Blight Dims Post-Katrina Optimism

Shelia Phillips doesn't see the New Orleans that Mayor Ray Nagin talks about, the one on its way to having just as many people and a more diverse economy than it did before Hurricane Katrina. How could she?

From the front porch of her house in the devastated Lower 9th Ward, it's hard to see past the vegetation slowly swallowing the property across the way. Nearby homes are boarded up or still bear the fading tattoos left by search and rescue teams nearly four years ago. The fence around a playground a few blocks down is padlocked.

"I just want to see people again," she said recently, swatting bugs in the muggy heat.

On paper, the city's economy appears to be thriving, with relatively low rates of unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. But in post-Katrina New Orleans, residents' perceptions of their city's recovery tends to depend on where they live, their vantage point of it. Swaths of some neighborhoods are sparsely populated, even desolate, and federal rebuilding dollars have provided much of the economic resilience.

While the recovery has been "stronger than anticipated," the city "will still face challenges to long-term stability and prosperity," according to a report released Tuesday by GCR & Associates Inc., an urban planning and consulting firm.

New Orleans's economy is among the healthiest of major metro areas, according to the Associated Press Economic Stress Index, which assigns counties a score of 1 to 100 based on unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy data.

The seven-parish New Orleans region scores 8.6 through June, the most recent month for which figures are available. That's considerably lower than the national average of 10.6 and means the average New Orleans resident has felt far less relative economic pain than people in Los Angeles (15.07), Chicago's Cook County (15.11) or Florida's Miami-Dade County (16.06).

There are other causes for optimism: the overhaul of New Orleans's long-dismal public school system, an influx of college-educated residents, the greening of neighborhoods as they rebuild, and the elevating of more homes to help protect them from future flooding.

After Katrina, the mayor started talking about a new New Orleans. What he meant, he said recently, is a "better New Orleans; an updated New Orleans, one where we basically updated all of our critical assets but respected our history."

Some analysts believe the economic resilience powered by tens of billions in federal rebuilding aid is unsustainable. Once the money is spent, they say, the tourism-based economy and lower-wage jobs that dominated before Katrina are likely to reemerge.

The flow of returning residents has slowed, the cost of living has spiked, and blight is rampant. Public investment in neighborhoods has been uneven, much like the pattern of Katrina's devastation.

Water driven by the Aug. 29, 2005, storm flooded 80 percent of the city and essentially destroyed St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Other areas were spared the worst damage and have rebounded more quickly.

Lakeview, which saw some of the worst flooding, has come back stronger than other New Orleans neighborhoods largely due to its relative pre-storm affluence and residents' will to take charge of Lakeview's recovery.

As Lakeview residents invested in homes and businesses, government dollars followed. The post office has reopened, main streets have been or are being rebuilt, and a business district is thriving. It is one of the best examples of Nagin's market-driven approach to recovery, where money follows money.

But this isn't what Shelia Phillips had in mind when she and husband Collins brought their son, six grandchildren, and two other family members back to the Lower 9th Ward.

By one recent estimate, less than 20 percent of the Lower 9th's pre-storm population is back. A pocket of new, built-to-last houses in another part of the neighborhood - spearheaded by Hollywood star Brad Pitt and slated to expand - is like a hamlet surrounded by open, vivid-green land.

Overgrown lots and homes that have scarcely been touched since Katrina spill from the cluster of Pitt homes, creating a virtual wilderness. On a recent afternoon, feral chickens scurried across a road that attracted little notice before Katrina but has become a landmark since.

Its name is Flood Street.