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History > 2008 > USA > New Orleans, Louisiana (I)



New Orleans clears out

ahead of Gustav


USA Today
By Rick Jervis and Bob Swanson


NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans neighborhoods were ghost-town quiet Sunday evening as residents continued to flee from the path of Hurricane Gustav, a storm roaring through the Gulf of Mexico with 115-mph winds.
The National Hurricane Center said at 11 p.m. ET Sunday that Gustav would likely remain at a Category 3 storm until it makes landfall on Monday. Gustav was centered about 220 miles southeast of New Orleans at that time and was moving northwest at about 16 mph, the center reported.

The National Hurricane Center was projected landfall in southern Louisiana, about 65 miles southwest of New Orleans. An estimated 1.9 million state residents have evacuated, just short of the 2 million expected to leave, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

With hurricane winds extending 65 miles from the storm center, the forecast, if it holds, could put hurricane-force winds in downtown New Orleans.

"It's been zeroing in on Louisiana the last couple of days, and it looks like that's going to happen," said Dennis Feltgen, a hurricane center spokesman in Miami.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city.

"Looting will not be tolerated," the Democratic mayor said. "We have double the police force, double the National Guard force we had for Katrina, and looters will go directly to jail."

Once it crosses land, Gustav is expected to slow and rapidly weaken, becoming a tropical storm, with winds greater than 39 mph, by Tuesday afternoon and a tropical depression, with winds less than 39 mph, by Wednesday, Feltgen said. It will also likely drop torrential rains on southeast Texas as it breaks up, he said.

"This has the potential to be a tremendous rainmaker," he said.

The Republican Party canceled most of Monday's first-day party convention events in St. Paul, paring back the agenda to leave only routine business that must be performed for the convention to continue.

"I hope and pray that we will resume our normal operations as quickly as possible, but some of that, quite frankly, is in the hands of God," said presumptive nominee John McCain, who was campaigning in St. Louis on Sunday afternoon.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will skip the convention because of mounting concerns about Gustav, the White House said Sunday. Bush will travel Monday to Austin and San Antonio, where a variety of emergency operations are being staged.

Bush attended a briefing Sunday at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. Afterward, he said that "while the levees are stronger than they've ever been, people across the Gulf Coast, especially in New Orleans, need to understand that in a storm of this size there is serious risk of significant flooding."

First lady Laura Bush will attend the convention and will join Cindy McCain at the podium Monday to describe ways to help victims of the storm. More major convention changes are a near-certainty.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also was en route to the New Orleans area Sunday.

"I do want to emphasize the window is closing. Once you get tropical storm-force winds, there's no more evacuation," he said at Andrews Air Force base near Washington. He said the combination of heavy rain and wind from the southwest could cause water to run over the top of New Orleans' levees — even if they hold.

Jindal said all 64 Louisiana counties have declared states of emergencies, and most of the coastal parishes called for mandatory or partial mandatory evacuations. He said there are three unconfirmed deaths — hospital patients who died during the evacuations.

Jindal, a Republican, said there are 400 search and recovery units from several states on standby in Baton Rouge and Alexandria. He encouraged any holdouts still in the areas that are expected to be hard hit to leave now. "Even if you made it through a hurricane before … please take heed now," he said.

Despite the urging of officials, some New Orleans residents remained behind. At the iconic 18th-century St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, Archbishop Alfred Hughes celebrated Mass at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Each service drew fewer than 10 worshippers.

"He did it in record time, about 30 minutes instead of an hour," said usher Sam Scandaliato as he left the 11 a.m. Mass. "He tied Gustav into the readings, particulary the profit Jeremiah, who also had adversity in his life."

Scandalioto, a civil engineer who lives in a second-story apartment overlooking Jackson Square, said he won't evacuate.

"I'm not afraid of wind or water. The French Quarter did not flood during Katrina so I feel safe," he said.

There were a few stragglers Sunday morning in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, which sustained heavy flooding in Hurricane Katrina.

Byron Iverson and Michelle Dunne-Iverson had gathered family members and were packing their belongings into the car to head for Tennessee. The family had spent $200,000 and hundreds of hours restoring their home, which was flooded with nearly two feet of water after Hurricane Katrina.

"We're disappointed," said Byron Iverson, 55, a high school teacher. "We were just about to start putting siding on."

"But it's just stuff. We can always replace stuff," he said.

Most of the city was empty by mid-day. New Orleans police patrolled throughout, often with blue lights flashing. Police and National Guard soldiers stood guard outside boarded-up businesses.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said he was sending dozens of school buses to the Gulf Coast to speed evacuation efforts. Mandatory evacuation orders were in effect for Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties.

The evacuation orders target people living in FEMA trailers and mobile homes, flood zones and Mississippi cottages, which are temporary housing units provided by the state after Katrina.

"It's always best to evacuate if you're not sure," said Donna Cromeans, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "From everything we're seeing, people are heeding the orders. The people who chose to stay during Katrina are evacuating this time. They're not taking any chances."

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urged residents of two coastal counties to seek shelter Sunday evening and laid out the welcome mat for Louisiana residents. Riley, a Republican, said 49 emergency shelters were open in the state and that 3,400 Louisiana evacuees already were in Alabama with another 7,000 expected.

Florida officials are preparing for a surge of evacuees and a few western counties may be hit by tropical-storm-force winds, said Blair Heusdens, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Officials plan to open shelters in Escambia, Walton and Santa Rosa counties, and perhaps additional shelters if needed, she said. "Its very similar to what we saw in Katrina," Heusdens said.

Streets across New Orleans were quiet Sunday. In the Uptown neighborhood, Still Perkin' coffeeshop, its windows covered in plywood, served cafe au laits and bagels to those staying behind or evacuees on their way out. Customers sipped their coffee and chatted about whether they should stay or go.

"It gives them a little sense of normalcy before the craziness begins," owner Kathy Redmann said.

Parish leaders in neighboring St. Bernard's Parish, which was wrecked by the floods that followed Katrina, also urged residents to evacuate. "If you choose to stay against the pleadings of nearly every official in the region, you will be on your own for the duration of the storm," St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro warned early Sunday.

Residents appeared to be leaving the low lying area that was entirely under water after Katrina. Taffaro said parish officials saw a steady stream moving out Sunday and estimated that more than two-thirds of the residents had already left.

"This is absolutely the last opportunity to do so," Taffaro said.

Contributing: Donna Leinwand, Jerry Shriver, Larry Copeland and Marisol Bello in Louisiana; Randy Lilleston in St. Paul; Emily Bazar in McLean, Va.; Associated Press

New Orleans clears out ahead of Gustav,






A Long and Weary Bus Ride

to Anywhere


September 1, 2008
The New York Times


ABOARD A BUS FROM NEW ORLEANS — The 40-odd people boarding the black, red and white bus that the city provided late Saturday afternoon embarked on a journey of pure faith. They did not know how long they would be away or whether they would have anything to come home to. It would be many hours before they even learned where they were going.

They had no way of knowing that when they finally reached their refuge, roughly 350 miles away, it would be ill-prepared for their arrival. But they did have a firm grasp of what the worst could mean if they stayed in the broad, unpredictable path of Hurricane Gustav.

So, uncomplaining, they hoisted themselves aboard, taking advantage of the government’s offer of free transportation for those without cars.

There was the matriarch shepherding 15 family members of four generations; the couple who slept on the Riverwalk on Friday night after their usual shelter, the Salvation Army, shut down; the school janitor whose three teenagers were too many to squeeze into her relatives’ cars.

And there was the friendless Puerto Rican man who spoke little English and had no television; he had simply followed the people dragging suitcases through his neighborhood after being told that anyone who stayed in New Orleans could be arrested.

By and large, these were the same people who would not or, more often, could not leave town before Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago — those who ended up swimming, walking or climbing their way to safety and witnessed many others less fortunate. This bus was but one tiny part of an unprecedented effort to make sure that no one, no matter how poor, sick, disabled or carless, stayed behind as the city evacuated.

Denise Grant, for one, wanted no replay of the four days she spent amid corpses on an overpass after Hurricane Katrina, nor did she want her daughter or grandchildren to have a similar experience. “What my eyes caught — if they could see what my eyes caught, they wouldn’t want to go through it either,” Ms. Grant said.

Anyone could show up at one of 17 pickup stops throughout New Orleans, get a ride to the Union Passenger Terminal and then stand in line for a bus, plane or train to shelters scattered throughout the region. By Sunday afternoon, more than 18,000 people had been evacuated that way, said the city’s mayor, C. Ray Nagin.

Many seemed convinced that New Orleans would fare no better in this storm than it had three years ago. Shannon Branch, 34, said she had only recently saved enough money from her various jobs to move her three teenagers out of their government-provided trailer and into a rental house. Her family had just begun the work of rebuilding their home in the Lower Ninth Ward. “We’re going to start all over now, I guess,” she said.

Ms. Branch lost an aunt who stayed behind in Hurricane Katrina; her body remained unidentified for two years. “A lot of people, I think they wisened up now,” she said.

As the passengers settled in, no one seemed to know where the bus was heading. A helpful volunteer had informed riders that it would be Arkansas. A rumor went around that it was Tennessee. Finally, as the bus pulled out of the terminal, the driver was handed a map to Cuba, Ala., a town of 322 people on the Mississippi state line.

The word spread with the help of Stephanie Beach, a waitress who, thanks to her front-row seat and outgoing personality, became the closest thing the bus had to a cruise director. Having not known where the bus would take her, Ms. Beach, who was traveling with her two daughters and a man she described as “I guess my new boyfriend,” had put relatives throughout the region on standby.

Ms. Grant’s husband, Marvin Mercadal, 51, said: “We’re going to Cuba. Maybe we’ll learn a little Spanish.”

As the bus crept along the packed Interstate, memories of Hurricane Katrina were hard to avoid. “I had a Pomeranian, see that Pomeranian?” said Harry Sullivan, 51, pointing to a dog looking enviously comfortable perched between the front seats of an S.U.V. in the next lane. “She died in the flood. Her name was Bright Eyes.”

After more than five hours on the road with little progress, some passengers began to sneak into the bathroom to smoke cigarettes. Others loudly spoke their minds, demanding a break, to no avail. But Madeline Augusta, 55, sat without a word, attending to her 18-month-old grandson on the seat beside her. A second grandchild, an infant, slept spread across her parents’ laps.

After Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Augusta spent 24 hours standing on a chair on her porch in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, chest-deep in water, trying to flag down help. But she was quick to point out that it was the levee break, not the hurricane, that had caused her to lose everything. “But for these grandbabies,” she said, “I wouldn’t have left” this time.

Some evacuees remembered not just the horrors of Hurricane Katrina but also the long slog of the previous evacuation — after television images of chaos and reports of violence and looting made some places fearful of accepting New Orleanians.

