New Orleans: a national humiliation

Anthony Lane reports from the city failed by its president

As you enter New Orleans, you would not know that, two years on, the city is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

When I ask a fellow bus passenger, a middle-aged Texan in town for a boozy weekend, about reports of rocketing crime and hundreds of thousands still living in trailers, he upbraids me. "That's a whole loada leftwing crap. Just look at the place".

It's easy to sympathise with this view. The Central Business District of the city is gleaming, full of impressive colonnaded buildings, home to banks and swanky hotels. Indeed, beholding the obvious wealth at the heart of the Big Easy brings to mind Donald Trump's comment when President Bush promised to pump $200bn into the wider Gulf Coast after Katrina. "Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire", he said of those whose homes were destroyed.

The main tourist area, the French Quarter, looks similarly unaffected and lives up to New Orleans' reputation of being 'the city that care forgot', the birthplace of jazz and the cocktail. Wandering down legendary, decadent Bourbon Street with its loud bars offering cocktails to go, is an assault on the senses. Not only is a good time guaranteed but the French Quarter feels incredibly safe, with patrols performed not just by local police but also by the Louisiana state police and the National Guard.

It is the latter's presence, however, which hints that all is far from well. The National Guard has stayed in the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin, in an effort to stem an explosion in crime. Murder, almost always black on black and located away from tourist hotspots, is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2006, there were 63 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest murder rate in the entire country and ten times that of New York. This figure may well be an underestimate.

One local academic, Prof Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University, has suggested the real one is 96 per 100,000. If true, that would mean New Orleans has twice the murder rate of America's second most murderous city, Gary in Indiana.

Figures for the first three months of 2007 are equally shocking. According to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), overall violent crime increased by 107% in the space of one year. Armed robbery was up 135% on 2006 figures and murder rose by 182%. The crime wave is out of all proportion to the rise in population – thought to have increased by 62% – as residents returned to their gutted homes. (Many seem to have abandoned the city for good and one third of New Orleanians tell pollsters they want to leave.)

In January, there was almost a murder a day, prompting a march on city hall by angry residents. As a result, overnight police checkpoints have been set up across the city and the National Guard has launched aerial patrols. There are also 22 FBI agents on patrol. But a beefed-up federal presence cannot disguise falling police numbers.

Officially, the number of officers is down from 1,668 in 2005 to 1,400 today. However, the latter figure includes sick, injured and depressed officers (there are few who don't have harrowing stories from the aftermath of Katrina). Solidifying the city's reputation as the nation's capital of crime, Fox is setting its latest police drama, K-Ville, in New Orleans.

The city is showing little sign of coping with the consequences of the complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. State charges against 3,000 criminal suspects were dropped in 2006 because of a lack of resources to prosecute them. There were 162 murders last year but only three have seen convictions. Murders often go unsolved because the city does not have the resources to fund adequate witness relocation or change witnesses' identities. Residents are all too aware that drug gangs, often linked to these murders, are living much closer to their homes since Katrina. Armed drugs dealers are now encamped in hundreds of abandoned houses in the Ninth Ward, the worst hit area of the city. Police are widely criticised for not patrolling beyond main streets. Some locals sport T-shirts with the words, "NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude" emblazoned on them.

There is one very safe way of seeing the damage wrought by Katrina and just how little has been done to help those trying to rebuild their lives in areas like the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Katrina Tour, a guided bus tour run by national tour operator Gray Line, is the epitome of disaster tourism; taking visitors around the most wretched parts of the city. The guide, a witty, middle-aged white woman called Sandra, ended up sleeping on one of the unbroken levees and went two days without food or water before being rescued. "Is anyone here from the government?" she asks. "I want to make sure I punch the right people."

The sheer chaos after the storm smashed the city's flood walls and levees is realised by way of some amazing tales. We drive by the impressive Aquarium of the Americas, the stench from which was apparently unbearable as 10,000 fish gently cooked in the 98 degree heat. Then there is the Superdome, home to 28,000 desperate residents whose plight led to comparisons with the third world.

