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Two years after landfall.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Two years to the day after Hurricane Katrina rewrote the definition of disaster for Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, the region's recovery defies easy description.

For every inspirational story of neighbors helping neighbors and every statistical indication of a resilient economy on the rebound, there is a grim and persistent counterpoint. The unevenness of the recovery divides along familiar economic and racial lines.

New Orleans, which came to symbolize for Americans the worst aspects of both the natural and human-caused components of the catastrophe, also perfectly illustrates the yin and yang of the hurricane's aftermath.

Tourism is up, but so is crime. Violent crime is 30 percent above pre-Katrina levels, and New Orleans is on track to become the nation's most dangerous city. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Police Department is understaffed and still operating out of trailers. The department continues to lose more officers to retirement and resignations than it can graduate from its academy.

The bad news about crime hasn't scared tourists away. Hotels are booking convention business at about 70 percent of pre-storm levels, and the French Quarter seems as busy as ever.

But away from the glitz of the French Quarter, it's another story. The impoverished Lower Ninth Ward is like a ghost town. The huge debris piles are gone, but the once-teeming neighborhood of low-income blackfamilies is now filled with uninhabitable homes and empty concrete slabs.

Ubiquitous blue nylon tarps still flap in the wind on unrepaired rooftops, while 42,250 Louisiana families continue to wait for rebuilding assistance in 240-square-foot Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.

A new state-of-the-art research hospital is on the drawing boards, but Charity Hospital, the safety net health care institution for New Orleans'98,000 poor, uninsured residents, is closed and won't reopen. The city has no comparable facility and little hope of creating one. Right now, it is operating on an unsustainable patchwork of donated doctor care and sympathetic community clinics.

The stress of a massive natural disaster and its ongoing social dislocation have taken a toll on everyone. A recent government study found that mental illness has doubled among Gulf Coast residents.

If the stress of life in a tin-can FEMA trailer isn't enough, New Orleans residents still have reason to worry about the integrity of the 350-mile network of flood-control levees and canals that failed to protect the city from Katrina's massive storm surge. The Army Corps of Engineers has been working furiously since the floodwaters first receded, but it's an enormous and horrendously expensive project that won't be finished until 2015. Outside estimates of the cost to build a system that could withstand a Category 5 hurricane exceed $40 billion. That's more money to protect a single city than was spent to construct the entire interstate highway system.

The corps' flood-control system can't succeed if the natural storm buffer - the coastal wetlands and marshes - is allowed to wash away. The state's precious coastal salt marshes are literally disappearing before people's eyes, eroding at the astonishing rate of an acre every 35 minutes. For every 2.7 linear miles of marshland lost, there is an additional foot of storm surge. Roughly 240 more square miles of the eroding wetlands will be gone by 2015 if nothing more is done to stabilize them.

The jury is still out on a definitive description of recovery from Hurricane Katrina 24 months after landfall. If President Bush really meant what he said in New Orleans two years ago when he declared, "We will do whatever it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," then what is abundantly clear is that it's going to take much more of everything - time, money, patience, charity, innovation and faith - to complete the recovery from the worst natural disaster in the nation's history.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 29, 2007
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