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Essayist Considers Rough Road to Recovery in New Orleans

February 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHRIS ROSE, New Orleans Times-Picayune: Since Katrina, New Orleans operates in a time zone all its own. Currently, we find ourselves between milestones, just past the 500-day mark and just before the second Mardi Gras since the flood.

We measure progress in unusual, perhaps desperate, ways. The stoplights at a major intersection begin functioning again. A grocery store reopens in the Ninth Ward. The Camellia Grill, a landmark diner on the Saint Charles streetcar line, is about to fire up the grills again, although the trolley itself is still idle.

It’s all baby steps around here, learning to crawl before we can ride. One day we’ll tell you we’re making progress. And the next day, we’re looking at want ads in Houston and Atlanta. Anyone who doesn’t have a Plan B for the future here is crazy. Anyone who admits it is treated like a traitor.

Five hundred days, and still such a delicate balance. Paradox and frustration are the only constants here. The state’s grand recovery program, the Road Home, was designed to dole out billions in federal grants and loans to those who were un- or underinsured for hurricane and flood damage, but only 258 claims have been settled out of more than 100,000 applicants, making the Road Home less traveled, indeed.

So, for every family that comes back to New Orleans to plant their flag, another packs up and leaves, from frustration at government incompetence, or rising crime, or simply from waiting, always the waiting. If you drive around town, enormous stretches are still blown out and vacant.

Everyone wants to know, what’s taking so long? But it took 75 years to build the neighborhoods that got whacked in the flood, hundreds of thousands of homes, apartments, businesses, schools and churches, plus parks and playgrounds, and it all adds up. It’s clear, despite rosy forecasts put forth by our mayor, that New Orleans will be a much smaller city than it has been.

We were shrinking already, dramatically, long before Katrina. In 1960, New Orleans had 630,000 residents. Just before the storm, there were around 475,000. Today, it likely hovers around 225,000.

Optimists point to the possibility of a leaner, more efficient city in the future. Realists know that these are not terms generally assigned to governing bodies in south Louisiana. But we all witnessed what happened to the Saints, so anything is possible.

The most inept franchise in professional sports managed to crawl out of Katrina’s primordial soup to become America’s feel-good story with a plot line built on character, determination, and no quit. The metaphor is lost on no one around here.

So we plod on wishfully through the bureaucratic morass. By most accounts, the city’s public school system, in its battered form, offers a better education than before Katrina, but there aren’t enough functioning classrooms, so more than 300 kids were sent home this month, wait-listed until the school system can accommodate them.

The French Quarter has a new garbage contractor, and the Old City is cleaner than it ever has been, fresh scrubbed daily. But there are few visitors to enjoy it.

The paradox goes on. One step forward, one step back, waiting for the slow news day that never comes.

As Mardi Gras season takes hold of the city, we wait by the side of the road for parades that celebrate our exuberant culture, our lust for life, while we try to ignore the fact that there may not be much to celebrate.

It’s hard to tell in these quizzical times, where the days and weeks and months languorously call forth milestones on our journey to the great unknown: the future.

I’m Chris Rose.