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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Putting Down New Roots on More Solid Ground - New York Times

Putting Down New Roots on More Solid Ground - New York TimesSeptember 7, 2005
Putting Down New Roots on More Solid Ground
By SUSAN SAULNY

HOUSTON, Sept. 6 - In her 19 years, all spent living in downtown New Orleans, Chavon Allen had never ventured farther than her bus fare would allow, and that was one trip last year to Baton Rouge. But now that she has seen Houston, she is planning to stay.

"This is a whole new beginning, a whole new start. I mean, why pass up a good opportunity, to go back to something that you know has problems?" asked Ms. Allen, who had been earning $5.15 an hour serving chicken in a Popeyes restaurant.

For Daphne Barconey, Hurricane Katrina disrupted plans for a grand house to be built on a $150,000 lot that she bought in eastern New Orleans just months ago.

Now, just eight days after the storm, she has a job in a hospital here, a year's lease on a four-bedroom apartment near the Galleria mall and no plan to return to New Orleans.

Jason Magee is a golf pro who says now is the time to move away from his native New Orleans. "I had been looking for an excuse to leave, and this is it," he said.

From across the economic spectrum, whether with heavy hearts or with optimism, the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are already putting down roots in new cities. If even a fraction of them decide not to return, the migration threatens a population crash that could be nearly as devastating to the New Orleans area as the storm itself.

And city officials know it. After days of asking, then demanding, now practically begging the residents of New Orleans to leave, they have mentally if not publicly changed gears and are devising strategy behind the scenes about how they will accomplish a titanic shift - in effect, a reverse evacuation.

Since its population peaked at almost 630,000 in 1960, New Orleans has been steadily losing its people. According to the last census, 445,000 people lived there. But a trickle of people over the decades is quite a different matter from what the city now faces, a sudden population bust that could subtract up to 250,000 people.

"I look at the situation, and it brings fear," said Rodney Braxton, the city's chief legislative lobbyist. "If there's one thing that gives me sorrow beyond the loss of life, it's that."

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, head of the department of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, underscored the size of the problem. "If a big chunk of the population doesn't come back, it's going to be horrific for the city," she said.

In Houston alone, close to 1,200 evacuees moved on Tuesday from the Astrodome into apartments with six-month leases.

"We know that with each passing day it's going to be harder to bring them back," Mr. Braxton said. "But we are going to fight for them."

So far, that fight is only in its infancy, but the first phase is already taking shape. Kenya Smith, the city's chief of intergovernmental relations, said city leaders intended to establish New Orleans-run centers in every area where large numbers of evacuees were known to be living.

The centers would be clearinghouses for information, providing neighborhood-by-neighborhood details about floodwaters and cleanup efforts, utilities and phone service.

The centers would also function as registration sites, to keep track of who is where.

The city intends to establish a toll-free number providing daily updates on information like the condition of the streets and giving residents opportunities to communicate with city officials.

Beyond that, Mr. Smith said, plans will have to be tailored to the different segments of society.

"Large pockets of our people will not have the means to travel great distances to get back, so we know we will have to help with that," Mr. Smith said.

Incentives are being discussed for evacuees who were better off.

"We intend to make it as easy as possible and to give them something to come home to," Mr. Braxton said, emphasizing the importance of improved infrastructure and storm protections. "There will have to be some creative legislation and ideas."

Mr. Magee, the golfer, says the storm will change the city's demographics.

"The middle class is dislodged now, and in six months, they're going to have to have a really compelling reason to move," he said.

Some people faithful to New Orleans will return no matter what. Glen Andrews, a jazz trombonist staying in the Astrodome, on Tuesday echoed the words of Fats Domino, a New Orleans native.

"I'm going home even if it comes down to walking to New Orleans," Mr. Andrews said. "It's my life, and I prefer to be in Louisiana, period. And it doesn't matter what's left there. I'm going to rebuild even if I have to hold a shovel and a horn at the same time."

But countless others were dissatisfied with their lives in New Orleans and were already thinking about leaving before the storm hit.

"Honestly, it was bad before," said Ms. Barconey, a 39-year-old nurse, citing the high poverty rate and poor public education. "It would have to be better than what it was."

Before the hurricane, the city was making itself better for both the middle class and the working class.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin had started economic development and building programs valued at about $4 billion and had pressed for homeownership in the city's poorest areas.

In fact, many residents had begun to move back to the city's core around the French Quarter, into newly gentrified areas like the Warehouse District along the Mississippi River and the Faubourg Marigny.

City officials hope the rebuilding effort will bolster their economy.

"One thing New Orleans was lacking was jobs," said Cynthia Hedge Morrell, a member of the City Council. "Now the rebuilding is going to bring a lot of good old-fashioned jobs. Bricklayers, plumbers, woodworkers, contractors. So is it going to be difficult? Yeah, and they might put off moving back for a while. But I do believe people want to come back to their home."

Given how she feels now, Ms. Barconey says the makeover will have to be extreme. "They're going to have to, some kind of way, raise that city above sea level or I'm not going back. I'm serious. I'm not putting myself in that same predicament."

If city officials were to take the advice of urban planners, they would already be putting out strong messages that the destruction would not be repeated once new levees and drains were built.

"There need to be assurances that where people are rebuilding, no new flooding will happen," Dr. Loukaitou-Sideris said, adding that officials need to come together and publicize a master plan for the city.

"Cities that lose population eventually decline, but New Orleans is a city with such character, that would be hard to imagine unless people totally lose faith in their government," she said.

After the way she was treated during the evacuation, Ms. Allen says she has lost that faith. Being evacuated from the Superdome, she sobbed through a cascade of tears on a Greyhound bus: "Goodbye New Orleans. Bye-bye Louisiana."

Looking back at that moment from a grassy stretch outside the Astrodome on Tuesday, she said she knew even then that goodbye meant forever.

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