Monday, May 26, 2008

The New Orleans Recovery Continues, Feds Welcome to Jump Aboard

This week, I got a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward. It was by no means my first visit to the area; virtually every time I return to New Orleans, I drive myself (and/or my visitors from out of town) around some of the vast flood-devastated real estate of the city, to see for myself how the grass-roots recovery is faring. Ever since last fall, when I drove through the Lower 9 with the producer of my Crescent City Stories series for, I've been amazed and inspired by the area's signs of life. But it took this week's tour, courtesy of the Preservation Resource Center, for me to realize just how false is the national media's depiction of the Lower 9 as dead, derelict and devastated. There are streets -- like the two blocks of Egania Street I happened onto last fall -- and neighborhoods -- like Holy Cross, where PRC is concentrating much of its restoration and rebuilding effort -- that astonish with rebuilt, re-landscaped and re-occupied little (and not so little) homes, mostly restored in the vernacular styles of the area. The Lower 9 shares with districts as undevastated as the French Quarter the curse of streets badly in need of repair (a major road-repair program in the city was announced just this week, nearly three years after the floodwaters were pumped out). And of course, there's the ever-present threat that the Army Corps of Engineers is still...the Army Corps. See this story on seepage at the 17th St. Canal for a real deja-uh-oh experience.

Yet the recovery by homeowners, assisted by dedicated organizations like the PRC, continues, blessed, as I tell my friends there, by the absence of the illusion of leadership. Speaking of which, Sen. Mary Landrieu has inserted in the new War Money Act (my name for it) some provisions for the Gulf Coast's recovery, including:

$6 billion for 100-year flood protection for the New Orleans area, with Louisiana's share reduced from $1.5 billion to $1.3 billion and the state given 30 years, instead of the usual three years, to make the payments.

-- $75 million to move public facilities from the Port of New Orleans to accelerate the closing of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and language directing the Corps of Engineers to look at more expensive options for permanent pumping of storm water in the New Orleans metropolitan area.

-- $75 million for criminal justice needs along the Gulf Coast.

-- $157 million to help six New Orleans area hospitals deal with post-hurricane health care costs.

-- $70 million for 3,000 supportive housing vouchers to help low-income workers find housing in the New Orleans area.

On that latter point, $70 million won't go very far when the rents in the city have doubled and tripled, due to so many rental units being taken off the market due to flood damage. Yet, there's still no federal effort to help jumpstart the renovation and rebuilding of rental units, the only sure way to "help low-income workers find housing." Rep. Barney Frank is head of the relevant committee in the House. How does he stand on helping the working class of New Orleans come home?