10 Questions: Life After Katrina

Two years ago this week, the country was battered by its worst natural disaster in modern history: Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 2,000 people were killed, and 800,000 left homeless. The Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover. This week on the CBS Evening News, we'll be looking at how the region is coping.
(Gediyon Kifle)
But today, we kick things off by posing our 10 Questions to a writer who knows the area well: Lolis Eric Elie, metro columnist for the New Orleans' leading newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
1. It's been two years since Katrina hit. What's the mood like in New Orleans now?

We're numb. Those of us who are back are happy to be home, but we're confronted with set backs and uncertainty on a daily basis. Insurance costs are skyrocketing at the same time that insurance companies are finagling their way out of paying for insured losses. Property taxes are going up while the quality and quantity of city services is low.

2. By now it's common knowledge that the federal government handled Katrina abominably. How have they done since?

The federal government's performance has barely improved. The destruction of New Orleans was caused by the failure of the levees that the federal government designed and built. Yet, rather than accept this responsibility and compensate property owners accordingly, the government acts as if it is doing us a favor by paying pennies on the dollar for the damages caused by the negligence and incompetence of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The levees that failed were supposed to protect us from a category 3 storm. There is no commitment from Washington to provide protection from a category 5 storm, and recent climactic conditions indicate that such storms are more likely than ever now.

Louisiana is home to 40% of the nation's coastal wetlands and 80% of the nation's coastal wetland loss. The federal government has still not committed to fully funding efforts to reverse that loss.

While it may seem that after two years, Louisianans in the post-Katrina diaspora should have re-constructed their lives, the truth is that many of them continue to face difficulties finding jobs, finding mental health counseling and finding decent housing. The federal government has added to stress of this difficulty by repeatedly threatening to cut off assistance to those people.

3. How about local and state governments?

The state government created the Road Home program to compensate homeowners and to help them repair their houses and return home. The process has been slow, frustrating and inadequate. The maximum amount of money a homeowner can receive from the program is $150,000, regardless of the value of your house or the extent of your losses.

The city of New Orleans contends that the state and the feds have been slow to release the money that has already been appropriated for rebuilding. Whatever the reason, the rebuilding has been slow. Most of the public buildings that were badly damaged—schools, theaters, gymnasiums—have not been repaired. The good news is that people are returning to the city in greater numbers and with greater rapidity than was predicted. The bad news is that city services have not kept up.

4. The outrage in the days following the storm, about conditions at the Superdome, about government's failure to act quickly, was palpable throughout the country. Did that outrage have any positive, any lasting effect?

Many citizens were galvanized by that outrage and have come to the city by plane loads, bus loads, and truck loads to help us rebuild.
But it has had little impact in Washington. The federal government has even resisted the creation of a non-partisan commission to study the nature and causes of the failures that led to the tragedy.

5. What still needs to be done in the city?

There are a thousand little problems that we live with, but that require major infrastructure investment to fix. The water pipes are so damaged that we pump twice as much water through them as actually makes it to faucets and taps. Our gas lines have water in them, so many of us have had to pump out the lines to our stoves and hot water heaters multiple times. Other than the Superdome, most of the public arenas and theaters are badly damaged and have yet to be reopened. The streets, though historically bumpy and bad, are far worse than ever before. We have not been able to repair schools fast enough to accommodate the thousands of school aged children who have returned. I could go on...

Differences in race and class, something we don't like to talk about in America, became all too apparent in the days following Katrina. Some people were able to leave, some were not. Neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward were hit the hardest, while neighborhoods on higher ground escaped the worst of it. Briefly, bring us up to date.

Race and class played a big role in determining who did and didn't evacuate. But you must understand that New Orleanians have been dealing with hurricanes for generations. Many of us who stayed did so because we have never left and believed that our preparations and previous experience would be sufficient. Lots of well-to-do people, lots of white people and lots of educated people chose to stay. It is certainly true that a disproportionate number of the those who stayed were poor and black. Those people are still scattered around the country. Ill-equipped for life elsewhere or for a return to New Orleans.

The neighborhoods that suffered the most damage, be they predominantly black or predominantly white, are still in shambles.
There are a lot of pioneers who have rebuilt their homes. But on those blocks, there may be one or two occupied houses and a few FEMA trailers.

But the neighborhoods on high ground have come back to life.

6. You're making a documentary about your own neighborhood, Treme. Tell us how your community is faring.

The Faubourg Treme borders the French Quarter. That part of the neighborhood was not affected at all by flooding. There were some buildings that didn't flood but suffered fatal wind damage.

As you move away from the French Quarter you find that Faubourg Treme did flood, but the flooding was not devastating. Many people have been able to rebuild and return. In addition to its historic architecture, Treme is known for its music and street parades. That tradition is not as strong as it was before the storm. But it is strong and strengthening.

7. You write for the local paper, and this is your hometown. What's it been like covering your city in the last two years?

I keep wondering when I will write three columns in a row and not use the words "Hurricane Katrina." Every reference you make, every statistic you quote, must be put into the context of either pre- or post-Katrina. Otherwise the references are meaningless.

But writing in this place at this time is exhilarating. You really feel that you are telling stories that need be urgently told. You feel that words are among the building blocks of our renaissance.

8. And we can't help but ask, New Orleans have been given the world its greatest jazz. How are the musicians faring, and how is the jazz?

You can still come to New Orleans and club hop on any night of the week, hearing a variety of music at a variety of venues. Several key musicians—the Neville Brothers and Henry Butler prominent among them-have not come home. But while we miss them, we are not lacking for good New Orleans music. Our musicians need the city as much as it needs them. Organizations like the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, Music Cares, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Habitat For Humanity have done great work to support our musicians in their efforts to return home.

9. We know there are many problems there, but what's going well there now?

Though the politicians in Washington, Baton Rouge and City Hall have faltered, New Orleans is home to a civic spirit and citizen detemination that should be the envy of the world. There is a realization that if we don't do it, it won't get done.

Additionally, Alice Waters has joined forces with the Fertel Foundation to create an Edible Schoolyard project at Samuel Green Charter School. Though the New Orleans Recreation Deparment is in shambles, private citizens have started a Saturday tennis camp, free for all New Orleans kids. Several overdue movements for governmental reform have found success in this new environment where the problem with doing things the old way seems clearer than ever. Young people, often fresh out of college, are flocking here, not merely to gut house or work for a weekend. They are coming here to live long term and contribute to the rebuilding.

10. What lessons should the country draw from this experience?

What happened in New Orleans was the largest government-enabled disaster in our nation's history. But, the causes of it are not unique to the city. It was the failure of the federal levees, not the devastation of the hurricane, that was responsible for our near death experience. As we read of bridge collapses and flooding in areas of the country as diverse as California and Ohio, we must ask ourselves whether the various projects constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are in good shape. What happened in New Orleans can happen elsewhere.