NEW ORLEANS – As Mayor Ray Nagin leaves office, hundreds of damaged city buildings including police stations and fire houses sit unrepaired more than four years after Hurricane Katrina, stark reminders of how the recovery has floundered.
Only seven percent of 283 city-owned structures slated to be rebuilt have been completed or are under construction, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Those figures back up an impression many residents have had for more than a year — the Nagin administration has failed to renew much of New Orleans.
"New Orleans has struggled with a vision from the very beginning of the disaster," said Drew Sachs, vice president of James Lee Witt Associates, a consulting firm that has worked extensively on Louisiana's hurricane recovery.
Besides missteps by the Nagin administration, rebuilding has been complicated because of the extent of damage, FEMA's paralyzing bureaucracy as well as loss of population, which has hurt revenues and made it hard for city officials to determine where to put its limited resources.
The city lags both urban and rural neighbors hit hard by the catastrophic 2005 storm, according to rebuilding figures provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For instance, 87 percent of St. Bernard Parish's government buildings are under construction or have been reopened and 55 percent of Plaquemines Parish's government buildings are rebuilt or are at least close to being finished.
Plaquemines is a largely rural parish south of New Orleans where Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. St. Bernard, where only a handful of buildings in the entire parish escaped flooding, is a mix of urban and rural communities just down river from New Orleans.
The FEMA data shows that New Orleans has 283 buildings to fix, while St. Bernard has 190 and Plaquemines 222.
Nagin said the city made a remarkable comeback under his watch.
"We have 80 percent of our population back, young people moving in, an economy with the lowest unemployment rate, public housing being totally transformed, riverfront development, street work," Nagin said. "At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding: Five years ago, you had a city that was totally empty, totally dark, 80 percent damaged; today, look at our statistics and I rest on that."
As for public infrastructure, the Nagin administration is adamant that it has done a good job and that FEMA — not city officials — are largely to blame.
"FEMA obligated so little of the funds we couldn't go out and do big projects," said Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, the city's deputy chief administrative officer.
She did concede that FEMA under the Obama administration has been a big improvement over the Bush years.
She also disputed claims the city didn't quickly implement a recovery plan and said visitors are "absolutely amazed when they come to New Orleans when they see all the buildings that are up and functioning, and not just limping along."
FEMA declined to make comparisons between the parishes. But Tony Russell, a FEMA regional administrator closely involved in rebuilding New Orleans, said "almost anyone will say that the recovery in the city is going a lot better than a year ago."
Nagin will be replaced by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on Monday. Landrieu has made speeding up the recovery a priority during his transition.
Throughout the city, neighborhoods are still waiting for buildings and services to bounce back.
In the St. Roch neighborhood, a working-class area sandwiched between Desire Street and Elysian Fields that were made famous in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," police still write reports and field calls out of a former furniture store building. Their old station hasn't been rebuilt since Katrina flooded it.
Across the street, the city-owned St. Roch Market, a 19th-century fish and vegetable market with cast-iron columns and wooden windows, is closed and fallen into disrepair. A plywood sign reading: "Recovery In Progress" had fallen on the ground.
"They keep promising us everything and delivering nothing," said John Victorson, an Illinois transplant and owner of the St. Roch Tavern.
He walked around the St. Roch Market and pointed out graffiti and vandalism. "I went from hope to frustration and now to anger that nobody wants to do anything," Victorson said.
He shook his head and talked about the trash cans the city installed, but rarely picks up. The new cans spilled over with candy wrappers, discarded food and 12-ounce whisky flasks.
Steven Bingler, a New Orleans urban planner, said the recovery was started by the community and private resources, despite the failure of "City Hall's engines."
"City Hall coming in and doing its job could be the booster rocket that we're looking for," he said.
The city has abandoned plans to restore some buildings, and will instead board them up and try to sell them. In other cases like the Old Finance Warehouse, the Mandeville Community Center and Mugrauer Center, plans were made but nothing has happened.
The architectural firm Richard C. Lambert Consultants LLC. was hired in early 2008 to draw up recovery plans for the three city-owned buildings.
"We have done nothing on those three projects at all," said Alton Ochsner Davis, a senior project manager at the firm. "We're waiting for contracts and authorization to proceed. We have not even visited the buildings. There are still waterlines where the buildings have not been touched."