Uncertainy and fatigue hobble recovery
Note: Mary Sue and Steve Katz are part-time Vail residents whose home in New Orleans was severely damaged and flooded by Hurricane Katrina. They have been traveling back and forth between Vail and New Orleans since the storm, and writing about their experiences.NEW ORLEANS – The problems that appear in New Orleans can be summed up by two words. The first is uncertainty and the second is tired. Let’s explore the second – tired – first.Everyone is tired. There are not enough hours in the day. In addition to everyone continuing to work, they must commute. Over 150,000 vehicles come into the city daily and leave at night. The traffic is terrible.
While few people have actually started to rebuild, the planning has started and the slow re-connection of services is frustrating. People are waiting hours for “the cable guy.” Likewise for the “phone guy,” and so on. Building permit lines wrap around the exterior of city hall almost as long as lines at restaurants in a city where not may restaurants are open and few of the people have kitchens. Couple this with depression caused by loss of a home or a loved one and you get a depressed, tired populace that is ineffective at striding forward.I’ve spent some time at meetings and forums listening to the Army Corps of Engineers. city councilmembers and other officials. While they indeed have some direction they could not conclusively determine what areas won’t be allowed to rebuild or what areas will be seized by eminent domain. The battle between pro and con is one between the optimists vs. the realists. Many, including dozens in my neighborhood are encouraged – they are anxious to rebuild, and expect tax incentives and other credits. But when you actually do the numbers, it’s another issue.
Fast food bonusesIn many the neighborhoods, everything has dried out due to a mercifully dry last couple months. The damage is so apparent as you pass thousands – 175,000 is the best estimate – of abandoned homes. They are hollow of furniture, and you can peer through the bottom structure. Before they were lights, now there is no electricity. In front there are huge piles of debris – heaps of include sheetrock, studs and furniture. The piles are colossal. It could probably fill a large amount of the devastated areas. What will they do with it all?Moving it will be such a project and it seems like such a misappropriation of resources. These are the things hobble the rebuilding effort. But let’s assume the city clears the debris and power is restored, though I can’t imagine that happening before April or May. Only then will be clear for construction to begin – and to begin, you need to ship an incredible amount of material into the city.
Of course there must also be labor. There is so little labor now fast food restaurants are paying higher wages than anywhere else in the U.S. – even higher than Vail. We’re talking $12-15 per hour with bonuses for staying a year. Contractors are now backed up three projects deep. Architects are booked 12 to 18 months out.Allowing a year to redo each house – after power and water is restored – is optimistic. That assumes architects and inspections are available, although they will be so overloaded that step will also slow the process.Materials are already becoming hard to find and if simultaneous construction is ongoing; staging the construction will be difficult in neighborhoods that have long since been established and the streets, utilities and services are full and tight.
Decade of recoveryMy best projection, beyond all the political rhetoric and pie in the sky predictions, is that returning to normalcy will take at least six years, if not eight years or a decade. That could bring New Orleans back to its pre-Katrina size, but more likely it will be a smaller city of 350,000 to 450,000. The suburbs to will be stymied – but suburbs are just that, limited in growth like the body around the heart. This was a very dreary trip with little that was uplifting and little commitment of dollars toward reconstruction. It going to be a long road back.
Next month I plan to get to the Gulf Coast – Gulfport and Biloxi – where the majority of the damage came from wind and rain as opposed to flood. I anticipate a positive contrast. Vail, Colorado