There's no way I can reflect on the future of New Orleans without starting with the lives of the displaced. Not all of those lives shared the same fate or destiny, but what has happened in the city while they've been away is, I believe, a telling story of how federal policymakers feel about the poor and vulnerable.
Five years after the flood, recovery remains complicated. Watching Luisa Dantas' documentary Land of Opportunity, about the lives of people affected by Katrina, I was charmed by the character Tr'Vel Lyons, a teenager who lost his home in the floods and ended up in Los Angeles. Forced to finish his education there, he seemed to have assimilated well into the vast, carbonated metropolis and a much larger school. Propelled by his own confidence and strong initiative, Tr'Vel excelled academically and athletically.
At one point, he wonders aloud whether Katrina was a good thing. It's one of those statements that make everyone back in New Orleans wince, no matter who says it. But it makes a difference who says it. When policymakers armed with scalpels and demolition balls say the same thing — and they have — it reeks of the political and financial benefit they stand to gain by convincing us that is true.
Yet Tr'Vel, who graduated with honors and will now attend college on scholarship, said in the movie that he doesn't believe the same opportunities would have been available to him had he stayed in New Orleans. Does Tr'Vel's story prove the policymakers right?
Before answering that, keep in mind that not every displaced New Orleanian has lived Tr'Vel's triumphant story. More than 100,000 people who were displaced by the floods have not come back. Many of them would like to return but can't because they don't have a home or a school for their children. Less than half of the schools before Katrina are open today, and four housing projects — more than 5,000 living units — were razed. Add the closing of Charity Hospital, which served the poor and uninsured unconditionally, and many have even less of a reason to return — though they have the right to.
Holding the Feds Accountable
We have long debated whether the projects should have been shuttered, whether the city's school system should have been experimented with or even whether Charity should have been closed. Voices both reasonable and otherwise have sounded off on these major issues over the last five years. But the fact is, those homes are gone, the charter school system will expand and Charity Hospital is unlikely to reopen.
The Stafford Act, weak as the paper it's inscribed on, leaves up to the president whether to involve the federal government in disaster recovery. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been big on slogans and promises to build New Orleans "better" than before, but neither has delivered enough to improve the lives of the displaced, particularly when it comes to housing.
Homelessness in New Orleans has doubled. UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that tracks and provides services for the homeless, recently found 154 people living in abandoned buildings. Given that New Orleans has more than 55,000 vacant homes, by one estimate more than 3,000 people could still be living in these unfit structures.
You can't talk about these unsheltered families without addressing the closure of the public housing projects. As controversial as that decision was, shutting those units was probably the right decision in terms of policy. The federal government should not be in the business of segregating people by race and income, yet that's exactly what it was doing by keeping housing projects open across America.
And while ritual crime and abject poverty are not the say-all, be-all of any housing project, when the many honest residents — post office workers, hotel managers, teachers, clergy and social workers — have to live in constant fear because of a few bad apples, the federal government, as landlord, has some responsibility.
Incentives Continue to Bypass the Gulf
The federal government is legally mandated to enforce racial and economic integration, if nowhere else then on its own property. But the incentives the government set up to encourage private developers to create replacements have constantly shortchanged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. As a result, New Orleans still has gaping holes where hundreds of houses once stood.
The feds' own bureaucratic rules have left unused hundreds of millions of dollars in community-development block grants; Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone) bonds have gone to oil companies instead of businesses and housing development; GO Zone tax credits sit depreciated and unfinanced because of the market crash; and despite all that, Congress won't extend the deadline for housing developments to get completed.
The federal government has asked the poor and the displaced to trust that the new mixed-income housing developments, along with the federal voucher system, will bring families into better housing and greater economic parity. But five years later, hundreds are still living in vacant buildings. Thousands more are dispersed throughout the state and the country — tripled and quadrupled up with burdened family and friends, if not on the streets — through no fault of their own, but because the levees broke.
It would be nice if every dispersed person had Tr'Vel's story. But for every happy ending, there is the story of Mr. Hammond, 71 (pdf), who once supported himself with his gardening and horticultural skills. After losing his home in the floods, and being denied financial assistance, he now wades through the streets of New Orleans collecting aluminum cans that he hopes to trade in for drywall to restore his home.
This is why Katrina can never be identified as a good thing. Tr'Vel's proclamation does not prove right policymakers who have said the same thing. It only means that a teenager who was involuntarily exiled from his home has found the strength and temerity to restore his life in a different city. The federal government should make good on its promises to the multitudes in the Katrina Diaspora that it will rebuild New Orleans not only "better" but also for all.
Brentin Mock has covered post-Katrina issues in the Gulf region since 2005. He moved to New Orleans in 2009.