We go by impressive cemeteries. New Orleans, by long tradition, buries its dead above ground. The storm tore the tops off many graves with the effect that the skeletons of the long-since-departed floated next to the corpses of Katrina's 1,600 victims. Despite having the footage, American TV networks did not broadcast such images. The bus goes past houses belonging to the guide's friends, one of whom saved 65 people by cramming them into her home which has since been looted 17 times.

Another spent 10 days living on top of his home and bore witness to a deer trying to avoid the rising water by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, only to be gobbled by a shark swum in with the Gulf of Mexico. Chemical and oil spills, death by poisonous snakes, sharks, corpses and skeletons: it is anarchy even Hobbes would have found difficult to imagine.

But the true horror is more banal; it is in the sheer scale of what remains to be done, two years on. There are so many homes boarded up, still marked by paint indicating how many people – and their pets – were found dead there. Trailers are parked outside thousands of properties as people rebuild their homes. Many are beyond repair. Nine hundred houses are torn down each month in the city. There are hundreds of 'for sale' and 'now leasing' signs outside properties with smashed windows. Some of the most beautiful houses built in the richer Bayou area in the 19th Century are unscathed because they were constructed a few feet above ground (residents of old were worried about the possibility of flooding). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now requires properties most at risk to be raised three feet above ground and we see a few strange-looking homes which have been raised several feet, almost as if they are on stilts.

The bus takes a turn off one of the main roads and goes through the Ninth Ward, trailers and crumpled homes everywhere. We are in closer proximity to residents than at any other point in the trip and we see children walking barefooted. A certain queasiness sets in and the bus windows begin to feel almost like the screens at a zoo. I'm not surprised on later learning that the locals hate the tour and the gawping it entails.

The long-term damage to the economy is also obvious. We go past the place where a newly-opened 55ft shopping mall once stood and then by the rollercoasters of a derelict theme park which would take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. The local oyster beds were all destroyed, we are told, along with 10,000 boats. Environmental damage is apparent from the swathes of dead trees on the outskirts of the city. Marshes are still dying, due to the effects of salt water.

We see one of 50 new city landfills where debris from 2005 is still being dumped. According to Nagin the city has had to clear up six times as much debris as New York did after 9/11. A gigantic NASA compound can be seen on the horizon. Despite being badly hit, the federal government made sure it was operational just six weeks after Katrina, says the guide disgustedly, neglecting to mention that her tour was up and running only 10 weeks after that. Indeed, for all the sentimentalism about rebuilding the city, when I ask if the tour donates its profits to the victims of Katrina, the reply is a little frosty. "We've given $3000", she says. Considering that it runs twice daily, has a capacity of 40 and charges $35, I fail to disguise my surprise at such thinly-veiled parsimony.

But it is a brilliant tour, one which brings home the neglect and incompetence of Bush's administration. By the end, however, it becomes a desensitising experience as one gutted home leads on to another. "Too much. It's just too much," says the woman behind me, as the three hour trip draws to a close.

Reconstruction in New Orleans and beyond has been painfully slow. Public services in the city are in dire straits. In his recent State of the City address, Nagin said, "Healthcare in our city is in crisis…our mental health patients have been abandoned". Despite rocketing mental illness, the 300 public and private psychiatric beds destroyed by Katrina have not been replaced. The Louisiana State University hospital is on the verge of opening a 10-bed unit situated in a temporary building. Even if the city could provide more beds, it is questionable whether it could find or fund mental health workers to practice there. Higher education is in a bad way. The American Association of University Professors recently took the highly unusual step of marking out all of the city's universities for criticism.

Yet the greatest anger is directed at the failure of Road Home, the programme through which residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged, are compensated. Incredibly, along the entire Gulf Coast there are 87,000 households living in mobile homes and travel trailers and another 33,000 living in federally subsidised apartments. The federal government is supposed to provide the money to residents based on estimates made by the state of Louisiana about the level of damage their properties sustained. But the programme has an estimated shortfall of between $2.9bn and $5bn, with the result that a stunning four fifths of Road Home applicants have not received anything.

