Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NEW ORLEANS: 1,183 Days Later

For those of us who came back to New Orleans after the giant wave of 2005 tried to consume us, the news this week about New Orleans was heartbreaking. Post–hurricane Katrina life has been all about challenge, hope and walking a crooked path toward an increasingly-elusive “normalcy.” Now, to find out that our city has been ranked the most dangerous place in America by the annual Congressional Quarterly Crime Rankings report almost negates the hard-earned progress we have made in these past three years and three months.

The CQ Press studies the number of murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and car thefts to rank cities across the country. You can study the figures for yourself, but the numbers that jump aggressively off the page at people who love this city are these: Of 215 cities with populations of 100,000 to 499,000, CQ Reports New Orleans has the highest crime rate ranking.

That is why every time we get out of our cars we look out of all of our windows and over our shoulder before we unlock the door. It is why we leave our houses at night less than we used to. The seemingly random crime that happens everywhere from tony Uptown to scary “Pigeontown” is the reason many of us carry pepper spray and handguns. The streets are mean, the perpetrators young and uneducated, and the motivation desperate. Our beloved New Orleans is the urban battlefield we so hoped it would never become after we collectively muddled our way through the worst national disaster in the history of the U.S.

If this sounds like whining to you, hear this: It is not. It is reporting. But one cannot live in New Orleans and dispassionately report on its current state. Our emotions, when not blatantly splashed across our faces, are just under the surface, simmering. Our discomfort is unprecedented among other urban centers. Our fear, at its least, is nerve-wracking, and at its peak, panic-inducing. Still, if passion clouds your absorption of the facts, here is some straight reporting about the city of New Orleans lo these 1,183 days after Katrina:

•The rumblings about potentially dangerous health effects of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers started just months after thousands of families were installed in their cramped quarters. The threat was not acted upon until much later. Last week a Children’s Health Fund study revealed 42 percent of children who lived in Louisiana’s largest FEMA trailer park after Katrina now show symptoms of respiratory ailments possibly caused by exposure to formaldehyde, a colorless, odorless gas that families did not know about in their trailers. They were puzzled by their children’s’ watery eyes, skin rashes, coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest. The upshot? The trailer manufacturers knew there were dangerously high levels of formaldehyde in their units.

•The Children’s Health Fund study also revealed that 41 percent of children living in that same trailer park now are anemic, which is twice the number of children similarly affected who live in homeless shelters in New York City. Families have been moved out of the trailers, with a promise from the government that FEMA would provide them with contact information for medical help. FEMA has not provided that information to any of the families. The last of those families were not moved out until May, 2008, 17 months after concerns were first expressed about the dangers of formaldehyde.

• Some neighborhoods hit hardest by Katrina flood waters today look much like they looked just days after the storm. Gentilly, Eastern New Orleans and the lower ninth ward are shells of their former communities. In some cases there are blocks and blocks of empty houses, and perhaps one or two families who have moved back in. No wonder then, that ESRI, a leading market research firm, reports that New Orleans stands to gain only about 15,000 new residents in the next five years. Census bureau figures would indicate New Orleans has about 290,000 residents now. Local analysts put the figure at something closer to 330,000. By comparison, in the early 1960s New Orleans had a population of about 627,000. Diminishing populations generally translate to less industry, fewer healthcare facilities and workers, college grads who move away and less incentive for new businesses to consider locating in the city. Do the math.

• Once again we are having policing problems. At the forefront of our concerns now is that fact that the New Orleans District Attorney’s office revealed it has refused 529 cases since August 1, including crimes dating to 2006. The cases will not be prosecuted because the New Orleans Police Department did not provide the proper reports needed to proceed. Included: drug possession and attempted murder. 443 of these crimes were felonies.

• There’s more: Recently, New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley tried to blame former Captain Danny Lawless for $19,000 that was missing from the police property and evidence room. Lawless subsequently produced copies of memos he sent to Riley warning him of lax security and staffing shortages in the evidence room. Riley reportedly never followed up.

• And more: Two years ago, after a brutal murder in the Fauburg Marigny neighborhood, citizens took to the streets to protest the city’s lax crime-fighting record. Mayor Ray Nagin staged an outdoor press conference surrounded by police officials and the City Council members. He promised there would be 1,000 crime cameras installed in the city to monitor the mean streets. To date about 240 have been installed and currently most of them do not work. By some estimates, the city has spent $7 million on the cameras, not including the $1.6 million Nagin has requested in his 2009 budget for camera maintenance.

Add it up: The most violent criminal center in the entire United States; poisonous gas in government mandated trailers; nutritional deficiency among FEMA trailer park children that causes anemia; empty, deserted neighborhoods that never saw a dime of the reported billions of Federally-provided post-storm funding; a dwindling population and grim prospects for repopulating the city; a Keystone Cop approach to reporting felonious criminal activity and a D.A.’s office with limited abilities to prosecute undocumented incidents; an evidence room that cannot even police itself, much less the criminal element from which the evidence was gathered; a Police Chief who first seeks an alibi and a scapegoat, before owning up to what may be his own lackluster job performance; a Mayor who is clearly dis-engaged from the populous and who talks the talk without walking the walk.

This is the true post-Katrina New Orleans. This is the state of the city in the eye of a storm that will not pass. This is the real New Orleans, as seen through the eyes of a reporter who has been here before, during and after the storm.
Katrina did not lift us up – it flooded us out and then brought the worst of our local culture to the surface for the whole world to see.

Maybe that is why the one word we almost never heard from the lips of John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama or Joe Biden during the 2008 Presidential race was the one word that has more meaning to us than any other – Katrina.

1 comment:

Nicole and Mon Voyage said...

Interesting reading these two posts one after the other. I lived in New Orleans and now live in Dallas. I do not miss the crime in New Orleans but believe the roots of it are so deep--all wrapped up in the longstanding economic realities of an economy with little diversity in the industries that compose it, and, to a certain extent, a lack of any social contract. Not until the underlying things are addressed will things really get any better, and I'm not sure if elected officials--and some citizens--will ever be ready to tackle those things. But the crime would not prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending N.O. as a travel destination. The culture is so rich; one has to simply dive in and experience it (even if one needs eye's in the back of one's head on occasion).

Even though New Orleans is classified (again) as the most violent place, Dallas was for several of the past few years the city with the highest per-capita murder rate. I was held up at gunpoint in front of my home in New Orleans but a few weeks ago a woman in my east Dallas neighborhood (about 8 or 9 blocks away) was raped by a stranger who broke into her home. Yet I feel safer here.

And then the post on JFK...I was born 8 days later but living in Dallas I almost feel as if I were alive back then. Every Nov 22 the city beats its breast in guilt, all the news outlets do something, there are retrospective programs around town...if you live in the metro area, you will never be allowed to forget that it happened here, on Dallas' watch. God forbid it should happen again, anywhere.

But if you are ever in Dallas I recommend a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum, which concerns itself with Kennedy, the killing, the investigations, and the legacy.

Joe Biden did mention the plight of New Orleans in the VP debate, but you know I don't think the word Katrina came out of his mouth. Good point.