Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Whose New Orleans is rising from Katrina's ashes?


As of only a few weeks ago, mail is once again being delivered to parts of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

Postman Wayne Treaudo is finally back on the job, just in time for the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the US Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29 last year.

People's expectations have become modest in New Orleans. The few residents Treaudo encounters greet him as they would a long-lost friend.

Before last year, this mecca of jazz stood for greats like Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino or the Marsalis brothers, for the raucous fest that is Mardi Gras, for Gumbo and Jambalaya, and other delights for the palate and soul.

But those who ponder New Orleans today have a new system of time reckoning: before Katrina and after Katrina.

Treaudo is reminded of that fact every day on the job: 20,000 people lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina. Just over 1,000 people have returned, and most of them live in mobile homes.

Treaudo trudges daily past the rubble and empty houses on his beat, filled with moldy decaying furniture and infested with rats the flood left in its wake. In other parts of this hardest hit quarter there is nothing at all: no electricity, no running water -- everything is dead.

Years before Katrina's 280kph winds pounded the city, experts warned that the levees of the city, much of which lies below sea level, could not withstand a Category 3 storm of this nature.

Yet New Orleans was still woefully unprepared as Katrina grew off the Gulf Coast, at one time reaching Category 5 before it made landfall.

In the aftermath, numerous investigations and many turns of the blame game revealed that US authorities failed at every level.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called too late for the city to evacuate, and then failed to provide transport for the city's poor who depend on busses. Thousands in the Lower Ninth Ward and even outlying districts like St Bernard were left behind, calling for help from their rooftops. Many of them drowned, including 1,577 people in the state of Louisiana alone.

The city's stadium -- the Superdome -- became a make-shift shelter and a symbol of the scandal. Thousands gathered there without water, food, police power and enough toilets.

Washington, and at the forefront the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), seemed helpless, although media agencies reaching the stadium and broadcast the chaos around the world. CNN brought in a top Africa reporter, Kenyan Jeff Koinange, for his deep experience with refugee crises.

The numbers horrified: Katrina killed more than 1,800 people in Louisiana and Mississippi, most of them in New Orleans -- over 80 percent of which was under water on August 30. Altogether, 350,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and 1.3 million people left homeless.

Following the shame of inaction came the empty promises of reconstruction.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," US President George W. Bush assured as Congress quickly approved emergency funds.

That was then. Now, 12 months later, this city remains light years from re-entering a normal existence.

Yes, Mardi Gras came along in February on schedule, and so did the Jazz festival, accompanied by residents with a proud and brave swagger proclaiming "we're back," while tourists once again filled Bourbon Street.

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