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After Katrina, what's recovery?

The hurricane hit New Orleans two years ago Wednesday. Now the analysis really flies.

Published August 25, 2007


NEW ORLEANS - It is hurricane anniversary season in New Orleans, and the beleaguered city is threatened with a new inundation: a tidal wave of reports, assessments, stock-takings, prognostications and tongue-lashings.

On Wednesday, Aug. 29, New Orleans will have endured exactly two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, and the moment will be marked by ceremonies solemn and silly, in keeping with the city's twin masks. In the meantime, nothing in the city's halting march back is too small, or too large, to be examined in earnest prose and PowerPoint presentations raining down from Washington and points north, sometimes accompanied by overnight politicians or think-tankers vowing to bravely fight on.

The condition of the swamps, the progress of the poor, arsenic in the schoolyards, awful conditions at the jail, great conditions at the hotels, the generosity of corporate donors, the parsimony (or beneficence) of the government, the wisdom of the bond-rating agencies, the in-migration of the young, the out-migration of the old, the hopeful (or hopeless) schools: All of it is grist for the report-making, assessment-mongering frenzy in a slow August news season.

The bewildering range of outlooks adds up to a giant question mark, a collective split personality. Is the city recovering, standing still or sinking back?

What the reports seem to suggest, taken together, is that there is no useful yardstick, and no clear indicator of whether the arrow points down or up. Signs of progress and hope in latter-day New Orleans are always accompanied by their opposites.

An anniversary-assessment briefing Friday by the state agency that has helped organize the halting reconstruction, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, was typical of this Jekyll-and-Hyde picture. Grim and hopeful news, reams of figures promising and discouraging, were dispensed in equal and bewildering bursts.

In New Orleans, $3.39-billion in federal rebuilding money has been spent, and in Louisiana as a whole, $6.7-billion. But the state suffered some $100-billion in private property and infrastructure damage as a result of the hurricane, and remains $34-billion short in financing - the difference between the loss and the $66-billion federal and insurance company payout.

Downtown blocks are moribund while Magazine Street, in the Uptown section, is humming. The Lower Ninth Ward remains a wasteland, and the Gentilly neighborhood is reawakening. Crime is up, but so is tourism. The medical district in central New Orleans remains empty today, but in an announcement this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs appeared committed to re-establishing a hospital there.

"People say, 'Why has it been so slow?' " the Recovery Authority chairman, Norman C. Francis, said at Friday's briefing. "My answer is, 'Compared to what?' "

Fast Facts:


Bush plans visit

President Bush will return to the Gulf Coast next week, where hard times and resentment linger two years after Hurricane Katrina's strike. Bush will fly into New Orleans on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the anniversary of the storm, he is expected to examine recovery efforts in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It will be his 15th stop in the region since the hurricane, but only his second since he visited during the one-year anniversary last August.

[Last modified August 24, 2007, 23:00:20]

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