Monday, December 31, 2007

A Streetcar of Solace Is Back in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — Like the rolling tide to seacoast residents, the low rumbling of the streetcar is a nearly internal sound for citizens here, its absence since Hurricane Katrina a painful reminder of civic ill health.

The return in recent weeks of the distinctly urban noise of grinding wheels and brakes to St. Charles Avenue, with the near completion of post-hurricane repairs, has been an occasion for joy and not because, as boosters would have it, one more tourism feather has been added to the city’s cap.

The St. Charles streetcar line is that most valued local commodity, an unbroken link to the past: the same green tin boxes rocking at the same slow speed down the same tree-shaded avenue, unchanged since the early 1920s. Only a week ago, a crucial part of the St. Charles line, from Napoleon Avenue to Carrollton Avenue, was restored; other less damaged but less historic lines, along the Mississippi River and Canal Street, have operated for months.

But it is the line that connects Uptown to downtown and the French Quarter, via St. Charles and Carondelet Street, that is the city’s living, though wayward, artery. The satisfaction is huge.

“It’s all very, very much the way it’s been, for a very long time,” said Robert Michiels, a shipbuilding engineer who paid $1.25 to ride it the other day, just for the pleasure of riding it again, down the avenue.

The streetcar has represented something else besides the connections through time and space: the city’s living room, a privileged spot for tentative social encounters across lines of race, class and nationality, in a place not otherwise given to them. Thanks to an accelerated repair schedule, that meeting place, absent since the hurricane, is back.

But that raises a question: will there still be people for it in a city missing much of its population? Less than a quarter of prestorm riders are using the transit system, buses included. On a recent morning, tourists in town for a football game packed the streetcar going Uptown. But going downtown, in the direction of the jobs, the old wooden benches were sparsely filled: a maintenance man here, a construction worker there, a housewife or two and the odd professional.

Before the storm, the St. Charles streetcar was at least an image of the social ideal. Uptown lawyers in seersucker sat by weary-looking housekeepers going to the downtown hotels. Noisy schoolchildren jostled for space with tourists from France, Rome and Australia wondering about the solemn fellow on the column at Lee Circle. (That would be Robert E. Lee.) Prim suburbanites visiting from Nashville and Atlanta, and encountering public transportation for the first time, smiled nervously past muttering bums. No other city in the South entertained such a mix.

In the worn wooden interior, bathed in the smell of sulfur and the soothing racket of clanging machinery, the fractures in the stratified city melted, slightly. And what would be deficiencies in other places — improbable premodern slowness, the occasional surly conductor, unexplained lengthy halts between stops — were virtues. The conductor sang out, ingeniously mispronounced, the names of the Greek muses that double as street names here: MEL-Po-MEEN! (Melpomene) TER-Chicoree!(Terpsichore) You were getting somewhere, slowly. Complicated reading could be accomplished.

Excellent, as a rider named Cherry Gardon put it the other day, “if you’re not in a rush to get to work” — a widely held ethic.

Now, the St. Charles line has about half its daily prestorm ridership of 10,000, transit officials say. It remains distinctly, though recognizably, a shadow of its former self.

Still, for those who have come back, the memory of the old social model remains powerful. “The streetcar is not just something convenient,” said Manuel García-Castellón, riding it recently to his job as a professor of romance languages at the University of New Orleans.

He struggled to explain why something so irrational could also be so indispensable. “Sometimes, I think I’m in the salotto of my house,” he said, using the Italian word for parlor.

In July and August, the streetcar effects a miracle: benign contact with the superheated New Orleans air. All the windows come down, the sweet, thick air rushes in, and you are in a truce with the beast of the South Louisiana summer.

The streetcar’s reconquest of St. Charles Avenue after Hurricane Katrina has been fitful. The storm sent the avenue’s old oak trees crashing down on the dense network of overhead electric lines that power the cars, destroying nearly 13.5 miles’ worth. These had to be painstakingly rebuilt; one section on Carrollton of just over a mile, between St. Charles and Claiborne Avenues, remains out.

About eight of the 1923-24 cars are operating along the line, compared with 15 to 18 before the storm. “Our ridership base — many, many of those people — are not back in the city,” said Rosalind Blanco Cook, a spokeswoman for the transit agency, who added that officials were nonetheless pleased at the turnout on the St. Charles line.

Like other elements that have struggled to come back, this one — in the telling of the riders, at least — has an intimate connection with the biographies of everyone who is asked about it.

“Me, personally, I been taking it all my life,” said Derek Batiste, who was going to his job at Wendy’s. “I took it to school, that’s how long I been taking it. Not just for tourists, no. The streetcar, it’s like part of my family.” A computer technician, Samps Taylor, savoring his ride, said, “It brings it back to where you were.”

In other places, citizens move on, leaving the historic artifacts people here believe make up the urban fabric. The ties are personal. Past proposals to build new cars for the line have been vehemently rejected.

“Whole lot of history,” said Henry Carter, riding the streetcar to a construction job. “I been catching this streetcar since ’69. Been catching it a long time.”

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Promise of help has strings attached

She thought she did everything right. But long Road Home wait tests N.O. woman's patience

The call came Dec. 6, almost a year to the day after 69-year-old Catherine Clark had her Road Home eligibility interview, after 15 months of countless delays and unanswered questions.

A staffer from the state's homeowner recovery program was calling to tell Clark she couldn't collect the $95,287 buyout she'd been promised for her leveled Lower 9th Ward home until she cleared up three liens.

She knew something was wrong. After more than four decades working for the state and city as a nurse, she had great credit, had paid off her mortgage and had only taken on an $88,000 Small Business Administration loan in June because the Road Home process dragged.

As Clark recalled the conversation, "Who's Richard Clark?" the Road Home employee asked her.

Clark was taken aback to hear the name of her late son, who died of AIDS in 1996. The year after his death, the IRS and the state had issued liens for six years of unpaid income taxes, and his last official address was his mother's house, but Clark had cleared that up long ago. The lien couldn't possibly attach to her house, because her son never owned it.

"And who's Paul Clark?" the adviser went on, abruptly.

That name shocked Clark even more. It was her late husband, dead about 25 years, seven years before she even bought the house.

"What do they have to do with ... Hello? Hello?" she asked.

She heard a click and realized the agent had put the phone down and left. She felt like a fool, talking to nobody as Road Home employees chattered indecipherably in the background.

Ten minutes later, the unidentified woman came back on the line to say she had talked with a supervisor. Clark, flustered, immediately asked her for her name, at which point the employee hung up on her, she said.

The conversation proved a watershed for Clark, one of those moments to which so many of the 185,000 homeowner applicants to the state's hurricane compensation program can relate. It marked a low point in a constant struggle since the flood, and also the moment she realized she might just have to make it on her own and write off the endless promises that the government would make her whole.

A Road Home spokeswoman declined comment about Clark's case, citing privacy concerns.

Initially, Clark wanted to reach through the phone line and strangle the Road Home agent. Then, she wanted to go out in the middle of the street and let a car run her over, to end it all -- the stress, the cramped FEMA trailer, the high blood pressure, the diabetes, the asthma.

After living in Texas for a year after the flood, she had answered the call of politicians to come home, rebuild, on the promise of government help.

Never in her 69 years had Clark expected government handouts. But she didn't consider this a handout. She considered it just compensation for property destroyed by the collapse of shoddily built federal levees. And for the first time in her life, she desperately needed the help: Retired and on a fixed income, she couldn't build a new home without it, and she couldn't get on with her life without a home.

For more than a year, she had bought into the program's reassurances -- the money would come soon, any day now -- but now she started to doubt it might ever come.

Like many of the estimated 75,000 eligible applicants still awaiting federal rebuilding aid more than 27 months after the flood, Clark became consumed with gnawing uncertainty, trapped in rebuilding purgatory.

With her former neighbors and friends from the Lower 9th Ward scattered, Clark has few friends her age and has come to rely more heavily than she'd like on family and members of her church. She has started seeing a psychiatrist, something foreign and humbling for a tough-minded senior citizen, a Charity Hospital nurse for 28 years and a widow who raised nine children.

She felt the foundation of her life -- self-sufficiency -- crumbling beneath her.

"I've always been a strong person and always taught my kids to be strong and self-sufficient, and now I've let them down, because I'm weak," Clark recalled telling her daughter-in-law, Elvernia Clark, after the Dec. 6 phone call from the Road Home.

"You're still strong," she said Elvernia Clark reassured her. "It's just that you're elderly, and even for the young, this is a devastating process to go though. We just have to stick together and get through it together."

Family offers support

Before Katrina laid waste to her neighborhood, Clark evacuated to Houston with her three daughters and their families. They stayed in a hotel for two weeks before a church group in Temple, Texas, near Waco, offered to help pay for an apartment for Clark. Her son Jeffrey Clark, a New Orleans firefighter and first-responder during Katrina, had stayed in New Orleans through the storm and, first chance she got, she came back to visit him and see the home she had purchased in 1987, where she started a new life after her husband's death.

It looked like kindling on a campfire: walls collapsed, wooden boards askew, foundation cracked. She wiped away tears, then struck a Vanna White pose for a photo that belied her despair.

She went back to Temple and her donated apartment, but after a year, she missed New Orleans and her independence terribly. She had enough flood- and homeowner-insurance proceeds to pay off the mortgage on her destroyed 9th Ward home, with enough left over to put into the purchase of a new home. She decided to come home and make a go of it.

She figured the Road Home benefit would get her over the hump by allowing her to pay fully for a gutted house in eastern New Orleans, across from one of her sons, and providing enough cash to renovate it into one last home. She applied Sept. 20, 2006.

