Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Big Easy

I'm just back from 4 days in New Orleans for a conference on Gulf Coast recovery. Lots of attendees, which was good, and not a whole lot of recovery, which is not so good. The upshot of what I heard about the Gulf Coast, two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:
  • too little money getting to the people who need it most;
  • too much federal bureaucracy;
  • too few hospitals and schools have reopened;
  • not enough mental health workers to meet the tremendous need
  • small business and rental housing needs are being ignored
  • the advocates and community/nonprofit leaders are all at the point of burnout
  • the recovery is going to take another 10-15 years
Depressed yet? I know I was. But there are some good things going on, and signs of rebuilding everywhere. On Wednesday we visited several firehouses that were flooded when the levees broke (22 of the 33 firehouses in New Orleans were damaged or destroyed). Here's one of the oldest, which remains closed and hasn't really been touched since the firefighters evacuated two years ago.

It was especially sad to see the bulletin board with stories of all the fires and rescues this house had been involved in, now sitting on its side on the floor, covered in dust.

As a visiting New Yorker, it was also touching to see the tribute to September 11th and FDNY, still hanging high up on the wall in the abandoned firehouse.

These are the old stables behind the firehouse, from when horses were used to pull the fire engines.

One remarkable thing I learned about Katrina was that the city of New Orleans didn't own any boats two years ago, and that the rescues carried out by the fire department were done in the firefighters' personal boats or in boats that they commandeered that day. Pretty amazing for a city that sits below sea level, don't you think? To address this, the Leary Firefighter Foundation has purchased 15 boats for the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) so that they'll be prepared for future storm seasons.

Leary also has a program underway in partnership with the NYC Carpenters' Union to renovate the damaged firehouses of New Orleans, since it was going to take FEMA another 10 years (!!!) to do so. Currently, NOFD is operating out of trailers next to the closed firehouses, which has dramatically slowed response time as well as having an impact on firefighter morale. It was great to visit with Engine 38 and hear first-hand how they were affected by the storm and its aftermath.

The neighborhood surrounding the firehouse is a testament to how far the city still has to go -- most of the houses are either still boarded up or just being renovated now. There are debris piles everywhere, and FEMA trailers and blue tarps are still a common site.

The French Quarter, in contrast, was relatively unscathed by the hurricanes and subsequent flooding, since it sits on high ground. It's still a major tourist destination, although lack of affordable housing has made it hard to find workers to staff the hotels, bars, restaurants and shops.

One of the things I've always loved about the Quarter is the fantastic attention to detail -- beautiful wrought ironwork, flowers and hanging plants, angels and fleur de lis carved over doorways. Even the water meter plaques are lovely:

The conference schedule was a bit grueling -- very long days inside windowless rooms. When it was all over, we had Friday afternoon to ourselves to play tourist. First stop, Cafe DuMonde and coffee and beignets!
Next stop, the Cigar Factory, to watch them roll cigars by hand and buy a few gifts.

Then it was off to Pirates Alley and some absinthe at the Pirate's Alley Cafe.
If absinthe isn't for you, try the Toxic Baby...
Or a beer from Jax, the oldest brewery in New Orleans ...
Or perhaps a mint julep...

And if you're hungry, there's always gumbo!

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Gosh, it's quite depressing that so little has been done, two years later. It certainly slipped out of the news in the UK a good while ago, and people probably have no idea the city is still in such a mess.

The French Quarter looks beautiful - it would have been awful if all that beautiful architecture had been destroyed as well.