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Three Years After Katrina, No Easy Road to Recovery for New Orleans

August 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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As the three year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina draws near, President Bush visited New Orleans Wednesday, saying in a speech that he sees "signs of progress" in the still-recovering city. Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss reflects on the upcoming anniversary.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: With his 17th visit to the Gulf Coast today, President Bush marked the upcoming three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. He spoke at the Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, the headquarters of the Louisiana National Guard.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: And there is no other place like New Orleans and its surrounding parishes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 100-acre military base straddles the two parishes hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, Orleans and St. Bernard. The storm caused levees and flood walls to fail and left 85 percent of the city underwater. More than 1,500 people died.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I have seen people when their spirits were at a low ebb, but never did they give up. And now I’ve seen the incredible progress that’s being made. There’s still work to be done.

I predicted that New Orleans would come back as a stronger and better city. That’s a prediction I made, and I also pledged that we’d help. And $126 billion later, three years after the storm, we’ve helped deliver $126 billion of U.S. taxpayer money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More than 450,000 people lived in New Orleans before the storm hit. City officials estimate about 300,000 live there now.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Federal dollars are increasing affordable housing throughout New Orleans. And as we rebuild, the strategy is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, but to move toward a vibrant, mixed-income neighborhood system. Each week, hundreds of families are moving out of their temporary housing and they’re heading into permanent, long-term structures. And that’s hopeful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the three years since, levees have been re-built and schools have re-opened. The city has even opened the door to dozens of charter schools to re-invigorate the system.

GEORGE W. BUSH: High schools that once struggled are being transformed into career-oriented academies. In other words, there’s a lot of innovation here in New Orleans. Rather than repeat mistakes of the past, people said, “Let’s come together. Let’s innovate.”

Parishes remain in shambles

Jim Amoss
Editor, Times-Picayune
If you live here ... you would see a somewhat different picture depending on where you lived in the city. And in the ... formerly flooded parts, some have recovered quite nicely and others are still struggling and look fairly barren.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation this spring suggests many New Orleans Parish residents remain disappointed with the pace of the recovery.

NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: We have a situation where there is inaction, there is indifference, there is a lot of arrogant attitudes about what we should be and how we should accept the no answers, the no progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifty-six percent of New Orleans Parish residents believe the recovery efforts are moving in the right direction, yet 41 percent report their lives are still very or somewhat disrupted. Overall, 6 in 10 say they don't believe rebuilding their city is a priority for Congress or the president, and 7 in 10 think federal dollars that were spent on the recovery effort were "mostly misspent."

Louisiana and Mississippi Public Broadcasting traveled the Gulf Coast, speaking to residents to see what they're thinking three years later. One new factor adding to the problems this year: the slower economy.

ANTHONY MONTALBANO, Restaurant Owner: The labor force is weak. And everything, all costs, from food, insurance, et cetera, have all escalated, and including labor, and it's just real hard to find quality cooks, wait staff, et cetera.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Residents all along the Gulf Coast are still struggling to rebuild the homes destroyed in the storm.

CHUCK BENVENUTTI: We normally work a 40-hour workweek, and we go home, and we take a couple of days off, and we go about our business. And that's not the way Katrina has left us all. It was seven days a week, 24 hours a day down here. And people don't understand or appreciate the fact that we're not back. We won't be back for 10 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bush headed next to a dinner with community leaders in Gulfport, Mississippi, another area hit hard by the storm.

Uneven construction in New Orleans

Jim Amoss
Editor, Times Picayune
I think that people have really no benchmark for what happened to New Orleans. There's nothing quite like it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're joined by Jim Amoss. He's the editor of the Times-Picayune.

Jim Amoss, thank you so much for being with us. We just heard what President Bush had to say, what many residents have to say. How do you assess the situation there almost three years after?

JIM AMOSS, Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune: Well, it's a pleasure to be here. I think there are several different cities at play here. And if you were a visitor to New Orleans, for example, you wouldn't notice many of the things that were just described on your program.

You would find more restaurants than before the hurricane. Tonight, you would probably have a choice of four different jazz club music venues -- four dozen of them -- and it would seem very much like the old New Orleans that tourists have known over the decades.

If you live here and are in the middle of it, you would see a somewhat different picture depending on where you lived in the city. And in the flooded parts, the formerly flooded parts, some have recovered quite nicely and others are still struggling and look fairly barren.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain, then -- we mentioned this Kaiser Foundation's survey from the spring -- almost half the people in that survey said they're either dissatisfied or angry with the pace of progress?

JIM AMOSS: I think that people have really no benchmark for what happened to New Orleans. There's nothing quite like it.

You can't equate it to another hurricane: 80 percent of a city marinating for three weeks in 8 to 12 feet of saltwater is not something that we have in our national experience. And so people are naturally impatient and don't know -- and figure, surely, after three years, things should be farther along than they are.

Right after the storm, my newspaper visited several disaster sites around the world. And one of the themes that kept coming back from survivors is, "Don't expect your recovery to be fast. Don't expect it to be driven by government. It will mostly be occurring through civic endeavors and grassroots efforts."

But the impatience, I think, is just a natural human reaction to the slowness of putting together the very basic infrastructure and institutions of a city like New Orleans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was struck, Jim Amoss, by the very big number the president cited; $126 billion, he says, has been committed to that area. Is that how much has actually been spent?

