September 18, 2005 in Nation/World

A return, but hardly to normalcy

Knight Ridder The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Theresa Heller hugs her son Christopher on Saturday as members of their family finish salvaging things from her parents’ home in Arabi, La.
(Full-size photo)

NEW ORLEANS – The first residents can return Monday to this city of music and Mardi Gras, but they’ll come home to massive problems.

Nearly one out of five police officers is missing. At least half of the homes are thought to be uninhabitable. One suburban parish lost every school.

The water’s safe to flush, but you can’t drink it or shower in it, and officials fear massive sewage backups if people return too quickly.

There are signs of hope, though: Pollution and diseases aren’t as bad as feared, the airport is accepting commercial flights and city streets are expected to be dry by the first week of October.

“We’re bringing New Orleans back,” Mayor Ray Nagin proclaimed Thursday, saying residents can return to some neighborhoods starting Monday and to the French Quarter beginning Sept. 26. “I’m tired of hearing these helicopters. I want to hear some jazz.”

Reconstructing the Gulf Coast will take $200 billion by some estimates, much of it for New Orleans. What will it take to restore the city? Here’s a look piece by piece:

Housing

Nagin said Thursday that half of New Orleans’ 215,000 homes may have to be bulldozed.

For now, “home” will mean many different things to New Orleans’ families: Cruise ships on the Mississippi, scattered hotel rooms, rented apartments and a city of trailers in a state-owned pasture swarming with “lovebug” flies north of Baton Rouge.

During the next two weeks, Nagin said, about 182,000 of the city’s nearly 500,000 residents will be able to return to neighborhoods that escaped the worst flooding.

But tens of thousands of other people will be looking at mobile homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to provide 300,000 households with temporary housing for as long as five years; some trailer communities could house as many as 25,000 people.

“It may not be on the scale of building the pyramids,” said Brad Gair, FEMA’s area housing coordinator, “but it’s pretty close.”

FEMA plans 100,000 temporary living arrangements by Oct. 31. As of Friday, 163,000 families were still living in shelters.

Not everyone will come back. Thousands of evacuees scattered around the country are looking for homes and finding jobs in their adopted communities. Nagin said he’s optimistic 250,000 people will move back within six months.

Drinking water and sewage

Water nearly destroyed this city; it will take water to bring it back.

New Orleans’ main drinking water treatment and pumping station has groaned back to life. By Friday, it was at more than two-thirds normal capacity, pumping 100 million gallons a day of chlorine-treated water.

Flushing is fine, but drinking and bathing are discouraged for now. Contaminated water seeped into the pipes through large breaks in the water lines.

Once workers can “flush out” the 350-mile network of pipes with chlorine, it should take two weeks for the water to be drinkable, said Mark LeChevallier, a water quality expert.

The flooded sewer system has state environmental officials worrying about waste backing up as residents return. The city’s largest wastewater treatment plant was still shut, surrounded by 8 feet of water Thursday.

If too many people return before repairs are made, said Aimee McReynolds, a scientist with the state’s wastewater division, “we could have sewage going into the street or backing up into homes.”

Public safety

The New Orleans police department lost control of the city after Katrina struck, leading to chaos, as well as desertions and even suicides by at least two officers. Even now, police Superintendent Eddie Compass can’t account for 300 of his 1,700 officers – nearly 18 percent of the force – and calls the deserters “cowards.” As many as 500 patrol cars were swamped by water, a department spokesman said.

City officials sent hundreds of officers to Las Vegas and Atlanta to recuperate from the stress and exhaustion, leaving it to the National Guard to help the remaining officers patrol the streets and enforce a nighttime curfew.

Nagin said the military presence has made his once-dangerous city “probably the safest it’s been in many, many years.” The Guard has pledged to stay as long as needed, the mayor said – but no one knows how long that will be. Probably months.

Health care

The news on the health front is surprisingly good so far: There have been no major disease outbreaks, despite early fears. The chief complaints have been skin infections, stomach problems, heat stroke, cuts and scrapes, doctors and health officials said.

The bad news: None of New Orleans’ major hospitals is running – in fact, Charity Hospital likely will be torn down, according to its owner, Louisiana State University Health System. But emergency rooms at Children’s Hospital and Touro Infirmary could be operating within a few days. In adjacent Jefferson Parish, four hospitals are taking patients.