Ella Gould, traveling with an extended clan that included her first great-grandchild, remembered that the bus she and her family finally caught made four stops before they found a place that did not turn them away: a military base in Oklahoma.

As she told that story, others around her napped or watched DVDs on this new bus’s monitors as the greasy darkness of the Interstate slid past. “Nobody wanted us,” Ms. Gould said.

It was 2 a.m. by the time the bus reached Cuba — or rather, a large staging area in Cuba where, it turned out, dozens of other buses bearing evacuees had stopped to be redirected by officials from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. This bus would go on to Birmingham.

Ms. Beach and her family escaped with an uncle who was waiting at the staging area. The bus driver, John Thompson of Quick’s Bus Company in Virginia, answered every question put to him with a shrug. “I’ve been in the dark ever since I’ve been here,” he said in frustration. “This is the first and last time.”

Finally, at about 6 a.m. Sunday, 12 hours after it left the station in New Orleans, the bus pulled up to what looked like the rear service area of the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, and the passengers gingerly shook themselves awake. But it was not yet time to debark.

After about half an hour, a man in a Red Cross vest appeared and begged for patience, muttering something about a hot breakfast. Another half-hour passed before people were instructed to get off and get their luggage, only to find themselves part of a mass of humanity that was less a line than an immobile crowd, pressed up to the single entrance to an emergency shelter that was already over capacity, out of cots and had no visible food.

Eventually stew was served and cots were delivered, and 1,200 people were packed into a shelter prepared for 500.

Still, a woman on her cellphone could be heard explaining, as she waited to enter, why she and her family had left the city. She sounded a little impatient. “Ain’t nobody got time for all that drowning,” she said.

    A Long and Weary Bus Ride to Anywhere, NYT, 31.8.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/us/01evac.html






Gustav takes aim

Landfall expected early Monday near Houma.
Mandatory evacuation orders expected or already in place.


Sunday, August 31, 2008
The Times Picayune
By Laura Maggi


Contraflow will begin on federal interstates out of the New Orleans area Sunday at 4 a.m. as authorities order evacuations in advance of powerful Hurricane Gustav.

New Orleanians without their own transportation will continue receiving assistance at Union Passenger Terminal.

As of Saturday evening, the powerful storm remained on track to make landfall near Houma sometime Monday, with tropical storm winds beginning some places in the state by Sunday afternoon and evening.

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the contraflow plans early Saturday evening, explaining that the same evacuation flow patterns will be used on interstates in southwest Louisiana and running north on Interstates 49 and 55. It's the first time Louisiana has undertaken such a wide-ranging evacuation along its entire coast.

The governor also activated the remainder of the state's National Guard, putting more than 7,000 men and women into active evacuation assistance missions and prepositioning units for the storm's aftermath.

Jindal called the plans, along with the mandatory evacuation orders being issued in many coastal parishes, an obvious nod to Gustav's strength and the devastation it could inflict.

"We could see flooding even worse than we saw in Hurricane Katrina," Jindal said Saturday after talking with forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. "This is a very dangerous storm."

Jindal said the goal is to direct contraflow traffic for 20 hours, until midnight, if the weather permits.

Residents across the New Orleans area could be seen Saturday boarding up windows and carrying armfuls of belongings to their cars, preparing for the slow trek north.

Waiting for a bus in front of Louis Armstrong Park, Ernest Jones said memories of three years ago prompted him to leave. "Katrina was enough for me," he said. "I'll watch it on TV."

In vulnerable lower Jefferson Parish, people helped town officials build temporary levees of sand and water tubes.

"We can take about 5 1/2 feet of water above sea level, but we can't take the 9 to 12 feet they're talking about," said Tim Kerner, mayor of Jean Lafitte.

David Bindewald, president of the West Bank levee board, said the current track has potential to push surge across the entire West Bank. "This is the one we always hoped we'd never see," he said.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin urged people to leave the city, saying he expected to order a mandatory evacuation to take effect early Sunday morning. Mandatory evacuations were called on Saturday in St. Bernard, St. Charles, Plaquemines and lower Jefferson parishes, along with several parishes in south Louisiana.

In St. Tammany Parish, the potential for storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain to inundate lakefront properties and all areas south of Interstate 12 and east of Interstate 59 prompted officials to ask vulnerable residents to voluntarily evacuate.

"I am strongly, strongly, encouraging everyone in the city to evacuate," Nagin said at a midday news conference. "Start the process now."

Nagin especially urged tourists to leave the city, particularly the large number of visitors in town for the Southern Decadence festival in the French Quarter.

"It's time for you to leave the city. All tourists in the city, I'm asking you to start the process of evacuation," Nagin said. He asked Southern Decadence officials to cancel scheduled events immediately.

In New Orleans, the public-assisted evacuation at the Union Passenger Terminal got off to a rough start, with a breakdown of the state computers that were to be used to process evacuees slowing officials' ability to get people on buses or trains, said Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

By mid-morning, the state shifted plans, deciding instead to collect riders' identification as they got off buses or trains at designated shelters in north Louisiana, Baton Rouge or Memphis.

That move seemed to quicken the pace of getting people onto transportation, officials said, but throughout the day long lines stretched down the block, as people carrying backpacks and plastic bags sweated under the hot August sun. Police and camouflaged guardsmen -- rifles slung over their backs -- blocked off surrounding streets and pointed stragglers toward the end of the line.

"We're so tired and hot," said Marion Devore, 61, who arrived downtown from a West Bank evacuation site. "We just hope and pray this will be better for us than Katrina was."

There were also scenes of desperation, as the elderly and disabled struggled with luggage in the heat. Glorie Lucien, 50, who said she was on disability, complained of chest pains as she waited outside the terminal with her two children and a breathing machine in tow. "I can't do it," she said. "Y'all go ahead and leave me."

At 5:30 p.m., Jindal said more than 10,000 people had moved through the center. Officials said their goal was to evacuate all of those who need help leaving the city by nightfall, but they were prepared to continue running buses as long as residents needed them.

"We're not going to leave people behind," New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow said. "But we we're trying to get it done in a 24-hour cycle."

Jindal confirmed that no parish's public assistance evacuations would end even after contraflow begins for those with their own transportation.

Residents anxious to leave the city ahead of Gustav showed up early at 17 evacuation points around New Orleans, often ahead of the 8 a.m. starting time for buses. Douglas Evans, president of the Dryades YMCA in Central City, said people began arriving at his pick-up spot at 5 a.m.

Within two hours, a long line of RTA buses that had shuttled people from the pick-up spots around the city were idling on Loyola Avenue near the train station, keeping riders out of the hot August sun but preventing drivers from going back to get more people -- at times for lengthy periods.

The backup created by this delay could be seen at various evacuation points, where people sometimes waited for hours before an RTA bus arrived.

Nine people in front of the Lyons Center in the Irish Channel said they had been waiting for almost two hours at midday, not seeing a sign of any bus.

Residents also reported waiting more than three hours outside a shuttered community center in the St. Claude neighborhood. Eventually City Councilman James Carter arrived and made some phone calls. A bus arrived 20 minutes later.

In the Lower 9th Ward, dozens of people, including a blind man and young children with pets in carriers, waited under an awning at a Katrina-ravaged community center that was still closed from that storm. Around 1 p.m., a bus pulled up to the intersection of North Claiborne and Caffin avenues.

Driver Barbara Word jumped from the bus and ushered the people in.

"With the way I'm driving, you better hold on folks," said Word, 53. "I'm gonna get you there fast."

RTA spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook acknowledged the bottleneck created in the shuttle service, but she said service was improved after the Red Cross put up tents to help shade people. That allowed a quicker turn-around for the buses, Cook said, adding that by mid-afternoon, all the pickup stations were flowing "pretty well."

In Jefferson Parish, a stream of evacuees arrived at the Alario Center on the West Bank to load state buses to shelters far from Gustav's path. Residents took JeffTransit buses to either the Alario Center or the Yenni Building in Elmwood to get onto the state buses.

At least 200 people were assigned to the charter buses in the morning, and parish workers planned to register evacuees all day, said Greg Guthrie, the Alario Center's general manager.

Lucille Canty, 63, of Gretna stood in line with 18 members of her extended family. Teenage nieces and nephews sat on suitcases while younger grandchildren chased each other in and out of the line.

Canty said she was optimistic the public system would get her family to safety. "This was our only option," she said.

In a small storefront in the Gentilly neighborhood, Donavin and Linear Boyd finished up the last of their tasks before closing their business, Boyd Brooks Funeral Service.

After Katrina, the water rose 5 feet inside their shop, about the height of Donavin Boyd's shoulders. To thwart such destruction this time, Boyd placed his important files and documents on an 8-foot-high cabinet, right next to a Jesus clock.

The Boyds arranged for a cold storage facility to temporarily hold not-yet-buried corpses. "There will be no bodies floating around," Donavin Boyd said. "We took care of everything so now we can leave ourselves."

In St. Tammany Parish, officials announced the opening of the first two emergency shelters on Sunday, while warning residents that the strengthening storm could bring devastating winds, rain, flooding and tornadoes to the north shore.

"This is very serious for St. Tammany Parish," Emergency Operations Center Director Dexter Accardo said Saturday afternoon. "This has the earmarks of a disaster greater than Katrina."

The parish faces danger from at least three sources: high winds and tornadoes, a storm surge that Parish President Kevin Davis said could push Lake Pontchartrain's waters up to 14 feet to 17 feet above sea level, and flooding throughout the parish as rain and the surge of water from the Gulf swell rivers throughout the parish.

Gustav's track early Saturday afternoon showed the storm could bring gale-force winds and tornadoes to St. Tammany, Accardo said, plus a downpour of at least 12 inches.

"We'll get more wind, more rain and potential for tornadoes" than during Katrina, Accardo said.

The parish will open its first two emergency evacuation shelters Sunday at 2 p.m. at Creekside Junior High, 65434 Louisiana 41, Pearl River, and William Pitcher Junior High, 415 S. Jefferson St., Covington. Additional shelters will be opened as needed, Davis said.

The parish's special needs shelter at Covington High School, 73030 Lion Drive, Covington, will open Sunday at 4 p.m. Those with special needs do not need to register for the shelter and should call the Council on Aging St. Tammany at 985.327.0185 if they need transportation to the shelter.

Statewide as of 6 p.m., 54 of Louisiana's 64 parishes had declared pre-storm emergencies. Twenty-nine hospitals had evacuated patients, with seven emptying their beds completely; 44 nursing homes had evacuated; and parish prisons had been emptied in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans, among others.

Jindal said the state is looking for 500 additional hospital beds outside the evacuation zone.

The governor also issued an executive order closing public schools in 30 central and north Louisiana parishes through Thursday of next week to ensure that shelter space remains open for those evacuated from the hurricane region.

Jindal said the state has requested additional guard units from other states.

