by the raging winds. For several weeks, he wrote human-interest stories on the coast with sports relegated to a minor role at the paper.

My wife and I hope to revisit New Orleans soon to relive the days when the city was whole and to see it now on its way back.