NEW ORLEANS — As the murky flood waters of Hurricane Katrina were slowly pumped out of New Orleans in 2005, the challenges the city faced were only beginning to come into focus.
Housing, health and public safety, what and where to rebuild — all were questions faced by local, state and federal authorities who, it soon became obvious, had not been prepared to deal with the aftermath of levee failures that led to catastrophic flooding.
Some public figures questioned whether New Orleans would, even should, survive. The response dispirited many of those hoping to rebuild and politically scarred the elected officials in charge: President George W. Bush, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin — who won re-election in 2006 but left office four years later with dismal public approval ratings amid a slow recovery.
These days, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city's boosters point to a reduction in blighted housing, rebuilt schools and public buildings, an influx of entrepreneurs and a revitalized tourist industry as examples of New Orleans’ recovery.
But it has been a hard struggle that persists. Infrastructure challenges laid bare or exacerbated by the storm remain — including problems with the city's water system and recently exposed deficiencies in the network of pumps, pipes and power turbines that drain its streets.
As Houston confronts its own challenges following Harvey, New Orleans’ challenges could prove instructive.
Amid the finger-pointing, rampant second-guessing and government investigations, there has been plenty of blame to go around for the suffering of New Orleans after Katrina. Nagin, now imprisoned for corruption that took place before and after the storm, was faulted for not calling an evacuation until less than a day before landfall; historian Douglas Brinkley faults Blanco for submitting a vague, boilerplate request for a federal emergency declaration rather than specific calls for help. Bush's critics accused his Republican administration of playing politics in an adversarial relationship with Blanco, a Democrat.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had only two public relations people on the ground ahead of the storm, rather than sending emergency response teams and staging buses nearby but out of harm's way, Brinkley wrote in “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
After the storm, then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA administrator Michael Brown were cast as clueless and feckless. Chertoff seemed unaware in a television interview that an estimated 20,000 people had taken refuge in a sweltering convention center in New Orleans. That was in addition to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 stranded in the equally squalid and under-provisioned Superdome while thousands more awaited rescue from rooftops.
A symbol of how overwhelmed government was: friends and passersby tired of seeing an uncollected corpse rotting at one intersection draped the woman's body with plastic and built a makeshift tomb around it with paving bricks.
Katrina brought out the best in some police officers, who performed rescues and struggled to keep order.
But the chaos engulfing New Orleans after the flood brought out the worst in others in a department long plagued by scandal.
There was the deadly shooting of unarmed civilians crossing a bridge in the storm's aftermath and the ultimately failed attempt to cover it up; a police officer fatally shooting another man, apparently unarmed, who approached a police outpost at a strip mall, and the subsequent burning of his body by another officer; and a man shot in the back outside the convention center.
Those were followed by federal investigations and court-ordered reforms that were hailed by civil rights activists but criticized by others who say they are hampering an already understaffed department with bureaucracy.
Reports of rampant looting, including footage of people carrying electronics out of flooded stores prompted Nagin to order a crackdown. But where some saw looting, others saw desperation. After the storm, one officer entered a drug store, handgun drawn, through a pried-open door. He exited after seeing people picking through clothes and hauling off food and water.
Some accusations of lawlessness were grossly exaggerated.
“I think many Americans don't understand the extent to which fears about savage behavior during Katrina were just flat-out wrong,” said Tulane University historian Andy Horowitz, who is writing a book about Katrina. “The New Orleans police chief was on television saying there were people raping babies in the Superdome ... but it just didn't happen. There were stories about people being murdered in the Superdome that were all made up. There was nobody murdered in the Superdome.”
Katrina destroyed 134,000 homes and apartments in New Orleans. One immediate solution was to bring in small travel trailers. The FEMA trailers eventually housed 114,000 people, according to The Data Center of New Orleans. Some parked them on their property as they repaired their homes. Some lived for years in trailer parks constructed in the weeks and months after the storm.
Some endured long waits to get their trailers. Then toxic levels of formaldehyde were found in them.
Flood insurance covered only about 36 percent of the 331,000 owner-occupied houses damaged or destroyed by Katrina. The Road Home Program, a state program supposed to help rebuild, was cumbrous and slow, and grants often didn't cover the cost of repairs. A federal report also found that Louisiana was disproportionately helping homeowners over renters. A 2008 lawsuit alleging the program discriminated against black homeowners in New Orleans was settled with a $62 million payment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Louisiana homeowners. And many homes turned out to have been rebuilt with Chinese drywall that emitted sulfur fumes that caused respiratory problems and corroded metal. Lawsuits over that drywall are still in court.
Population, race and politics
After Katrina, New Orleans became a smaller and whiter city.
The city's population fell from 484,000 to 230,200 a year after the storm, though it has grown to about 391,500 today. And while about two-thirds of the city used to be African-American, that number is now under 60 percent, leaving about 100,000 fewer African-Americans in the city than before.
Demographers say rebuilding brought in many college-educated newcomers, but about 27 percent of the city's residents still live in poverty, about the same percentage as before the storm.
Various aspects of the rebuilding have been controversial, including the razing of decades-old housing developments for the poor. New Orleans now copes with a dearth of low-income housing.
“Many, many of those public housing apartments had not been flooded,” Horowitz said. Mixed-use developments were built on their sites, with far fewer low-rent units.
Rather than a challenge, some say Katrina provided an opportunity for the remaking of a public school system long plagued by poor student performance and administrative corruption. With public schools unable to open after the storm, the state took most over, labeling them as failing. All of the state-run schools are now charter schools, run by independent groups with state oversight.
Progress — including overall student performance and better graduation rates — has been measurable, if uneven and slow. But the takeover was accompanied by the firing of thousands of school employees and criticism that local voters were effectively denied a voice in their schools.
The Legislature has voted to turn the schools back to local control next year. They will still be charter schools, but the Orleans Parish School Board will have oversight.
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