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Katrina evacuees weigh possible return

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN

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James Anthony, who evacuated New Orleans East, is facing a decision over returning home.

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(CNN) -- James Anthony, who fled Hurricane Katrina like tens of thousands others, is facing a wrenching decision: whether to return home and help rebuild a shattered community or make a new home elsewhere, essentially from scratch.

Anthony and his family abandoned their home and business in New Orleans East, one of the Louisiana parishes most affected by the storm. They found a place to stay at his mother-in-law's home in Atlanta, Georgia.

"I'm one of the lucky ones from what I understand. We did have a place to come to," he said.

In one of the first steps that may help ease Anthony's decision, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, appointed by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, begins unveiling on Wednesday a series of proposals on how to rebuild the city. (Plan: All New Orleans could be rebuilt)

The decisions on how to rebuild the city will be guided by how many people will return, which is still very much up in the air due to evacuees' concerns that the city currently does not have the infrastructure to sustain them and over long-term fears that the city may not be adequately prepared for another catastrophic storm.

About 1.3 million people lived in the New Orleans metro area before the storm and more than 444,000 lived in the city itself, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. (Interactive: Population, Housing, and Education)

How many evacuated before, during and after the storm and flood is unknown, but most estimates say nearly everyone left the city and more than a million people left the metro area.

Nagin has toured states with a high concentration of evacuees and held town hall-style events during the past few weeks to tout the progress being made in the devastated city.

At a December 3 meeting in Atlanta with hundreds of evacuees from his city, Nagin said electricity had returned to about 70 percent of New Orleans, the water supply was again safe, emergency services like fire and police were functioning, and that other essential services would follow over the next few months.

Curfew was lifted on December 23 for several zip codes which included the areas of Algiers, the Central Business District, the French Quarter, Mid-City, Gentilly and Uptown, according to a report released on December 30 by the mayor's office. Curfew is still in effect for zip codes east of the Industrial Canal.

Nagin, during the Atlanta meeting, acknowledged that housing was still a critical challenge and that the city's finances were in desperate straits. The city had to lay off about 3,000 employees when tax revenues stopped coming in after the storm. .

"The city is broke, we don't have any money," he told the evacuees. "We're begging and borrowing from anyone who will listen."

Concerns over the levee system

One of the important concerns is the levee system, which did not hold up during Katrina. Some residents interviewed at the Atlanta meeting wondered if there was any point to returning to New Orleans without the assurance that the levees would protect the city from future storms.

"We understand that the people of New Orleans need to be assured that they will be safe when they get back home -- that their city has an infrastructure that is capable of sustaining a possible storm next season or in the seasons afterwards," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on December 15.

The immediate plans are to restore the damaged levees to where they were before Katrina struck, said Jim Taylor, a spokesperson for Task Force Guardian of the Army Corps of Engineers.

"By the first of June, we will have the damage repaired that was caused by Hurricane Katrina. The date is important because that's when the hurricane season starts," he said.

The typical hurricane season lasts from early June to the end of November.

President Bush asked Congress on December 15 for $1.5 billion -- which is in addition to the $1.6 billon he had previously requested -- to help New Orleans recover and to further fortify the levee system.

Raymond Seed, a civil engineering professor at the University of California in Berkeley and the leader of a National Science Foundation team that is studying the levee system, said the system had soft spots prior to Katrina.

Seed said that the levee system did not prove capable of standing up to a strong Category 3 storm like it was designed to do. "I'm hoping the additional funding [asked for by President Bush] will go after the soft spots," he said.

The final hurricane center report on Katrina, released December 21, said Katrina made landfall over the Gulf Coast as a strong Category 3 storm, with winds of 127 mph, not a Category 4 storm as initially thought.

By the fall of 2007, officials hope to bring the levee system to the standard that was authorized nearly 40 years ago, Taylor said. Work had stalled in some areas due to lack of funding and various other obstacles, he said.

The design, authorized in the late-1960s following Hurricane Betsy, could withstand a fast-moving Category 3 storm, he said.

As for the long-range plans, the Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to study ways to come up with an even higher level of protection, specifically a system that can possibly protect against a Category 5 storm.

