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Hard road back for New Orleans

Parts of New Orleans are bustling again, but the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery is spotty and many challenges remain.
Antonio Omar, member of the Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, removes debris from the church on Saturday.Nam Y Huh / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The arched spine of high ground along the Mississippi River here pulses again three months after Hurricane Katrina -- the $19 appetizer has returned to the French Quarter restaurant scene, guys in suits ride office-tower elevators, hipsters linger over chicory coffee on Magazine Street, and jazzy eighth notes pop and sizzle in the Faubourg Marigny.

But New Orleans's beguiling bustle can be deceptive.

Nighttime tells the truth. Nighttime tells that the city is not whole. Then, the great expanse of the city's center and much of its lanky eastern edge lie dark and silent and creepy. Block after block of homes, mile after mile, rot in pitch-blackness. Streets in the Treme neighborhood, home to so many musicians, echo in their emptiness, and fancy pads out by Lake Pontchartrain are hollow. Mid-City's little camelbacks and side-hall shotguns, archetypes of New Orleans architecture, sit vacant, their doors smashed open by men in protective masks -- the houses' innards hacked apart and stacked on the sidewalk.

This city of feathery Mardi Gras masks and chilling vampire yarns grapples with its new realities: More than 100,000 homes and businesses remain uninhabitable. More than three out of four residents live elsewhere. More than 5 million tons of storm debris is still on the ground. The power company is bankrupt. Workers are in short supply. Its pro football team is playing in Baton Rouge, its pro basketball team playing in Oklahoma City, its thoroughbreds racing in Bossier City, La. Its first -- and so far only -- public school reopened Monday. The police force is in disarray. Scientists are recording alarming mold levels. Suburban suicide rates are spiking. Local doctors are operating out of tents. The Catholic Archdiocese is $40 million in the red. The mayoral election scheduled for February is in doubt because of logistical problems.

The concern for many here is simple, which makes it even more terrifying: Will New Orleans ever be itself again? Its storied but impoverished Lower Ninth Ward may never be rebuilt. Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said the city will probably shrink to half of its pre-Katrina population of about half a million. It will be far more difficult for a city that size to support the same amenities -- including professional sports franchises and cultural attractions -- as before, let alone supply the jobs it once did.

What's more, there is a creeping fear here that the nation has moved on. Nagin fretted about "Katrina fatigue" after a recent visit to Capitol Hill. The Times-Picayune worried in a front-page editorial that Washington power brokers now consider the city a burden: "They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble."

Stalled aid
Financial aid from Washington, once expected to reach $200 billion, has stalled out at about $70 billion. President Bush's proposal to offer breaks to businesses investing in the Gulf Coast region, broadcast on national television from here, has passed the Senate. But a similar House bill failed to come up for an expected vote this month, in part because some Republicans are demanding that Gulf Coast casinos be exempt from the tax benefits. And bipartisan Senate efforts to temporarily expand Medicaid eligibility for Katrina evacuees have been stymied by vociferous White House opposition.

"There is a perception the rest of the country is uninterested," said New Orleans psychiatrist Candace Cutrone. "People are angry, disillusioned, indignant, insulted."

New Orleans meanders across more than 11 miles of low-dipping land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, and none of it has completely returned to pre-hurricane normalcy. Far from the tourist havens, on the scruffy streets of the neighborhood known as New Orleans East, Bobby Rideau's post-Katrina reality takes shape around a camping stove. Like nearly half the city, Rideau's street has no residential gas service and no power. For this 66-year-old retired liquor store clerk, that means winter approaches with no lights, no heat and no stove, unless he gets creative.

Rideau, whose car was destroyed by Katrina, hitches rides now to a hardware store that sells the propane tanks he needs to fire up his amateur-rigged heater and camping stove. "You gotta learn to improvise," he said. "This propane is worth its weight in gold on a cold night."

The highway that leads out of Rideau's New Orleans East neighborhood, and up over the Industrial Canal, flows above a graveyard of waterlogged cars stashed beneath overpasses. Each displays thick, ugly lines of brown that illustrate how high the floodwaters rose. More than 350,000 vehicles were ruined by the storm, and most remain.

Farther west, Hezzie McCaleb -- transformed by the storm into a refuse vulture in a red pickup truck -- on any given day can be found picking through the piles of debris with a discerning eye. His city has become a scavenger's refuge, a smorgasbord of junk for the desperate or the foolish or the tinkerers -- all of whom have no trouble beating cleanup crews to the street-side booty.

"With God's help, we'll get our lives back," McCaleb, a 53-year-old with saggy eyelids, declared to his friend Berkeley Wong as they struggled with another load.

This time, McCaleb said, God provided him with an Amana side-by-side refrigerator, one of more than a million appliances ruined by Katrina. Countless refrigerators, enveloped in eye-searing stench, still line the streets. Almost all of them, it seems, carry messages of frustration: "Do not open. Michael Brown and Pres. Bush inside. . . . Send to White House, Pennsylvania Avenue."

"Now Hiring" signs on nearly every street corner tell how severe the worker crisis has become. Burger King offers $6,000 bonuses -- paid in installments over one year -- to new workers. Busloads of Latino workers, some of them illegal immigrants, flow into the city for the wretched task of gutting houses.

