It is two years now since Hurricane Katrina tore apart historic New Orleans deep in the American South.
How could we possibly forget that harrowing footage? But, what's not well-known is that the bloke currently in charge of rebuilding the shattered city is actually an Australian citizen who lives in Sydney, Dr Ed Blakely. New Orleans is not his first assignment. In the past, he's been called on to reconstruct other cites around the world pulverised by nature. Our reporter David Brill has just been to New Orleans to examine the city's reconstruction and he found a disturbing extra layer to the crisis, the dreaded race card is well and truly out of the deck. Here is David Brill's report.
REPORTER: David Brill
DR ED BLAKELY, HEAD OF RECOVERY NEW ORLEANS: New Orleans is America's city. It's a unique creature of the United States. New Orleans is the crucible of America. We have no unique institutions except jazz, which was invented here. So this is America's soul, if America's soul dies so does America.
The old New Orleans in the state of Louisiana, they called it the Pearl of the South. But everything changed in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blasted ashore leaving 1,500 dead and destroying 250,000 homes across the state. When the levee surrounding New Orleans broke, the city quite literally drowned.
DR ED BLAKELY: Maybe you can compare this with Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where you destroy good portions of the city and you are unable to occupy them for a long time.
I've come here to see what has or hasn't changed since then. In many ways the city looks and sounds normal, at least in the centre of town. And by night, the famous Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is pumping out the jazz, just like the old days. But appearances can be deceptive.
JOHN CANNON, ‘FREE AGENTS BRASS BAND’: Most of us are homeowners who can't even get into our own homes because of the condition that they are in. We are forced to pay high rents and we are not making the wages that we need to pay the rent and just keep our head above water. You talk about a flood that passed through here. There's still a flood here, a lot of people are just barely above the flood-line.
REPORTER: So all these blocks here, there were houses on all these blocks?
JOHN CANNON: Every inch of square land that you see back here…
John is the tuba player from the band and he wants to take me to his home in the hardest-hit part of the city, the Lower Ninth Ward.
REPORTER: Where have they all gone?
JOHN CANNON: The ones that did not wash away were torn down by the city. The ones that washed away ended up almost to Shellmet. I mean, all of this was neighbourhoods, everybody lived here. Think of all the people who had homes here.
The poor and black residents suffered most when the hurricane hit and I'm about to learn that they're still suffering.
JOHN CANNON: And this..I don't know how it's been locked, well… This was the kitchen we had in the house, all the copper piping that was in here, people have been stealing that and there used to be a stove on this side, but..
REPORTER: They've been coming in here, stealing your copper piping?
JOHN CANNON: They steal everything. It's a cut-throat place now, like a third-world country, you have to do what you have to do.
REPORTER: Like the Wild West going on here?
JOHN CANNON: Right.
With his house flooded up to the rafters, John's family was evacuated interstate and hasn't yet returned. He now lives at a friend's place.
JOHN CANNON: Right here in the kitchen, the refrigerator was here.
One of thousands of home-owners caught in a catch 22 situation, he doesn't have the money to rebuild his home and the state government won't let him return untill it's repaired.
JOHN CANNON: You know, I own a property, I'm still paying taxes on it, I have to pay taxes every year or the City will just take my property from me and the bad thing about it is that there is nothing I can do with it, not at this point.
JOHN CANNON: Nothing.
And as bizarre as it sounds, John is even in debt to the city for not cutting his lawn.
REPORTER: So they want you to pay $100 a day to cut this grass?
JOHN CANNON: Yes, a hundred dollars a day, every day that it is not cut it's $100 that I pay to the city. This is a light that has been there since Katrina and that's still Katrina water, two years later, that's how high the water was here.
As I move around, the Lower Ninth resembles a ghost town.
REPORTER: What number's that?
JOHN GREY: 5006.
REPORTER: 5006, and your house used to be in there?
JOHN GREY: Right.
REPORTER: What happened to it?
JOHN GREY: It floated away.
REPORTER: Have you ever seen it since?
JOHN GREY: No, we have never saw it can't even but find it. Was trying to find it and get some sentimental things out there but we couldn't even find it.
John Grey is another resident who seems to be in shock two years after the flood.
REPORTER: How's it affected your health?
