The $143 billion federal recovery for the New Orleans region, wrecked by Hurricane Katrina five years ago, has produced spotty successes and lingering failures.
President Obama was scheduled to visit New Orleans on Sunday to mark the anniversary. The storm and resulting floods killed more than 1,800 people, submerged 80 percent of the city, and forced more than a million Gulf Coast residents from their homes.
It was the costliest storm in U.S. history, causing about $125 billion in damage and economic losses.
As federal and state governments continue to pour billions of aid into the recovery, a pattern has emerged. Repairs to infrastructure and grants to homeowners have revived tourism, and rebuilt many of the region’s more affluent neighborhoods. But low-income residents too often are being left out.
About 90 percent of the New Orleans region’s pre-Katrina population has returned. But within the city, only 78 percent of residents are back in their homes. And in the relatively poor Lower Ninth Ward, among the hardest hit by flooding, just 24 percent of the pre-storm population has returned. Entire blocks remain uninhabited.
A federal judge ruled two weeks ago that Louisiana’s “Road Home” program, which offers residents up to $150,000 in federal funds to rebuild, discriminates against African American homeowners. The program calculated grants based on the pre-storm value of a home, instead of replacement costs.
The court said that discriminated against black homeowners, because houses in a primarily black neighborhood were valued lower than houses of similar size and construction in a mostly white neighborhood.
But it’s not clear what effect the ruling will have on remaining grants in the four-year-old program, which has largely run its course. About 50,000 homes in the city are still vacant or have been reduced to bare lots.
There have been successes in the recovery. The New Orleans school district, run by former Philadelphia superintendent Paul Vallas, has undergone a vast and rapid makeover. Nearly three-quarters of the public schools are now operated as charters, and test scores have risen dramatically.
The levee system that failed during Katrina is being completely rebuilt with a stronger design. The Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt 220 miles of levees and floodwalls, with the $15 billion project scheduled to be finished next summer.
Many communities along the coast of Mississippi and Alabama have succeeded in rebuilding, even as the region took yet another serious economic blow this year from the leaking BP oil well in the Gulf.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which bungled the immediate response to the hurricane, now claims it is streamlined to react quicker and more effectively to disasters. There’s some evidence that it has improved, although FEMA has yet to be tested again on the scale of Katrina.
New Orleans has proved it can survive the worst-case scenario. But five years later, help still hasn’t reached enough of the victims. Obama promised to do better; people are waiting.