Ten "boat squads," totaling 300 vessels, are ready to deploy on search-and-rescue missions, Jindal said. The units will embark on their missions as soon as wind speeds drop below 40 mph.

But Jindal emphasized that residents who evacuate will not have to depend on those crews, and he warned that residents in parishes where mandatory evacuation orders are issued "cannot expect routine services" from first responders during the storm.

. . . . . . .

Staff writers Andrew Vanacore, Molly Reid and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.

    Gustav takes aim, TsP 31.8.2008,, http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-11/1220161408139690.xml&coll=1






After Fanfare,

Hurricane Grants Leave Little Mark


August 31, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — It was the largest housing aid program in American history, billed as the essential government tool that would make New Orleans whole after Hurricane Katrina.

Yet even though about $3.3 billion of federal taxpayer money has been spent here on the cash grant program known as the Road Home, New Orleans on the third anniversary of the hurricane remains almost as much of a patchwork as it did last year, before most of the money was spent.

The program has had no effect on most of the houses in New Orleans, and has played only a limited role in bringing back the neighborhoods most flooded in the storm. And as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the city, many residents are worried that the work already accomplished could be set back.

Only about 39,000 homeowners in the city received the Road Home grants and stayed in their houses, of about 213,000 houses remaining in the city. Because of bureaucratic bungling and the high hurdles that Louisiana imposed on those applying for the money, thousands of homeowners never applied at all, and many other people moved away and abandoned their homes.

And so, on many blocks, a diligently restored house or two will be punctuated by a drearily neglected one, with a waist-high lawn out front and a gutted interior. More than a third of the houses in New Orleans remain unoccupied, according to new estimates by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a figure almost twice as large as in the city with the next-highest rate of unoccupancy, Detroit, with 18 percent.

The center has estimated that about 72 percent of the city’s population has returned, a clear improvement from the 50 percent who were there immediately after the storm, but a stagnant growth from the last anniversary, before most of the money was disbursed, when 69 percent had returned. The Census Bureau has given a lower estimate, saying that about 54 percent of the prestorm population of 444,000 had returned as of June 2007.

Over all in Southern Louisiana, the program has spent $6.9 billion of the $9.1 billion authorized by Congress, including about 75,000 grants outside of New Orleans.

For the underinsured homeowners who received the Road Home grants, which averaged about $59,000, the money was welcome. The houses that received it are easy to spot: new paint, new trim and fresh plantings outside, while inside furniture and walls sparkle like the model homes in a freshly built subdivision.

But those houses appear to be a minority in the neighborhoods that need improvement the most. The Road Home has not yet made whole areas like Gentilly, the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Those who did receive the money expressed earnest gratitude, saying it was crucial to re-establishing their lives.

“It was free money,” said Helen Howard, a retired AT&T worker, who said the grant paid more than the cost of rebuilding her brick home on Pauger Street in Gentilly. “My fellow Americans gave me the money. You’re talking to a grateful American. I have an opportunity to say thank you to my fellow Americans, and I want to.”

Others, however, say the help came too late, long after they had dug deep into their savings to begin work. And a few said they were still waiting for a check, more than a year after applying.

Sabrina Thomas, who works in marketing for the Postal Service, said the money came long after she had finished most of the work on her house in Gentilly.

“The walls and everything were finished,” Ms. Thomas said. “It really didn’t help us that much. If we had waited, we would have been in a trailer for over a year.”

The initial hopes for the program were big: it would be a government-administered self-help program for ruined homeowners that would lead inexorably to the city’s renaissance. It is “our ticket to rebuild, recover and resume our productive place in our nation’s economy,” Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the governor at the time, said in March 2006 as the program was being started.

Congress appropriated much of the money for the program in June 2006. Under its rules, money would be doled out to individual homeowners, based on a house’s value before the storm and the extent of the damage, minus insurance payments and other grants already received. Less money was available to those who chose to rebuild elsewhere in Louisiana or leave the state altogether.

So certain of success was the governor that in the state’s promotional television advertisements it was called “Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Road Home Program.”

But a year later, in the spring of 2007, stranded homeowners were in an uproar as the promised money had failed to arrive.

“We’d fax papers; they’d lose them,” said Virginia Burnett of Gentilly. “We’d fax them again.” It took 18 months to get a grant, Ms. Burnett said, a process she described as a “nightmare.”

The painfully slow pace of the Road Home’s disbursements cost Ms. Blanco her political career, sending her into premature retirement. Democrats, saddled with the discredited plan, ceded the Louisiana governor’s mansion to the Republicans in last fall’s election.

Even the severest critics of the Road Home, however, say the money was not wasted. Many neighborhoods would probably be even farther behind without the trickle of checks that only began arriving in earnest in mid-2007, more than a year after the program began.

“Without a doubt, this was extremely important for New Orleans, important for its sustenance,” said Melanie Ehrlich, a founder of a relentlessly critical activist group, the Citizens Road Home Action Team, and herself a Gentilly resident. “It was essential,” said Ms. Ehrlich, otherwise unsparing in her strictures on the program’s slowness.

Yet two years on, the “new life” Ms. Blanco had promised for New Orleans as a whole is still struggling to establish itself. While the old pace has largely returned to the Uptown and riverside neighborhoods only grazed by the storm, the once-flooded districts edging them are as quiet as a day in the country.

In many cases, neighborhoods that were repopulated cannot thank the Road Home for their revival. In one crucial Gentilly district, Gentilly Terrace, which has now recovered roughly 75 percent of its prestorm population, about 60 percent of the people had already returned by January 2007, said a demographer, Greg Rigamer. That was well before the Road Home program had begun to fulfill its mission substantially.

The numbers are similar in other once-flooded neighborhoods. In the Read Boulevard West district, in New Orleans East, where perhaps 60 percent of the prestorm population is back, 44 percent had already returned by January 2007. By the same measure, in areas where there has been little population return and not much rebuilding, like the Lower Ninth Ward, there have been few grantees.

“The Road Home really follows the significant return of population,” said Mr. Rigamer, who is based in New Orleans. “Road Home has not been a significant factor in the repopulation. People that had economic assets had to respond more quickly than Road Home could respond.”

And not just economic assets: those who fought to return had an emotional attachment to New Orleans that no amount of sluggish bureaucracy could negate. Mr. Rigamer’s assessment is borne out in the statements of the homeowners themselves, in a city with the highest nativity rate, or percentage of the population born there, in the country.

“If it took everything I had, I was coming back,” said Madeline Leon, whose husband, Clarence Leon, a retired engineering supervisor at the Superdome, had already spent more than $200,000 on his house on Pauger Street and said the grant was “not at all” a help.

It was no surprise that the Leons, and thousands of others, were back in their neighborhoods long before the Road Home check arrived in the mail. The program’s many arcane requirements for receiving the money were conceived with the expectation that the program would be heavily defrauded, the result of the state capital’s traditional suspicion of New Orleans.

In fact, officials say relatively little fraud has occurred. But nonetheless, at the outset, a complicated application process designed to curb it was developed, including the fingerprinting and photographing of applicants, and punctilious checks of ownership documents that in many cases were hard to come by. A critical study by the RAND Corporation identified 12 major stages in the Road Home application, including paperwork, interviews and detailed correspondence; news reports identified more than 60 steps, major and minor, in all.

Each one slowed down the disbursements. By December 2007, half of the people who had applied a year earlier still had not received any money, according to the RAND study.

The consequences of the delays for families desperate to return were onerous.

“It was just so long coming,” said Louis Rivarde III, who pursued a grant for his elderly parents on Stephen Girard Street in Gentilly. “It was a big process of having to go through the records. I don’t think it was a real caring process.”

Mr. Rivarde said it took 18 months for the $40,000 grant to come through, which he described as a “little cushion” for his parents.

Some in Gentilly spoke of elderly residents dying in the long interval between application and grant.

The neighborhood has a ways to go, the Road Home notwithstanding. On Carnot Street, new wood and paint gleams in Julie Francis’s brick-and-siding elongated cottage. It would be hard to guess that it took in six feet of water, or that she had to escape in a boat after Hurricane Katrina. The program was a help, but it was mostly savings, frugality and hard work that brought the Francis family back.

“Everything would be O.K., but the neighbors, we can’t find them,” Ms. Francis said. “The rats. ... ” she said, her voice trailing off.

After Fanfare, Hurricane Grants Leave Little Mark, NYT, 31.8.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/31/us/31road.html






Leaving the Trailer

Out of FEMA Park,

Clinging to a Fraying Lifeline


August 4, 2008
The New York Times


BATON ROUGE, La. — Two months ago, as he left the trailer park he called home after Hurricane Katrina, Alton Love, 41, just knew he was on the brink of getting a working car, an apartment and a good job to support the 9-year-old daughter he is raising on his own.

Doris Fountain was in a comfortable hotel, waiting on a water heater and an air-conditioner for her once-flooded house in New Orleans.

Matthew Bailey had just received his first check — $48 — for selling diet products via the Internet, a source of income he insisted would ultimately pull in $5,000 to $20,000 a month.

Their plans, the fragile products of battered optimism, have been derailed by bureaucratic obstacles and the evacuees’ own tenuous abilities to cope.

Mr. Love is living in an apartment paid for by an agency for the homeless but has no job or transportation. Ms. Fountain, still at the hotel, has the appliances, but new problems have cropped up at the house, including sparking electrical outlets and a strong odor of sewage. Mr. Bailey has moved to a studio apartment paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but is still paying far more for his membership in the Internet company than he is earning.

“Hopefully things will pick up, though,” Mr. Bailey, 43, said. “That’s the way I see it. Things are bound to pick up.”

At the end of May, the doors closed at Renaissance Village, the FEMA trailer park outside of Baton Rouge that had been home to hundreds of families, its end hastened by an official acknowledgment of unhealthy levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. Those who were left at the park at the end, most of whom were among the neediest of the evacuees, began moving out on their own.

In light of the early promise that the recovery from the hurricane would provide the chance to address New Orleans’s social ills, the farewell to the trailer park might have been an opportunity for a fresh start, with families fortified by more than three years of government support and charity programs. But when the park closed earlier than expected, government planners said they were left unprepared.

State and federal officials blamed each other for the plight of those whose mental limitations, physical afflictions or addictions, exacerbated by their exodus, have kept them from taking advantage of what help was available. Now those people have left their cramped quarters behind but taken their problems with them.

Support systems have been slow to catch up. Red Cross money for necessities like furniture, work clothes and, in some cases, cars, ran out just as Renaissance Village and most of the other trailer sites were closing, and many residents are making do with nothing but a mattress. A contract for case managers who helped evacuees get back on their feet ended in March, and a new case management pilot program is still in the planning stages almost three years after the storm.