JOHN GREY: Mentally, it is devastating, it is devastating. Devastating. This is sad, really sad. And you got people homeless, hungry and everything else out here, committing suicide and everything else and, you know, it's just bad.
John was a paralegal working for a well-known law firm. Ever since Katrina, he's been jobless and survives on the food provided by this charity centre.
BRIAN QUINN, MANAGER, ‘EMERGENCY COMMUNITIES’: We provide three meals a day, we had child care here during the summer. We're gutting houses for people, rewiring houses for people. If it wasn't for the private sector, and the religious groups, a lot of this work wouldn't be getting done because the government's not doing it.
REPORTER: And have most of these people lost their homes during Katrina?
BRIAN QUINN: Just about all of them.
The charity business is booming. I check another centre that's just opened. The story was depressingly similar, more homeless people.
CURTIS BROUSSARD: Before Katrina I was doing alright, I had my own place, I was staying with one of my daughters. But since then the rent is so sky-high. I get $600 something a month. I can't meet the requirements of paying no regular rent. Before Katrina I could afford it.
DON THOMPSON, MANAGER, ‘HARRY THOMPSON CENTER’: Serving about 110-115 meals a day. Serving folks who have no where else to go, no place in the daytime for these folks to go, many of them are folks who had a place to stay, like the gentleman you were just talking to, and have nothing now, no where to go.
REPORTER: Because of Katrina?
DON THOMPSON: Because of Katrina because the apartment they may have rented is flooded out, the landlord couldn't afford to fix it, the other rents they can't afford, so they have nowhere else to go.
REPORTER: But, Don, this is two years down the track. What's gone wrong here?
DON THOMPSON: Oh, there's such little leadership, political leadership around here at the state, local, federal level. Nobody knows what to do or how to do it, they're all passing the buck.
Much of the buck stops with this man. Dr Ed Blakely lives and works in Sydney. He's the chair of urban and regional planning at Sydney University. He was appointed by the Mayor of New Orleans to oversee the reconstruction of the city.
DR ED BLAKELY: Here is a grand facade and it needs to start looking like a grand facade again.
Today he's leading a tour group of would-be investors, civic leaders and journalists.
DR ED BLAKELY: Everything that we are doing has to be done consistent with the public benefit, we’re not doing anything for private benefits, we’re doing these facades for the public benefit.
Two years after any major event like this you'd just be rebuilding. Now, we've rebuilt most of our private home-owner housing stock in that 2-year period, which is quite remarkable. When I came here we didn't even have street signs up. Many of the streets weren't paved. We didn't have basic services and so on so my first thing I had to do was to get those things right. And then we have to start getting our businesses right, they are coming back, about 85% of businesses are back, so we are getting our jobs back. I think we are doing things in the right priority.
No-one could doubt Ed Blakely has a monumental task on his hands to rebuild the shattered city. But where do the homeless and those in the Lower Ninth Ward stand when it comes to priorities?
DR ED BLAKELY: We are taking our time in the Lower Ninth Ward, because we have to knock down houses in order to build them back and, like any development project, all the developers in Sydney know it takes about four or five years to get your permits, and then you got several years of building.
And if working-class home owners are in for a long wait, it's another story altogether when it comes to public housing. When I turned up at the Lafitte housing project, this was the scene.
TRACIE WASHINGTON, LAWYER: Somebody is just throwing out all of my client's personal belongings.
Tracie Washington is a lawyer here for those who once lived here.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: My clients don't know what's going on here. If they knew, maybe they could come and get their things, maybe they could come and get their air-conditioners or their chairs or their clothes or something. These buildings have been shut up for two years and folks haven't been able to get in and they haven't been told what is going on with their property, they haven't been told anything.
These buildings have been slated for demolition under a federal government program. After Katrina the Feds seized the opportunity to begin clearing the area.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: They have said for years that these buildings need to be torn down.
REPORTER: Do they?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: No, let me show you something. If this is my water line, this is my water line, here is somebody's house. The water stopped here! What's interesting, and I want you to see this, I’m sure this is an apartment.. this is in very good condition.
REPORTER: Tracie just here for instance, look here.. there is a DVD there and a washing machine. These are peoples possessions, are they just going to throw those away, are they?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: They are going to throw everything away.
