Three years after Katrina

Posted Aug. 28, 2008, at 7:28 p.m.

New Orleans, as it was before Hurricane Katrina, remains a city of contrasts three years after the storm devastated it. While some neighborhoods are thriving and the city’s famed music and restaurant scene is once again vibrant, hundreds of National Guard troops still patrol the streets and thousands of residents have yet to return.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina, government at all levels — especially the federal government — has much work to do to rebuild New Orleans and other cities in Louisiana and Mississippi. As important as rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure is rebuilding the communities’ spirit.

“I know we’re behind the eight ball,” Paul Rainwater, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said recently. “People talk about recovery, but on one level, we’re still responding.”

That is an astounding and sad assessment, especially as another hurricane, Gustav, appears on track to hit the city. But it is borne out by the fact that 200 Louisiana National Guard troops will remain in New Orleans through the end of the year to help the city’s police force, which is still short staffed, patrol the city.

In June, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency closed trailer parks meant to temporarily house those displaced by the storm, hundreds of residents had no place to go.

Two recent reports give additional perspective. By this summer, the city of New Orleans had recovered 72 percent of its pre-Katrina households and nearly 90 percent of its sales tax revenues, according to the Brookings Institution in an assessment of recovery on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The pace of recovery, however, has slowed. The influx of people to the city has slowed to a trickle. The region added 8,000 jobs in the last year, less than a quarter of the number added in the preceding year. The pace of home renovations and demolitions has slowed by half compared to last year and there are still 65,000 blighted properties or empty lots in New Orleans.

A survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation looked at the psyche of New Orleans’ residents. Forty-one percent of residents who lived through the storm said their lives are still disrupted — only marginally better than the 46 percent in Kaiser’s first survey two years ago.

Only a slim majority — 56 percent — said that the rebuilding and recovery are going in the right direction. And 22 percent say they are thinking about leaving, up from 12 percent in 2006.

Overall, 6 in 10 New Orleans residents say they do not think the rebuilding of New Orleans is a priority for Congress and the president.

The federal government can’t end corruption in Louisiana or bridge the racial divide that still plagues New Orleans. But it must hasten the region’s recovery.

If Gustav mercifully swerves away from New Orleans, other hurricanes will come. The lessons from Katrina should ensure a quicker, more focused response before and immediately after the storm and during the years of rebuilding.

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