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

The problems these families face are complex. Ms. Fountain, 65, could afford to fix the faulty repair work at her house if she had an award from the state’s Road Home program for homeowners. But Ms. Fountain’s husband of three decades died in 2007, and she cannot get the money until she can establish that the house is rightfully hers, a process that costs upward of $1,500. The legal service hired by the state to help low-income people with such issues has a long waiting list.

Meanwhile, Ms. Fountain, still in the Baton Rouge hotel, still grieving for her husband and worried about a son who has just been deployed to Iraq, has given in to incoherent fits of anger. Only recently, the lap dog she got after her husband’s death had to be euthanized.

“She’s had mental issues to break out before,” said Ms. Fountain’s daughter Jean Marie Selders, who is living with a friend in New Orleans and saving part of her paycheck to help with her mother’s house. “The longer it takes, the more distorted she gets.”

Many evacuees are not easy to help, especially when their situations are at least partly the products of their own bad decisions. Take Mr. Love, who back in May jauntily said, “I don’t have no sorrows.” Now, he is at what he calls an all-time low.

At Renaissance Village, Mr. Love took advantage of free job training to get his commercial driver’s license. But he lost his first job, at a cement plant, when he backed into another truck. With his tax refund this year, he bought a car that did not run. And when it came time to leave the trailer park, the first place that accepted him despite his bad credit and his history of arrests was miles from the cement companies where he had applied for jobs.

The commute, if it were even possible given the limitations of the Baton Rouge bus system, would mean leaving his daughter, Adrian, at dawn and getting home long after she returned from school. (Her mother, living in New Orleans, is a crack addict, Mr. Love said.) But the jobs within his reach — at Domino’s Pizza, say, or as a member of the support staff for Louisiana State University, struck Mr. Love as paying far too little for a man who used to make $20 an hour in the New Orleans shipyards.

Although a mechanic has declared the car worthless, Mr. Love has clung to the idea of using his federal stimulus check to salvage a junkyard motor for it. With a car, he said, “I know I can get a decent job. I know I can make this work.”

Sister Judith Brun, a nun who has been working with evacuees since before Renaissance Village was established, has offered to make up the difference between Mr. Love’s paycheck if he gets a job and the $13 an hour he would make driving a cement truck, putting the extra money into a savings account for a car. But Mr. Love, determined to use his commercial license, has yet to accept her offer.

On a recent afternoon, with Adrian away at a free camp in New Jersey, Mr. Love sat on his bed, poring over the help-wanted ads with some disgust. “I can’t get mad with nobody,” he said. “I got in this situation myself. But I’m not going to let this situation drown me, and I see I’m drowning.”

Because Mr. Love lived with his brother before the storm, he and Adrian are ineligible for the rental payments that most families who left the trailer park receive. For now, the Capital Area Homeless Alliance is paying Mr. Love’s $585 rent. In a month, he will be required to start contributing a third of it.

To help her charges become self-sufficient, Sister Judith has recently arranged for a team of psychologists to evaluate those who are willing, in hopes that it will dislodge them from the ruts that have only deepened — the comfort zones that have only contracted — since the storms.

The Homeless Alliance and the Community Initiatives Foundation, directed by Sister Judith, are part of a small consortium of agencies that is trying to keep those ineligible for FEMA assistance from becoming the homeless. Their clients include more than 200 households, and ineligible people continue to materialize — early this month, a Hurricane Rita evacuee was found sleeping in the doorway of a Baton Rouge office building with her newborn daughter.

No one is sure how many ineligible people there are, but what is certain is that their numbers far exceed expectations and many are mentally or physically disabled. In New Orleans, a program to prevent homelessness set aside only 9 of 91 housing vouchers for disabled people coming off FEMA assistance; most of the rest are for the chronically homeless, whose numbers have overwhelmed the city since the storm.

“It was never anticipated that the permanent supportive housing program was going to take responsibility for all of FEMA’s disabled clients,” said Martha Kegel, the executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, which is running the federally financed program. “When we put this together we did not anticipate how much homelessness was going to explode. We had always been hoping that FEMA was going to continue to support these people instead of just dumping them on us.”

FEMA workers were supposed to refer disabled clients for the nine slots, Ms. Kegel said, but did not. Two were given to former Renaissance Village residents, Laura Hilton and her two younger children, and Theresa August, who has AIDS and shows signs of mental illness, after they were featured in an earlier article in The New York Times.

Ms. Hilton’s application has been approved and a two-bedroom apartment she found with the help of caseworkers is under inspection. Ms. August, who was living in an apartment that she paid for from her monthly disability income, was recently hospitalized after her new caseworkers took her to get medical attention for the first time in months. The other slots have been filled.

There is little other money in the system to aid those ineligible for FEMA rental payments. Of the $11.5 billion in federal community development block grants allocated for housing in Louisiana, $25 million has gone for homelessness prevention and $72 million for the supportive housing voucher program. A block grant for social services was much smaller, $220 million, of which some $100 million went to the state Department of Health and Hospitals for medical and mental health care. An additional $260,000 of that grant was recently given to the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, a nonprofit group that works closely with the state recovery authority, which it plans to use for the ineligible people.

And it is not only that group that is in need of help.

For those who are eligible for FEMA-financed housing but have yet to find it, the agency has agreed to pay for a new case management program but not direct assistance like furniture, utilities or deposits.

Those who have found housing will have their rent paid through February 2009 but will receive little other assistance. Monette Romich, who moved with her eldest daughter and 3-year-old grandson to a town house in New Orleans when Renaissance Village closed, recently returned to Baton Rouge to have a cancerous kidney removed.

Ms. Romich, a seamstress, lost her Medicaid coverage when her youngest daughter turned 18. She has not yet qualified for disability payments and has no source of income other than the purses she makes and sells for $10 each. Except for three beds, the town house is unfurnished.

Katie Underwood, the relief and recovery program manager for Family Road of Greater Baton Rouge, another aid group, said caseworkers there had recently been assigned to families who moved out of the trailer parks months ago and were living in subsidized apartments. “They’re finding people with no furniture and their lights off,” she said.

But with few resources to help those people, the state is looking to the time when the rent subsidies expire, yet another transition for families who were placed in apartments they cannot afford on their own. “March 2009,” said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, “is a date that’s seared in our minds.”

    Out of FEMA Park, Clinging to a Fraying Lifeline, NYT, 4.8.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/us/04trailer.html






Resources Scarce,

Homelessness Persists

in New Orleans


May 28, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin recently suggested a way to reduce this city’s post-Katrina homeless population: give them one-way bus tickets out of town.

Mr. Nagin later insisted the off-the-cuff proposal was just a joke. But he has portrayed the dozens of people camped in a tent city under a freeway overpass near Canal Street as recalcitrant drug and alcohol abusers who refuse shelter, give passers-by the finger and, worst of all, hail from somewhere else.

While many of the homeless do have addiction problems or mental illness, a survey by advocacy groups in February showed that 86 percent were from the New Orleans area. Sixty percent said they were homeless because of Hurricane Katrina, and about 30 percent said they had received rental assistance at one time from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Not far from the French Quarter, flanking Canal Street on Claiborne Avenue, they are living inside a long corridor formed not of walls and a roof but of the thick stench of human waste and sweat tinged with alcohol, crack and desperation.

The inhabitants are natives like Ronald Gardner, 54, an H.I.V.-positive man who said he had never before slept on the streets until Katrina. Or Ronald Berry, 57, who despite being a paranoid schizophrenic said he had lived on his own, in a rented house in the Lower Ninth Ward, for a dozen years before the storm. Both men receive disability checks of $637 a month, not nearly enough to cover post-hurricane rents.

“If I could just get a warm room,” Mr. Gardner said, sitting on the cot under which all his belongings are stored, “I could take it from there.”

Lurlene Newell, 54, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had paid her rent in Texas after the storm, but when she moved back to New Orleans, she could not find a place to live.

By one very rough estimate, the number of homeless people in New Orleans has doubled since Katrina struck in 2005. Homelessness has also become a much more visible problem — late last year, Unity of Greater New Orleans, a network of agencies that help the homeless, cleared an encampment of 300 people that had sprung up in Duncan Plaza, in full view of City Hall. About 280 of those people are now in apartments, but others have flocked to fill several blocks of Claiborne Avenue at Canal, near enough to the French Quarter to regularly encounter tourists.

Unity workers are hoping that Congress will include $76 million in the supplemental appropriation for Iraq to pay for vouchers that would give rent subsidies and services to 3,000 disabled homeless people.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a version of the bill that included the vouchers; the current House version, not yet approved, does not include them. Without the vouchers, said Martha J. Kegel, Unity’s executive director, even those people already in apartments will be in jeopardy. Their current vouchers, issued under a “rapid rehousing” program, expire at the end of 2008.

New Orleans had 2,800 beds for the homeless before the storm; now it has 2,000, Ms. Kegel said. Those beds are full, but even if they were not, many of the people living on Canal Street are not the sort who can stay in a group shelter. According to the survey, which was conducted before dawn one morning so that only those who actually sleep in the camp would be counted, 80 percent have at least one physical disability, 58 percent have had some kind of addiction, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 19 percent were “tri-morbid” — they had a disability, an addiction and mental illness.

For these difficult cases, permanent housing with supportive services, like counseling, has become a preferred method. But it takes time, patience, money and one thing New Orleans is short of: apartments. Many apartment developers who applied for tax credits after Hurricane Katrina were required to set aside 5 percent of their units for supportive housing, but because of high construction costs and other factors, far fewer units than expected are in the pipeline. And without the vouchers, even those units will not be affordable.

Unity has already moved 60 of the most vulnerable people from the camp to hotel rooms, paid for with a city health department grant, including a woman who is eight months pregnant and a paranoid schizophrenic who is diabetic and a double amputee. In the filth of the camp, the amputee’s stumps had become infected.

Outreach workers have found clients with cancer and colostomy bags, and one so disabled that he was unable to talk. On average, people have stayed in hotels for six weeks before Unity finds an apartment and cobbles together the necessary funds.

Mike Miller, the director of supportive housing placement at Unity, said the camp had become a public health hazard since the city removed some portable toilets in February.

“Two outreach workers have tested positive for tuberculosis,” Mr. Miller said. “There’s hepatitis C, there’s AIDS, there’s H.I.V. Everyone out there’s had an eye infection of some sort. I got one.”

On Thursday, Herman Moore Jr. was hanging out with a friend in the camp. Mr. Moore had lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, then a FEMA-financed hotel room, but had not realized that he was eligible for further assistance after the 30-day hotel stay ended last fall. Tipped off by his brother, Mr. Moore had only recently rented a house under the emergency management agency’s program, but had yet to pay the deposit or turn on the utilities because he had no money.

“If I had a TV and some electricity, you all wouldn’t even see me,” he said.

Clara Gomez, 45, told an outreach worker that she had just discovered she was pregnant. Like about 14 percent of the homeless people under the bridge, Ms. Gomez had come to New Orleans to work as a builder, but acknowledged that she had problems with drug and alcohol abuse.