Her children told her to come back around Thanksgiving 2006. Her son, Rodney Clark, would move back into his house in eastern New Orleans before it was done, so his mother could live in the FEMA trailer in his front yard until she could secure her Road Home grant.

Jeffrey Clark went with his mother to her initial Road Home eligibility interview Dec. 8, 2006. It would prove a harbinger. Clark, recalling the interview, said she felt the adviser was talking down to her and began to cry.

"Don't ask her any questions," Jeffrey Clark jumped in. "I'm here. Ask me. You're upsetting her. This is already painful for her, so just deal with me."

He turned to his mother and projected the strength she'd always exuded raising him and his siblings.

"The choice is yours," he said. "If you want to go through the process, fine, but just realize this is the government. The people aren't going to be nice to you. They don't understand."

Jeffrey Clark and his wife, Elvernia, had already made up their minds. They lost their home and several rental properties in the storm, but they weren't going to fool with the Road Home.

"If I'm going to fight it, I'll fight it for her, because she needs it more than we do," Elvernia Clark said.

And so Elvernia Clark became her mother-in-law's Road Home advocate, fighting numerous battles ever since, so far to no avail.

Roadblocks abound

In the heady early months of the Road Home, everyone's expectations were more than a little off. The head program administrator promised 500 grants a day by January 2007, then backed off. The governor, fed up with early delays, ordered 10,000 award commitments in November 2006, but the letters that went out were filled with errors and it would take more than six months to actually pay that many grants.

After Clark went through her Road Home eligibility appointment in December 2006, she thought she'd see the money soon, so she bought a gutted house near Jeffrey and Elvernia's home for $70,000. She only had $50,000 left from her retirement savings and insurance payments, but her sons kicked in another $20,000 so she wouldn't have to get another mortgage.

But then the months started dragging on. Calls to Road Home went unreturned. Finally, in April, came the coveted yellow grant award letter, but it brought only another disappointment. It undervalued her 9th Ward house by $20,000 and offered her $77,000.

Elvernia Clark went to work. She called the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the program, and the agency assigned a caseworker. On April 16, the Road Home's Elizabeth Hill clarified in an e-mail that, indeed, the award should be $95,287. With Elvernia working the phones, Clark's prospects seemed to brighten.

In June, the Road Home informed the Clarks that the program had begun a title search, something they thought would take a couple of months at most. But five months later, still no news.

Last summer, desperate to move on, Clark relented and took out a mortgage in the form of an SBA loan, so she could begin working on her new home. While Jeffrey worked on his house, he started the work on his mother's, shelling out $17,000 for a roof and electrical wiring.

No resolution in sight

In November, Clark mustered the energy to drop in on a Road Home closing office in Clearview Mall in Metairie, hoping she could demand some answers.

"I didn't even get in the door," Clark said. "There was a table in front, with some employees and a security guard and they just said, 'This is for appointments only.

That was followed by the Dec. 6 phone call that brought back painful memories of a lost child and drove Clark to the depths. Her daughter-in-law, who describes herself as "a very aggressive person," started hassling the title company, HGI Catastrophe Services, repeatedly dialing random extensions at its LaPlace headquarters until she got a warm body on the other end of the line, then faxing documents showing the liens should have no bearing on her grant.

Now that Jeffrey and Elvernia Clark are back in their home, he wants to start on his mother's 2,300-square-foot house: installing drywall, plumbing, windows, flooring, an alarm system, garage doors, doing the landscaping and painting. Estimated cost: $38,000. Then they can find some furnishings.

But that should exhaust the SBA loan. Even if she gets the $95,287 from Road Home, most of it will have to go directly to paying off the loan, according to state and federal rules. If she is lucky, the remainder could be just enough to pay back her sons for their help purchasing the new home, but then she'd have nothing left.

That is if she ever gets the Road Home money. If not, she'll have less than nothing left -- and a large debt.

After venting her anger, and working through her angst on a psychiatrist's couch, Clark has started the process of finding peace with her new life, whether the government comes through or not. She has immersed herself in a new spiritual community at the New Israel Baptist Church in eastern New Orleans.

She attends worship services, Bible study and takes a leading role in its Life Builders missionary program.

There, she has found support and more people, like her family, who have encouraged her not to become overly dependent on the government coming through.

"It seems like every time I take one step forward, the government sends me 10 steps backward," Clark said recently to the pastor, the Rev. Douglas Haywood.

Haywood worried that she might be suicidal, but the preacher also saw a lot of pride and positivity in Clark. He thinks it helped her to see the church develop and grow, even though it started operating again in 2006 with no seats, no lights, no heating or air conditioning and plenty of ugly structural damage.

Haywood bucked the naysayers and started an unfinished church as an inspirational message to its downtrodden members: "If we can do this at church, you can do it at home, too."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Orleans Cracks Down on Corruption

Fed up with crime and political corruption, New Orleans' business leaders in 1952 organized to flush out the twin poisons they believed were harming economic development.

It was a time when illegal gambling and the Carlos Marcello crime family operated openly in a city that was a bustling business hub.

Fast forward 55 years. Gambling is legal and the mob has faded into obscurity. The city's economy is a shadow of its former self, thanks to the 1980s oil bust, an exodus of big businesses and the shattering blow of Hurricane Katrina, which ran off at least 2,000 employers.

As New Orleans' economy struggles to get back on its feet, street crime and political corruption have re-emerged as spoilers. But a wave of recent federal convictions shows New Orleans' most chronic image-killers -- crooked politicians -- are under assault.

For a city trying to convince corporate America to make long-term investments in the city's rebuilding, the crackdown couldn't come at a more important time.

A key player is the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a crime and corruption watchdog, safe house for tipsters and craw in the side of those with political punch and sticky fingers.

''It's pretty tough to be a whistleblower in the state of Louisiana,'' said MCC president Rafael Goyeneche, who has headed the group since 1989. ''Many people won't risk themselves, their families and their business associates if it means putting them in jeopardy by stepping forward. So, we're a conduit of information for those who don't want to be identified.''

The MCC, inspired by the Chicago Crime Commission formed after World War I, is the antithesis of the idea that size equates with effectiveness.

Besides Goyeneche, there is one investigator, a researcher, a community relations person and an office manager. Much of the annual budget of $677,000 is donated by businesses.

The MCC keeps a stealthy but effective profile. Federal officials said it played a key role in bringing down two suburban state judges who took bribes from a bail bondsman. FBI special agent in charge Jim Bernazzani also said the organization helped with a probe of corruption in the Orleans Parish School Board, which resulted in 30 convictions.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten calls the commission ''an important player'' in law enforcement. ''While they are not a law enforcement agency, per se, they have been instrumental in getting people with information on public corruption to come forward and they've been able to pass on information themselves to investigators,'' Letten said.

Goyeneche, a former New Orleans assistant district attorney, said the commission gets about 100 tips monthly on its local hotline, and another 20 or so on a new statewide corruption line. About 15 to 20 percent provide enough information to warrant consideration. Tips that show particular promise are passed on to law enforcement and prosecutors, often on the federal level where virtually all successful public corruption cases in New Orleans are handled.

For example, in 2005, a woman who alleged she was raped by a deputy city attorney in his private law office -- after being offered help on a municipal charge -- came first to the MCC, expressing doubt that local authorities would do anything. The commission forwarded its investigative report to federal prosecutors, who obtained a civil rights conviction and life prison sentence against the official, Henry Dillon III.

''We don't self-initiate any of our investigations,'' Goyeneche said. ''We have to be told what rock to look under.''

The commission also protects its informants. Goyeneche has been threatened a few times with jail unless he revealed an identity. In the MCC office, there is a photograph of Aaron Kohn, its first head, behind bars in the 1950s for refusing to do so.

The prime methods of corruption against local businesses include pressure to hire politically connected contractors, the hiring of ''ghost employees'' who are nothing more than a paycheck from a business and direct payoff demands from government officials for business or zoning changes.

''There isn't anything new,'' Goyeneche said. ''It's almost like these secrets have been passed down from one generation to another.''

For example, several close associates of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial have been convicted in connection with skimming money from an energy-management contract signed by City Hall. Morial has not been accused of wrongdoing.

''These individuals basically leveraged their relationship with the mayor's office and siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars through some of subcontractors that were awarded contracts,'' Goyeneche said.

Goyeneche said the business community realizes more than cocktail party talk is needed about corruption. Many business leaders, fed up with public rackets, ''are not only willing to meet with the FBI, in many instances they are willing to wire up and provide the information that the FBI needs,'' he said.

Joe Exnicios, senior vice president at Whitney National Bank and chairman of the MCC board, said he got involved about six years ago because ''the perception that folks have outside of Louisiana and particularly New Orleans have is one I'm not very proud of.''

''Everyone likes to think they are operating on a level playing field,'' Exnicios said. ''If there is any public corruption taking place, or even the belief, it hinders companies from moving in here and companies that are here from expanding.''

Not all of MCC work involves criminal activity. The group also keeps an eye on public ethics and how limited criminal justice resources are being used.

For now, Goyeneche doesn't see a major influx of out-of-state businesses making their way into New Orleans -- partly due to the city's reputation.

But that will change, he predicts, as corrupt activities become more hazardous in New Orleans and local businesses spread the word around the country.

Friday, December 28, 2007

How Does a Hurricane Wreck a Sewer System?