JIM AMOSS: Well, that sounds a lot rosier than is actually the case. Not to dispute the overall figure, but it refers to hurricane relief for both Katrina and Rita. It covers Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, I think even in Alabama, and possibly parts of Florida.

And, moreover, it also includes huge amounts of money for debris removal, a necessary thing, but not something that really brings the recovery along in a tangible way. And it also includes flood insurance money, which people pay for in the form of premiums.

So the actual amount that reaches a city like New Orleans is a good bit smaller. It's still real dollars. You know, $14.7 billion to shore up the levees in New Orleans is not peanuts. And $7 billion or so money for housing recovery in New Orleans is also a substantial sum.

But the number the president cites encompasses a much larger area.

Problems and progress dispersed

Jim Amoss
Editor, Times-Picayune
I think people are more re-assured by some of the temporary measures that have been taken to block the water from entering the canals it breached.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about housing? I mean, I was going to ask you to break down some of these problems. We hear a lot about high prices. How would you assess the situation with homes, housing?

JIM AMOSS: If you are poor and dependent on public housing, the problem seems to have been alleviated by the vouchers that people are able to get for a considerable amount of money, $1,400 a month in housing rent vouchers.

The difficulty, I think, is more in people finding jobs here, people having difficulty finding daycare. The daycare system in New Orleans was almost completely obliterated. And those are significant blocks, I think, to people returning to the city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about crime? We saw, again, in that survey something like 70 percent of the people were saying that was their biggest concern.

JIM AMOSS: You have in New Orleans a city that's like many older American cities, and it has the inner-city crime problems, many of them drug-related, that other cities have.

And that's aggravated by disputes over drug turf, because of neighborhoods that have changed, a law enforcement system that is somewhat dysfunctional, things like the flooding of the evidence room in the criminal courts building.

The district attorney's office is still operating out of temporary headquarters on card tables. All these are factors that I think contribute to people's perception.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On card tables?

JIM AMOSS: Indeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's interesting.

JIM AMOSS: You'd think three years after an event like this that there would be more normalcy, but there isn't.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the levees and how much money has been spent on that. How worried are people still about the levees?

JIM AMOSS: You know, I was driving around this week with one of my editors. And I guess human nature is that people calm down after a while. I can still remember how on edge we were two years ago when the first hurricane season rolled around after Katrina.

And there's -- I think people are more re-assured by some of the temporary measures that have been taken to block the water from entering the canals it breached.

We interviewed one homeowner who was living in the shadow of one of these breached levees and asked him -- he had just purchased this home, which had had about 10 feet of water. We asked him how he felt about the levees and what had been done. And he said he really hadn't given it any thought and wasn't quite sure what changes there were, but he felt pretty safe.

I don't know if one can generalize from that anecdote, but I think there is, in general, a slight reassurance about what has been done temporarily.

The bigger concern is Category 5 hurricane protection, and the Corps of Engineers has dithered on that, the kind of protection that the people in Holland, for example, expect and get, and that our government has not yet seen fit to accord to the coast of Louisiana.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if another storm comes along, it's a different situation, is what you're saying?

JIM AMOSS: I'm saying that, if another storm comes along, Louisiana is steadily losing its coastline. And the coastline and the wetlands and the barrier islands are ultimately what protect us from serious storm surge.

Costs of living largely increased

Jim Amoss
Editor, Times-Picayune
The Mississippi Gulf Coast still looks like a ravaged area, maybe three weeks after such a storm, and people have not yet rebuilt, with the exception of the casinos in some of the bigger cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Amoss, so much of the focus has been what we're talking about now, New Orleans and Louisiana. But, of course, Mississippi was very hard-hit, too. How do you size up the progress there?

JIM AMOSS: You know, the difference between -- in my eyes, between Mississippi and Louisiana is the difference between having 10 feet of water -- of saltwater sit in your living room for three weeks -- that's the New Orleans case -- versus having a tsunami knock your house away. And I'm not sure which is more or less desirable.

Our reporter just came back from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he compared it to a savagely burned patient three years after a near lethal fire and scar tissue everywhere.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast still looks like a ravaged area, maybe three weeks after such a storm, and people have not yet rebuilt, with the exception of the casinos in some of the bigger cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's not getting as much -- as all along, it hasn't gotten as much attention?

JIM AMOSS: Well, it's gotten a fair amount of federal aid. The huge obstacle there is insurance, the cost of insurance.

My parents live in a little town, have a house in a little town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The town librarian there, for example, just saw her home insurance go from $1,000 to $6,000 a year. Those are the kinds of things that economically cripple an area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, overall, Jim Amoss, what should the rest of the country know about where you live, as you come upon the third anniversary of that terrible thing, terrible event?

JIM AMOSS: They should know that it's already a great place to visit, to revel in, whose culture is coming back and has come back. All of the great things that people enjoy about New Orleans, the food, music, are as they, I think, knew them.

They should know that there are still great needs, especially in the area of long-term protection, for not just New Orleans, but the coast of this part of the United States, which has great economic importance for the nation as a whole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Amoss, the editor-in-chief of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, thank you very much for talking with us.

JIM AMOSS: Pleasure, Judy.