After getting fired from one job, she wound up under the bridge, where she met Patrick Pugh, 36, a New Orleanian who said he had been in drug rehabilitation, turning his life around, when the storm hit. Their IDs had been stolen, they said, making it difficult to get jobs or food stamps.

Seated on a mattress, Ms. Gomez shifted nervously, changing positions every few seconds, all the while keeping her arms anchored around Mr. Pugh’s neck.

“We’re ready,” she said. “We’re ready to get out of here.”

    Resources Scarce, Homelessness Persists in New Orleans, NYT, 28.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/us/28tent.html






Against Odds,

New Orleans Schools

Fight Back


April 30, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — No road leads to George Washington Carver Senior High School here. It sits on no street and has no address. No sign announces it.

It is little more than a collection of prefabricated steel-and-wood classrooms floating in a no man’s land by the highway, and its vague location and bootstrap atmosphere sum up the problems and promise of the big education experiment now under way in this city nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina. There is no gym and no auditorium at Carver, and at breaks the school’s 350 students congregate on unshaded strips of concrete between the trailerlike boxes.

Carver’s only context is ruin — it sits across a field from the flooded-out pre-Katrina Carver High — and yet it is trying all over again, with new teachers and new methods, at what largely failed before the storm and immediately afterward: educating its students. Carver High is hope’s challenge to bleak circumstance.

And it is beginning to meet that challenge. Though there is disorder in many classrooms, there is also learning going on, amid the struggle. In an English class taught by Courtney Stuckwisch, the searing hard-times images of a Langston Hughes poem touch a chord, and the students look up eagerly. In Colleston Morgan’s social studies class, students beetle earnestly over textbooks for a lesson on supply and demand.

All around the city there is a similar would-be alchemy. Dozens of new charter schools, a flood of idealistic young teachers from elsewhere around the country — now as many as 17 percent of the total here — and a hard-charging reform superintendent from Chicago are all arrayed to rescue one of America’s most needy student bodies, which ranked at the bottom of a bottom-dwelling state even before Hurricane Katrina.

Only in the last year, with the marshaling of new forces, has anything like a coherent poststorm strategy for the shaky schools here emerged. It is too early for results — standardized-test scores are out in May — but educators here insist that there are some promising signs. At the very least, early shortages of teachers and space for students have been overcome.

On one level the transformation has already been total. Even without concurrent transformations in the city’s minimal economy and fragmentary social structure, the schools are being administered with a vigor that would have been unrecognizable here before the storm.

If this experiment succeeds, it will have accomplished something rare in the annals of American schools; academic experts cannot recall any campaign this “radical,” in the words of one. An educational superstructure, assembled in large part from outside brains and muscle, has brought itself in to remake a group of students years behind, overwhelmingly impoverished and often from broken homes. By next year, this will be the largest Teach for America district in the nation, administrators say.

Schools with names that reflect the largely African-American student body (Akili Academy, Sojourner Truth Academy) are now competing with one another for students, clamoring for recruits by way of signs on the grassy medians of this city’s broad avenues. Veteran school principals, used to the slumbering ways of the old system, are removed quickly if they do not measure up.

“There’s a recognition that it matters who’s in the building,” said Sarah Usdin, founder of a nonprofit here, New Schools for New Orleans, which is playing a leading role in formulating policy. “They have to perform.”

Citizen-run boards have suddenly been thrust into managing individual schools all over the city. Neophyte teachers barely out of college instruct students sometimes older than they are. A wide range of teaching styles has been employed, from the rotelike call-and-response methods of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Foundation school to more traditional textbook-based approaches. For the first time, parents are being asked to choose schools for their children (though in many cases the parents are absent, and the student is being raised by relatives).

Success will be a tall order in a school district where 85 percent of some 32,000 students are a year and a half to two years below their grade level. In a typical district, the figure would be around 15 percent, said Paul G. Vallas, the new superintendent here.

Worse, a third of the students here are some four years below grade level, a challenge that Mr. Vallas, a veteran of the Chicago and Philadelphia schools, calls “extreme.”

Yet nearly a year into the job, Mr. Vallas professes to be unfazed. With no politics in his way — he answers neither to the neutered parish school board nor to the mayor, but to the state — he is far freer to plan grand schemes than in the much larger cities where he made his mark.

“I don’t burn out,” he boasts. “I burn other people out.”

His vision is a broad one, with dreams of new campuses around the city. There are extended days in school to keep students off the streets and at the books, themed academies oriented toward the arts or civil rights, “transition schools” for the 17-year-old eighth graders reading at a third-grade level.

The contrast between the dream and the current reality is substantial. For instance, Mr. Vallas reckons that his plan to reconstruct the ramshackle school facilities here will cost some $1.3 billion, of which only half is in sight. Yet before Katrina, perhaps the cruelest among many deficiencies in the school district were a lack of ambition and a widely acknowledged acquiescence to failure.

Now school administrators will be unable to “just hide within this large urban behemoth and never have to change,” Ms. Usdin said. “There’s more change now than there ever has been before.”

From one classroom to another, from disorder to calm, Carver High illustrates the current challenges. In two English classes, Ms. Stuckwisch’s juniors and seniors are quiet and sometimes attentive; Curtis Sherrod’s freshmen — some 17 or 18 — are another story.

“If I was not a nondrinker, it would be a four- or five-beer night every night,” said Mr. Sherrod, a bearded, ponytailed Navy veteran, looking out with exasperation over his remedial reading and writing class. One student was slumped over a desk, immobilized in sleep. Four others were chattering and twirling their hair. Nearly half the class had not bothered to show up. From time to time, the teacher vainly called his charges to order.

Still, to the side a handful were diligently seated at computers, ignoring the near chaos to focus on an intensive catch-up reading and writing program. It requires students to spell words or read passages, then quickly corrects their errors while scoring them.

Usually a kind of extreme measure, here that reading program is “almost a foundation of the general curriculum,” with large majorities of students enrolled, Mr. Vallas said.

Mr. Sherrod’s class has made improvements in reading since the start of the school year, but the hurdles are real nonetheless.

“Most of the kids come from broken homes,” he said. “Their parents are dead, in jail or on drugs. You can tell the kids from two-parent homes. They’re getting straight A’s, and they are respectful.”

They are a minority, though. “The kids, for most of them, it’s no more than a social dating scene,” Mr. Sherrod said. “They don’t care about the work.”

It is a relationship on pins and needles, this interplay between the young teachers — 75 percent at the school are under 30 — and their close-in-age students, and all the difficulties in educating a group toughened by social and physical hurricanes is summed up in it. A student cursed Ms. Stuckwisch last week — “I was pretty upset” — and she sent him to the office.

The principal, Vanessa Eugene, praises her young staff’s energy and enthusiasm, so essential as an antidote to the cynicism that many say was the norm before the storm.

Yet the new energy comes with a cost. Ms. Eugene has had to emphasize to the teachers “not being a friend.”

“You’re here to educate,” she said. “You have to be willing to impose discipline. Some of the teachers have not been willing to confront.”

One of the young recruits, overcome, has already quit.

But with the school year coming to a close, some of the lessons have clearly sunk in, among teachers and students as well.

“I like the teachers, how they run things around here,” said McArthur Parker, a 15-year-old freshman, only seven years younger than the teacher he was playfully visiting with, a Harvard graduate named Colleston Morgan.

“Strict, keep people in line,” said McArthur, who lives with his mother and does not know where his father is. “Because if you don’t have order, you don’t have nothing.”

    Against Odds, New Orleans Schools Fight Back, NYT, 30.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/30/us/nationalspecial/30orleans.html






Emir of Qatar Tours New Orleans

to See Fruit of His $100 Million Donation


April 30, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — One of the world’s richest men toured one of America’s poorest cities on Tuesday, a whistle-stop visitor from a distant land come to see his good works in a place still needing a stranger’s kindness.

After Hurricane Katrina, the emir of Qatar donated $100 million to the Gulf region, intended to help rebuild housing, hospitals and schools. But the effect of his visit to New Orleans on Tuesday seemed muted, as two universes peered at each other through the dark smoked glass of his motorcade.

It was through that filter that the genial, burly emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, saw the unhealed landscape of the Lower Ninth Ward, touring the scarred lots in a police-guided caravan of luxury vans and cars as the few people out in the spring sunshine stared blankly back at the opaque windows. Open-mouthed astonishment registered on some of the faces at street level.

The emir did not get out to walk through the ruined neighborhood. The ruler of a tiny country ranked third on a United Nations wealth list, he had given generously, and Tuesday he sped on, later telling students at Xavier University that “we are all neighbors in a small and fragile world” but deciding in this instance against crossing a bridge too far.

Still, the emir was met with plenty of gratitude at Xavier, the only historically black Catholic college in the country and a $17.5 million beneficiary of the Qatar Katrina fund.

The Children’s Hospital here, Habitat for Humanity, Tulane, Loyola and Louisiana State Universities, students seeking scholarships, the area’s homeless — all have benefited from the oil-and-gas-borne largess of Qatar, one of the most open-handed of the donors to come to the Gulf Coast’s aid after the disastrous 2005 storm. Two other Persian Gulf nations, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also given.

Sheik Hamad said he was particularly touched by what happened here, as he explained in halting but resourceful English, in an interview at his hotel. Besides, his country hosts a big American military base that has been critical in the Iraq war, as well as to satellites of a number of American universities, and the emir cultivates tight relations with this country. Former President George Bush met him at the airport in Houston on Monday.

“We saw what happened to Orleans,” the emir said in the interview. “We were watching on television. We are part of this society. It is good for everyone to help out. I really felt sorry for the people.”

As he spoke, his daughter Sheikha Hind, a recent graduate of Duke, kept a watchful eye.

The emir has focused his money on education here, as he has at home. “The day oil and gas will finish, we will not go back to our camels,” he said. For now though, his desert country holds the world’s third-largest proven reserves of natural gas.

Sheik Hamad, not used to the attention, submitted patiently to questions while aides swirled about him. Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, came to visit. Then it was off, police sirens blaring, through the streets of New Orleans.

Later, at Xavier, students assembled to thank him, the university’s president, Norman C. Francis, greeted him, and the emir beamed. He had insisted on seeing the fruits of his money personally, said an American in the entourage.

The emptiness of the streets had affected him, the emir said, as it does many visitors. “I really wish to see some people come back to their homes,” he said, with a bit of sadness. Brightening, he added, “I was happy to see some homes being built.”

    Emir of Qatar Tours New Orleans to See Fruit of His $100 Million Donation, NYT, 30.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/30/us/nationalspecial/30emir.html






Nearly 40,000 Katrina families

still in mobile homes


Wed Apr 2, 2008
12:46pm EDT
By Jim Loney


ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, nearly 40,000 families still are living in vulnerable mobile homes and trailers across the U.S. Gulf Coast with another hurricane season just two months away, the top U.S. disaster official said on Wednesday.