From Harry Shearer

That's the question that comes to mind when you read Leslie Eaton's NYT piece on the former leader of St. Bernard Parish, Junior Rodriguez. On the plus side, it's probably the first MSM look at Da Parish, a standing rebuke to the media meme that "Katrina" mainly hurt black folks. It's also nice to see the little details Eaton picks up, like Benny Grunch and Wop Salad and the temporary battle for the post of Parish President between Junior and, well, Junior Jr. But, starting from the headline and continuing repeatedly through the article is the hoariest mass-media error of the "Katrina" story: the notion that a hurricane did all this. It reaches absurdity at this graf:

But the sewer system has not been rebuilt, whole neighborhoods remain abandoned, and rows of white FEMA trailers still cover acres.

How does a hurricane wreck a sewer system? It doesn't. What happened to St. Bernard Parish is what happened to New Orleans, the failure of a system of levees and floodwalls that resulted in more than half a hundred breaches, driving a foot-high (or higher, in some areas) wall of water through the table-flat Parish.

Did Leslie Eaton ever wonder why the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast, which did indeed get whacked by a hurricane, didn't have to rebuild its sewer system? If not, she continues to miss, along with most of her colleagues, the story of what Dr. Bob Bea of UC Berkeley calls the "greatest man-made engineering disaster" in the history of the country.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Census Data Shows Louisiana Rebound

Louisiana appears to be rebounding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, gaining 50,000 residents in the year ending July 1, according to new Census Bureau state population estimates released Thursday.

After the storm hit in August 2005, the bureau estimated the state lost 250,000 residents. Despite the most recent gain, the state is far from returning to its pre-Katrina population level of 4.5 million.

The Census Bureau estimate is reached by measuring births, deaths and migration into and out of each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In Louisiana, the Census estimates a net increase of people moving into the state from other states of 29,000, accounting for more than half the jump.

The fastest-growing states continue to be in the Rocky Mountain region and the Southeast. Texas also is still attracting new residents at a rapid rate.

Nevada regained the title of fastest-growing state, having increased in population by 2.9 percent to 2.6 million. Nevada had held that title for 19 years in a row before being bumped off by Arizona last year. Arizona is the second-fastest-growing state according to the current estimate, with a population increase of 2.8 percent to 6.3 million.

Only two states lost population. Michigan's population dipped by three-tenths of a percent and Rhode Island saw a decrease of four-tenths of a percent. Ohio's growth was virtually flat.

Florida, a state whose economy has been fueled largely by a steady stream of retirees crossing the border each year, gained in population but at a slower rate than usual. Florida was the 19th-fastest-growing state through July 2007 compared with the previous year when it ranked ninth.

Florida's population increased by 1.1 percent to 18.3 million as of July 2007. The previous year the rate of increase was 1.8 percent.

''If there's one state that's a little surprising, I would say it's Florida,'' said Greg Harper, a demographer with the bureau.

Besides Nevada and Arizona, other Western states that made the top 10 list for fastest growth were Utah (third), Idaho (fourth), Colorado (eighth) and Wyoming (ninth).

In the Southeast, Georgia was fifth nationally, North Carolina was sixth, and South Carolina was 10th. In the Southeast, Georgia was fifth nationally, North Carolina was sixth, and South Carolina was 10th.

Texas, meanwhile, had the seventh-fastest growth by percentage, and tops numerically, having drawn about 500,000 new residents.

California remains the nation's most populous state with about 37 million people. It gained about 300,000 new residents, second to Texas numerically, but 25th fastest by rate of growth, the same ranking as last year.

The total U.S. population was estimated at 301.6 million last July 1.

The bureau will release county population breakdowns in the spring, which should give a clearer indication of exactly how many residents have returned to the parishes in and around New Orleans.

Earlier this week, urban planning consultancy firm GCR & Associates estimated New Orleans' population at 300,000, or about 65 percent of its pre-Hurricane Katrina size, which was around 455,000.

GCR chief executive and New Orleans native Greg Rigamer said people have been coming back to the city at a rate of 3,000 to 4,000 per month, which includes in-state migration. Things are looking up, but the city still suffers from failing infrastructure, poor health care and educational services and a ''horrific'' criminal justice problem.

''Things are not all well in New Orleans,'' he said. ''They are clearly getting better. It's no time to be popping the champagne corks.''

The Constitution requires the Census Bureau to count the population every 10 years. The results are used to allocate seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as electoral votes.

This year's state population estimates are consistent with previous years that show high-growth states like Texas will likely gain seats in Congress, while slow-growth states such as Ohio will likely lose seats.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Recovery of Northshore wildlife refuges after Katrina

Wildlife refuges north of Lake Pontchartrain are slowly recovering from the damaging effects of Hurricane Katrina

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Even Katrina couldn't wash away the pull of home

With no gas service at her eastern New Orleans home, Patricia Noel boils water in four crock pots to take a bath and sleeps under a pile of blankets to ward off the December chill.

She erected an 8-foot-high chain-link fence to keep people from cutting through her yard on nearly deserted Corinne Street, where debris piles and weeds are more prevalent than Christmas lights and decorations.

But despite the hardships, the single mother of two adult children insists it has never felt better to be home.

After spending the past two holiday seasons in apartments in Memphis, Tenn., and Baton Rouge, Noel is overjoyed to be celebrating her first post-Hurricane Katrina Christmas in her rebuilt home.

She has even embraced the idea of cooking Christmas dinner for her children and grandchildren on an electric hot plate; her brand new gas stove is out of commission.

"I'm cold, I'm tired and the idea of taking a hot shower is a cruel joke," said Noel, 47. "But I thank God that I'm back in my house with my family in time for Christmas. It feels so good to be back together in a place where we shared memories that even Katrina couldn't wash away."

It's a sentiment shared by all too many New Orleans area families whose post-Katrina journey home for the holidays was much longer and had more twists and turns than expected.

Santa suit survives

Milton and Jamie Shultz said their contractor promised that renovations at their home in St. Bernard Parish would be completed by the summer of 2006. But after a series of delays, the house still wasn't ready by last Christmas, which they spent in a rented house in Baton Rouge.

"We had a small celebration, but it just didn't feel like Christmas because we were in limbo," Jamie Shultz said. "We didn't even have a tree."

A year later, the Shultzes still have a FEMA trailer in their front yard, but they have moved into their house in Meraux and are planning a big Christmas celebration that will double as a homecoming party.

Jamie Shultz, 57, is eager to break out the velvet Santa suit she sewed nearly 30 years ago. She said it was like a Christmas miracle in the middle of the summer when she found the suit virtually unscathed months after Katrina swamped their home with 12 feet of water.

After she tossed the suit in a washing machine with a little detergent and pine oil, it looked nearly as good as when Milton Shultz wore it to celebrate their oldest child's first Christmas in 1979.

Every year thereafter, a different relative or family friend wore the outfit and played Santa on Christmas Eve until Katrina interrupted the tradition.

"Everybody usually says they don't want to be Santa at first. But once they put that suit on, they always have a good time. I guess the Christmas spirit takes over," said Jamie Shultz, who used a British accent to disguise her voice when it was her turn to be Santa several years ago.

This year, the couple's son-in-law, Christopher Miller, will play Santa to mark the first Christmas for his 6-month-old daughter, Gretchen, who is the Shultzes' first grandchild.

Like many other families preparing for their first post-Katrina Christmas at home, the Shultzes said there was a silver lining in the storm's devastation: Because they had been stored in attics in relatively water-proof plastic containers, most of their Christmas ornaments and decorations could be salvaged.

Jamie Shultz was so thrilled that she hung every ornament on the tree, leaving nary a branch unadorned.

"I had to kind of cram them in to get them all on there," she said "We lost so much in the hurricane that it means a lot to me to still have my children's first Christmas ornaments."

But not everything was saved. A cherished mechanical Santa that had been in the family for nearly 50 years was lost to the storm.

"It was a big deal every year to put the batteries in and see if he still worked," Shultz said. "The last Christmas before Katrina, he had quit walking, but his eyes still lit up and he rang his bell."

The toy Santa has been replaced by a singing and dancing snowman that sends little Gretchen into joyful gyrations every time it's turned on.

"I'm hoping it will become one of our new traditions," Shultz said. "If there's one thing Katrina has taught us, it's to be able to adapt and accept change."

Love for Lakeview

Katherine Chepolis, a lifelong Lakeview resident, said Katrina showed her that the meaning of home is not necessarily tied to a particular structure but can be attached to a whole neighborhood.

Before Katrina, her extended family owned a dozen Lakeview homes, all of which flooded.

"We thought it was so great that we all lived within two miles of one another, but then the hurricane wiped us all out and we had no one to lean on," she said.

She and her husband, John, tore down their house on Louis XIV Street with the intention of rebuilding, but they eventually sold the lot and bought a renovated house on Memphis Street a few months ago.

"We may not live in the same house, but we're back home in Lakeview," she said. "I feel settled and content for the first time in more than two years."

Chepolis said it was mentally and emotionally exhausting to always be thinking about the next step in the family's recovery. With that weight lifted, she finds herself as excited for Christmas as the couple's two daughters, ages 4 and 2.

"When people ask me what I want for Christmas, I tell them I already have what I want because I'm finally home," she said.

'This is my everything'

Noel's journey home included weekly trips from a Baton Rouge apartment for a year to oversee renovations to her house while serving as her own general contractor.

She said she fired a plumber after he demanded more money for work for which she had already paid him. As a result, the gas couldn't be turned on because an inspection application the plumber submitted at City Hall was voided because he is no longer on the job.

Noel said she needs to find a new master plumber to vouch for the other plumber's work and submit a new inspection application. Meanwhile, the lack of gas for heating and cooking has prevented her from taking in three foster children.

