Looking back at Katrina

Gary Estwick | 8/15/2012, 5 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS, La.--Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, its legacy remains a challenge for visitors to this $5 billion-a-year tourist destination. That's because the remnants of death, destruction and desertion reside just outside the city's popular downtown and French Quarter.

To locate remnants of the 2005 disaster, leave Bourbon Street--where on any given night folk stroll down narrow streets, bar-hopping with grenade- and fishbowl-shaped alcoholic concoctions in their hands as music and the sounds of good times roll through the atmosphere--and head east.

Continue traveling in that direction, away from the revelry of bachelor parties offering cheap bead necklaces from balconies to young women who lift their blouses, and keep going until you reach the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest areas in New Orleans. That is where on some blocks gutted houses and empty, unmaintained lots fill neighborhood landscapes more closely resembling war zones than neighborhoods.

Or, take Interstate 10 east to another African American residential area. Here, among the thousands that have made it their home, are some houses with manicured lawns whose owners live in Houston or Atlanta, but return often to maintain their properties or hire others to do it.

Or pick up the Times-Picayune, but make sure it's Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, the three days of the week that it will be published, beginning in the fall. It then becomes the largest major newspaper in the nation to not print daily. That's because the devastation that was Katrina has caused circulation to dip markedly.

Also, try to keep track of the number of City Council members (three) found guilty of bribery, plotting to loot taxpayer-funded charities, or conspiring to commit theft of government funds and submitting false documents to a government agency after Katrina. Or note the police officers (five) convicted of killing two civilians and wounding four others--all helpless--in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and who then engaged in a five-year cover-up of their crimes.

The public corruption exposed after the nation's most devastating natural disaster in modern times extended to those directly responsible for assisting the city's poor: In 2009, a director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans utilized a voucher to pay his rent for two years. At the time, his annual salary was $114,400.

But change is in the air.

"Post-Katrina, the expectations of voters are laser-focused on performance and accountability," said local political strategist Silas Lee, Ph.D., who also serves as an assistant professor of sociology at Xavier University, one of the city's historically Black colleges. Lee's polls and research have been cited by print and electronic media in more than 600 publications worldwide.

"In a community that is still physically and psychologically rebuilding," Lee continued, "the demographics and agenda of voters have changed and become less tolerant of inefficiency."

No wonder that in July, the Times-Picayune called the latest charge--this time against City Councilman Jon Johnson, once an example of what was right in New Orleans--"another black eye to the city and its legendary reputation as the wild west of Louisiana politics."