The first mile marker is May 2006, when the Corps has to give Congress a report on its initial findings. The final report is due fall of 2007. "It's then up to Congress to make a decision and authorize the funding, or not," Taylor said.

Dan Healy, a New Orleans resident who evacuated the city, has bought a home in Mississippi and does not plan on returning unless the levee system is stronger.

"Who would rebuild [in New Orleans] with a faulty levee system?" he told CNN. "They're predicting bad storms for the next five to 20 years. I mean, who's going to rebuild waiting for this to happen next year or the year after."

"It's like playing Russian roulette. If you don't get it fixed and another storm comes, you're back in the same predicament you're in now."

Perception and rhetoric

Anthony, 50, said he was eager to return to New Orleans East, but was skeptical about the living conditions in his community.

He has returned to New Orleans East several times since the storm to survey the damage and noted the lack of electricity and gas, the scarcity of proper housing, and the debris still littering the streets.

More importantly, Anthony, who is a photographer by trade, said there was hardly anyone there.

"Who am I going to photograph?" he pointedly asked Nagin during the Atlanta meeting, openly questioning the wisdom of the mayor's call for evacuees to return home.

For many homeowners, the simple restoration of services does not mean they can go home. While it may be true that more than 70 percent of the New Orleans metro area has electrical service, for example, vast areas are still in the dark because many homes are not equipped to safely receive electricity.

Many homes were flooded and the water likely damaged electrical sockets and other wiring, said Amy Stallings, a spokesperson for Entergy, one of the main power companies in the New Orleans metro area.

"In order for us to safely restore service to individual homes, or even businesses...a customer must first have a licensed electrician inspect their wiring to ensure that it is safe," she said.

"Then a inspector from the Department of Safety and Permits from New Orleans will certify that electrician's work and then issue a permit to Entergy letting us know it's safe to provide service to that individual location or property."

The process and bureaucracy involved, which has to be carried out with a limited number of crews and personnel, has slowed the process.

Stallings said an estimated 75,000 Entergy customers were safely receiving power as of mid-December. Entergy had nearly 200,000 customers before the storm.

'A high-wire act'

"The mayor is in the middle of a high-wire act," said Matthew Fellowes, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution who is tracking the reconstruction effort.

"On the one hand, the city needs people and business to come back, so that it has the tax revenue to pay for rebuilding basic infrastructure. But, on the other hand, it lacks the resources to sufficiently rebuild the infrastructure so that businesses and people want to return. That is why perceptions about the city are just so important right now."

It is nearly impossible to tell how many have returned to the New Orleans area, but there are some indicators that can possibly provide a glimpse, Fellowes said.

The labor force, for example, was 633,759 in the New Orleans metro area before the storm. In early October, it was 465,801, according to the Brookings Institution's Katrina Index.

Before the storm, there were 57 operational public transportation routes with 124,000 riders. As of November 27, there were 21 operational routes, with 44,287 riders.

Another indicator is the traffic on the Huey P. Long Bridge, the main thoroughfare into New Orleans. Before Katrina, there were about 23,668 cars on the bridge every day. There are now about 43,608, nearly double the normal traffic.

"The surge in traffic moving in and out of the city speaks to the basic infrastructure challenges the city currently faces. The city needs an enormous number of people to rebuild the city, but lacks the basic infrastructure to house all of them," Fellowes said.

In other words, the traffic shows that many are returning to work in the city, either removing debris, inspecting damage, or rebuilding their homes during the day, Fellowes said, but not many yet find the city itself a hospitable place.

Considering the many obstacles that await them, some evacuees may simply choose not to return to Louisiana and to settle elsewhere.

Anthony, who is in Atlanta with his wife, two children, and two grandchildren, said he is considering settling in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

"We have children in school right now. The school system here is much, much better than it is Louisiana," he said. "So, we're not going to uproot the children right now," he said.

"The biggest piece [evacuees are] missing is certainty," U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said.

"If there were a way to describe to them what the next two or three years would look like, having that certainty would go a long way toward leveling off all that emotional distress that, understandably, virtually every evacuee is facing."

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