"I'll deal with all of this after the holidays," said Noel, who was named 2005 Foster Parent of the Year in New Orleans by the state Office of Community Services. "Right now, I just want to enjoy being back for Christmas. I can't tell you how good it feels."

That's not to say that being away from home the past two holiday seasons was all bad for Noel's family.

One of the highlights was when her young grandchildren got to experience a white Christmas in Memphis in 2005.

But Noel's daughter, Rickelle Noel, said she never felt so homesick as when she asked a Memphis grocery clerk where she could find some file powder for the Christmas gumbo.

"She had no idea what I was talking about. She told me, 'Ma'am, I don't know. Maybe you better go check in the pharmacy,'¤" she said.

Patricia Noel said there will be no gumbo this Christmas because she has had to plan a more modest meal without a working stove. Instead of turkey or ham, she said she'll serve Cornish game hens.

"We'll season them and run an extension cord outside to deep fry them," she said. "They'll be delicious. Trust me."

Noel said friends often question why she moved back to the still-devastated neighborhood where she has lived for 18 years.

"People say I should just walk away, but I can't because this is my home. This is my everything," she said.

Besides, she joked that with a name like Noel she feels a responsibility to try to spread a little Christmas cheer in her struggling neighborhood.

"Lord knows we can use it," she said, standing outside her home, where her twinkling Christmas tree was the lone bright spot on a block of mostly abandoned houses.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Occupancy of FEMA trailers dwindles

Over the past year, tens of thousands of people living in FEMA trailers across Louisiana have moved out of the tiny, metal dwellings, including more than half of trailer residents in New Orleans and the vast majority of Jefferson Parish occupants.

The number of occupied travel trailers statewide dropped by more than two-thirds, from 86,838 last December to 29,654 on Dec. 19, according to figures provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People are moving out of group trailer parks and trailers on private property, while the number of trailers on commercial trailer sites rented by FEMA and on industrial property has declined significantly.

The decline of trailer occupancy in group sites maintained by FEMA isn't a surprise, as the agency announced plans last month to completely dismantle those parks by May 31, clearing them out in time for the next hurricane season. Several local governments in the New Orleans area also have pushed for the move, saying they want the parks shuttered as soon as possible.

In Louisiana, group site trailers dropped from 8,089 last December to 2,059 last week. Just 603 trailers in New Orleans group sites were still occupied in the third week of December, while agency contractors hauled trailers out of the parks across the city.

Most people who have been living in these group parks have found other places to live, said Ronnie Simpson, a FEMA spokesman, who added that the agency has tried to help people with their rental searches.

Housing advocates have questioned this assertion, saying they fear many people leaving the parks are moving in with relatives or friends because they are unable to find stable homes of their own.

There also has been a marked drop in the number of people living in FEMA trailers on private property, typically on the lawn of a flood-ravaged house. The number of occupied trailers on private property dropped from 69,219 last December to 23,743 last week, according to numbers provided by the agency.

This drop can be seen as a sign of progress in the metropolitan area, a signal that people are moving back into their rehabilitated homes, Simpson said.

"It is mostly folks who got their Road Home money, settled with the insurance company and finished their rebuilding," he said.

Although Michelle Enriques is still in a trailer on Focis Street in Metairie, near the 17th Street Canal, she said she hopes to be back into her renovated house by the end of the year, a good thing because code enforcement officials from Jefferson Parish government told her they want the FEMA trailer on her property ready to be hauled away by that time.

Enriques, who has been in the trailer with her 4-year-old daughter for almost two years, said difficulties getting people to finish the work have delayed her move-in date. But this holiday season, she said she hopes to celebrate inside a house, not a trailer.

"I plan on having Christmas lunch in the house, even if we have to sit on the floor instead of around a table," Enriques said.

A 57-year-old man living alone in a trailer near the corner of Pontchartrain Boulevard and Harrison Avenue in Lakeview said many of his neighbors have moved from trailers into their finished homes, including one family just two doors away who had the trailer hauled off Friday morning. But the man, who asked not to be identified, said he will remain in his trailer for some time because he just received his Road Home grant last week.

Larry Havard, just a few blocks away living in a trailer on 12th Street, said he doesn't see much evidence of progress on his block, where just a few houses or trailers are occupied.

"With half the houses in here, people are not even attempting to do anything," he said.

Havard said he hopes to finish the majority of work on his one-story brick house in the next few months, doing a lot of the work himself, while also waiting for his electrician to show up to finish the wiring. Once enough work is complete, Havard and his rat terrier, Maggie, will finally be able to get out of the trailer, which he said rattles every time a car passes.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A New Corporate Path to Disaster Relief

NATURAL disasters have taken many forms in recent years, but the aftermath of each one has looked painfully similar. Houses are flattened or destroyed, sticks of furniture and chunks of roofing litter the ground, and dazed survivors stumble through the wreckage picking up ruined heirlooms or waterlogged photographs.

have trouble viewing those scenes without thinking of how to help. Luckily, I have plenty of company, in the form of individuals, foundations and charities. And in recent years, businesses have been pitching in more visibly as well.

But devoting corporate resources to disaster aid doesn’t ensure that victims will receive the help they truly need. Effective aid takes considerable effort, planning and collaboration.

Companies respond best to natural disasters when they approach them as a business challenge: by analyzing the situation, figuring out where the greatest need is, and responding in a way that reflects the “market” for aid. Above all, managers and executives need to collaborate with outsiders like local officials and charities, ideally on a continuing basis, and not only in the midst of a crisis.

“The private sector is good at tools and technology and preparing for unforeseen things,” said Lynn Fritz, chairman of the Fritz Institute, a charity that works with governments, nonprofits and companies to improve responses to natural disasters. “They’re extremely good at training. These are enormous attributes for the humanitarian world,” But, he said, companies often do best when they work with humanitarian organizations. “The ability to be effective is just such hard work,” he said.

Companies typically give away roughly 1 percent of their pretax profits annually, and disaster relief has usually been a tiny part of that, according to research by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. But disaster relief was close to 10 percent of companies’ donations in 2005 because of the Asian tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina, it found. (Donations have since ebbed as a percentage of corporate giving, along with the pace of truly large-scale disasters.)

But during a calamity, some corporate disaster relief fails to relieve much of anything, as the high volume of donations in 2005 made clear, Mr. Fritz said.

Certainly, many companies supplied essential goods and services that year, and cash donations provided crucial help, he said. Too often, however, there was little communication about what was needed and available, and too many companies donated unneeded goods that clogged runways and storage space.

The good news is that many companies today are more aware of the complexity of disaster relief and are thinking hard about how to maximize effectiveness.

Some companies make it a habit to work with philanthropies that have experience in disaster relief. Toys “R” Us, for example, has partnerships with Save the Children and similar groups, said Kathleen Waugh, a spokeswoman.

For other companies, disaster aid has the advantage of being a natural fit. Caterpillar’s corporate foundation donated $2.3 million in cash to disaster relief in 2005, up from just under $100,000 in 2004. Its dealer network also donated equipment worth several hundred thousand dollars, said Will Ball, Caterpillar’s manager for social responsibility initiatives.

After major wildfires broke out around San Diego last fall, Qualcomm, the wireless technology company based there, pledged $1.5 million in cash for relief and recovery, said Daniel Sullivan, executive vice president for human resources. The company also sent in volunteers to help the county keep its information hot line running.

“Companies ought to align disaster relief with their business models and their core competencies,” said Charles Moore, executive director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

Companies can also turn to business groups that offer information on disasters and donations, like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

Understanding when to help is also important. Many companies tend to offer aid in the weeks and months immediately after a disaster, when public attention is strongest. But research suggests that companies should contribute at least as heavily to long-term aid.

Then there is the matter of companies’ other philanthropy. When they ramp up contributions to disaster relief, it is only a matter of time before they have less money available for other causes — say, arts organizations.

Many large companies have reserves for disaster relief, so they can increase donations for a year without affecting other giving. But even big companies have their limits.

“I have to acknowledge that if there were more of these disasters, we would have some more difficult discussions,” said Dr. Sullivan at Qualcomm.

Gary Steuer, vice president for private sector affairs at Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group, says some companies are financing arts groups as one form of long-term recovery aid.

For example, companies of various sizes sponsor the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, both to support the arts and to promote economic recovery.

Jazz as a tool for economic development? Now that’s a post-disaster image I can handle.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Group Helps House New Orleans' Homeless

Just 10 days ago, he was one of hundreds who shuffled through the homeless camp that stained the mayor's doorstep. On Friday, he was Ricky Kees, guest in Room 402 of a local hotel, holding a steady job and wearing a fresh change of clothes.

Kees was among the 249 people the group UNITY of New Orleans have placed in hotel rooms over the past month to meet Friday's deadline to fold a homeless encampment in front of New Orleans City Hall. The National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C., said the exodus from Duncan Plaza was the first time so many homeless people had been moved from one place without a police action.

Kees, 45, who came from Jackson, Miss., said the estimated 30 people who moved from the encampment back to the street could learn from his example.

''They have to accept the help of others and make an attempt to help themselves,'' he said.

The plaza became a symbol for what some have called a homeless epidemic since Hurricane Katrina. The city has seen its homeless population double to 12,000 since the storm, according to UNITY.

Martha Kegel, executive president of the group, said if police had swept the homeless from Duncan Plaza, the result could have been a standoff like the one across the street at City Hall a day earlier. On Thursday, protesters clashed with police over the city council's unanimous decision to raze four of the city's public housing projects.