The number is down from about 100,000 families, or some 300,000 people, in April 2006. At one point following the devastating 2005 hurricane season, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency was housing 143,000 families in mobile homes and trailers.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison said the agency, which was heavily criticized for its hapless response when Katrina swamped New Orleans, is moving about 800 families a week into hotels, motels or apartments.

The families are either living at group sites or in trailers in the driveways of their homes as they rebuild.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1. Forecasters are expecting above-average storm activity.

"As far as rebuilding, I did expect it to take this long," Paulison told a small group of reporters at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. "But as far as housing people, I did not foresee that they would be there almost three years later."

Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage when it swept ashore in late August 2005 near New Orleans, shattering the levees protecting the low-lying city and swamping entire neighborhoods.

The three worst storms of 2005 -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- together caused about $110 billion in damages. The record-shattering season produced 28 tropical storms.

The presence of so many people in the flimsy temporary housing complicates preparations for the hurricane season because those families must be evacuated in the event of a threatening storm.

Paulison said the agency was on target to move everyone from the group sites by June 1 but was having "a lot of trouble" getting some of those displaced by Katrina to move again, even from cramped mobile homes that are often reduced to rubble in big storms.

"People simply don't want to move," he said. "It hasn't been as easy a task to get people out as we thought it might be."

(Editing by Michael Christie and Bill Trott)

    Nearly 40,000 Katrina families still in mobile homes, R, 2.4.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN0239834420080402






Big Plans Are Slow

to Bear Fruit in New Orleans


April 1, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — In March 2007, city officials finally unveiled their plan to redevelop New Orleans and begin to move out of the post-Hurricane Katrina morass. It was billed as the plan to end all plans, with Paris-like streetscape renderings and promises of parks, playgrounds and “cranes on the skyline” within months.

But a year after a celebratory City Hall kickoff, there have been no cranes and no Parisian boulevards. A modest paved walking path behind a derelict old market building is held up as a marquee accomplishment of the yet-to-be-realized plan.

There has been nothing to signal a transformation in the sea of blight and abandonment that still defines much of the city. Weary and bewildered residents, forced to bring back the hard-hit city on their own, have searched the plan’s 17 “target recovery zones” for any sign that the city’s promises should not be consigned to the municipal filing cabinet, along with their predecessors. On their one-year anniversary, the designated “zones” have hardly budged.

“To my knowledge, I don’t think they’ve done anything to any of them,” said Cynthia Nolan, standing near a still-padlocked, derelict library in the once-flooded Broadmoor section, which is in the plan.

“I haven’t seen anything they’ve done to even initiate anything,” said Ms. Nolan, a manager in a state motor vehicles office who has painstakingly raised her house here nearly four feet. “It’s too long. A year later, and they still haven’t initiated anything they decided to do?”

The library still bears the cross-hatch markings made by emergency teams in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, to indicate whether any bodies were inside (there were none).

The city official in charge of the recovery effort, Edward J. Blakely, said the public’s frustration was understandable, but he suggested that bureaucratic hurdles had made moving faster impossible. Mr. Blakely said crucial federal money had only recently become available, the process of designing reconstruction projects within the 17 zones was time-consuming, and ethics constraints on free spending were acute, given a local history of corruption.

“It took us 11 years to do downtown Oakland,” said Mr. Blakely, an academic from California who specializes in helping cities recover from disasters. “This is a process of urban redevelopment. You cannot do this overnight, no city, anyplace in the world.”

Mr. Blakely has been given broad authority — a staff of more than 200 and jurisdiction over eight agencies — in a municipal hierarchy where the mayor, C. Ray Nagin, has adopted a hands-off role. Criticized last year for frequent trips to Australia, where he holds a university post, Mr. Blakely said he had not been there for some months.

The growing frustration points up what has been a recurring theme in New Orleans’s sketchy, on-again, off-again recovery from Hurricane Katrina: grandiose official promises, apparently made to lift the public’s morale, that soon prove unrealistic.

“They come up with these plans that look great and sound great,” said Sheila White, a Mid-City resident. “They give people hope. Then, they fall into the background. Promises are made, and they are not kept.”

Donna Brown, president of a neighborhood group in the Gentilly section, said she had seen no movement from the Nagin administration.

“I was told there would be groundbreaking Sept. 1, but I haven’t seen anything,” Ms. Brown said. “I’m not sure what’s going on. My neighbors are quite frustrated. I’m sure we’re all pretty much aggravated and frustrated about not seeing results.”

Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods remain stuck where they have been for months, with a few houses on a block occupied and the rest in varying stages of abandonment or repair. In Broadmoor, one block might appear carefully restored by residents, while another will seem derelict. Vacant grassy lots newly pepper the city, ambiguous signs of progress: blighted houses recently sat on them, but construction has often not followed demolition.

The grim housing projects have started to come down, part of a federal replacement plan. But an acute shortage of low-cost housing spurred hundreds to wait hours in line for rental assistance vouchers in mid-March, the biggest crowd officials said they had ever seen. Financing for dozens of developments in New Orleans now appears uncertain, thanks to the national downturn.

Meanwhile, the repopulation of the city after the storm that emptied it has slowed notably. The Census Bureau’s latest estimate, 239,000, represents barely over half the former population — and well under what local officials and New Orleans demographers have been claiming for months. Unemployment is lower than the national average, at 4.1 percent, thanks largely to construction, but high-end jobs are few, more expensive homes sit unsold for months, and the biggest economic development project in sight, a medical complex including a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, is years away. The French Quarter, hub of the vital tourism business, is crowded on weekends but empty during the week.

Mayor Nagin remains an elusive figure, occasionally surfacing to take strong issue with local news media portrayals of him, but otherwise delegating much responsibility for the recovery to Mr. Blakely. In one recent venture into the public light, Mr. Nagin complained bitterly when The Times-Picayune published a photograph of him playfully brandishing an M-4 rifle at the police chief during a news conference; the newspaper then published a front-page apology.

Civic leaders are relatively unguarded in their criticism. “The question is, is he relevant anymore?” asked Rob Couhig, a lawyer who ran against Mr. Nagin and then served as an unpaid adviser to him.

“What does he do that the city couldn’t do without him?” asked Mr. Couhig, who is the secretary of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, a city agency.

“Obviously, Mayor Nagin continues to serve as mayor of this city, making him the leader of the recovery efforts,” a spokesman responded by e-mail, adding: “Just two weeks ago he led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress regarding our most pressing recovery priorities.”

In the city’s renewal plan, most of the 17 redevelopment areas still bear tentative designations like “preliminary design” or “planning” on a municipal Web site that officials say is up to date. In some areas, no development projects are indicated at all, and on the few that indicate “construction,” actual results seem small-scale — new paving on a basketball court and a new corrugated metal roof over it, in an otherwise forlorn playground, next to an empty, boarded-up school, in a neighborhood, Hoffman Triangle, full of abandoned houses and teenagers hanging out at midday. Another project under “construction” nearby involves replacing “damaged ceiling tiles” at a police station.

Mr. Blakely conceded that progress so far was “still light stuff. I think people were expecting they’d wake up one morning and it would be nirvana. But little things are happening, cleanups, fixups, and so on.” On a driving tour, he pointed to new grass in the median of St. Claude Avenue, and street improvements. Buildings on either side, though, were dilapidated or appeared unused.

Three weeks ago Mr. Blakely announced more projects, including playgrounds, ball fields and swimming pools, as part of the recovery plan.

There have been some uniquely New Orleans hang-ups as well, said the recovery director; “lot of tensions in the staff,” revolving around race. “Black people have a hard time taking instruction from white people,” said Mr. Blakely, who is black. There is resentment “if a white person asks them to do something. It’s really bad. I’ve never encountered anything like this.”

His staff is under pressure from residents — “the people are on them every day, about when are things going to be done” — and the tension was evident in glum faces last week at a staff meeting presided over by Mr. Blakely in a downtown building.

In the neighborhoods, the verdict is still out on Mr. Blakely and his plan.

Leonard Montegut, asked for his assessment of the recovery director, said: “Right now, I can’t think of anything. I think time will tell.”

Mr. Montegut was mowing the grass in front of the apartment building he owns in the Hoffman Triangle, next to the playground that has been one of the few beneficiaries so far.

Stacy Head, a city councilwoman, said: “I’m trying to remain hopeful. I’m ready for some action. Their approaches are smart. But we’re still waiting.”

    Big Plans Are Slow to Bear Fruit in New Orleans, NYT, 1.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/01/us/01orleans.html






Homeless still feel Katrina's wrath


16 March 2008
USA Today
By Rick Jervi


NEW ORLEANS — Cedric Allen once wrestled with his crack addiction in an apartment he shared with his fiancée or in a home surrounded by his four grown daughters.

Today, Allen, 48, struggles with the same addiction alone in a camping tent under an interstate overpass in downtown New Orleans. His daughters and fiancée are gone, displaced by Hurricane Katrina. His old apartment is unaffordable.

Allen is one of an estimated 12,000 people who are homeless in New Orleans, many of whom landed on the streets after Katrina. Homeless people account for 4% of the city's overall population — more than four times that of most cities.

"It's rough going," said Allen, a day laborer. "You might have a job one day, two days, maybe even a month. Then, nothing."

Advocates for the homeless and officials said many of the city's homeless are like Allen: low-income residents who lost apartments after Katrina because of rising rents. Many also struggle with drug addiction or mental illnesses. Some are out-of-town laborers who came to work in the post-Katrina building boom then lost their jobs, said Mike Miller, a director with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a group that advocates for the homeless.

Katrina destroyed many of the outreach centers that serviced drug addiction and mental health problems, Miller said. Charity Hospital, which housed the city's main public psychiatric ward, has also been closed since the 2005 floods.


Fight over public housing

"It's usually hard finding a place for homeless people," Miller said. "It's 10 times harder in a place like New Orleans."

New Orleans' homeless dilemma comes amidst a controversial plan to demolish the city's four major public housing developments, or 4,500 units, and replace them with mixed-income housing. Federal and local officials have said the city's diminished population has less public-housing needs. Housing advocates argue the demolitions will create more homelessness. "Public housing is really for people who are on the precipice of homelessness," said James Perry of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The New Orleans Mission, one of the city's main homeless shelters, fills to its 150-person capacity each day, said Ron Gonzales, the mission's executive director. The center recently received a large Quonset-style tent through grants from the city and a local church to house residents.

Before Katrina, most of the mission's residents were chronically homeless and typically jobless, he said. Today, about 40% of the people who stay at the mission have full-time jobs, Gonzales said. "They're homeless because they can't afford an apartment or house," he said.

The homeless population created by Katrina has motivated advocates for the homeless to coin a term, "homeless homeowners," for those residents who paid off their mortgages and may not have had insurance when Katrina's floods devastated their homes and were forced into the streets.

