NEW ORLEANS — I ought to bet the ponies!! Everything I said to watch in New Orleans in 2007 was dead on! Sort of...
Fortunately it was another benign hurricane year for the Gulf Coast. I didn't predict that one, but then, neither did the experts. That could be the single biggest contributor to New Orleans continued recovery during the past year. Let’s take a look at what I predicted and see how we did:
The constant companion for many in New Orleans is only getting worse. Things, even simple things, are more difficult now. Like the grocery store that used to be down the street is still not back, so people have to drive five miles to find another.
Then there are the big things like the grant money. The state is supposed to give out up to $150,000 dollars per household, but the process has been painfully slow and full of red tape.
Frustration has backed off, to use the scientific term “a tad.” The sense of relief is mainly due to a significant increase in the number of people getting funds from the federally subsidized Road Home Program. Close to 90,000 residents got their money this year, averaging just over $64,000 each.
Insurance and lawsuits
Trying to find new insurance, something most of us take for granted, in the Katrina zone is another pain. Many insurance companies in the region are refusing to take on more risk — some are even pulling out. For residents who have returned and do rebuild their homes, some can search months for someone to insure them. And if they find a company to insure them, the cost can be 50 percent higher.
Most folks in New Orleans didn’t have flood insurance. Most homeowners insurance didn’t cover flood damage or paid only a fraction of the money needed to rebuild. Homeowners were outraged. They paid premiums for decades and then when they needed the help they were refused.
It should come as no surprise lawsuits have followed. Landmark decisions could be made in the next year which could reverse the fortunes of many and bring the money needed to come home.
Insurance for most folks is still tough to get and more expensive. On another insurance issue, in September the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court ruled flood water damage from a levee breach is covered under the home owners’ policy—traditionally flood damage is not covered by such policies. The financial benefit for customers is potentially huge; the case is being appealed.
Doubts about the corps
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the flood protection system that failed and for fixing it. Unfortunately rebuilding the physical structure is the simple part, rebuilding people's faith in the Corps of Engineers is the hard part. Many people don’t trust the corps or the government to spend the money and the effort to build a system capable of handling another Katrina or an even worse hurricane. It’s another big reason some aren't coming back.
Corps concerns still exist, and now there are new accusations being made that the Army Corps of Engineers is working faster to beef up flood protection in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods than in poorer African American areas.
Almost a year and a half after the storm hit, the diaspora of New Orleans that relocated “temporarily” elsewhere are now set wherever they are. Kids are in school, new friends and new jobs have been found.
And New Orleans still has problems. Keep an eye on those population numbers. Look at how they rise or fall in 2007. Because of the above mentioned some folks are giving up. Projections are a third of the population that has come back may actually leave again after finding life too difficult.
Population return is still the biggest barometer many watch. And of course, theere are some conflicting numbers. Data from the U.S. Postal Service suggests the city of New Orleans population is back to 70 percent of what it was before the storm. Other estimates find something less than that, reporting about 25,000 people moved back in 2007.
* Murder footnote: Crime seems to rise in relation to population growth. By mid-December the city hit the 200 murder mark. Last year the number was 162.
Martin Savidge is an NBC News correspondent. He reported from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has followed the city's ongoing recovery since. Click here to see his predictions for 2008.