The Boston Globe
By Jarvis DeBerry
August 28, 2008
ROME WASN'T built in three years.
And had it been left to the likes of President Bush, former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Rome would not have been built at all.
Oh, there would have been grand plans for such a city. Bush would have vowed to do whatever it takes to build it. Blanco would have a created a Rome-building bureaucracy. And Nagin would have promised a skyline dense with construction cranes.
And after three years, those looking for signs of a great city would see it being built by ordinary people driven as much by civic pride as by disgust with the inaction of those officially in charge.
Just look at New Orleans. Three years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is being rebuilt in piecemeal fashion because there has been no unifying plan its residents can rally around. But it is being rebuilt nonetheless: stubbornly, defiantly, and lovingly by individuals, families, and civic groups whose small-scale plans for improvement have had to suffice in the absence of a larger one.
A group of volunteers called the Mow-Rons (motto: "weeding by example") found the ragged appearance of City Park intolerable and began mowing it themselves. The group Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans helped usher in an effort to consolidate and professionalize the boards that oversee local levees. Levees.org has been highlighting the disastrous failures of the Army Corps of Engineers, calling for an investigation and urging residents from Massachusetts to California to beware: Foul-ups by the same corps could destroy their homes, too. The group Women of the Storm has waged an amazingly successful charm offensive, sweet-talking members of Congress into coming to New Orleans so they can see that our requests for aid are legitimate.
Known mostly for its laissez-faire attitude before Katrina, New Orleans has been defined by its civic activism ever since. And whether the city's repopulation is directly related to such activism or is just a coincidence, figures show that the population is nearly three-quarters of what it was before August 2005. The metro area's unemployment rate is half a percentage point lower than it was before the storm and 1.3 percentage points lower than the nation's. Three years later, there are still some people living in FEMA trailers, but 89 percent of the almost 70,000 trailers the agency delivered to the metro area have now been removed.
Despite all the progress that's been made, residents here have every right to complain of a lack of leadership. Bush, Blanco, and Nagin failed New Orleans for different reasons: Bush because he opposes big government, Blanco because she embraced it, and Nagin because he has lacked both the attention span to oversee complex projects and the staff to compensate for his own weakness.
The president gave a remarkable address from New Orleans two weeks after Katrina, promising to do whatever necessary to help the city and region. But afterward, he rejected initial recovery proposals as too costly and suggested that New Orleanians were insufficiently grateful for all Washington had done. Bush first insisted that Louisiana pay its $1.8 billion share for levee improvements in three short years and agreed to a more reasonable 30 years only after driving state officials crazy with worry. His administration has helped New Orleans, but not without our begging.
Blanco proved that a politician given billions of dollars to distribute to people in need can still find a way to make the public angry. Her Road Home program was so slow (there are still applicants waiting for money) and the bureaucracy so disrespectful to storm victims that Blanco opted not to run for reelection.
Understanding Nagin's failures is easy: He has an incompetent staff in whom he has complete trust.
And yet, the city is struggling back. It was never going to recover in three years - even if generous, focused, detail-oriented executives had been in charge. New Orleans suffered too much for anybody to have expected her to be whole so soon. But the work continues, and it will get done: not because the leaders declare it, but because the people do.
Jarvis DeBerry is a columnist at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.