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The Long, Slow Road to Recovery

Mardi Gras festivities show a city on the rebound, yet even amidst the celebration, there were symbols of the region's frustration.

The region around New Orleans has been slow in recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the area in August and September of 2005 and led to nearly 1,900 deaths and $91 billion in damages. But official data from the Mardi Gras festivities shows a city on the rebound. “Last year’s festivities were scaled down–fewer parades and only about 13,000 hotel rooms available. This year, there are 30,000 hotel rooms ready, and most of them were filled for the big weekend leading into Mardi Gras. Merchants, hotel operators, and others felt the crowd would exceed the 700,000 who visited the city during the same time period last year.” But even amidst the celebration, there were symbols of the region’s frustration. Some celebrants wore politically-themed costumes to demonstrate their emotions. Louisiana resident Jeff Friedland, for example, donned a low-budget costume of a house painter’s jumpsuit wrapped in red tape with a sign on his sleeve that read: “Abysmal. Uncaring. Bordering on immoral.” He said in an interview, “No leadership from government. That’s my biggest complaint.”

  • New Orleans takes another step toward recovery with this year’s successful Mardi Gras celebration. One Gulf resident said, “Last year, we showed the country that we were alive and well. This year we are showing the world that we are ready to return to being the greatest host city in all of America.” A massive wave of volunteers–half a million, by one estimate–have arrived in the Gulf Coast region over the past 18 months to help residents put their lives back together. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity, ACORN, and the AFL-CIO are building new homes. The city “has 90 percent of the restaurants it had before Hurricane Katrina,” and thousands of new hotel rooms, “including ones at a new Harrah’s and a reopened Ritz-Carlton. A new Hilton hotel is set to open soon, and the renovated downtown Hyatt could be back in business” in time for the NBA All-Star game next year.

  • While rebuilding continues, obstacles to progress still remain. A year and a half after the storm, residents are still fighting legal battles with insurers to recover funds for their damages. Only about 200,000 people from the pre-storm population of 480,000 have returned as most homeowners are still awaiting government aid to rebuild their homes. At the same time, residents have had to deal with a surge in violent crime. Since the storm, “Jefferson Parish has…logged an all-time record of 66 homicides in 2006.” And for the poorest families, a new study shows that they “still suffer from a significant loss of income, a higher-than-normal rate of chronic diseases like hypertension, and an exponential rise in mental health problems among children.” To address the many problems the region is coping with, more funds and resources will be needed. Yesterday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded with visiting tourists to spend money. “We need the tax revenue bad,” he said.

  • While New Orleans and the gulf coast struggle to rebuild, some have forgotten them. While Gulf Coast residents are frustrated with the red tape and upset over the inattention they have received, some conservatives are only making matters worse. CNN’s right-wing pundit Glenn Beck said, “I don’t want to kick a city when it’s down, but…I find it very difficult in some ways to feel bad for New Orleans.” Last month in his State of the Union address, President Bush failed to mention Katrina once, despite pledging one year earlier to “stay at it until they’re back on their feet.” The responsibility is not the Bush administration alone, but is shared by local and state officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency “has paid Louisiana roughly $5.1 billion to reimburse local officials for infrastructure projects following Katrina, but only about $2 billion of that money has reached communities 16 months after the storm” due to cumbersome federal audit procedures. As of Jan. 18, FEMA “had agreed to pay for $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but Louisiana state officials had forwarded only $145 million to the city.” Joe Aguda, a Katrina victim who now lives in a FEMA trailer, offered his simple reaction: “We’ve been forgotten,” he said.