Consequently, many have failed to return. The population is thought to be around the 250,000 mark, well below the pre-Katrina population of 455,000.

Some fault the private firm put in charge of Road Home and hired by the outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco on the basis that the private sector would be more efficient. Others ask why the state government, enjoying a budget surplus, cannot itself put more money into Road Home. But the real blame game is between the state government and FEMA.

The federal government agency's Donald Powell, President Bush's co-ordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, blames the state government for awarding grants to those ineligible for compensation. The federal government, Powell has argued, takes full responsibility for the flood damage due to the failure of the federally-managed levees but is not responsible for the hurricane's wind-related damage. Not true, says the Louisana Recovery Authority, pointing to the fact that in June 2006, the federal government approved the state's application for all to be compensated.

FEMA's position and the Road Home shortfall has resulted not only in many residents being denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled but has also led to the federal government now trying to claw back some $485m from those who have been helped – a sum it spends every 42 hours in Iraq. It is little wonder that Nagin recently lashed out at the "unfulfilled promises" of the federal government as well as "an unprecedented bureaucracy, a misguided Road Home programme, a state government flush with cash while citizens go broke trying to come home".

For her part, Blanco, a Democrat like Nagin, has blasted the amount of money given to the state. Louisiana, she says, was "low-balled" by the federal government, pointing out that neighbouring Mississippi, which was also hit by Katrina, has been given $5.5bn in grants compared to $10.4bn for Louisiana even though the latter sustained five times as much damage. The differential treatment, Blanco and many others claim, is down to Mississippi having a Republican governor who helped to get Bush elected. Moreover, hurricane-related spending decisions were signed off, until the 2006 Congressional elections, by the Senate Appropriations Committee which was chaired by a Republican Senator from Mississippi.

Just how badly some are suffering becomes clear at a protest 80 miles away in Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge. Apart from a few white hippies and volunteers, almost all of the 200 protestors are black and yet to receive compensation for the damage to their homes. Their placards say "Show Me The Money", pouring scorn on the federal government's claim to have spent $110bn on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. The anger is palpable. Some speakers on the steps of the Capitol building are almost screaming despite having megaphones to hand. Nagin has also joined them. He is an eloquent and impressive speaker, with an easy ability to command applause and share in the protestors' frustrations. I ask a nurse what she thought of the speech. "It was great – for all the good it will do".

Nagin has the unenviable task of radiating optimism to residents about the future whilst emphasising just how bad things are in order to get more federal funds. His poll ratings have plummeted as anger over crime and the lack of reconstruction has risen. Lakeisha, a waitress, calls him 'crooked', a word that gets used a lot. As the protest breaks up, I talk to one man, still living in his damp, rotting house and carrying a placard stating, 'Louisiana has the best politicians money can buy'. I ask if that's true of Nagin as the mayor glad-hands right next to us. "Him too. Everybody is."

There is no reason to think this is the case. Nagin made a name for himself before Katrina as a 'corruption-buster'. What such comments reflect is a dangerous contempt for, and anger at, all politicians and the institutions of government as well as the fact that in Louisiana, politics has long been a byword for brazen corruption. (Indeed, just as the city and state attempt to convince Congress that any extra money will be wisely spent, one Louisiana congressman, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption. Amazingly, he was re-elected in 2006, despite the allegations swirling around him and the FBI discovering $90,000 hidden in his freezer.)

Another, more considered, critique of Nagin is that, as a relative newcomer to the choppy waters of Louisiana politics – before he became mayor, Nagin was a cable television executive with no previous political experience – he has been unable to navigate through a plethora of vested local interests. It must be frustrating to be simultaneously tarred by association with Louisiana politics and damned for not being well versed in it.

The flip side of being a passionate speaker is Nagin's loose tongue which has got him into trouble more than once. Campaigning for re-election last year and in need of black votes, Nagin pledged that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city", i.e. predominantly black.

Heavily criticised in the national media and lampooned as the Willy Wonka of American politics, he apologised and then hilariously claimed his words were consistent with his previous pledges to reduce racial divisions. "How do you make chocolate?" he asked. "You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about".

