New Orleans in Post-Katrina February--and Looking Forward to June

by Rebecca R. Malek-Wiley, Tulane University

WESS Newsletter
Spring 2006
Vol. 29, no. 2

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The New Orleans Mardi Gras season began in jester-earnest on 11 February with the Krewe de Vieux parade through the French Quarter.  Easing fears that Mardi Gras revelry would inappropriately make it seem that the tragedies and dislocations of Hurricane Katrina had been forgotten or that not enough New Orleans musicians would have returned to form marching bands, this parade included 19 bands as it rolled out its theme of "C'est levee."  It reassured watchers with a sign proclaiming that "FEMA says beads are on the way," and it carried the Europeanist message of "Buy us back, Chirac!"

Downtown hotels and small businesses in the French Quarter and the Warehouse District near the Convention Center are welcoming the arrival of tourists after a long period with only a limited number of visitors.  Flights into the airport are increasing, while cab drivers are busy renewing their licenses.  The Convention Center itself, extensively repaired, recarpeted, and repainted, has returned to its intended purposes as it hosts Mardi Gras balls, exhibits, and meetings.  Although two downtown hospitals are still closed except for interim emergency centers, Tulane Hospital has just re-opened, while two other city hospitals and several suburban hospitals less than a half-hous drive away have been open for some time (a Level I trauma center will open in March). 

The downtown and French Quarter areas where the ALA Annual Conference will take place are along the "sliver by the river" that remained high and dry during and after Katrina.  Most of the well-known hotels, restaurants, and music venues there have re-opened.  Museums generally are either open or plan to re-open by June.  The art galleries and antique shops (at least the less expensive ones) are again active.  Street musicians, artists, and the French Quarter mule carriages are back, as is at least one feature film crew.  The Canal and Riverfront streetcars are rolling again, using the historic green streetcars from the St. Charles line.  Unfortunately, the badly damaged St. Charles line is still shut down; for now, a regular bus follows its route.  The Algiers ferry, which is free to pedestrians, is again providing splendid views of the riverfront along with a lift across the Mississippi to the historic, unflooded neighborhood on Algiers Point.

Other "dry" areas (those not flooded in Katrina) known to tourists who venture beyond downtown include the Faubourg Marigny, Garden District, St. Charles Avenue, Irish Channel, Magazine Street, Audubon Park and Zoo, and the Riverbend or University section.  While the dry neighborhoods do not look dramatic enough to capture national news attention, they have made real strides in recovery, even if there are somewhat fewer trees than before, as well as the occasional blue roof tarp.  Residents have returned in large numbers, and many businesses and schools have re-opened, while more are scheduled to do so soon.  A number of B&Bs are operating, while neighborhood restaurants and coffee houses have typically been packed since they began re-opening in October (as are supermarkets and gas stations).  Locally owned stores -- including small bookshops, which were among the first to open their doors -- and farmers' markets have been bustling, some doing better than before the storm due to fierce local loyalty.  Anything bearing the city's fleur-de-lis emblem sells well.   

In the areas of the city that did flood, the situation is starkly different.  Mile after mile of flooded buildings stretch out, most still uninhabited; brown high-water lines still mark walls and cars; and debris remains piled along and in streets.  Public services are still not provided in the Lower Ninth Ward.  In most of these neighborhoods, nonetheless, residents are determined to rebuild.  In two-story buildings, they often live on the upper floors while redoing lower ones.  FEMA trailers have finally been arriving, although far more are still needed, to enable other homeowners to live on their property while rebuilding their houses.  Intrepid businesses and schools have re-opened here and there.  

While the flooded areas tend to be less familiar to tourists -- except for the New Orleans Museum of Art, which survived in a badly damaged City Park, and the JazzFest site at the Fairgrounds -- they constitute the majority of the city's land area.  The flooding impacted people of all races, ethnicities, and income levels; it is generally harder for the poorer homeowners and for renters to find the means to recover.  One currently pressing problem is the lack of affordable housing for all who want to return to New Orleans.  Urgent work is underway to address this issue.

Some have dubbed New Orleans a "tale of two cities," yet the reality is that residents, including most of us fortunate enough to live in unflooded neighborhoods, are aware that for this city to be whole, every one must push and pull together for the recovery of flooded neighborhoods wherever feasible and the provision of adequate and affordable housing.  Whether despite or because of the daunting challenges still facing residents, a renewed sense of community prevails.  The goal is to bring back the best aspects of New Orleans life and culture that so many people around the world love and so many residents cannot imagine living without, while working to resolve past economic and social problems and provide better opportunities for all. 

In addition to ongoing outside volunteer relief work, local community groups are meeting regularly, providing residents (returned and displaced) with practical and moral support while planning a collective future.  On neighborhood cleanup days, volunteers armed with rakes, garbage bags, and flats of pansies have ranged from Canal Street and the uptown University section to Mid-City and the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Concerned parents, teachers, students, and neighbors have cleaned up certain public schools and have succeeded in getting them re-opened as charter schools, while local institutions have adopted several.  The numerous open Catholic schools, which traditionally accept non-Catholics, have taken in students regardless of their parents' ability to pay tuition.  Area fundraising drives abound, in support of education, housing, and the arts, particularly for music and musicians.

According to some estimates (cf. "Comeback in Progress," Times-Picayune, Jan. 1, 2006; "Recovery by the Numbers," Times-Picayune, Feb. 26, 2006), the population here is rebuilding somewhat faster than expected, even though it is still at less than half of its pre-Katrina level.  Furthermore, the signs are that this population will continue to be economically and racially diverse, contrary to some early media stories.  One expert, Gregory Rigamer, predicts that by the April mayoral election, New Orleans will again be a majority (54%) African-American city. 

Unmarked in census counts, many local eccentrics and assorted characters are back.  New Orleanians in general are not burdened with undue respect for convention or authority.  A widespread method of coping with the past months has been humor, such as a holiday village display complete with miniature electric-blue roof tarps, FEMA trailers, and tossed-out refrigerators.  One recent theater performance included a relentless meter maid who issued traffic tickets for having cars parked in trees.  Several Mardi Gras parades this year feature satirical themes.  It is impossible to imagine locals putting up with a "theme-park" New Orleans.  Rather than losing its unique qualities, the soul of the place may even be distilled and strengthened by the grim experiences that we have survived and by our joint rebuilding efforts.

Even with federal government assistance, it is clear that local resources will be critical to rebuilding the city.  Because its economy is dependent on tourism, preparing to accommodate conventions and festival visitors is a key priority.  Not only do businesses and their employees need visitors, the local and state government revenues generated by hotel and sales taxes are desperately needed to help support the recovery of the city and region overall.  Furthermore, after so many months of anxiety about the future and so much intensely and lopsidedly negative media coverage, simply the sight of tourists enjoying and appreciating the unique flavor of New Orleans culture has boosted morale.

ALA received positive local press coverage here last October when it reconfirmed its commitment to hold the 2006 Annual Conference here.  It was the first group to do so, giving a much-needed vote of confidence in the city, and one of the largest conferences for this year.  Each time that another convention is confirmed, local news stories run -- and almost all of them refer again to ALA.  Tourism officials and workers view Mardi Gras as a dry run, to be followed by JazzFest later in the spring, then the summer conventions.  New Orleans plans to be ready for conferences by June, and New Orleanians need good attendance at ALA.  We will particularly appreciate and respect the fact that many ALA attendees plan to go beyond spending money in hotels, restaurants, and shops (excellent as all of that activity will be) and to throw themselves into helping with the recovery effort.  I expect that the welcome here will be even warmer than usual.

Editor: Paul Vermouth

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