Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gutting ghosts in New Orleans

So far, here's what the American taxpayer -- and the long-suffering citizenry of New Orleans -- have gotten for the billions upon billions of dollars sent to rebuild that woebegone city in the wake of Katrina:

WAIT. That's not entirely fair.

The Louisiana Superdome did get fixed. And lots of homeless homeowners did get FEMA trailers reeking of carcinogenic formaldehyde.

Some people did get rebuilding money through the "Road Home" program . . . but only after first going through the ringer and then waiting a couple of years.

Oh . . . and some levees got rebuilt to prestorm standards. That means they leak, and they'll probably crumble in the teeth of a strong Category 2 hurricane. It also means that defective, washed-away floodwalls got rebuilt just as defectively, with contractors using
newspaper for filler in expansion joints.

AND HERE'S WHAT we got in return for millions of federal "home remediation" dollars,
according to a report by Lee Zurik of WWL television:

Using city and federal money, the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program alleges to have gutted, boarded up and even cut grass in more than 1,000 homes.

“I would unequivocally say that's a false statement. There was no help,” said homeowner Mera Picou.

“I think somebody's lining their pockets,” added Garofalo.

In 2007, Mayor Ray Nagin urged low income and elderly New Orleans residents to sign up for his home remediation program, a $3.5 million program run by New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, a non-profit group that is actually a city agency.

A City Hall press release from last year says the remediation program uses "Community Development Block Grant funds to gut and board up to 5,000 homes of seniors and families with low to moderate income by year end 2007."

But did the program accomplish its goals?

Community activist and internet blogger Karen Gadbois started following New Orleans Affordable Home Ownership’s program shortly after its inception.

“The program may not be legitimate,” she said. “I wanted to see this program work, and I didn't see it.”

Eyewitness News joined Gadbois in reviewing pages of material provided by the non-profit agency, that details every property it claims to have remediated. One document even lists the cost. Gadbois calls the information we found startling.

For example, city records show some duplexes in Hollygrove are owned by a man who lives on Carrollton Avenue and used to rent them out. Under the plan's guidelines, that alone would likely disqualify him. But the units haven't even been gutted since the storm. NOAH still says its contractors did $5,000 worth of work to them.

On Jeannette Street, NOAH says it remediated a home in the 8900 block. When WWL-TV went to find the house, a news crew found an empty lot instead. A neighbor said the house had been torn down well before Hurricane Katrina.

NOAH documents also show a house remediated at 8741 Apple Street, a property that doesn't exist. Also on the NOAH list is a house on Willow Street owned by Orleans Metropolitan Housing and Community Development, a charity connected to indicted Rep. William Jefferson and his brother Mose, who is also facing federal charges.

Eyewitness News also found a property on General Pershing Street in one set of records. It is owned by Clourth Wilson, who happens to work for the City of New Orleans Safety and Permits Department.

When reached by phone at his City Hall office, Wilson told WWL-TV that New Orleans Affordable Homeownerhip did no work following the storm to his house. He said all of the gutting and boarding up was done by him.

On the West bank, NOAH claims to have done almost $1,700 of remediation to a property at 1301 Brooklyn Avenue. It's unclear if that property is an empty lot in that block or the warehouse behind it, which belongs to Mardi Gras World.

“I don't think those agencies or individuals or people were applying for free gutting,” Karen Gadbois said.

The owner of a home on Law Street said she didn't apply for help and NOAH didn't do remediation work, even though a NOAH sign recently popped up on the house, almost 12 months after the program shut down.

Gadbois said of the more than 100 properties she has reviewed, only two seemed to show signs of actual repair by NOAH.

So where did the money go? And why do the non-profit’s own records raise so many questions?

NOAH’s executive director left the agency in late June. Her interim replacement, Tonya Durden, e-mailed Eyewitness News on Friday, declining a request for an interview.
YOU REALLY NEED to see the video report on the WWL website. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and that report easily is worth a whole book.

As a nation questioned why New Orleans ought to be rebuilt at all -- for reasons ranging, basically, from sheer racism to sheer misanthropy -- it likewise fully realized that you just can't, in this day and age, come right out and admit that you're merely a bunch of hard-hearted bastards. No, you need something to justify kicking a region while it's down.

Unfortunately for Louisiana and New Orleans, their reputations preceded them. A blind man rattling a tin cup on a street corner ain't going to do much bidness if he's pullin' on a bottle of muscatel.

Despite all the flak . . . despite all the catcalls from Main Street and from Capitol Hill . . . despite the fact that what help it's gotten so far isn't nearly enough, what does the Crescent City do with what little cash that's dripped from the federal pipeline?

THIS JUST IN from our intrepid correspondent:

Down in New Orlean, where ev'rything is fine
All them cats is drinkin that wine
Drinking that mess, their delight
When they gets drunk, start singing all night

Drinkin' wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Pass that bottle to me

Drinking that mess, their delight
When they gets drunk, start fighting all night
Knocking down windows and tearin out doors
Drinkin' half a gallon and callin' for more

Drinkin' wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Pass that bottle to me

Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!
Wine, wine, wine (Elderberry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Or Sherry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Blackberry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Half 'n half!)
Wine, wine, wine (Oh Boy!)
Pass that bottle to me
COME TO THINK OF IT, pass that bottle to me.

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