Perhaps more damaging to the reputation of Nagin and the city was the choice of Ed Blakely as recovery tsar. Blakely makes Nagin look like a paragon of diplomacy. Showing total contempt for the people he was supposed to be helping, Blakely was once quoted as calling many New Orleanians "buffoons" and has compared the city to "a third world country". On another occasion, he suggested the state should learn about birth control, comparing it unfavourably to California. It was an ignorant as well as insulting remark: on average, Louisiana actually has fewer children per family than California. Worse still, when back home in Australia, Blakely went on local radio and accused the city of exaggerating its pre-Katrina population so as to maximise funds from the federal government after the storm. He apologised and blamed "a serious medical condition" for his comments. With recovery chiefs like this.

Proposals made by both Nagin and Blakely to raise more money for recovery have not progressed. Both have spoken of issuing so-called blight bonds, using damaged properties as collateral to borrow $300m. Until recently, however, the city had a bond rating of junk, stymieing such ideas. There are a plethora of blueprints, action zones, commissions and recovery agencies, but no money with which to proceed. What progress has been made is the result of loans, donations from foundations and a partial recovery of the city's tax base thanks to the return of tourists.

But however justified the criticisms of Nagin, Blakely, Blanco et al might be, as one of the organisers of the Baton Rouge protest says, "No state or city government, no matter how efficient, could have coped with this". New Orleans has been in need of a Leviathan but has instead been dealt the most uncaring and incompetent administration in modern American history.

The charge sheet against Bush's management is damning. Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers required $62.5m to maintain Louisiana's flood control project, only for the administration to cut the budget to just $10.5m. There was a 44% reduction in spending on the levees between 2001-2005. Bush downgraded the status of FEMA, which had warned in 2001 that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most probable disasters to befall the US. FEMA was placed in the charge of the Homeland Security department, miring it in "a dysfunctional bureaucracy", according to Hillary Clinton.

The shockingly indolent response to the disaster was, of course, a national humiliation. Some of the last people to be rescued, in nearby St Bernard, were saved not by American troops, but by the much-lampooned Canadian Mounties. And now, given the desperate shortage of cash, New Orleans is once again embarrassing the country.

Nagin recently announced that he is in contact with foreign governments who offered aid in the wake of Katrina. Their offers, totalling $854m, were rejected by the Bush administration. In an unprecedented act, Nagin has decided "to go around the federal government" to see if any of those offers are still on the table.

Whether New Orleans is in better shape to withstand another hurricane of Katrina's magnitude – it was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit the city – is an open question. The city successfully lobbied Congress for a strengthening of its levees and flood defences, guaranteeing it "100-year protection". But work on the new defence system will not be completed until 2011. There is no doubt that it is a big task. Though maintenance before the storm cost very little, Katrina left 225 miles of levees in need of repair with the result that the corps has been given $5.7bn. According to Col Jeff Bedey, the commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, the system "is stronger today than it was pre-Katrina".

However, the colonel was careful not to give categorical assurances and some engineers have stated that a prolonged Category 2 hurricane would flood the city once more. Ivor Van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre, whose pre-Katrina warnings about the dangers facing New Orleans were ignored, maintains that there are still "weak links" in basic flood defences. According to an internal army corps report, because of the rush to offer as much protection as quickly as possible, new pumps installed in 2006 have failed to work correctly. Water has recently seeped through cracks in flood walls that have supposedly been restored.

But the potential for further ruin goes beyond the city. Nearby Terrebonne is thought to be most at risk of flooding and Congress has approved a $900m levee system. The Bush administration has yet to give the nod to construction with the result that residents have had to tax themselves $80m in order to provide 'interim protection'. The main consoling thought for anxious residents waiting for 2011 is that Katrina is often described as a '1 in 400' event. That anxiety is not helped by constant reports of what remains to be done. 'Hurricane hype' is amusingly lambasted by weather presenters on the very news programmes that generate it.