Not enough workers
And still employers cannot find enough workers, even in the upscale parts of town. William H. Hines, managing partner of Jones Walker -- one of the city's biggest law firms -- waits three weeks to get his suits dry cleaned. JoAnn Clevenger, who owns the Upperline cafe, serves up her signature Tom Cowman's roast duck and fried green tomatoes, with only eight employees. Before the storm, she operated with 28. Irene's, a cozy locals' haunt in the French Quarter, fills the holes in its service staff with former employees, including a lanky cross-dresser who owned a St. Bernard Parish gun shop that flooded him out of the shotgun business and back into the restaurant business.

The fast-food joints and the back-of-the-house restaurant managers might have a larger pool of low-wage workers if the schools were up and going. But only one public school -- in a system that once had 55,000 students -- has opened. The education landscape is ceded to a few private schools and to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which has at least 14 schools operating with 5,000 students -- including 300 former public school students attending free -- compared with 13,000 before Katrina.

Deeper into the city's center, Karen Porche spends her days trying to make sense of the carnage in the Fontainebleau neighborhood, where she and her husband live and own rental properties. Porche, an ob-gyn nurse, showers outside now because her handy husband connected a hot-water line in their back yard to compensate for a bathroom that doesn't work anymore.

"We are survivors," Porche said, adjusting her Louisiana State University wool hat under a magnolia tree seared brown because of the salt in the floodwater. Her SUV says "I love New Orleans." Other cars show off a now-ubiquitous bumper sticker: "New Orleans, proud to crawl home" -- instead of the old favorite, "New Orleans, proud to call it home."

Porche grew up in Mississippi, but her husband is a born-and-bred, won't-ever-leave New Orleanian. He's stubborn, but she has put him on notice: "If it floods again," she said, "I'm ready to call it quits."

North of her, Thania "Aunt Mae" Elliott dips her precious wedding china in bleach, hoping to salvage something from her abominable Lakeview home, where the 100-year-old oak toppled out back and the water rose to the roofline. Elliott and her husband, Bill, are weekenders now, joining a procession of tens of thousands that plods in miserable traffic jams every Saturday morning leading into the city from points west and north.

It took the Federal Emergency Management Agency a month to send an inspector to their house, and their insurance adjuster didn't show up until more than 2 1/2 months after the storm.

‘Laugh, cry, have a drink’
"It is so depressing," Thania Elliott said. "I don't think it will ever be the same." Her life has taken on a rhythm: "Laugh, cry, have a drink."

The Elliotts' little brick house is only blocks away from the 17th Street Canal, where a temporary barrier with no flood wall marks the scar left by a 500-foot levee breach. Louisiana's attorney general, the New Orleans district attorney and the U.S. attorney here are all conducting investigations to determine whether criminal charges can be filed related to the levee breaks, which researchers here have blamed on shoddy construction and poor engineering.

And then there are the lawyers, dozens of them, their signs touting class-action lawsuits over levee breaks.

"This is going to be one of the biggest lawsuits in history," said Daniel E. Becnel Jr., a suburban New Orleans lawyer involved in other major national cases.

Strengthening the levees that proved so fallible in Katrina has become the singular obsession of the city's business leaders and the national experts they have brought in to help to plan a rebuilding effort that will probably take 15 years or more to complete.

Brenda Ohrabka, a hairdresser, is thinking of selling her house. "Why won't they build the levees to Category 5?" she said while waiting to see a doctor in the cavernous city convention center that has been taken over by Charity Hospital. "People who lived here don't want to rebuild because of that. . . . Half the people in my neighborhoods have trailers in front of their houses. It looks like a trailer park."

Perhaps the best advice for Ohrabka and others came from Irvin Mayfield, a 26-year-old jazz prodigy who unveiled a post-hurricane composition during an emotional performance before a crowd that spilled out onto the steps of Christ Church Cathedral. "People in the city," one of Mayfield's compositions declared, "better get to higher ground."

Which is exactly what James Green did, fleeing to Mississippi for 2 1/2 months after Katrina before returning to his wrecked corner of New Orleans straddling the Gentilly and Fairgrounds neighborhoods. Green's house is ruined, but "that's God's will," he said while unloading sacks of lye that he plans to spread "in case anything's hanging around."

"That's why I'm coming home," Green said. "You can't run from God."

Snapshots of disaster
Green, like almost everyone here, carries a packet of snapshots, chronicling his personal disaster -- the mold in his computer room, the ring of floodwater halfway up his door. Collectively, these photo albums illustrate a city trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

But the Greens will sleep in New Orleans tonight, joining other relatives at their son's old Craftsman-style home. They cannot imagine being anywhere but New Orleans, despite the hardships. They are not alone.

Down in the Faubourg Marigny, Ellis Marsalis -- patriarch of America's first family of jazz, father of Branford and Wynton and Jason and Delfeayo -- is back behind the piano for his regular Friday-night gig at Snug Harbor. Fred Kasten, the cool voice of jazz on radio station WWOZ, introduced Marsalis one night recently -- two days before his 71st birthday -- declaring this "is the best place on the planet." It was a curious thing to say, here amid the shards of a battered city struggling to right itself.

But then the old man placed his big hands on the ivories, and the liquid notes came pouring forth, and for a few precious moments, no one in that cramped space could disagree.

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.