An emptiness in New Orleans


Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 3:14 p.m.
Ithought I saw a ghost. In a city known for voodoo, haunted inns and ghost tours, anything was possible.
When the apparition caught my eye in the Lower 9th Ward, I was more curious than afraid, so we pursued it in the van.
It has been 17 months since Katrina and broken levees devastated the Crescent City.
A helpless nation watched images of the unfamiliar: Third World America with a president up a creek without a paddle.
Fleeing residents were first identified by media and government as refugees, not survivors.
The governor was frantic, a chicken with her head cut off. The off-color mayor described the city as like ''fricking Baghdad.''
Now Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin expect an economic miracle, a J-curve rebound. Yet, the latest census figures indicate that 241,201 people left the state. Homes and neighborhoods aren't fit to live in.
They call the state's $7.5 billion hurricane aid program the ''Road Home.''
But the road home to New Orleans has potholes. Home insurers no longer are bound to Emergency Rule 23, enacted to prohibit post-Katrina cancellations.
Relief money has been misspent or wasted. Federal, state and parish officials are caught up in turf battles.
The mostly poorer sections, like the Lower 9th, are ghost towns.
True, French Quarter hotels and bars are busy. So are the casinos. Tourists still stroll Bourbon Street drinking Hand Grenades. Street performers are back. So is the Acme oyster house.
But all isn't well here.
Whole neighborhoods are gone. Not far from Armstrong Park you can find the remains of the day.
The silence is deafening. For blocks there are no people. Steps lead to nowhere, not porches. The random repopulated home becomes an oasis in a desert of despair.
In December, a survey by urban planners and students from three universities reported that 80 percent of 9th Ward properties ''suffered no terminal structural damage.'' But only 20 percent of 14,000 residents are back. The Lower 9th suffered most damage with 1,300 buildings destroyed.
To rebuild will take years of elbow grease and commitment, not just money.
Small businesses are boarded. Moldy homes are marked outside with hieroglyphics that tell of a lost civilization.
Houses no longer obstruct the horizon. They've slipped into yards. Concrete cinders that once supported homes, line up like tombstones in a mock cemetery. These neighborhoods had churches. All empty. And schools. All closed.
I found the ghost outside a vacated home in the 2000 block of Egania.
Dressed in a white hazardous suit, Laura McMillan reached for water as she tugged at the hot mask protecting her from mold. She came from Connecticut and was among 20 volunteers from Common Ground Relief and the American Jewish Committee.
''The last time I was here, they didn't have any utilities,'' she said. Pointing to the street lights, she said, ''Those weren't here before.''
AJC volunteer Brian Markson of Louisville doesn't share her optimism. ''I'm of the opinion that in two years this neighborhood will be bulldozed,'' he said. ''I mean, who would want to come back here?''
Once inside, I ask how high the water rose. Evan Simko-Bednarski, a volunteer from Bayonne, N.J., points to the ceiling. ''Past there,'' he said. ''This is my fourth trip here, and it's pretty much the same.''
Casey Noel, a New Yorker, credits film director Spike Lee for his joining an AJC crew in New Orleans. Lee's HBO series on the levees prepared him, but he was still shocked by what he saw.
''The thing people need to remember is that this wasn't just a house,'' he said. ''This was a community. But there is no one around here except us. Maybe before Katrina, kids rode their bikes up and down this street. ... Not anymore. Not anymore.''
It takes a village to raise a child. Who will raise the village when the villagers are gone?
Rhonda Chriss Lokeman is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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