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Old 02-16-2007, 12:36 PM   #1
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I Cry for My Daddy on the Telephone / How Long Now?

February 16, 2007

Fed-Up New Orleans Residents Are Giving Up

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 15 — After nearly a decade in the city of their dreams, Kasandra Larsen and her fiancé, Dylan Langlois, climbed into a rented moving truck on Marais Street last Sunday, pointed it toward New Hampshire, and said goodbye.

Not because of some great betrayal — they had, after all, come back after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina — but a series of escalating indignities: the attempted carjacking of a pregnant friend; the announced move to Nashville by Ms. Larsen’s employer; the human feces deposited on their roof by, they suspect, the contractors next door; the two burglaries in the space of a week; and, not least, the overnight wait for the police to respond.

A year ago, Ms. Larsen, 36, and Mr. Langlois, 37, were hopeful New Orleanians eager to rebuild and improve the city they adored. But now they have joined hundreds of the city’s best and brightest who, as if finally acknowledging a lover’s destructive impulses, have made the wrenching decision to leave at a time when the population is supposed to be rebounding.

Their reasons include high crime, high rents, soaring insurance premiums and what many call a lack of leadership, competence, money and progress. In other words: yes, it is still bad down here. But more damning is what many of them describe as a dissipating sense of possibility, a dwindling chance at redemption for a great city that, even before the storm, cried out for great improvement.

“The window of opportunity is closing,” Ms. Larsen said, “before more people like us give up and say it’s too little, too late.”

Mr. Langlois, who has repeatedly called the health and sanitation departments, the police and City Hall, said he despaired of receiving any response. In November, the couple bought their first house, and in December, they bought their first handgun.

“My friends here are just the greatest, hard-working, tax-paying people,” Mr. Langlois said, “and I think a lot of us are feeling under siege.”

The couple are unlikely to make any money on the sale of their house.

For every household that, like this one, has given up, there is another on the verge. Tyrone Wilson, a successful real estate agent and consultant, said he and his wife, Trina, a lawyer, had given post-storm life a fair chance. But, Mr. Wilson said, at the end of the school year they are likely to take their three children back to Dallas, where they took refuge after the storm.

“We came back, we tried,” he said. “It’s really draining, and at a certain point you sit down and you say, ‘We don’t have to go through this.’ ”

As a city in flux, New Orleans remains statistically murky, but demographers generally agree that the population replenishment after the storm, as measured by things like the amount of mail sent and employment in main economic sectors, has leveled off. While many poorer residents have moved back to the city, the “brain drain” of professionals that the city was experiencing before the storm appears to have accelerated.

Some say the overall effect is negligible. Greg Rigamer, a demographer who has done work for the city, said that the lack of housing had constrained the recovery, but that many residents remained fully committed to the city.

“The pattern in is certainly stronger than the pattern out,” Mr. Rigamer said.

But in December, the number of houses on the market peaked at a high not seen since the late 1980s, while the number of sales has trended downward since last June, according to data tracked by the Brookings Institution in Washington. Statistics kept by commercial moving companies show a net loss to New Orleans. Employers say they have raised salaries for skilled workers.

One oft-cited survey by the University of New Orleans found that a third of residents, especially those with graduate degrees, were thinking of leaving within two years.

Susan E. Howell, who conducted the survey, cautioned that the sample was small and that the poor were underrepresented. There are indications that low-income New Orleanians — those who will need the most help from a cash-strapped city —are making their way back, despite a lack of affordable housing, piling into relatives’ homes and trailers.

U-Haul, the rental company that is more affordable than commercial movers, has had more inbound trucks than outbound, according to the company’s records, and the number of public school children and new applications for food stamps in Orleans Parish are rising. In Houston, a task force that helps Hurricane Katrina residents resettle has paid more than $1 million in moving expenses for 350 families returning to New Orleans.

“This is a serious problem for the city, because one of the things we had pre-Katrina was the lack of an educated population,” Dr. Howell said. “We had too many people at the low end and not enough at the high end, and Katrina sort of fast-forwarded that trend.”

Because many poorer people have taken longer to return, they have not dealt with as many months of frustration as families with higher income and more mobility, so their staying power has yet to be determined.

Reganer Stewart, 30, a hotel maid, said she had been living with her cousin and her cousin’s mother and four children since November. In January, Ms. Stewart’s 12-year-old daughter, Brandi, joined them, but was put on a waiting list for school and could not enroll until earlier this month.

Houston, which Ms. Stewart had not liked when she evacuated there, was growing more attractive as her search for an apartment here grew longer. “Most likely, we going to leave,” she said.

In battered but proud New Orleans, abandonment is a highly emotional subject, in part because many have made sacrifices to stay and rebuild. To some, leaving now is tantamount to treason. When a report appeared a year ago that Emeril Lagasse, the famed chef, had said the city would “never come back,” reservations at his restaurants were canceled and strangers berated him. He insisted he had been misquoted.

And in response to an article in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about a woman who had decided to move on, Poppy Z. Brite, a New Orleans novelist, wrote: “This isn’t an easy place to be right now, and the decision to stay or go is deeply personal. But why must some people use the media to take a parting shot at the city?”

On another occasion, Ms. Brite said, “If a place takes you in and you take it into yourself, you don’t desert it just because it can kill you. There are some things more valuable than life.”

Such fierce sentiments help explain why a dozen people who were planning to move or had already done so declined to speak on the record for this article or allow their name to be used. One man, a chef, said he wanted to remain anonymous because he was likely to return someday. A university professor said she did not want to compromise her employer’s ability to recruit.

“If I was going to be really politically savvy,” she said, “I would say that I was going to do a job search about this time anyway.”

The decision to leave is especially difficult for natives, said Elliott Stonecipher, a demographic analyst in Shreveport, La., even if they are going no farther than the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

“They just won’t talk about it; they do not want to talk about it,” Mr. Stonecipher said, adding that the reluctance shows just how unusual the city is. “It’s remarkable that they just don’t want anybody to know that they gave in.”

Others have unimpeachable reasons: Paul Gailiunas, a doctor whose wife, Helen Hill, was murdered in their home last month, left immediately for South Carolina.

As for Ms. Larsen and Mr. Langlois, they have taken in all the fury at those who are leaving, in newspapers, neighborhood forums on the Internet and even in the bars and cafes of their neighborhood, the Ninth Ward. But while many of their own friends had expressed disappointment, none had blamed them.

“Not only do they understand why we’re leaving,” Ms. Larsen said, “but they say, ‘You know what, I’m thinking about getting out of here, too.’ It’s like they’re waiting for that one more bad thing to happen.”

Brenda Goodman contributed reporting.

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Old 02-16-2007, 12:42 PM   #2
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My uncle worked down there for Blackwater (security company) after the hurricane and came back with dozens of similar stories. My brother and his friends moved down there to re-build homes (they're going to be on Flip This House in August) and my mom is obsessively worrying about him b/c of all the crime.

It seems like there were a lot of problems in this area and the storm was just the catalyst that set the whole thing off, like it was waiting to blow. I've never been to the area, but I'd always wanted to and I wish them (the ones in this article AND the "poor") the very best...

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Old 02-16-2007, 02:03 PM   #3
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i'm debating whether to pass this along to my students. i'm taking them to NOLA for spring break...they have hearts of gold, but are also concerned about the crime.
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