Education

“Katrina’s kids,” as the 186,000 students displaced by the storm are being called, are slowly enrolling in new schools from Florida to Washington state. Other Louisiana districts have taken in more than 20,000. Texas has nearly 6,000 new schoolchildren.

Every school in suburban St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans was flooded and the district canceled its year. Six of nine schools in Plaquemines Parish were flooded. Administrators in Orleans Parish district, which operates the city’s schools, are still figuring out how many of their 126 buildings can reopen this year.

Louisiana’s education secretary has asked the federal government for $2.4 billion to rebuild and pay salaries and benefits for 25,000 displaced teachers and employees.

Some school buildings in Orleans Parish are more than a century old, and there are hopes they can be replaced with FEMA money. “If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud,” said the parish’s managing director, Sajan George, “we have the opportunity to build a system from scratch.”

Utilities

To get the power and phones back on, the floodwaters need to go away.

Entergy Corp., which provides electricity to the city, and BellSouth Corp. can’t reach substations and switching centers to repair them until the waters recede.

Outside the city, Entergy said, most customers had power again by Friday. But in New Orleans itself, only one-quarter of customers had electricity. In demolished St. Bernard Parish, just 1 percent did. BellSouth had 305,000 phone lines out of 4.8 million in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama still out of service Friday.

Both utilities say many customers in New Orleans, including those in the business district, should have service in a week or two.

Transportation

The roads and bridges to recovery will require billions of dollars – about $2.3 billion, according to Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development estimates. And some of those repairs will take time.

Work to reopen the mangled Twin Span bridge, which links New Orleans to Slidell, La., is expected to last into November; more than half of the eight-mile-long link of Interstate 10 over Lake Pontchartrain was damaged, with some sections buckled out of alignment and others knocked out altogether. The bridge will eventually be rebuilt.

The state says the bill to fix and replace traffic signals and street signs could reach $35 million. And about 9,000 miles of state and parish roads that don’t qualify for federal dollars could cost state and local governments $775 million to repair, said Mark Lambert, a transportation department spokesman.

Fixing ports, airports, mass transit and improving roads to handle the crush of new traffic in Baton Rouge, La., will cost even more.

Tourism and shipping

Businesses are coming back to life as services in the central business district and adjacent French Quarter resume in the next few weeks. The Quarter, where a handful of hotels such as the Hilton and Sheraton are taking guests, officially reopens on Sept. 26.

“We’re going to have power back within a week to the entire core of the tourism industry,” said J. Stephen Perry, president of the city’s convention bureau.

At first, the hotel industry will reserve about 20 percent of its rooms for its workers. That will change as homes are rebuilt and shuttle buses set up to cities such as Baton Rouge.

Big industry is coming back to life slowly, but faster than expected. At the Port of New Orleans, a barge pulled away Monday with 4,500 tons of steel coils destined for an auto plant, the first commercial cargo traffic since Katrina. On Tuesday, a container ship unloaded coffee and timber products.

The companies that run the terminals are trying to restart operations, a port spokesman said. But it will take about six months before traffic is back to normal.

Flood protection

Rebuilding New Orleans is a fool’s errand unless the city can be made safer from storms. Engineers say the city needs floodgates and stronger levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the most severe of storms. Before Katrina, they were built to handle a Category 3. Katrina was a Category 4 when it hit the city.

Ideally, the engineers say, Louisiana’s wetlands – shrinking since 1930 due to river diversion projects – need to be restored as a cushion against storm surges. The state has lost a million acres of wetlands – an area larger than Rhode Island – over the last 75 years. “If we don’t undertake the levee reconstruction and coastal restoration, we’re just leaving New Orleans more vulnerable than it was before,” said Ivor Van Heerden, who heads Louisiana State University’s hurricane center. He said it would cost as much as $18 billion to rebuild wetlands and enlarge barrier islands while strengthening the levees.

Today even a minor storm surge could swamp parts of New Orleans, said Daniel Hitchings, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The breaches created by Katrina or the Corps to drain the city haven’t been closed.

The Corps hopes to have the levees restored to pre-Katrina levels by June. There are no plans to expand the levees or to add floodgates because the Corps doesn’t have the authority to do so, Hitchings said. The upgrades needed to enable New Orleans to withstand a Category 5 hurricane would take an act of Congress.

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