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When Government Failed New Orleans. Again.

Note: This is part of a week-long series about New Orleans, five years after Katrina, based in part on my trip there last week.

You probably know the story of how, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, government failed New Orleans. Stranded residents were huddling on rooftops, desperate for rescue, or inside the Superdome, desperate for supplies. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s disaster relief officials dithered--at first because they weren’t aware of how bad the devastation was and then because they weren’t sure of how to react. State and local officials looked good only by comparison.

What you may not know, at least in any detail, is the story of how government kept failing New Orleans even after the city dried out. When President Bush visited a few days after the storm, he promised to “do what it takes” to make the city whole. State and local officials offered the same vow. But, as best as I can tell, none of them came through. And if the failures during the rebuilding phase weren’t as dramatic as the ones during the rescue phase, they may have had a more long-lasting impact on what the city looks like today.

Within a few months after Katrina, the population of New Orleans had shrunk to about a third of what it had been before the storm, largely because the other two-thirds had no place to live. Their homes required serious repair--if, indeed, they still existed at all. But it was not until early 2006 that officials reached a consensus on how to help those homeowners and not until the fall that officials managed to get the program underway.

On paper, the idea seemed simple: The “Road Home” program, as it was called, would pay homeowners to repair or rebuild their homes, based on its value before the storm and less any monies collected from insurance. (Homeowners who wanted to leave New Orleans rather than rebuild could also collect, though they were not entitled to the full value of the house.) The federal government would fund the program, while the state would administer it.

But the program had two key flaws. It made very little money available for restoring rental properties, even though the majority of residents were renters. And it dispersed the money very, very slowly. The process of applying and then getting approved could take months if not years, because of the various assessments and inspections state officials were requiring.

By March, 2007, a year-and-a-half after the storm, more than 110,000 homeowners had put in applications for Road Home grants. Less than 3,000 had received them.

The slow flow of money didn’t stop the city from rebuilding. But it had a profound effect on when--and where--that rebuilding took place. The flood waters had hit New Orleans in a counter-clockwise pattern, starting with the poorer communities in the city’s southeast, like the Lower Ninth Ward, and finishing with the more upscale neighborhoods of the north and northwest, such as Lakeview. But redevelopment went in precisely the opposite direction, from the upriver, upscale neighborhoods in the northwest to the downriver, downscale neighborhoods in the southeast. (It probably goes without saying, but the most affluent neighborhoods were also the whitest.)

It’s no great mystery why this happened. More affluent homeowners didn’t have to wait for their Road Home money to start rebuilding. They had savings and good insurance. They’d get their trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), park them on the lawn, and get right to work. And as they returned, their communities reached a critical mass, eventually luring stores and commercial services, too.

Poorer residents, most of them African-American, had no such ability to rebuild on their own. To the extent they had savings, it was in the homes that the floods had washed away. Many didn’t have insurance. They just had to wait for the Road Home money to come through. The longer they waited, the more likely they were to establish themselves in other communities--and never come back. Their neighborhoods languished--and, for the most part, still languish today.

You can see all of this visually if you drive around the city. Lakeview still has its damaged and abandoned properties, but they are relatively few and far between. Gentilly, in the North, is still a community in transition, with newly constructed homes abutting structures that need total rebuilding, if not demolition. But it feels like a neighborhood: Most of the standing houses seem to be occupied; the commercial streets have stores that are open for businesses.

What you don’t see are the vast tracts of unoccupied land, with overgrown weeds, that you see in the lowest income neighborhoods. No wonder Vera McFadden, from the Lower Ninth, feels her community was forgotten. In a very literal sense it was.

If you're a liberal, like me, you're probably inclined to think of these failures as one more indictment of the Bush Administration. If you're more conservative, you may consider it one more reason to doubt the efficacy of government action. I actually think both arguments have merit, although it's a complicated issue--one I'll examine in more detail later on.

In the meantime, I should mention one silver lining to this story. Despite the weak government response, or perhaps because of it, communities took it upon themselves to take action. In my conversations last week, people told me a new, more vibrant civic culture had emerged after the storm--and that it was turning out to be one of the city's best assets.

That's another subject I'll discuss in more detail soon.

Update: I added some details about Road Home and revised the prose in a few places.