Instead, she said, hotel owners who agreed to house the homeless, government bodies who provided funds, and outreach workers who urged mentally ill and troubled people to accept the help, averted any violence.

''Even though many cities across America have serious homelessness problems, no other city in America has moved this many people out of street homelessness, into housing, in so short a period of time,'' Kegel said during a news conference at the plaza.

Still, Kegel said homelessness is so challenging in New Orleans that the group had to make tough choices about who would receive transitional hotel rooms and later low-rent apartments. Most were people who had been assigned UNITY case workers, sometimes even before they landed in the plaza.

''We operated with a closed list,'' Kegel said, explaining that giving help to all takers could have caused many more to come to the plaza and seek it.

Kegel said the group would try to convince those who were not helped to accept a shelter bed and get in the UNITY system, though beds were dramatically reduced by Katrina and many of the homeless find them no better than the street.

By Friday evening, half of the plaza was ringed by chain-link fence to prepare for the planned demolition of adjacent state office buildings. City sanitation crews bagged and carted off piles of debris left behind in a compound that was once considered a safe-haven for the homeless, but lately became filled with trash, danger and despair.

Troy Biggins, 46, was among those who received no help. As he pulled dirty clothing out of tent, he said he lost the identification card needed to qualify for assistance.

''I'm just trying to figure out how I don't end up under the bridge,'' he said, referring to a nearby freeway overpass where some people from the plaza have relocated.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Over 200 in Duncan Plaza relocated

Sam Scaffidi with the New Orleans Police Department Homeless Assistance Unit looks to see if a tent is occupied in Duncan Plaza Friday

The Shock Doctrine in Action in New Orleans

From Naomi Klein:

Readers of The Shock Doctrine know that one of the most shameless examples of disaster capitalism has been the attempt to exploit the disastrous flooding of New Orleans to close down that city's public housing projects, some of the only affordable units in the city. Most of the buildings sustained minimal flood damage, but they happen to occupy valuable land that make for perfect condo developments and hotels.

The final showdown over New Orleans public housing is playing out in dramatic fashion right now. The conflict is a classic example of the "triple shock" formula at the core of the doctrine.

- First came the shock of the original disaster: the flood and the traumatic evacuation.

- Next came the "economic shock therapy": using the window of opportunity opened up by the first shock to push through a rapid-fire attack on the city's public services and spaces, most notably it's homes, schools and hospitals.

-Now we see that as residents of New Orleans try to resist these attacks, they are being met with a third shock: the shock of the police baton and the Taser gun, used on the bodies of protestors outside New Orleans City Hall yesterday.

Democracy Now! has been covering this fight all week, with amazing reports from filmmakers Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley (Rick was arrested in the crackdown). Watch residents react to the bulldozing of their homes here.

And footage from yesterday's police crackdown and Tasering of protestors inside and outside city hall here.

That last segment contains a terrific interview with Kali Akuno, executive director of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. Akuno puts the demolitions in the big picture, telling Amy Goodman:

This is just one particular piece of this whole program. Public hospitals are also being shut down and set to be demolished and destroyed in New Orleans. And they've systematically dismantled the public education system and beginning demolition on many of the schools in New Orleans--that's on the agenda right now--and trying to totally turn that system over to a charter and a voucher system, to privatize and just really go forward with a major experiment, which was initially laid out by the Heritage Foundation and other neoconservative think tanks shortly after the storm. So this is just really the fulfillment of this program.
Akuno is referring to the Heritage Foundation's infamous post-Katrina meeting with the Republican Study Group in which participants laid out their plans to turn New Orleans into a Petri dish for every policy they can't ram through without a disaster. Read the minutes on my website:.

For more context, here are couple of related excerpts from The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism:

The news racing around the shelter [in Baton Rouge] that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans' wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: "I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities." All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a "smaller, safer city"--which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of "fresh starts" and "clean sheets," you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.

Over at the shelter, Jamar Perry, a young resident of New Orleans, could think of nothing else. "I really don't see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn't have died."

He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us in the food line overheard and whipped around. "What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn't an opportunity. It's a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?"

A mother with two kids chimed in. "No, they're not blind, they're evil. They see just fine."

At first I thought the Green Zone phenomenon was unique to the war in Iraq. Now, after years spent in other disaster zones, I realize that the Green Zone emerges everywhere that the disaster capitalism complex descends, with the same stark partitions between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned.

It happened in New Orleans. After the flood, an already divided city turned into a battleground between gated green zones and raging red zones--the result not of water damage but of the "free-market solutions" embraced by the president. The Bush administration refused to allow emergency funds to pay public sector salaries, and the City of New Orleans, which lost its tax base, had to fire three thousand workers in the months after Katrina. Among them were sixteen of the city's planning staff--with shades of "de Baathification," laid off at the precise moment when New Orleans was in desperate need of planners. Instead, millions of public dollars went to outside consultants, many of whom were powerful real estate developers. And of course thousands of teachers were also fired, paving the way for the conversion of dozens of public schools into charter schools, just as Friedman had called for.

Almost two years after the storm, Charity Hospital was still closed. The court system was barely functioning, and the privatized electricity company, Entergy, had failed to get the whole city back online. After threatening to raise rates dramatically, the company managed to extract a controversial $200 million bailout from the federal government. The public transit system was gutted and lost almost half its workers. The vast majority of publicly owned housing projects stood boarded up and empty, with five thousand units slotted for demolition by the federal housing authority. Much as the tourism lobby in Asia had longed to be rid of the beachfront fishing villages, New Orleans' powerful tourism lobby had been eyeing the housing projects, several of them on prime land close to the French Quarter, the city's tourism magnet.

Endesha Juakali helped set up a protest camp outside one of the boarded-up projects, St. Bernard Public Housing, explaining that "they've had an agenda for St. Bernard a long time, but as long as people lived here, they couldn't do it. So they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. ... This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it!"

Amid the schools, the homes, the hospitals, the transit system and the lack of clean water in many parts of town, New Orleans' public sphere was not being rebuilt, it was being erased, with the storm used as the excuse. At an earlier stage of capitalist "creative destruction," large swaths of the United States lost their manufacturing bases and degenerated into rust belts of shuttered factories and neglected neighbourhoods. Post-Katrina New Orleans may be providing the first Western-world image of a new kind of wasted urban landscape: the mould belt, destroyed by the deadly combination of weathered public infrastructure and extreme weather.

Since the publication of The Shock Doctrine, my research team has been putting dozens of original source documents online for readers to explore subjects in greater depth. The resource page on New Orleans has some real gems.

Violent Protest Over Housing in New Orleans

After protesters clashed violently with the police inside and outside the New Orleans City Council chambers on Thursday, the council voted unanimously to allow the federal government to demolish 4,500 apartments in the four biggest public housing projects in the city.

But the council also called on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reopen some apartments in the closed projects immediately, and to rebuild all of the public-housing units that it bulldozes. The agency plans to replace barracks-style projects, known as “the bricks,” with mixed-income developments.

“We need affordable housing in this city,” said Shelley Stephenson Midura, who proposed the resolution adopted by the council. But, she continued, “public housing ought not to be the warehouse for the poor.”

Advocates for public housing residents contend that the agency’s plan will not provide enough housing for the 3,000 families who lived in the projects before Hurricane Katrina, almost all of whom were black. Many of them have not been able to return to the city, and some protesters say they are being deliberately excluded from New Orleans.

“The issue is and the question remains, who’s in the mix,” said Torin T. Sanders, pastor of the Sixth Baptist Church, referring to the plan for mixed-income housing. He and other speakers at the four-hour hearing that preceded the vote said that previous redevelopment efforts had shut out most public housing residents.

The city’s shortage of low-cost housing is only going to get worse in the coming months, as the federal government tries to move more than 30,000 people out of government-owned trailers, said Courtney Cowart, strategic director of disaster response for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

But representatives of the residents’ councils at three projects spoke earlier in the hearing, describing the poor conditions at the complexes before the storm and expressing their support for the new plans. “It’s about being able to walk into a house and say this is a house, not a project,” said Donna Johnigan, a resident at the B.W. Cooper Apartments, which the government began to demolish last week.

The future of public housing in the city has been a subject of passionate debate in this storm-scarred city, involving race, money, history, the right to return — and who gets to make the decisions.

That the three blacks and four whites on the council joined to support the demolitions seemed to echo a widely held feeling here, crossing racial lines, that the old housing projects were deeply dysfunctional, both for their residents and for the people who lived around them.

Mistrust of the government was voiced by many of the speakers who opposed the demolitions, while supporters said most of the protesters were outsiders who did not live in New Orleans, much less in the four housing projects.

Police officers on foot and horseback tried to keep protesters out of the council chambers once all the seats were filled. Demonstrators tried to push through some iron gates to get into the chambers when the police used what appeared to be pepper spray and stun guns; at least two demonstrators needed medical treatment.

There was also a brief fight inside the chambers and the police ejected some demonstrators. About 15 protesters were arrested, the police said, mostly on charges of disturbing the peace.

Adam Nossiter reported from New Orleans, and Leslie Eaton from Dallas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Orleans: The Quiet Time is Turbulent

From Harry Shearer:

In the old, pre-disaster days, this week was the quiet time, the brief period (before the Sugar Bowl inundation) when the tourists left New Orleans, and the city belonged to the locals. Now as I drive or walk through the Quarter, my spirits lift when I see clumps of tourists, walking in shorts despite the few days of relatively frigid temperatures.