REPORTER: What happens to those people?
TRACIE WASHINGTON They didn't notify any of the people that are here and that's what's so disturbing for me. They spend thousands upon thousands upon thousand of dollars to hire these people to come and throw stuff out but they can't spend the same amount of money to take the shutters off and put my clients back in their building. You come in with a little bleach and water and wash it down and – ta-da! – it's back.
DONALD POWELL, FEDERAL COORDINATOR OF GULF COAST REBUILDING: We wanted to tear down some public housing that has been in deplorable condition for the last 10 years, the conditions are not good and rebuild those homes, and that resulted in a lawsuit so the lawsuit closed down the process of committing on that. Meanwhile, there's 5,000 units that have been rebuilt.
A world away from the Lower Ninth Ward, amidst the marble and fine furniture of this grand hotel, I find Donald Powell. He's the man in charge of federal funding for New Orleans.
DONALD POWELL: Yeah, I think it's a partnership of a lot of people. I think it's a partnership of the federal government, I think it's a partnership of the state and of the locals and the private sector and obviously individuals have to take some initiative to assist and help themselves and I see that quite frankly with people along the Gulf Coast.
DR ED BLAKELY: The federal government has made a decision and we do not think it is the right decision, to keep those units closed until they either knock them down or rehabilitate them. We don't think that's the right decision. We think the right decision is to open some of them up, let some of our residents come back and have them participate in the remodelling of them or in the destruction of them.
Tracie Washington says the Federal government simply wants the poor residents out in order to build condominiums for the wealthy.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: You don't want public housing because you don't want poor people, news flash, folks! You know how you get rid of poor people? You pay them more. You don't keep paying people $6 an hour and tell them we don't have a goddamn place for you to live. That's what's so insane about the city of New Orleans.
And there's a political conspiracy theory going around here too, that Republican power-brokers wouldn't mind shifting out poor blacks who usually vote Democrat.
REPORTER: Any truth in that?
DONALD POWELL: That is a no. That's unfortunate, for instance the labour system is going to be rebuilt, reconstructed, redesigned to protect all the people of New Orleans.
REPORTER: A lot of poor people have said to me that they think it's deliberate, to get them out of some of these areas.
DR ED BLAKELY: I won't go there, but I think there may be something to that.
In the middle of Tracie's tirade against the authorities, one of the elderly ex-residents arrives, worried about her possessions.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Can you just give her the assurance that she'll come out any time? Can you just give her the assurance…
MAN: I can her the assurance through tomorrow, but after tomorrow, I can't. Through tomorrow. After tomorrow I can't guarantee anything. You'll have to call and schedule an appointment.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: But you tell them when they set the appointment Tracy Murcadale has said he's guaranteeing your stuff will be here only through tomorrow, so if they give you an appointment on Saturday, your stuff is going to be trashed, so tell them you have to have the appointment tomorrow. Alright? Yeah, go put your teeth in!
REPORTER: What about situations where people couldn't get back into their homes to get their possessions out? Two years go past and the possessions have rotted away.
DR ED BLAKELY: That's right. Now, again, that's public housing, and the public housing people weren't able to do that. In private housing, they had access to their houses within a few weeks. Again, here we have a difference between what the federal government wants to do and what the local government wants to do.
REPORTER: And they won't listen to you? If you say to them, “These people want to get things out of their houses and they can't…?”
DR ED BLAKELY: No, no. The federal government has its position and we cannot override the federal government. If the President of the US empowered me to do that, I could, and I did ask for that.
REPORTER: You asked for that?
DR ED BLAKELY: Oh, yeah.
REPORTER: And he said no?
DR ED BLAKELY: He said no.
REPORTER: The federal government blames local government, the local government blames the feds. In the meantime, people are still suffering two years later.
DONALD POWELL: I don't think, Dave, it's productive to blame the individual. This is a partnership between the federal government, the locals and the state. But, look, we're committed to helping, assisting all of our partners in getting this work done.
DR ED BLAKELY: We have an active conflict here. That conflict can't be resolved quickly or easily.
REPORTER: That must be so frustrating for you.
DR ED BLAKELY: It is. That is frustrating for me because I can't really reach into the federal government like that.