Natural disasters often cause temporary spikes in cities' homeless populations, but for a homeless population to continue to grow two years after a disaster is unprecedented, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Being the victim of a natural disaster is no longer a guarantee that the government is coming to your rescue," Stoops said.

Mayor Ray Nagin and city leaders this past week appealed to federal lawmakers for help in solving the homeless problem. They asked for $20 million in rental assistance and 3,000 more permanent supportive housing vouchers, among other things, said Ceeon Quiett, a mayoral spokeswoman.

"We have to address increasing affordable housing, and we have to increase health care," she said. "Those are the two main factors contributing to our homeless situation."

One of the most popular gatherings for the homeless is under the Interstate 10 overpass at the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. A handful of camping tents and sleeping bags pre-Katrina soon bloomed into more than 100 tents after the storm, homeless activists and police said.


Some 'slip through cracks'

Fathers with full-time jobs and no homes share confines with paranoid schizophrenics and heroin addicts. A recent UNITY survey of the people living under the bridge showed 30% of those interviewed ended up there after losing FEMA assistance. Another one-third had high-risk ailments, including diabetes and AIDS.

"If you can't advocate for yourself at a very minimal level, you slip through the cracks," said Miller, the UNITY director.

After Katrina, Allen, the day laborer, tried to return to his Central City two-bedroom apartment. The rent had risen from $400 a month to $900, well beyond his means, he said.

His daughters had moved to Houston and nearby Metairie. He tried staying in New Orleans and finding work, but his crack addiction crept in again, keeping him jobless and in and out of jail, he said. He moved under the I-10 overpass this past year.

"I'll just keep doing this," he said. "What choice do I have?"

    Homeless still feel Katrina's wrath, UT, 16.3.2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-16-homeless_N.htm






Mental health crisis in N.O.


4 March 2008
USA Today
By Rick Jervis


NEW ORLEANS — Bernel Johnson showed all the signs.

He was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as aggressive, homeless and schizophrenic. He was kicked out of a Salvation Army homeless shelter late last year for holding a fork to a fellow resident's throat. On Jan. 4, Johnson was committed to a psychiatric facility for causing a disturbance at a bank. He was released and, a few weeks later, attacked New Orleans police Officer Nicola Cotton, 24, in a parking lot.

Johnson wrestled Cotton's service handgun from her and shot her 15 times, killing the officer, police said. Johnson remains in jail without bond, charged with first-degree murder.

New Orleans health and law enforcement officials say more cases such as this could unfold if the city's mental health crisis isn't resolved soon. Since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city 2½ years ago, the number of public mental health facilities and community outreach centers has decreased dramatically, leaving the mentally ill without medication and monitoring.

Cotton's slaying, another recent high-profile killing involving a mentally ill suspect and an increased percentage of mentally ill inmates at Orleans Parish Prison have galvanized state and local health agencies into trying to resolve the crisis. Last week, state health officials unveiled a $90 million plan to improve the city's mental health facilities, including community-based treatments and housing subsidies for the mentally ill.

Cotton's killing was one of at least eight slayings since Katrina involving mentally ill people, says Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter, who also runs the state's only Mental Health Court.

"Nos. 9 and 10 could happen at anytime, anyplace," he says. "This is more than just a public crisis. This is a dangerous situation."

One of the casualties of Katrina's 2005 floods was Charity Hospital, a state-run facility that housed a psychiatric ward equipped with 140 inpatient beds and round-the-clock psychiatrists and social workers. It was the bulwark here for treating mentally ill patients, particularly those with violent tendencies, says Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish deputy coroner and psychiatrist who diagnosed Johnson in January. The hospital has been closed since Katrina.


'Treatment system collapses'

Now, instead of being treated at Charity, mentally ill criminal suspects often are arrested, burdening the city's overtaxed judicial system, Rouse says. That worsens the problem for patients, who may not get proper medication or monitoring in jail, he adds. The patients usually suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression.

"When your regular mental health treatment system collapses, the patients become criminalized," Rouse says.

Besides Cotton's killing, there was an incident last month involving a mentally ill suspect. Latina Williams, 23, a nursing student, gunned down two classmates at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge on Feb. 8 before killing herself. Williams had shown signs of paranoia and had called a crisis counselor the morning of the shooting to say she was planning to kill herself.

New Orleans has a smaller prison population today than before Katrina, but an increasing percentage of those arrested have been mentally ill, says Sam Gore, a physician and medical director for the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff, which runs the city's jails.

"We've clearly noticed there's been an increase in demand for psychiatric treatment post-Katrina," Gore says.

Currently, Orleans Parish Prison, which has 60 psychiatric inpatient beds, is the city's biggest public ward for treating the mentally ill, Hunter says.

The patients get some treatment at the prison but are released without further monitoring, Hunter says.

"They have to get arrested to get any type of treatment," he says. "It makes no sense."

The lack of services comes as mental illness generally has multiplied in New Orleans. The percentage of the city's population showing some sign of mental illness has doubled from 6% before Katrina to 12% today, estimates Kevin Stephens, director of the city's health department.


Illness afflicts homeless

Mental illness also is rampant among the city's homeless, whose population has spiked since the storm from 6,200 to 12,000 today, says Sam Scaffidi of the New Orleans Police Homeless Assistance Unit. Under the Interstate 10 overpass at the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street downtown, homeless encampments have multiplied since Katrina into a sprawling colony of tents, soiled sleeping bags and cardboard caves.

Scaffidi says the number of mentally ill homeless people he encounters each day around the city has increased from about 10 before Katrina to more than 20 today.

Like the woman under the bridge who defecates each day into a bucket and throws it into Canal Street, yelling at anyone who passes near her, Scaffidi says. Or the woman in the French Quarter who drinks bottle after bottle of vodka and blocks the doorways of shops. Both women show signs of schizophrenia and have been arrested, he says. A few days later, they're back on the street, he adds.

Though the vast majority of homeless are harmless, some show violent traits, Scaffidi says. On Feb. 14, a 42-year-old homeless man living under the interstate stabbed another homeless man in the back and fled, police said. The victim survived.

"It's frustrating," says Scaffidi, a 10-year veteran of working with the homeless. "How do I talk to a person and convince him to get help when I have nowhere to bring him?"

State health officials are considering enhancing the city's community outreach centers, which monitor patients over weeks and months, and increasing affordable and public housing to get some of the patients off the streets, says William Payne, assistant secretary at the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

"There is significant demand and the demand currently exceeds the capacity to address it," Payne says. "It's clearly a critical situation."

    Mental health crisis in N.O. , UT, 4.3.2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-04-katrina-health_N.htm






Louisiana Governor

Pierces Business as Usual


February 28, 2008
The New York Times


BATON ROUGE, La. — Downstairs, legislators gnashed their teeth, while upstairs at the Capitol here this week, the new governor claimed victory against the old customs down below.

Six weeks into the term of Gov. Bobby Jindal, an extensive package of ethics bills was approved here this week, signaling a shift in the political culture of a state proud of its brazen style. Mr. Jindal, the earnest son of Indian immigrants, quickly declared open season on the cozy fusion of interests and social habits that have prevailed among lobbyists, state legislators and state agencies here for decades. Mostly, he got what he wanted.

Mr. Jindal, an outsider to that rollicking if sometimes unsavory banquet, a Republican with a missionary’s zeal to smite Louisiana’s wickedness at one of its presumed sources, called on the Legislature to reform itself and its high-living ways.

Grudgingly, pushed by public opinion and business pressure, it went along. When the legislative session ended Tuesday, lawmakers had passed bills aimed at making their finances less opaque, barring their lucrative contracts with the state — some have been known to do good business with them — and cutting down on perks like free tickets to sporting events. The bills, which advocates say will put Louisiana in the top tier of states with tough ethics rules, now await Mr. Jindal’s signature, which should come early next week.

Mr. Jindal overcame resistance by convincing lawmakers that no job growth would occur in the state until it cleaned up its act and brought its ethics laws into the national mainstream.

“I’ve talked to C.E.O.’s in New York, even the president of the United States,” Mr. Jindal said in an interview, and when “you ask them for more investment, more help on the coast and other areas, their first reaction always is: ‘Well, who do you need to know? Who do I have to hire? Is this money going to end up in somebody’s pocket?’ ”

That had to change, the governor said, and he was using his “narrow window” — his honeymoon at the Capitol — to do it.

The volume of grumbling suggested real change was afoot.

“This is huge,” said D. W. Hunt, a veteran lobbyist at the Capitol. “This is a sea change. This will seriously, dramatically change things. The meta-theme is the transparency.”

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a good-government watchdog group, described the new bills as “a major change in the culture.”

“It’s a world of difference, particularly on the disclosure side, and the same thing with conflict-of-interest,” he said.

The new requirements will force all state legislators, as well as most other elected and appointed officials around the state, to disclose all sources of income, real estate holdings and debts over $10,000. (Judges are exempted.) Lawmakers and executive branch officials will no longer be able to get contracts for state-financed or disaster-related work. Lobbyists will also have to disclose their sources of income and will be limited to spending no more than $50 per elected official, per meal; splitting the tab, say among other lobbyists or legislators, will also be prohibited.

The new income disclosure requirements for legislators are comparable to those of Washington State, ranked first in the country by the Center for Public Integrity.

Mr. Jindal was unable to persuade lawmakers to pass another bill that would have ended retirement benefits for public officials convicted of crimes related to their state work.

Similar indulgences, of course, have gone on in other state capitals, though Louisiana does rank low nationally on state ethics charts. Here, however, they are carried out with particular frankness: lawmakers are known to scour the chambers for willing lobbyists when a day’s session ends, hoping to cadge a dinner invitation. They need not look far.

Mr. Jindal took that penchant on as well, effectively aiming a blow at the Capitol’s de facto sister institution, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, where business is transacted nightly, courtesy of lobbyists (“sponsors,” in legislators’ parlance).

The governor, ignoring cries of pain and going against the unswerving devotion to Louisiana’s food culture, pushed for the $50-a-meal cap, at any restaurant. No more unlimited spending.

In a town where legislators have been known to proclaim paid-for meals a principal draw to public service, this was an especially unpopular move. Last week, State Representative Charmaine L. Marchand of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans said the limit would force her and her colleagues to dine at Taco Bell, and urged that it be pushed to $75 per person, to give them “wiggle room.”

No public groundswell took up her cause, and the $50 limit held.

Meanwhile, the mood is feverish but still merry at Ruth’s Chris. A recent night found it packed with lobbyists and legislators. With the Capitol five miles away, its popularity will be threatened when the new rules go into effect on March 30. But the lavish springtime banquets held by lobbyists, where tables groan with choice Louisiana seafood, do not appear to be immediately endangered.