But the calm is disturbed by the impending climax of a long-simmering dispute. The local housing authority, taken over by federal HUD in 2002 due to long-standing management issues, is determined to raze four major public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. In ordinary times, that might not have been a terrible idea, although, as the New York Times' architecture critic points out in a blistering attack on the program, these projects are not the sterile high-rise prisons of inner-city East Coast fame: they're two or three stories tall, solidly built, some with notable architectural pedigrees. They did commit the crime common to such projects--destroying the street grid, so that they are "communities" devoid of corner stores, corner bars, corner anythings, which are so intrinsic to the neighborhood fabric of New Orleans.

But these are not ordinary times. A hundred thousand people (at a minimum) remain evacuees from the city, at least 50,000 rental housing units were damaged or destroyed by the floods, and the best evidence is that a good number of the project apartments slated for demolition are actually or (with some work) potentially habitable.

The Times' Adam Nossiter, a day before, weighed in with a peculiar piece, asserting a trend--in this case, the exiles turning their backs on the city--while quoting only four individuals and one statistic. The latter--the dropoff in voting among exiles between the Mayoral election in May 2006 and the runoff election last October--is a peculiarly unconvincing piece of information, since the election for Mayor was widely viewed as a crucial one for the city's future (ironically, in terms of the result, which seems irrelevant to the city's future), whereas the October runoff was an anticlimax, in which voting statewide was down because the crucial race for governor had been decided in the primary weeks earlier. I'd cite, in contradiction to Nosser's reporting, the account of a friend who works in housing assistance in the city. She says her phone rings off the hook every day with calls from exiles desperate to return. But, with the supply of rental housing so depleted, rents have risen, and, Brad Pitt's best efforts notwithstanding, affordable housing in New Orleans is being destroyed, not rebuilt.

N.B.: The City Council votes on the proposed demolitions today (Thursday

Fights break out during housing debate

11 a.m.

The council finally opens the meeting, with the customary pledge to allegiance and the playing of the national anthem. At this time, several people have been removed by police, including rapper Sess 4-5, who when asked for his real name by a reporter, replies, "F---- off."

The chamber is filled and quiet, after the fracas that broke out in the center of the chamber near the podium.

10:54 a.m.

Protester Krystal Glover is carried out of the chamber by a group of police and deputies. She screams repeatedly. "I'm not a slave!" she shouts. A second woman is also forcibly removed, as Fielkow calls the meeting to order, one hour late.

"Next time you'll be asked to leave," an officer tells the remaining crowd. "Plain and simple."

The Rev. James Smith gives the invocation: "May we never be lazy in our work for peace. May we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals....Help all of us to appreciate one another."

10:50 a.m.

A struggle breaks out in council chambers. Police officers race to break it up. At least three people are ejected, as shouting fills the chamber. A woman slaps at a cameraman's lens, drawing his ire.

"Security, security," Council President Arnie Fielkow says into the microphone. "If you do not obey the rules, you must leave."

Krystal Glover shouts out, "I'm not going nowhere."

10:42 a.m.

Several protesters greet the council members with boos and slurs. Krystal Glover calls Council Member Stacy Head a racist. Head responds by blowing a kiss and waving to her.

Glover keeps shouting. "Stacy Head, she's the real devil in charge!"

Jay Arena shouts, "Jackie Clarkson, you're a sell-out."

10:37 a.m.

Council members begin entering the chamber.

"Bring your coward selves out here!" Krystal Glover shouts. "Let the people in here. We've got plenty of seats in here."

Glover, who says she is with the New Black Panther Party, calls out to the council members: "You no good sell outs. I bet your house is still standing!"

10:30 a.m.

City Hall officials stick by their earlier statement that they are limiting the crowd to 278 for safety reasons. Council members still haven't entered the room. The meeting was set for 10 a.m.

Attorney Tracie Washington accused officials of changing the rules for the public housing crowd.

"That's retarded," Washington says to Peggy Lewis, clerk of council. "You have to let these people in. You've got 800,000 police here. Ain't nobody going to do anything in here."

10:22 a.m.

"I'm for the demolition and rebuilding," says John Ales, 42, a cook who lives in Mid-City. He is the man seated behind Sharon Sears Jasper, who minutes earlier had called him a "racist white man."

Meanwhile, the council members have yet to enter the chamber. A man is shouting in front of a bevy of video cameras about the homeless problem and how he is from public housing. "All of us are getting screwed," he shouts.

10:15 a.m.

The meeting hasn't started yet. Council members haven't entered the chamber.

Civil sheriff's deputies continue to try and keep order, telling the people inside that they may not stand during the meeting and that everyone must have a seat. Tempers flare in one section of the chamber.

"You're a racist white man," Sharon Sears Jasper, a former St. Bernard complex resident shouts at a man seated behind her.

"Ma'am, the color of my skin isn't the issue," the man replies.

"Stop the demolition! Stop the demolition!" several people start chanting.

10:05 a.m.

City Hall closes off the entrance, with civil deputies saying the seating capacity is only 278 inside the council chamber.

A few people angrily protest. "They're changing the rules!" Jay Arena shouts out, drawing a deputy to order him to sit down. A few others rise to protest. "I"m tired of being walked on," a woman with an infant says.

"I'm not a slave," another woman says. "How you going to tell me to sit down."

9:50 a.m

The council chambers remains relatively quiet, as dozens of people are lined up outside to go through security. Backpacks aren't allowed, officers tell visitors. Protest signs are, but not any sticks they may be affixed to.

Some activists are offended by the security measures.

"They know when they're about to do something evil, they've got to protect themselves from the citizenry," said Endesha Jukali, an activist opposed to demolition.

9:15 a.m.

City Hall officials have posted police officers and a metal detector at the entrance to the council chambers, in anticipation of crowds protesting the demolition of public housing.

But the council chamber is only about one-third full and the scene is fairly quiet, as the newest council member, Jackie Clarkson, is sworn-in. The meeting will start at 10 a.m.

New Orleans police are guarding the entrance, having put up barricades herding all visitors into one line. Bags are being searched and each visitor had to make it through a metal detector before being allowed entrance.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans is asking the council today to approve demolition permits for the city's four largest public housing developments: St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. HANO wants to demolish 4,500 units of housing to make room for mixed-income neighborhoods.

The council's first order of business is the HANO demolition requests.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

St. Tammany to cut utilities to 166 FEMA trailers

St. Tammany Parish officials say they will move to disconnect utilities early next month to 166 FEMA trailers whose residents do not have special permits to continue using them as temporary homes.

"After the first of the year, we will begin utility disconnections," parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons Stymiest said Wednesday. "And at this time, we have no plans to issue any more notices . . . We feel everyone has had plenty of notices. There's been mailings and we've physically posted trailers" which are in violation of parish codes.

The last set of notices were delivered in late November when parish code enforcement officers slapped citations on 605 illegal FEMA trailers throughout St. Tammany that did not have permits or had expired permits. The notices gave residents 10 working days to contact parish officials to acquire a valid permit.

The parish learned the status of 439 cited trailers through responses from residents or data provided to the parish this week by FEMA, Stymiest said. Some of the 439 trailers are no longer being used and are awaiting pickup by FEMA, she said.

Most residents in the remaining trailers have asked for permits, saying they are still awaiting Road Home grants or insurance settlements to rebuild, Stymiest said. "And some are going to need FEMA assistance to find suitable housing," she said.

Stymiest said the parish is working with FEMA to expedite the removal of empty trailers and will work with the agency when the parish starts disconnecting utilities to 166 trailers whose residents have not responded to the parish citation. She noted that FEMA regulations require residents to acquire the necessary local permits for trailers.

After Katrina, Parish President Kevin Davis through executive orders allowed permits for FEMA trailers used for temporary lodging to remain in effect. But beginning in March, the parish began requiring residents to get temporary permit extensions to continue living in trailers that violate zoning and other codes.

Parish officials said there were more than 11,000 FEMA trailers in St. Tammany after Katrina. About 3,700 trailers remain in St. Tammany, including some 1,500 trailers in mobile home parks whose residents currently are not required to get permit extensions, officials said.

Housing officials claim surplus

As housing activists continued to protest the proposed demolition of four public housing complexes, federal housing officials provided new details Tuesday about hundreds of public housing units available across New Orleans, with dozens of units ready for occupants in the B.W. Cooper, the former Desire and the Guste developments.

Housing officials said hundreds of private apartments where disaster or Section 8 vouchers can be used are also available to help meet the needs of displaced public housing residents, both in the short and long term.

Meanwhile, activists staged a protest on the steps of City Hall, saying procedural snags, as well as extra costs for utilities and security deposits, put those options out of reach for many poor people. Furthermore, some alleged "slum" conditions at those properties, and they have said they don't trust housing officials to make good on promises of mixed-income redevelopments that will welcome the poor.

Federal Department of Housing and Development officials said the local public housing supply outstrips demand. Currently, 1,762 public housing units are occupied and nearly 300 are available or within weeks of being ready at eight Housing Authority of New Orleans complexes and at scattered housing authority sites.

Another 802 public housing units across the city are being repaired and will be put to use in the coming year, housing officials said.

Three support demolition

On Thursday, the City Council will decide whether to grant demolition permits to each of the four complexes in a vote that could be divided and politically charged. Three members on the seven-member panel -- Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head and Shelley Midura -- said Tuesday that they plan to vote for the demolitions. A fourth, Council President Arnie Fielkow, has said he supports mixed-income housing developments, but he has stopped short of promising a vote for demolition of the traditional complexes.

Members Cynthia Willard-Lewis and James Carter declined to detail their positions Tuesday. Carter said he remained undecided, while Willard-Lewis said she had met with housing advocates and others to seek "common solutions to these difficult problems." Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell could not be reached for comment.