The predominating emotion is not anxiety but depression. "Everyone's depressed", says Ben, another organiser of the Baton Rouge protest. Despite having just over half its 2005 population, suicide prevention calls are up 800%. People speak of 'Katrina fatigue' – hardly surprising given the never-ending slew of bad news stories relating back to the hurricane, which can involve anything from 'ailing theatres' to having the highest rates of bankruptcy and heart attacks in the country. Nagin claims the death rate in the city is up 47% and the state as a whole continues to rank 50th in health surveys. There are a startling number of people coughing, despite the very warm summer heat.

The city at times seems almost cursed. I came across the story of one broken man whose home in the neighbourhood of Gentilly was badly damaged by the storm. He returned and spent the better part of 2006 using his life savings to rebuild it while he lived outside in a trailer, frequently fending off would-be looters. Just as he was about to move back in, a tornado ripped through the city in February, leading to 30,000 households going without power and a state of emergency being declared. It also slammed his trailer against his house. He is now living in a second trailer. He was lucky only by comparison with his neighbour, 86 year old Stella, who was killed in her newly refurbished home when her old trailer was thrown against it.

The other prevailing feeling is anger. Iraq hangs over New Orleans, almost as pungent as the smells due to poor drainage, another post-Katrina blight. Indeed, in another unguarded remark he was made to regret, Nagin suggested Katrina demonstrated God's anger at the US for going to war. Most New Orleanians are quick to link the cuts in flood defences preceding the hurricane with the president's $1 trillion war of choice. 'Make levees, not war' T-shirts are available in most tourist shops. "All that Road Home money, it went on the war", says Ann, a hotel worker who also recalls the Asian tsunami. "All that aid to a country no one had heard of, and in the US, we get nothing".

This anger is expressed most acutely by blacks. The racial divisions in the city, which was 67% black before Katrina, have always been stark. As Nagin said in his 2005 State of the City address, "Parts of our city are mired in violent crime, unemployment…and children are trapped in failing schools". Those parts were black and remain so. The anger and despair felt by blacks has been likened by Barack Obama to the situation in Los Angeles in the 1980s before race riots overtook the city in 1992.

New Orleans feels like a city at a crossroads. There is a danger that the "quiet riot" identified by Obama becomes audible and violent, that the city fails to get a grip on crime and that tens of thousands continue to wait for compensation. On the other hand, help may now come from a Democrat Congress, prodded into action by all three of the party's main presidential candidates who have promised more money should they be made president in 2008.

The city continues to be helped by a veritable army of volunteers. The work of charities like Habitat for Humanity has been invaluable. While no substitute for government action, the American volunteer culture is a truly impressive and noble sight to behold, as children from all around the country use their holidays to rebuild victims' homes. In especially rough areas like Treme, citizens are attempting to reclaim their neighbourhoods by way of rallies and public meetings. Recently, the first school in the Lower Ninth Ward was reopened, a 'Herculean effort' say local officials, considering that other dilapidated schools have had to house guard dogs to stop constant looting of pipes as well as the wood used to board the schools up.

Leaving the city centre, you are struck once more by its wealth and the fundamental strength of the city's position as a hub for big business and tourism. For all the public squalor, private investment is gathering pace. The city is manna from heaven for property speculators and 150,000 building permits, worth $3.7bn, have been issued. Furthermore, 62,000 out of the city's 81,000 businesses have now reopened. There is one particularly striking billboard, advertising a $400m, 70-storey tower which will be the tallest building in the state when completed in 2010 and which hopes to attract the affluent to condos priced between $375,000 and $3.3m. It seems somehow fitting that the proprietor is none other than Donald Trump.

The city of New Orleans has proven itself to be George Bush's domestic crucible, laying bare the sheer incompetence and callousness of the president. The administration's criminal neglect has meant that two years after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of American citizens endure a soul-destroying existence and the daily humiliations and indignities of trailer park life. Their homes destroyed, their humanity crushed and their promised compensation denied, they have become a diaspora of human detritus, left to rot by the pioneers of compassionate conservatism.