Friday, December 15, 2006

The ongoing recovery in New Orleans

Almost 16 months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many parts of New Orleans are still putting the pieces together. I spent part of Thursday cleaning up yards in the Lakeview neighbourhood with the Beacon of Hope Resource Center.

Lakeview is adjacent to the 17th Street Canal levee, one of three levees that breached during Katrina. This NASA image from after the storm shows the Canal stretching into the city from Lake Ponchotrain (middle-left), and the flooding of the neighbourhoods (to the right).

For a sense of the scale of the flooding, you only have to see the yellowish line along the outer walls of many of the remaining homes that marks the maximum height of the floodwaters.
Few of the residents of this area returned to New Orleans after the storm. The old neighbourhood was now a patchwork of empty streets full of abandoned and badly damaged homes. The eerie quiet was interrupted only by the sound of sound of houses being razed and debris being removed.

Denise Thornton and the founders of the Beacon of Hope wanted their old neighbourhood back, but found little help from the government. So they started on their own, raised money for equipment to clean up yards, remove dead tress, replace storm drains and gut old houses, one by one. Thanks to outside donations and support from the United Way, the grassroots clean-up organization is now expanding to other parts of the city.

From a distance, it is hard to truly appreciate not just the physical, but the social devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The clean-up effort not only makes life more palatable for those that are there now, but it may encourage others to return. This is not just about the comfort of seeing people walk by your house or some lights on down the street; with so few people in these neighbourhoods, the property tax base has collapsed, making it even harder for the city to provide any services to the community.

If you’re in New Orleans, give the volunteer coordinator, Liz Widener, a call. They appreciate when out-of-towners spend even half a day (like me) removing weeds, debris and mowing lawns. If you want to plan a special trip to volunteer, they can even get you a discount at a local B&B.

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