In addition to the units available or scheduled to open soon, federal and local housing officials said their agencies would provide a total of 3,343 public housing units in the next four to five years, including nearly 900 units in planned mixed-income developments. The first phase of those units should be finished and leased by 2010, HUD spokeswoman Donna White said.

Rebuilding plans

If the council approves demolition, mixed-income developments would open at the St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete and Lafitte sites within months. In addition to the total of 900 public housing units, the three complexes would include 900 market-rate rental units and 900 homes for sale at the four long-standing public housing sites, according to current proposals. Many of the homes for sale would be reserved for first-time home buyers, with financial subsidies designed to allow former public housing families to become property owners.

But the target of 3,343 public housing units in New Orleans is a flashpoint because it represents a drop of about one-third from the 5,100 units occupied before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As the city repopulates, housing officials say, other demands for housing can be met through use of vouchers that can be used for private apartments, the quality of which is in dispute. HANO officials say they inspect private units, more than 500 of which are listed on the housing authority's Web site, but activists say poor conditions in many units deter renters. 

Added expenses

Regardless of the conditions, many former public housing residents avoid privately owned apartments because they typically face utility and deposit expenses not charged in public housing.

Sharon Jasper, a former St. Bernard complex resident presented by activists Tuesday as a victim of changing public housing policies, took a moment before the start of the City Hall protest to complain about her subsidized private apartment, which she called a "slum." A HANO voucher covers her rent on a unit in an old Faubourg St. John home, but she said she faced several hundred dollars in deposit charges and now faces a steep utility bill.

"I'm tired of the slum landlords, and I'm tired of the slum houses," she said.

Pointing across the street to an encampment of homeless people at Duncan Plaza, Jasper said, "I might do better out here with one of these tents."

Jasper, who later allowed a photographer to tour the subsidized apartment, also complained about missing window screens, a slow leak in a sink, a warped back door and a few other details of a residence that otherwise appeared to have been recently renovated.

At the City Hall protest, a crowd of people railed against "privatization and gentrification of the city," saying it would be a mistake to raze well-built public housing at a time when so many people need affordable housing. One of their leaders, Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, said it's appropriate that advocates for the poor from across the country have gathered in New Orleans to help fight the demolitions.

"This is a national scandal," he said.

Obama weighs in

The latest of many sidewalk protests drew support from presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who wrote an open letter to President Bush on Tuesday asking him to step in and delay the demolitions. Obama said he favors mixed-income neighborhoods, but not at the expense of poor families.

"No public housing should be demolished until HUD can point to an equivalent number of replacement units in the near vicinity," Obama said.

Quigley and other critics called HANO dysfunctional and noted that one of its rules -- a requirement that the agency attempt to reach people that previously lived in a public housing unit -- can cause a delay as long as two months for a family trying to return.

But HANO spokesman David Jackson called that a bogus issue, saying efforts to reach any former occupant of an apartment are made before it is fully repaired and available.

Activists also said an empty HANO unit might not actually be available to a family if it isn't the right size or isn't equipped for disabled or elderly members. Jackson said he's not aware of those complaints, but he conceded that large families needing multiple bedrooms could face a snag.

Meanwhile, developers of the River Garden mixed-income complex in the Lower Garden District, the HUD-backed replacement for the old 1,500-unit St. Thomas housing development, bristled at continuing criticism that only a small fraction of the public housing families have been allowed to return.

The developers don't dispute that far fewer public housing residents live in the neighborhood. But they point out that more than half of 921 rental and units for sale being built by HRI Properties, including use of scattered sites in other neighborhoods, will be reserved for former public housing residents.

Rent subsidies for some residents have been dropped because those residents have gotten jobs to raise their income and now live in market-rate units, said David Abbenante, a management executive.

"If anybody says they want to come back, they come back," he said. "I've got 11 former St. Thomas (households) that are in market-rate units. That's a good thing."

High Noon in New Orleans: The Bulldozers Are Ready

Ever since it took over the public housing projects of New Orleans more than a decade ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been itching to tear them down.

Now, after years of lawsuits and delays, it looks as if the agency will finally get its Christmas wish. The New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote on Thursday on whether to sign off on the demolitions of three projects. HUD already has its bulldozers in place, engines warm and ready to roll the next morning.

Arguing that the housing was barely livable before the flooding unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, federal officials have cast their decision as good social policy. They have sought to lump the projects together with the much-vilified inner-city projects of the 1960s.

But such thinking reflects a ruthless indifference to local realities. The projects in New Orleans have little to do with the sterile brick towers and alienating plazas that usually come to mind when we think of inner-city housing . Some rank among the best early examples of public housing built in the United States, both in design and in quality of construction.

On the contrary, it is the government’s tabula rasa approach that evokes the most brutal postwar urban-renewal strategies. Neighborhood history is deemed irrelevant; the vague notion of a “fresh start” is invoked to justify erasing entire communities.

This mentality also threatens other public buildings in New Orleans that can be considered 20th-century landmarks. If the government gets its way, a rich architectural legacy will be supplanted by private, mixed-income developments with pitched roofs and wood-frame construction, an ersatz vision of small-town America. That this could happen in a city that still largely lies in ruins is both sad and grotesque.

Scattered across the city, the housing complexes involve more than 4,500 units. HUD plans to complete the demolitions within the next six months.

Despite the rush to raze the complexes, none of the designs for new housing are complete. And federal officials did not give developers the option of preserving part of any of the complexes in plotting the new projects.

Few would argue for preserving every one of the projects as it exists today. The facades of a 1950s section of the B. W. Cooper housing complex, for example, are monotonously repetitive. Its claustrophobic lobbies are in sharp contrast to the more private, individual entrances found in some of the older apartments, and the overall quality of construction is low.

But the best of the projects, built as part of the New Deal’s progressive social agenda, feature many elements that are prized by mainstream urban planners today.

At the Lafitte housing complex, a matrix of pedestrian roads fuses the apartment blocks into the city’s street grid and the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. Low-rise apartments and narrow front porches, set around what were once beautfully landscaped gardens, are intended to encourage a spirit of community.

The quality of the construction materials would also be unimaginable in public housing today: Their concrete structural frames, red-brick facades and pitched terra cotta roofs would seem at home on a university campus.

The problems facing these projects have more to do with misguided policy and the city’s complex racial history than with bad design. The deterioration can be attributed to the government’s decision decades ago to gut most of the public services that supported them.

In the last few months the public has been able to judge firsthand how hollow HUD’s argument for demolition is. Just a few miles from Lafitte, the developer Pres Kabacoff is completing a renovation of the five remaining two- and three-story apartment blocks at the St. Thomas housing project, a complex that was partly demolished before the storm. The apartments, which are similar in scale to Lafitte’s, were renovated at a cost of under $200 per square foot — roughly what new construction with lesser materials would have cost.

Their handsome brick facades, decorated with wrought-iron rails and terra cotta roofs, are a stark contrast to the generic suburban tract houses that surround them on all sides. (And they are likely to be far more durable in the next storm.)

The point is that HUD’s one-size-fits-all mentality fails to take into account the specific realities of each project. The agency refuses to make distinctions between the worst of the housing projects and those, like Lafitte, that could be at least partly salvaged. Nor will it acknowledge the trauma it causes by boarding up and then eradicating entire communities in a reeling city.

In an eerie echo of the slum clearance projects of the 1960s, government officials are once again denying that these projects and communities can be salvaged through a human, incremental approach to planning. For them, only demolition will do.

The difference between then and now is what will exist once the land is cleared. If the urban renewal projects of the 1960s replaced decaying historic neighborhoods with vast warehouses for the poor, HUD’s vision would yield saccharine, suburban-style houses. And the situation is likely to get worse. The government has identified some other historically important public buildings for demolition as part of its push for privatization. Charity Hospital, an Art Deco structure built downtown in the late 1930s, was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and its fate is uncertain.

The Thomas Lafon Elementary School, a sleek Modernist structure from the 1950s, is destined for the wrecking ball. And there has been talk of tearing down the Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, an elegant French neo-Gothic building completed in the late 19th century.

Blow after blow, in the name of progress. Cast as the city’s saviors, architects are being used to compound one of the greatest crimes in American urban planning.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

With Regrets, New Orleans Is Left Behind

From NYT

With resignation, anger or stoicism, thousands of former New Orleanians forced out by Hurricane Katrina are settling in across the Gulf Coast, breaking their ties with the damaged city for which they still yearn.

They now cast their votes in small Louisiana towns and in big cities of neighboring states. They have found new jobs and bought new houses. They have forsaken their favorite foods and cherished pastors. But they do not for a moment miss the crime, the chaos and the bad memories they left behind in New Orleans.

This vast diaspora — largely black, often poor, sometimes struggling — stretches across the country but is concentrated in cities near the coast, like this one, or Atlanta or Baton Rouge or Houston, places where the newcomers are still reaching for accommodation.

The break came fairly recently. Sometime between the New Orleans mayor’s race in spring 2006, when thousands of displaced citizens voted absentee or drove in to cast a ballot, and the city election this fall, when thousands did not — resulting in a sharply diminished electorate and a white-majority City Council — the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over.

Now, they are adjusting to places where the pace is slower, restaurants are fewer, existence is centered on the home, and streets are lonely and deserted after 5 p.m., as in this city in southwest Louisiana. These exiles, still in semi-limbo and barely established in a routine, describe their new lives less in terms of what it now consists of than of what they left behind.

