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Big questions remain for the Big Easy

Six months after Katrina, New Orleans is a study in contrasts

By Manav Tanneeru
Carl Witherspoon, who lost his home to Katrina, tries to attract Mardi Gras revelers.


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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Civil and Public Services

(CNN) -- New Orleans, six months after Hurricane Katrina first came ashore, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands in its wake, is a study in contrasts.

Some neighborhoods are inching back toward normalcy and have recovered enough to celebrate Mardi Gras, albeit a shortened and compressed version.

"Here in St. Charles, you can't believe what it was like six months ago, in the sense that to imagine when you're looking at debris, wires down, big oak trees upturned, that this many months later, you'd be able to have this sort of party going on," historian Douglas Brinkley told CNN at the height of the festival.

But in other areas of the city, abandoned homes line block after block, electricity and essential services are scarce, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in effect.

"The French Quarter and Uptown, you see life basically as it was before the storm," said Matt Fellowes, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "It's eerie, because life really is normal in those neighborhoods and then you cross over the Industrial Canal and enter the lower Ninth Ward or eastern New Orleans, and it looks like a bomb just went off yesterday."

Fellowes visited New Orleans and surrounding areas in mid-February to assess rebuilding efforts

"We're six months now after the storm and there are still large swaths of the city that look like they did a month after the storm," he said. "It's just inexcusable."

A lack of cohesion among government agencies, difficulties in communicating with displaced residents scattered across the country, and questions over funding and planning have contributed to the lack of progress, according to experts and observers.

Returning Home

In a Catch 22, officials say rebuilding efforts are dependent on the number of people that return, but the return of evacuees is dependent on decent living conditions.

Katrina killed at least 1,300 people across the Gulf Coast -- at least 1,086 in Louisiana -- and displaced thousands, many of whom are still away from their homes.

Before the storm the New Orleans metro area had more than 1.3 million residents. As of January nearly 900,000 people were living in the metro area, according to the Katrina Index, a survey of indictors published monthly by the Brookings Institution.

Orleans Parish, which includes the city of New Orleans, has been the hardest hit. As of January just 156,000 of the more than 450,000 residents had returned.

Fellowes said misinformation and the inability to communicate with hundreds of thousands of displaced households is limiting the return of evacuees.

"There needs to be some formal effort to communicate with them so that they have enough information about whether they should return or not," he said.

Mark Madary, a councilman representing St. Bernard Parish, said evacuees are confused about what options they have about returning or making a new start elsewhere.

One of those options -- FEMA-subsidized hotel rooms -- will expire on March 1 in most states. The deadline was extended to March 15 in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Evacuees will have to move to long-term housing, for which FEMA is providing assistance. Travel trailers or mobile homes brought by FEMA are another option. But not many evacuees are taking advantage.

The federal government is spending more than $3 billion for 135,000 manufactured homes and travel trailers, but only 77,764 are occupied.

"It's very hard to get access to those trailers, and very few people want to hook them up in their driveway and live next to the shell of their house," Fellowes said.

Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said local ordinances and resistance from local officials are also preventing the travel trailers from being placed in the devastated parishes.

"There are about 10,000 huge mobile homes sitting at the airport down at my hometown of Hope, and it's just bizarre," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The lack of a definitive plan for how and which neighborhoods will be rebuilt is also hampering residents' return. "The confusion comes from every level of government," Madary said.

Fellowes said a historical distrust between state and local officials contributed to a breakdown in communication and the lack of cohesion.

"So you saw a separate planning process beginning at the city level, and there was a planning effort at the state level and there was a planning effort at the federal level," he said.

All plans are in limbo until the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA issue revised floodplain zones, which affect where rebuilding can take place. The revisions are expected sometime this spring, officials said.

"Everyone I've talked to in the banking and insurance community says that will be a signal that the market can act upon," Fellowes said.

Rebuilding the levees

One issue affecting all residents - evacuees and those who have remained - is the levee system. The levees failed to withstand a Category 3 storm, which they were supposed to do.

"It became very apparent to me after visiting with the administration, visiting with the president, that there would be no rebuilding of New Orleans unless people felt safe," said Donald Powell, who is leading the federal recovery effort, at a recent conference examining the rebuilding. "That is the number one issue."

The levee reconstruction will take place in three phases. The first is to get the levees back to pre-Katrina levels by June 1, the start of the 2006 hurricane season.

"There's no reason right now for us to think it's not going according to schedule," said Lt. Col. David Berczek, the deputy commander of Task Force Guardian of the Army Corps of Engineers. He said the reconstruction was 44 percent complete.

Bob Bea, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California at Berkley, is skeptical of how much protection the levees will provide once they are restored to pre-Katrina levels.

Bea, a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the levee system, said the materials being used in the refortification are the same that made up the levees that failed. He added that the levees were neither being made tall enough nor was enough armoring being used.

By the fall of 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers hopes to make the levee system stronger than it was before Katrina. The Corps also has been asked to study ways to fortify the levees to protect against a Category 4 or a Category 5 storm.

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