While the money for rebuilding the city is divided between State and Federal programs, many say this shared responsibility is just an excuse for buck-passing. Meanwhile, right outside City Hall is the sad result of another blunder by the authorities. Despite the housing crisis, the mayor of New Orleans asked for people to return to their city, so they did and now many find themselves living in this bandstand.
MAN: No homes…at all.
REPORTER: Why's that?
MAN: Because the rent is very high.
REPORTER: And these people can't afford to…
MAN: Pay rent. But they will work.
MAN 2: You know, this is what we came back to.
REPORTER: And you've got nothing.
MAN 2: I don't have anything. I lost everything. I was renting, but I'm taking depression medicine now and before Katrina, I was in perfect health. I have some friends that have killed themselves because of the way we're living.
MAN 2: Yeah.
REPORTER: So are there many people like you that you've seen around?
MAN 2: There's a lot of people, a lot of people.
REPORTER: In the same position?
MAN 2: A lot of people. It's all over the city. Big people riding around in big cars, big people living in big homes, poor people still going in the food lines getting food stamps.
REPORTER: Crime's doubled?
DR ED BLAKELY: Yes.
DR ED BLAKELY: Doubled.
REPORTER: What reason do you give for that?
DR ED BLAKELY: Despondency. People have given up and nothing is more important to the mayor and me than this. He talks constantly about our mental health problem. It's really tough here, tougher than you can imagine.
DONALD POWELL: I think it's very important that we operate in the sunshine, in a transparency type of environment. Our office will be putting up, very quickly, a website where various stakeholders can go to that website and see, for example, where a school may be, as it relates to the construction progress, or lack thereof. So the people can see where the hold-up is. “Is the hold-up at the federal level, is it at the state level, or is it at the local level?”
The locals probably don't care where the hold-up is, they just want some action.
LOCALS: Fired up, we ain't take it no more. Fired up, we ain't take it now more.
MAN 3: We had homes at one time, we'd like to have our homes back, we'd like to have a decent living wage, we want to have fair housing projects. We want to have some housing projects open up again.
But not all the good people of New Orleans are waiting on the government. In the upper ninth, these houses have been built by a cooperative of musicians. With funding from a private group called Habitat for Humanity, 70 houses will eventually be built. The musicians are using what's called sweat equity ? you build my house and I'll help build yours.
ALFRED GROWE: Katrina actually brung reality to New Orleans that you know, it could be here today and gone tomorrow, everything is not certain to you.
Alfred Growe is a trombonist in the Free Agents Brass Band.
ALFRED GROWE: It's happening. It's not like it's not happening. It's not happening as fast, like we had thought it would. It's taken two years and it's probably gonna take more than two years, probably five, six, seven, ten years down the line, but we striving to make it work, you know. We gonna make it work. There's no ifs and or buts about it, we gonna make it work.
For many, though, home for the last two years has been a trailer in a trailer park. These parks are still scattered right across the southern states. The lucky ones, like Mrs Mathews, have a trailer parked outside their homes.
MRS MATHEWS: Life has changed totally. It's a different New Orleans to me. I don't know about anybody else. And I still have my feelings, I have my moments, 'cause I know it can never be the same but we gotta move on, and that's what you keep in mind, you gotta move on and go ahead and make the best of each day and try not to let it get you down. That's all, we try to encourage each other, 'cause we have our days, we still do.
And to make matters worse, many of the people living in these trailers, hastily built for the federal government, had to be evacuated again because of toxic fumes from formaldehyde used in the trailer construction. For some, Katrina is a harsh memory that will never fade. This man lost everything. His family was swept away by the flood. I tried to speak with him, but he was too depressed to answer. His mute testimony to the disaster reminded me again that the scars from Katrina may never heal, and rebuilding will take many more years.
REPORTER: People say to me also they can't see any light at the end of the tunnel. They've had it, just worn out.
DR ED BLAKELY: I understand that. As the mayor and I say, “We now see the tunnel, the light will come later.”
I couldn't help thinking that Ed Blakely's plan for New Orleans works for those who can fend for themselves. But those in need, thousands of them, are a very different story.
Feature Report: New Orleans: In Katrina’s Wake