The Unluckiest City in America

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Five years ago it was Katrina. Then came the BP oil disaster. David Usborne visits the beleaguered citizens of New Orleans

Five years, anyone in New Orleans will tell you, is too short a time to get over something like Hurricane Katrina.

For some the healing has barely begun. Others were back on their feet until they were knocked back by a second disaster, the filthy gusher beneath the Gulf of Mexico. When Barack Obama arrives tomorrow on the anniversary of the storm that left 1,300 people dead, he will find a city that is no longer quite flat on its back but still feels singled out for calamity and woe.

Just as progress is made in one area, another crisis erupts to sap confidence and dash hope. February: the beloved Saints American football team win the Super Bowl. July: owners of the biggest local shipyard announce its closure, 5,000 jobs lost.

Tour through The Big Easy by foot, car and helicopter, and you quickly see the unevenness of its recovery. The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and hardest-hit neighbourhoods that is downriver from the French Quarter, is less a town district today and more a jungle. Where houses once stood, willow trees sprawl halfway across what were once busy roads. Barely 25 per cent of those who lived along its streets have returned. It is on the cusp between becoming a functioning neighbourhood again and collapsing under the weight of its own decay.

Yet viewed from above, the work of the Army Corps of Engineers as it upgrades the city's defences – the miles of levees and concrete barriers – is staggering. It is a $15bn endeavour that some liken to the construction of the Hoover Dam or America's interstate highway network. Iron pilings the length of buses lie like piano keys for miles and miles, waiting to be thrust into levees made higher and wider by fleets of earth-movers.

Some remedies are welcome but tardy. Last week, the federal government said it was releasing $1.8bn to help rebuild schools lost in the storm. On the same day, the newly elected mayor, Mitch Landrieu, unveiled a 65-point programme to remake the police force. No fewer than 18 former and current NOPD officers have recently been charged with killing innocent civilians around the time of Katrina or covering up the deaths.

Here, five years is less about tomorrow's anniversary and more about the time needed for all the healing to be completed. The combination of Katrina and the BP disaster has, according to Mayor Landrieu, who took office just in May, brought New Orleans back down "to its knees". Addressing journalists this month in Washington DC, he offered his own timescale for the city to be brought back to what he calls its former glory: five years.

The timespan is also cited by Sid Patrick, owner of Capt Sid's Fish Market in Bucktown, a part of the city in a pocket between the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the 17th Street Canal, one of the waterways that was breached during the hurricane. It will be five more years, he reckons, before seafood caught in the gulf around New Orleans bounces back fully from the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

White rubber boots on his feet, Mr Patrick, 75, is an ambassador for anyone who has taken the double-punch of Katrina and the oil spill. The storm knocked out the shop; the spill killed the business. "I never thought of throwing in the towel, but I hope I can get through this one," he explained in his small back office on a recent Saturday morning. "I had recovered pretty fair from Katrina. But the oil spill knocked me back for real."

The bad luck seems to be a repeating cycle for him as it is for the city. In the storm of 1938, his grandfather's house floated clean away and cows swam down his family's block. In early 2005, developers offered him $800,000 for land he owned close to the Pontchartrain levee. He turned them down. After Katrina they weren't interested. Early this year – just before the BP mess – he dug into his savings and bought the building his shop is in that he'd been renting for years. "Let me tell you, it cost me pretty darn good."

Thanks to Deepwater Horizon, business at Capt Sid's, where he sells mostly shrimp, crab and catfish, is down at least a third. "It just killed it," he says. He is tired of hearing the joke about not needing to put oil in the pan to cook the shrimp he sells because they have plenty of their own.

"No one wants to eat seafood, they are afraid," he explains, after talking to another nervous customer. "Everyone wants to know if they are all right, especially the crabs. I tell them if the health department says they are safe, they are safe or I wouldn't be selling them. I could get sued."

Yet there is something else about Mr Patrick that makes him typical of many here. Things may be bad but, well, someone else has it worse, so it doesn't do to complain too loudly. Indeed, he punctuates his stories of hardship with laughter. He notes that the shop and his house were washed through with only about 18in of water in 2005, not the 15ft some people endured. Not one of his family lost their lives. He is grateful that his insurance paid him half the $30,000 of frozen fish he lost in Katrina and that the federal government paid him $64,000 to repair his home even if doing it cost him and his wife half as much again.

Another man with deep reserves of resilience is Mack McLendon, a long-term resident – survivor – of the Lower Ninth. Tonight, he and his brother Joe host a reunion of displaced Lower Ninth residents at The Village, a community centre he founded in a disused car repair shop near the Industrial Canal, which also broke its banks five years ago.

His ambitions for the centre can be seen in the architectural renderings on the wall of his office. They show a gleaming library, a computer lab and classrooms. Reality has not been so kind. Mr McLendon can barely pay the bills. Kept dry by plastic sheets, the library is filled with a ramshackle collection of donated books on metal shelves. The three computers are dark because the internet isn't working. A sign outside offers free eggs, but there are only two chickens to keep up with demand.

The struggles at The Village follow him home. Or rather they don't, because he sleeps on a mattress here. Five years after Katrina, his nearby house is still uninhabitable. He and Joe have been trying to rebuild its inside walls, but, unable to keep up with the mortgage, he is facing imminent foreclosure by the bank.

"I think this has to be one of the hardest things I have ever done," Mr McClendon, 56, concedes. "But I have got to see it though to the end, because the people here, they need a hub they can go to and a safe place."

It is not surprising that Mr McClendon shares something else with many here: a deep disillusionment with city, state and federal authorities and their ability to deliver the compassion, services and money they promised. The frustration is acute in the Lower Ninth. "The neglect is mind-boggling, I wouldn't believe it if I wasn't here," he sighs. "It's criminal. This was the hardest-hit community and we are the last to get our services back."

At the Corps of Engineers HQ, a digital clock counts down to the 1 June 2011 deadline for finishing the 350 miles of connected levees and walls all around the city that they say will protect it from the fury of the next so-called 100-year hurricane. It looks like they will make it. And slowly fisheries that were closed in the Gulf and lakes after the oil spill are reopening.

And yet.

The loss of the Avondale shipyard kills 15 per cent of the city's manufacturing jobs in one stroke. The price of jumbo crab at Capt Sid's is $48.50 a dozen this weekend, compared to $25 before the BP well exploded. Thanks to Katrina, one in five homes citywide still stands empty. New Orleans has a right to ask, what is next?

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