In the legislative chambers, the votes for this ethics makeover were mostly unanimous, though the sarcastic commentary suggested that enthusiasm might not have been what was motivating legislators. Mr. Jindal has public opinion on his side, however.

“I want to know who’s doing the corrupting,” a state senator, Francis Thompson, said, mock-seriously, to Mr. Jindal’s principal ally in the State Senate, its president, Joel T. Chaisson. “Any time there’s some abuse, I wish you would let us know, as our leader,” he said to Mr. Chaisson, as other senators chuckled.

The point was not lawbreaking, though, but what has long been permitted under existing loose laws, say reform advocates like Mr. Jindal.

Four stories up, in the skyscraper Capitol built by Huey Long, Mr. Jindal is unconnected to the slow-moving rural Louisiana of Long and those who followed him. At 36, he appears to be a young man in a hurry, acutely conscious of Louisiana’s poor national image, aware of his own rising star among Republicans and analytical about the historic missteps that have led Louisiana to coast on its mineral wealth, straight to the bottom of national rankings in ethics and a host of economic and social indicators.

In an interview in his office, words and prescriptions come shooting out in a rapid-fire nonstop monologue. Inside of a half-hour, Mr. Jindal shoehorned a brief history of Louisiana’s political and economic problems, a historical excursion on the office he was sitting in, an agenda for his remaining four years, an analysis of why the state’s government had failed, a recapitulation of his recent campaign, a paean to his father, an explanation of why he pushed the ethics bills, and other topics.

Mr. Jindal said Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had presented him with a unique moment in his state’s history to enact reforms; as he put it, the storms “caused people to rethink how they wanted their social institutions to be designed, how they wanted services to be delivered, what kind of state they wanted to call home.”

What follows could be much tougher, given the scope of Mr. Jindal’s ambitions — detractors grumble that they are limitless — the bruised feelings among legislators and the scope of Louisiana’s challenge: a poorly educated work force, bad roads and infrastructure, a persistent stream of residents leaving the state, and little business investment. He has already talked of cutting taxes on business, prompting questions about whether he will move beyond such traditional Republican economic strategies.

“My biggest concern is, we’ll run out of time,” Mr. Jindal said. “There are so many things we need to do in our state. It’s like being in this endless buffet and having this incredible appetite, but knowing there’s no way you’re going to be able to eat everything you want to eat, or taste everything that’s out there.”

    Louisiana Governor Pierces Business as Usual, NYT, 28.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28jindal.html






New Orleans Journal

Parade Returns,

and the Heart of the City Rejoices


February 2, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — Amid the riot of purple, gold and green — the flowers, the bunting, the flags, the tinsel, the masks and the wreaths outside the Negrottos’ house on Orleans Avenue near City Park — there is a new addition to the holiday décor: A big banner proclaiming, “Welcome Home Endymion.”

Endymion is the krewe of merrymakers that puts on the biggest and most lavish Mardi Gras parade in this Mardi Gras-crazy town, the only parade that traditionally rolls through the decidedly nontouristy neighborhood known as Mid-City.

Hurricane Katrina displaced the parade, along with so much else here; some parts of this neighborhood took in eight feet of water when the levees failed. Afterward, the police said they simply could not guarantee the safety of parade-goers along a route pocked with destroyed houses and businesses. So for the last two years, Endymion (pronounced en-DEM-ee-on) has paraded in the drier, fancier part of town along with everyone else.

But this year, on Saturday, Endymion’s parade will be back in the heart of New Orleans. And people here are thrilled.

“It’s one more sign of Mid-City’s recovery, and so we are very, very excited,” said Mary Joe Decareaux, 54, who has lived in the neighborhood all her life. “My daddy used to ride in Endymion.”

Not that Mid-City has quite returned to its prestorm state. Even in the blocks that did not flood, some houses still bear the spray-painted crisscross used to show that the buildings had been checked for bodies. Along the commercial streets of North Carrollton and Canal, a supermarket, a car dealership and a big seafood store are among those that remain boarded up.

But many other businesses are open, including a bustling Home Depot and Angelo Brocato’s, home of ambrosial ice cream since 1905. The parade’s return Saturday night (and an outdoor festival Endymion holds during the day) will bring free-spending crowds to the nearby bars and coffeeshops and restaurants and even churches like Grace Episcopal, which is selling spaces in its parking lot for a parade party.

“An Endymion Saturday brings in two to eight times the profits of an average Saturday,” said Jennifer Weishaupt, newly elected president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization.

But it is just as important for homeowners here. “For a lot of people, it validates the decision they made to reinvest in this neighborhood,” Ms. Weishaupt said as she stocked up on supplies for her Endymion parade party. (Almost everyone interviewed for this article is having one.)

The return of the parade to Mid-City is also a great sign for the entire city, said Arthur Hardy, who publishes an annual guide to the Mardi Gras festivities, a carnival season that began a few days after New Year’s and ends on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 5. “It sends a signal that our New Orleans Police Department is close enough to full strength that it can handle the parade there,” he said.

And Endymion holds a special place in the pantheon of Mardi Gras krewes, which started out as exclusive high-society clubs. “I think their membership has a wider variety and cross-section of members,” Mr. Hardy said, “an equal share of blue-collar and well-heeled.”

That is certainly the way it looked on Wednesday at the krewe’s new “den,” a huge metal building in a warehouse area not far from the Superdome, where Endymion holds a giant party after the parade.

Mercedes sedans and Ford F150 pickups disgorged men carrying vinyl zip-bags and gunny-sacks full of “throws,” the beads and balls and gee-gaws that float riders hurl at the clamoring crowds. Each rider spends hundreds of dollars on these baubles.

Inside the den, the bags were being loaded on more than two dozen enormous floats, topped with large animals, angels and flowers, many covered with elaborate fiber-optic lighting that makes them seem to move and glow.

The floats were designed for the wide open boulevards of Mid-City, said Scott S. Wexler, the parade’s chief of technology, and were hard to maneuver in the tighter quarters of the Uptown parade route.

“I hated the route last year,” said Gary Impastato, a contractor from Slidell who is riding with his father, his brother and a neighbor, Mark Brecheen, recalling the branches that struck riders on the floats.

“More trees,” Mr. Impastato said. “It hurt all the way down.”

The parade’s founder and captain, Edmond J. Muniz, is now the mayor of the suburb of Kenner, but his roots are in the center of New Orleans. That is why more than logistics favored the return to Mid-City, he said, adding, “This is where we’re from, our part of town, where we were born and raised.”

The significance of all this can be hard to explain to an outsider, but Leonard T. Lewis, who lives three blocks off the parade route, gave it a shot.

“If the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade had to move to Queens for a year,” he said, “you’d want it back in Manhattan as soon as possible.”

Getting things back to normal is how many people put it, including the Negrottos, Barry and Jacque (pronounced Jackie), in their decorated house on Orleans Avenue.

When they returned to check on the house after Hurricane Katrina, they found National Guardsmen picnicking in their side yard. This year, for the first time since the hurricane, they are having their Mardi Gras parade party for about 100 people, serving gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice.

“Everybody’s so depressed, still,” Mr. Negrotto said. “This helps people to get rid of that.”

Besides, he added, “this is probably the nicest parade in New Orleans.”

    Parade Returns, and the Heart of the City Rejoices, NYT, 2.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/02/us/02mardigras.html






In Court Ruling on Floods,

More Pain for New Orleans


February 1, 2008
The New York Times


NEW ORLEANS — There is disappointment but little surprise here at a federal judge’s grudgingly absolving the Army Corps of Engineers of liability in the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Although the decision, issued Wednesday, was sharply critical of the corps, the judge’s finding has if anything only hardened the ill feelings against the government that have hung over this city since the storm.

The plaintiffs in the class-action suit dismissed by the judge were many of the hundreds of thousands of people who filed claims here against the corps last year because of the levee breaches that flooded the city. They lined up in cars and on foot and jammed the streets around the agency’s district headquarters, acting out what has been a loudly spoken article of faith since the days in 2005 when water covered 80 percent of New Orleans and ruined the homes of thousands: the corps — not nature, not a record-breaking storm surge and not local politics or local negligence — was to blame.

The judge, Stanwood R. Duval Jr. of the Federal District Court here, a son of South Louisiana, heartily seconded that notion on Wednesday, suggesting that the corps was guilty of “gross incompetence.” But Judge Duval said he was powerless to rule favorably on the lawsuit because the Flood Control Act of 1928 granted legal immunity to the government in the event of failure of flood control projects like levees.

Kathy Gibbs, a corps spokeswoman, said the agency agreed with the dismissal, but declined further comment because other suits over Hurricane Katrina damage are pending, The Associated Press reported.

Local reaction to the ruling was muted. In part because the judge said last year that he would probably have to find the corps immune from damages, expectations appear to have been low, even as bitterness over the losses festered along with a desire to fix blame on the agency.

“There was almost a general understanding that — guess what? — they’re exempt from prosecution,” said Bari Landry, president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, in a neighborhood devastated by the failure of the flood walls.

“We knew there was a very good chance this would not go forward,” Ms. Landry said. “I’m not at all surprised.”

Ms. Landry was one of some 350,000 people who filed claims. The lawyers who brought the suit dismissed Wednesday represented about 65,000 of those claimants. They said Thursday that they would appeal, arguing that the corps was not protected by the 1928 law’s immunity clause, largely because a change it had made to its flood protection plan for New Orleans had not been authorized by Congress.

If Judge Duval’s conclusion provided no comfort, his language did, echoing in legal terminology what has been strong criticism of the corps by activists, politicians and the local media.

“While the United States government is immune for legal liability for the defalcations alleged herein, it is not free, nor should it be, from posterity’s judgment concerning its failure to accomplish what was its task,” the judge wrote. “This story — 50 years in the making — is heart-wrenching. Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the corps’s own calculations.”

Though the ruling spotlighted many missteps by the corps over the years, it made little of other possible factors, including culpability of former local officials overseeing levees and drainage, and particularly their rejection of the corps’s original plan for floodgates on the drainage canals that so devastated the city.

Supporters of the claimants applauded Judge Duval’s language, suggesting that it might yet fuel their cause. “What we’ve had so far is just a suspicion,” said Joseph Bruno, a lawyer in the case. “You now have a U.S. federal district judge who’s had a chance to evaluate the facts and draw legal conclusions. Now you’ve got a determination where a guy says, ‘Look, but for the nuances of the statute, these people will be called on to pay.’ ”

Sandy Rosenthal of the activist group Levees.org said: “Clearly Judge Duval is frustrated by what he had to do. It’s outrageous these levees were fragile. He and I agree the corps was responsible for the failure of the levees. It’s a positive thing that Judge Duval outlined all those things in his statements.”

The text of Judge Duval’s opinion is online at nytimes.com/katrina.

    In Court Ruling on Floods, More Pain for New Orleans, NYT, 1.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/01/us/01corps.html




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