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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
One year on: Katrina's legacy
By Stephen Sackur
Big Easy Blues - The Rebuilding Of New Orleans, BBC Radio 4

New Orleans sells itself to the world as the Big Easy. But one year after Hurricane Katrina there's nothing easy about life in New Orleans.

The hurricane swept past the city in a matter of hours, but New Orleanians will be living with its legacy for years to come.

In many parts, the physical recovery has barely begun

True, the photogenic French Quarter and the grand homes of the white establishment in the Garden District have regained much of their former charm but don't be fooled - even on Bourbon Street amid the jazz clubs and stores touting souvenir kitsch there is a pervasive sense of desolation.

And elsewhere in the city, away from the expensive real estate on the higher ground, the physical recovery from the catastrophic flooding has barely begun.

More than 1,000 people lost their lives to Katrina - the floodwaters left the city uninhabitable.

A year on and still New Orleans is eerily empty. Of a pre-Katrina population of half-a-million fewer than 200,000 have returned.

Ken Wilkens, social worker by day and a rapper known as Snoop by night, is one New Orleanian who made it back. In May he took me on a drive down Interstate 10, into the Ninth Ward, the heart of the city's black community.

"Katrina still has a smell," he said and he was right.

Sickly sweet, fetid fumes were still coming up from the residue of filth left behind when the floodwaters receded.

"There's no sign of life in a neighbourhood that used to be thriving," Snoop reflected. "We're in an American city and there's just miles and miles of devastation."

'Culture change'

On my most recent visit to New Orleans, just a week ago, the housing situation was little better. Snoop had finally moved himself out of his run-down hotel room into a small apartment, but most of his friends are still stuck in faraway cities, exiled from their pre-Katrina lives.

Snoop in front of his house
I'd give anything to go back to normal, but it'll never be the same

"If you don't get these people back then you gonna kill the whole spirit of New Orleans," Snoop told me, "because that's where the food, the music, the language comes from - that's the flavour in the gumbo."

But there are powerful forces in New Orleans who are not interested in restoring the city to the way it was before.

Boysie Bollinger, doyen of the white business elite, is one of them.

Over the past few months I've watched Boysie revive the fortunes of his shipbuilding business, battered by Katrina, but now back at full capacity.

He lost most of his African-American workforce when Katrina destroyed their homes - he has replaced many of them with Mexicans. He is thinking about hiring Filipinos and Romanians too.

Boysie wasn't enamoured with the way New Orleans was going before Katrina - he points to the drugs, the crime, the endemic poverty in some of the African American neighbourhoods. He talks about the "cleansing" effect of Katrina.

Boysie Bollinger
Boysie Bollinger will be influential in the rebuilding of the city
"You're going to see a culture change," he told me, with the confidence of a man used to getting his own way. "A lot more Latin people here as permanent residents, people who want to come and create new communities."

It is a message which sounds like a veiled threat to many African-Americans, but Boysie doesn't care.

"We want people who are willing to work. It's not directed at blacks, or at whites, just anyone who fits the description," he adds.

Boysie is a good friend of George W Bush. He is a key player on the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and a host of other influential bodies. When it comes to finalising the plan for the rebuilding of New Orleans it is likely to have the Bollinger stamp of approval.

Psychological frailty

For now though, there is no comprehensive re-building plan.

Most of the billions of dollars of federal money already poured into New Orleans have gone into emergency repairs to the network of levees. New floodgates have been fitted on key drainage canals, but even the spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, Major Ed Bayouth, acknowledged that the levees have received nothing more than a "temporary repair".

Will New Orleans be protected from the next big hurricane? Major Ed says he "doesn't feel there's a risk" of catastrophic flooding, but most residents simply don't believe him.

Denice Ross and her son Jamie work on a daycare centre
Denice hopes to be able to raise her family in New Orleans
Which is the main reason why, on this first anniversary of Katrina, the most striking thing about New Orleans isn't the physical mess the city is in, but the psychological frailty of its remaining inhabitants.

Most aren't ready to invest materially or emotionally in the re-building process until this hurricane season is past. That means another couple of months of nervous watching and waiting.

Denice Ross wants to believe her city has a future but some days she wakes up and she's really not sure.

"New Orleans is broken," she tells me. "If a small storm comes by the power goes out. We had to leave our office a few weeks ago because there wasn't enough water to flush the toilets. We're living on the edge - there's no cushion, no buffer left."

Denice is pregnant with her second child. She is praying she'll be able to raise her family in the city she loves.

As for Snoop, he says he feels "lost" in his own city. "I'd give anything to go back to normal, but it'll never be the same."

New Orleans is a city where the heart has always ruled the head. Good times today have always outweighed worries about tomorrow. But maybe that's not sustainable anymore.

Scientists say the city is steadily sinking into the mud of the Mississippi Delta, making it even more vulnerable to the next super-storm, or the one after. And given the failure of the politicians - city, state and federal - to rise to the challenge of Katrina, next time there may be no coming back.

Big Easy Blues - The Rebuilding Of New Orleans was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 24 August at 2000.

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