It’s been four years since Hurricane Katrina broke through levees in New Orleans and hurtled across the city. The population is down something like 173,000, however tourism is coming back and districts are slowly rebuilding. The rebirth is a tribute to the power of neighborhoods and small groups that have led the efforts. We repeat this post once again on the anniversary of Katrina.
During my trips back to New Orleans and the surrounding areas since Katrina, the most potent impression from stories that I’ve been told, has been one of local neighborhood groups and teams of businessmen working together, often without any consistently effective government help to bring the city back to life.
Tourism in New Orleans is the lifeblood of the city
Merchants, restaurateurs, hotel concierges, trolley drivers, waiters and everyone one here appreciates tourists who visit the city. There is none of the feeling one might get in Miami or Southern California like, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them.” My experience tells me the people of New Orleans are genuinely happy to welcome tourists to their city.
Many of the conventioneers and other tourists feel a bit unsettled about visiting the devastation in some of the outer neighborhoods of New Orleans. They wonder if their morbid curiosity makes them nothing more than voyeurs. Don’t feel that way.
Locals understand that Katrina is a part of their history and, honestly, no one can truly fathom the extent of destruction without driving through the mile after mile of empty lots and past the occasional ruined house still bearing the markings of the National Guard search for dead and missing residents and animals.
Those who visit the Big Easy and only stay in the French Quarter or the Central Business, Garden and Warehouse districts are not seeing the entire New Orleans story. They will return home feeling that New Orleans is more or less completely back on its feet. These visitors will not see the vast empty spaces in this city that once housed almost 175,000 residents who have not returned. They will not see the overgrown city blocks where empty lots and destroyed homes still take up 80 percent of the geography.
Though the hurricane debris, fallen trees, roofless houses, overturned cars and scattered garbage have been cleared away, they have only been substituted by vast empty, humid city blocks of waist-high grass undulating in the occasional light breeze over concrete foundations and front-door steps to nowhere.
Ironically, Katrina was an eye-opening experience for a lot of people, not only nationally but also locally. Many locals who used to live in relatively isolated worlds within New Orleans are now engaged pumping life back into the entire city and experiencing parts of the city they previously didn’t know. Tulane University students are more plugged into service and more involved with city projects than ever before. Living in this city has become a learning experience for them in coping with life.
The neighborhood efforts
This is a do-it-yourself recovery engineered by the local citizens in spite of dysfunctional and distracted city, local and state governments. As sadly and mind-boggling as it seems, an Upper 9th-Ward police station, that could represent the local government’s commitment to the neighborhood and its safety and rebirth, still stands in ruins four years after the flooding receded.
While the newspapers, politicians, rescue workers and the National Guard have focused on some of the most devastated areas of the Crescent City like the Upper and Lower 9th Ward, the people of New Orleans moved forward organizing local teams to pick up trash, clear streets of debris and start rebuilding. They didn’t wait for government help. There was little.
They had a mission, a sense of purpose that was far more immediate and effective than any government hand-me-down. That sense of unified purpose drove the citizens of this city, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, district by district, to bring it back to life.
Local friends from all walks of life and all income levels volunteered for days, week after week, at food kitchens to help feed the hungry. They donated money as well as time to keep these kitchens running. Next-door neighbors organized teams that moved street by street through neighborhoods that had seen moderate flooding and manageable damage to bring their streets back to civilization.
Families cooked potluck suppers and little victories like a towering pile of debris removed from the streets and stacked in a cleared area were celebrated. A local businessman, Sidney Torres III, purchased garbage trucks and began carting refuse out of the city to clean things up in the absence of any kind of organized government response. Now his company under contract to keep the French Quarter clean, and he runs a massively successful trash business. When insurance money began to flow, neighbors helped repaint houses with imaginative and extraordinary colors — pale sea blue with clementine pillars, forest green with intense golden porches and sienna shutters.
In most cases when the government eventually became involved, it meant more problems than help and more obstacles than assistance. One of the biggest heroes of the rebirth of New Orleans was a woman, Denise Thornton ,I’m told, who spent her days filling out government paperwork for many citizens to get building and cleanup permits. Later, she organized Beacon of Hope, which has helped thousands get funding and permits for rebuilding work that otherwise would have been delayed.
A mobilization of merchants
One of the business groups that was emblematic of the local efforts at rebuilding New Orleans was the restaurateurs. Nationally-know chefs like John Besh, locally-renown chef like Steve McHugh and restaurant owner Tommy Cvitanovich, together with other chefs, banded together to feed FEMA workers and map out the resurrection of dining in the Big Easy. There was nothing easy about it.
The massive logistical problems faced just to bring food to the city were daunting. Highways were blocked. The airport was closed. Suppliers were flooded. Warehouses were gutted. Bakery ovens were cold. Local produce fields were inundated. Cattle and hogs were trucked away to drier ground.
Yet, they persevered and rebuilt much of New Orleans culinary infrastructure. Eventually, this group of chefs worked to till fields north of Lake Pontchartrain where produce is grown today. Beef and dairy cattle and hogs ate from troughs once again only an hour or so from the city center.
Before Katrina, this local community of chefs knew about each other, but the natural disaster brought them together as coworkers with a common task. Every chef one encounters in New Orleans these days will agree that their community is far stronger today than it was four years ago before they faced disaster and began the rebuilding process together.
Big money for big projects and charity efforts
Granted, big money has come to the city. Millions of dollars in government relief money has been poured into rebuilding the once neglected and then breeched levees. Giant pumping stations have replaced picturesque fishing ports. The Saints are playing once again in the Superdome.
Insurance company dollars are rebuilding private homes in devastated Lakeview and dozens of neighborhoods across most of the city. Corporations, like Wal-Mart, were some of the first on the scene trucking in building materials and thousands of sheets of plywood and bottles of water to help residents who remained to stay and begin rebuilding. National hotel companies flooded the city with workers and funds to get accommodations back into a functioning state.
The Catholic Church, unheralded, except by appreciative locals, got their private schools up and running and packed with children months before the public system even began to react. Some schools were conducting multiple sessions to allow New Orleans kids to keep learning — for example, one class would meet from 6 a.m. to noon and the next would start at 1 p.m. and finish at 7 p.m.
Charity donations are being spent to recreate a life form in the Lower 9th Ward — they hope that it spreads virally to recreate life within this grid of uneven street. Brad Pitt has led an effort, ‘Make It Right,’ to build “green” housing. Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis are spearheading a musicians’ neighborhood with Habitat for. Still, these valiant efforts are isolated oases — visions of what might someday be, swallowed up by the vastness of the destruction.
The heavy lifting, however, was done by the little people to bring this city back from the brink. With little faith in the government, neighbor helping neighbor and businessman helping businessman were the engines that righted the ship New Orleans so that many residents could return, businesses could reopen and tourism could begin to flourish again.