“I told them, ‘I love turtle soup.’ People here go, ‘What’s that?’ ” said Pauline Hurst, a former therapy technician at a New Orleans hospital who settled here after her home was destroyed in the post-hurricane flood.

Dreadlocks, accepted in New Orleans, might mean a reservation at a fancy restaurant is suddenly “lost,” as in the telling of one exile here. A burst of gunfire might mean an instant police response rather than none at all, as in New Orleans, in the amazed recounting of another. Late-night cravings mean the IHOP rather than the famous Camellia Grill; going to work means hourlong trips on country roads, rather than, say, a 10-minute hop across the Industrial Canal from the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.

Warily, they praise the quiet, the friendliness and the absence of crime.

“It’s the country, but it’s — lovely,” said Barbara Shanklin, a retired city bus driver who has settled 50 miles to the southwest of New Orleans in a Terrebonne Parish hamlet, Gray. Still, Ms. Shanklin added quickly, “I miss New Orleans.”

The precise calculus that went into these painful choices was complex, a mix of emotion and reason, in the telling of former New Orleanians. They voted in 2006 clinging to a hope of return, and in some cases a desire to protect decades of black political gains by returning an African-American, C. Ray Nagin, to the mayor’s office. But while 113,000 voted in May 2006, only 53,000 did last October. The mirage of the old, comfortable life in a city of densely woven neighborhoods, beguiling if sometimes dangerous street life, and inviting po’ boy sandwich shops contrasted too sharply with the grimmer present-day reality of New Orleans for these exiles.

The old house was gone. The neighborhood was empty. The friends were missing. The job had vanished. Rents were high, when you could find them. Murder had returned (with about 200 victims so far this year), even if many of their friends had not.

And the city seemed frozen in its half-ruined state, strangely alien and unfamiliar. The current population remains stuck at somewhere between 200,000 and 280,000, far below the pre-hurricane level of 450,000. These exiles do not see the New Orleans that has picked itself up; instead, they see the one that remains largely destroyed.

Away from the city, a less threatening existence awaited: blander and demanding adjustment, yet less oppressive. The quiet of languid country-town streets was deemed preferable to the absolute silence of whole abandoned blocks. Outside New Orleans, it was easier to deal with the still-fresh trauma of being homeless and losing “everything,” as several put it.

“In the beginning, I thought I might go back,” said Ms. Hurst, who came here with her sister and 88-year-old mother, also chased out by the hurricane, and lived with them for five months in a single large room at St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church. They now work at the church, which has become a regional relief center for storm evacuees.

The 2005 flood, Ms. Hurst said, turned everything in her home at the edge of the Broadmoor section of New Orleans “black, purple and green,” as though somebody had “just put everything in a blender.” Yet the city had not relinquished its grip on her, and she voted in the 2006 New Orleans election, at a special polling place in the white-columned Calcasieu Parish courthouse here.

Voting for the familiar New Orleans candidates was an act of normalcy. But that election, once over, did not magically conjure up the old New Orleans. Going back was a jolt.

“Everything was gone,” Ms. Hurst said. “All that was gone — community, friends — scattered. You feel like, when you go there, you’re walking into a strange country. It’s just totally different. It just feels like you’re in outer space.”

Each return visit to New Orleans brings sharp reminders of what was lost. “It hurts me, every time I go back,” said Ms. Hurst’s sister, Cynthia Jones.

Others spoke of being alienated from their old surroundings.

“There is nothing to go back to,” said Renee Roussell, whose husband found a job as a manager at a casino restaurant in Lake Charles.

Sylvia Young, a former public school teacher in the Lower Ninth Ward, now works as a mental health counselor in La Place, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Her old school and job are gone.

“I go, and I get depressed,” Ms. Young said.

She drove to New Orleans to vote in 2006 — “I thought for a minute I could possibly move back,” she said — but not this year.

“When I go to Gentilly,” Ms. Young said, “and I see my son’s school is not back, and the house we lived in is gone, and the house next door to Tammy and them is gone. Everything is just gone. It’s either torn down or partially being rebuilt or just nothing done to it at all.”

But, in the accounts from people who left New Orleans after the storm, the missing or ruined physical landscape is barely half of it. Even more absent now is the human landscape — the network of friends, relations and acquaintances that often, in New Orleans, helps compensate for fragmentary families and neighborhoods that can be dangerous. Life in the city takes place outside the home as much as inside; now, that would not be possible.

“It’s not New Orleans to me,” said Ms. Shanklin, the retired bus driver in Terrebonne Parish. “And I find myself asking, Where are all the people? I see all the empty houses, and I knew once there was people in all those houses.”

“Where are the people, you know? Where are the people?” Ms. Shanklin said. “It’s like somebody threw a bomb on it.”

Now, she lives in a trim little house that Habitat for Humanity built in a curving subdivision of similar dwellings definitely unlike New Orleans. The town of Houma is nearby, but there are fields all around, and it is quiet enough to hear birds. New Orleans noises — police sirens, traffic, honking car horns, children, hip-hop music — can be conjured only with difficulty. At night, Ms. Shanklin boasted, she opens her window and listens to the cows in the pasture.

But a year ago, she had a nervous breakdown and spent 10 days in the hospital. She missed New Orleans.

Ms. Roussell, in Lake Charles, said, “If anybody asks me where I’m from, I say New Orleans. It’s not easy to let go. But why go back home, when nothing is what it used to be?”

Monday, December 17, 2007

N.O. council may seek middle ground on demolitions

When the New Orleans City Council takes up the question Thursday of whether to issue demolition permits for four public housing complexes, the vote might not be an all-or-nothing decision. The council's action could be far more nuanced, as members prepare to vote on five separate measures that will determine the fate of the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard complexes.

Drafts of the proposed motions were still in the works Monday. But Council President Arnie Fielkow said they will mirror a series of requests made last week by the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

Four motions will ask the council to approve individual demolition permits for each of the housing developments, known as the "Big Four."

A fifth motion, if approved, would break a tie vote last week by a historic review committee that blocks the demolition of Lafitte.

Meanwhile, demolition opponents on Monday called on council members to delay their vote for at least 60 days to allow the council adequate time to independently investigate HANO's rationale for demolition.

Echoing arguments that critics of the plan have made for weeks, local ministers and housing advocates said Monday that the sturdiest of the public housing buildings should not be destroyed at a time the city needs housing as quickly as possible.

They also argued that displaced public housing residents face procedural hurdles in trying to land one of the hundreds of units in public complexes that officials say are available now or will be within weeks. The activists say there are fewer units available than the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development claims, because units don't always match the needs of potential tenants, such as larger units sought by larger families.

Looking for middle ground

In the end, critics say they would prefer that the council find a middle ground between wholesale demolition and complete renovation of the complexes. Some believe HANO should incorporate more of the Unified New Orleans Plan, a recovery blueprint built on citizen input. In the UNOP plan, residents favored some level of demolition, but also believed restoring the street grid could improve access and allow some public housing to be renovated quickly and efficiently.

HANO plans to demolish 4,500 public housing units at the four complexes and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods. Officials said the demolition plan does not affect the agency's plan to reopen a total of 3,000 apartments within its traditional public housing stock.

Supporters say the plan offers better housing for the poor and that mixed-income neighborhoods are a better model than the concentrated poverty of traditional complexes.

A Morial legacy

In voting Thursday, council members will exercise relatively new authority.

Under an ordinance approved in 2002, new permits for the demolition of structures controlled by HANO or the Department of Housing and Urban Development can be issued only "after a City Council motion has been passed authorizing such a demolition permit."

Previously, owners of public housing, like any private property owner, applied directly to the city administration for a demolition permit.

The measure was proposed by former Mayor Marc Morial at the height of debate about converting the former St. Thomas public housing complex into the mixed-income River Gardens development that exists today. Morial at the time was waging a battle to stop HUD from taking over HANO, though in the end, the takeover succeeded, and HANO remains in receivership to the federal housing agency today.

In asking the council to approve the demolition permits this week, HANO executive administrator Karen Cato-Turner submitted paperwork explaining the redevelopment plans for the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete and St. Bernard complexes. In those reports and in her letter, Cato-Turner argues that the redevelopment plans preceded Hurricane Katrina.

Cato-Turner also appealed to the council to break a split decision Dec. 10 by the Housing Conservation District Review Commission that, if allowed to stand, would impede demolition of the Lafitte complex near Treme.

Demolition deadlock

The commission, which reviews applications for demolitions in historically significant areas, approved HANO's request to tear down dozens of structures at B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete but deadlocked on whether to authorize the demolition of Lafitte. The St. Bernard development is located outside the area overseen by the commission.

HANO officials have said the agency will lose $110 million in federal GO Zone tax credits and $27 million in housing block grants unless the commission's vote is reversed.

They also say that any interruption of plans to demolish Lafitte will imperil former residents' eligibility for government rental assistance.

In opposing the demolition plans, Robert Horton, a Critical Resistance member and former member of the St. Thomas public housing development, said too few of the St. Thomas residents displaced years ago were able to return once the complex was replaced by a mixed-income enclave. He and other critics of the HUD plan fear a similar outcome if public housing is redeveloped across the city.

"I don't have a problem with redevelopment. I have a problem with HUD and their history with redevelopment," Horton said during a meeting Monday with Times-Picayune editors and reporters.

The Rev. Marshall Truehill, a Baptist minister and former City Planning Commission member, said: "Let's call a timeout."

The critics included two other ministry figures, Bishop Charles Jenkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and the Rev. Jim VanderWeele of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Others included Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights and Walter Gallas, a field office director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.