Reflection and remembrance 8 years later
Eight years after Hurricane Katrina forever changed metro New Orleans, progress and pain still intersect.
On Thursday, the anniversary of the deadly storm and flood served as a moment to pause and take stock: of impressive progress, in some parts of town, and a lack thereof in others.
In the Lower 9th Ward, where a breached floodwall on Jourdan Avenue unleashed a torrent of water that obliterated many homes and swamped others, the slow pace of recovery has been maddeningly slow for those who called the area home.
“With all the billions of dollars, it should not look like this,” said Rene Paige, a former resident of the Lower 9th who now lives in Gentilly. “This is criminal.”
In all, FEMA has dedicated at least $10.3 billion to the seven-parish metro area for everything from infrastructure repairs to individual homeowner rebuilding grants, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
The agency has paid out $6.9 billion so far; $3.4 billion has yet to be spent.
Paige was one of about two dozen people who clustered along the rebuilt floodwall Thursday to honor those who lost their lives during and after the hurricane by shouting out their names.
Empty, unkempt lots with weeds that have grown wild, for years in some instances, bookend the small number of homes that have been rehabbed or built from scratch. The area still lacks basic necessities, such as a grocery store — something it also lacked before the storm.
Some of those in the neighborhood blame the lack of progress on the fact that virtually all of the area’s residents were African-American. They also noted that city leaders publicly flirted with the idea of not rebuilding there following the August 2005 storm.
“They wanted to write off this area as green space,” Paige said. “This was once a thriving community. It could be again.”
Malcolm Suber, a community activist, said many Lower 9th Ward residents have lost faith in government at all levels and have come to rely on themselves
“We’ve got to band together,” he said shortly before a slow procession made its way through the desolate blocks. “We need to stay together.”
A similar spirit of unity is what got neighboring St. Bernard Parish back on its feet after Katrina, said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the parish’s public school system.
Speaking Thursday morning to a crowd of about 500, including citizens and elected officials on the local and state level, she said that “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” led to St. Bernard’s measurable progress.
The parish had 67,229 residents in 2000, according to census data.
As of July 2012, 41,635 people lived in the parish, 61 percent of the pre-Katrina population — but arguably a high number in a parish that was almost completely subsumed in the flood.
Businesses have returned and the problem of a landscape made up of a patchwork of grass lots and rehabbed homes has largely been controlled, in contrast to parts of New Orleans.
The school system is a particular point of pride for many St. Bernard residents.
Many returned when they heard that classes were going to be in session by Thanksgiving, thanks to Voitier’s decision to ignore the bureaucratic process to reopen schools that could have dragged on for months, if not years. By the start of 2006, more than 3,000 students were enrolled in St. Bernard schools.
Today, the school system boasts some of the best test scores in the state; not a single teacher was deemed ineffective by the state last year. It has 11 new buildings, and construction on other school facilities continue.
There also have been ribbon cuttings on new firehouses, law-enforcement offices and government buildings in recent months.
“St. Bernard as a community has made a tremendous comeback,” Voitier said. “We are doing what it takes to be strong.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu marked the eighth anniversary of Katrina on Thursday at the edge of Cypress Grove Cemetery on Canal Street, which holds nearly 100 unclaimed victims of the storm, buried there by the city.
“We lost everything we had. It was wiped away from us, and we had a choice to make,” Landrieu said. “We could fall down, we could quit, we could stop, or we could stand fast, stick our pole in the ground and declare that what we had was so special that it would be a sin not to build it back better than it ever was.
“There is no denying that today the city of New Orleans and its people are stronger, we are better, we are more strongly protected and we have a stronger foundation going forward,” Landrieu said.
Then, slipping into the poetry of Robert Frost, he continued, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we have promises to keep and we have miles to go before we sleep.”