Down and Out in New Orleans
A city that is in recovery."
Although probably another of his many slips of the tongue, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's phrasing last week of the state of affairs exactly two years after Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,464 lives and left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater speaks volumes about wounds that even an army of cement trucks, roofers, and drywallers could never heal.
Indeed, as the months waiting for help have stretched into years, a deep depression has washed over many of the city's residents like a hangover that won't quit. A suicide rate that had tripled during the first year after Katrina remains alarmingly high, and the numbers of those who suffer symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder have increased to about 21 percent, according to a recent Harvard Medical School survey, up from 16 percent in 2006.
Even worse, the city's still-staggering healthcare system has failed to provide a safety net. There are but 30 psychiatric beds, down dramatically from what was considered an already inadequate 240 beds pre-Katrina, and mental health professionals to treat those even mildly depressed are in similarly short supply.
Meanwhile, most New Orleanians continue to suffer the hard lessons of what the city's recovery czar has dubbed a "mendicant's mentality" that played the victim long before Katrina hit. While a small number immediately went to work to rebuild—notably those in New Orleans East's all but submerged "Little Saigon" neighborhood, where 90 percent of its predominantly Vietnamese immigrants have returned and rebuilt—many more waited for help and money that is only now beginning to flow.
They had plenty of reason to expect more. Their government failed them at every level, from the Army Corps's faulty levees to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's botched disaster recovery efforts and the Bush administration's limp efforts to deliver the funds needed for rebuilding. "Maybe we need someone else to become the head person of the recovery for the federal government," Nagin said last week in an obvious slight to Donald Powell, President Bush's point man for the Gulf Coast recovery. "Maybe we need to call Colin Powell!"
After two years of waiting, perhaps Nagin and other residents of the Big Easy will realize that to recover and rebuild their beloved New Orleans, they will ultimately need to pull themselves together and do the job themselves.
This story appears in the September 10, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.