Summertime — and after Katrina, life still ain’t easy

The King of New Orleans, Fats Domino, is one of the few optimistic people in the still devastated city. ”Everybody is doing the best they can. I think New Orleans will recover,” he says on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

He is one of the lucky ones. His house in the city’s poor and exclusively black Lower Ninth district, from which he was rescued by helicopter, was destroyed in the flooding. But musicians from around the world — Elton John, Joss Stone, Neil Young and many others — have put together a tribute CD to be released next month to pay for its reconstruction and others in the Lower Ninth.

Speaking in Tipitina’s jazz hall, Domino (79) says he was born and raised in New Orleans, likes everything about the place, from the food to the music, and does not want to live anywhere else. ”I think we will be all right,” he said.

That is not a view shared by many of the city’s 250 000-plus residents still waiting to return to their homes or the 100 000-plus still in exile in Texas and elsewhere.

United States President George Bush, who was scheduled to visit the city on Wednesday, visited two weeks after Katrina and promised ”this great city will rise again … our goal is to get the work done quickly”. But there is still kilometre after kilometre of abandoned homes, disappearing behind creeping vegetation, testament to the failure of the richest nation on Earth to rebuild one of its best-loved cities.

There has been progress but it has been slow and limited, lacking energy and drive. Tens of thousands are still living in cramped caravans provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). Many schools have not reopened. Basic medical and social services are being provided by churches and charities, working out of caravans, who claim that stress levels have risen to an alarming degree.

And, on top of all that, the city is experiencing a crime wave, up 33% on last year, with a murder on average every 1,8 days, putting it on course to become the murder capital of America by the end of the year.

On a playground between a flyover and a cemetery, Janet Washington stands in the 38-degree-Celsius heat and says she is sick of New Orleans. Aged 57, divorced, with grown-up children, she shares a Fema trailer with her sister and brother-in-law. She cannot afford to live in New Orleans any more: she paid $500 in rent for an apartment before Katrina but, with the shortage of housing, would have to pay twice as much now.

She sought refuge in Texas after the flooding and only returned to New Orleans a few months ago to complete a law course. ”When I finish my class, I’m out of here. I would look to move to Georgia,” she says. ”I will not be sad to leave. This is not New Orleans.”

An African-American, she thinks race will determine the shape of the city. ”I think they only want a segment of the community to come back. The majority of poor people are black and they have not planned on them coming back.”

Although there are bars in the French Quarter where musicians do their best to revive the ”let the good times roll” spirit, her sense of resignation is widely shared. People feel let down. T-shirts on sale read ”Fema — Fix Everything My Ass”. Only about a quarter of the compensation promised by the federal government for rebuilding homes has been paid out: 37 000 cheques out of 162 000 applications so far. Insurance companies too have been reluctant to pay out.

There are residents who want the city rebuilt as it was, but there are many others — city officials, engineers and environmentalists — who argue that there needs to be a more compact city, built on higher ground, more easily protected. Many of the areas to be abandoned would be the poor, black ones.

The Army Corps of Engineers, a mainly civilian organisation, has rebuilt the levees, pumps and locks over the past two years but admits that is not enough. There was nervousness in the city last week as the residents watched Hurricane Dean cross the Caribbean, and the hurricane season is not over yet.

Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the corps, says decisions about defences are not purely engineering ones but political and social. ”Some people will get protection and some will not, and I do not know what will happen when they find out,” he says.

A long-term strategy report is only now nearing completion and is to be sent to Washington in December. But the fundamental causes of the flooding are still not being addressed. Kerry St Pe, a marine biologist, says the wetlands of the Mississippi delta, which bore the brunt of storms in earlier centuries, are disappearing at the rate of 44 square kilometres a year.

Musicians marked Katrina’s anniversary on Sunday. Carrying trombones, guitars and drums, they marched in silence through the city centre to draw attention to their plight. Of the estimated 3 000 who worked in the city before Katrina, only about 1 800 have returned. Those that have said the number of gigs was down, making it hard to scratch a living.

Summing up the sentiments of many, Deacon John Moore, president of the local musicians’ union, said: ”It ain’t easy to be in the Big Easy.” — Guardian Unlimited Â

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