August 29, 2013 9:40:12 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the Ferris wheel at the former Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans sits idle. "Closed for Storm" signs are still posted and the abandoned, weed-choked site remains a thorn in the side of officials leading one of the most extensive city-rebuilding projects in U.S. history.
Proposals to revitalize the 150-acre site in New Orleans have ranged from restoring it to a working amusement park to turning it into a retail mall. The land has been controlled by the city since 2009, when an agreement was struck with Six Flags Inc., for the tract. So far, the city hasn't been able to seal a development deal.
For New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, such eyesores are a lingering distraction from the enormous rebuilding effort that has followed since the day the levees broke under Katrina's fury on Aug. 29, 2005. Now optimism is rising as a rebounding city approaches the 300th anniversary of its 1718 founding.
"The city is a much better place than it was eight years ago. The biggest challenge we have is blight," Landrieu said, adding that 10,000 blighted properties have been removed from the cityscape.
A thriving downtown and newly vibrant neighborhoods contrast starkly with the city's appearance eight years ago. When Katrina hit, thousands of people who couldn't escape New Orleans in time were trapped in homes as levees broke and floodwaters rose. Helicopters plucked the desperate from rooftops as chaos spread. The damaged Superdome became a refuge of misery for thousands as temperatures and tempers soared.
Days afterward then-President George W. Bush promised the nation's full attention. But federal authorities were sharply criticized for their early response and local and state authorities as well. And though billions of federal dollars have helped to rebuild a strengthened levee system, many locals remain bitter with the Army Corps of Engineers for the failure of the levees.
Landrieu said he's intent on moving forward.
"I think that we have successfully done the most important thing, which was to think about building the city back the way she should have always been and not the way she was," he said.
Landrieu said rebuilding has even meant re-organizing government operations, streamlining finances, curbing waste and fraud and reorganizing the city's education system -- even adding new fire and police stations, parks and libraries.
Gov. Bobby Jindal praised the progress, calling New Orleans "America's Comeback City," in a statement Wednesday night.
"Hurricane Katrina was a terrible and devastating storm that brought us to our knees, but it didn't shake our resolve," he said.
Landrieu said he planned to attend a ceremony Thursday at a cemetery for those who died. The hurricane was blamed for more than 1,800 deaths, mostly in the New Orleans area and along neighboring Mississippi's Gulf coast.
"We're going to commemorate the anniversary of Katrina by doing the thing that really is important, just remembering those that lost their lives," Landrieu said.
Despite somber memories, the city leaders are buoyed by new figures.
Information compiled by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center shows about 80 percent of the pre-storm population has returned, retail outlets are reopening and new ones emerging. Investment in a major medical corridor and an influx of technology companies offer new hope for a city long dependent on tourism.
Direct damages have been estimated at about $108 billion, but the overall cost of rebuilding raises estimates as high as $150 billion. Katrina greatly topped the estimated $50 billion in damages caused by superstorm Sandy during its East Coast rampage in 2012, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Billions of dollars in federal aid has built a new and stronger flood protection system, adding pumps and more concrete storm surge walls.
Many neighborhoods have been restored, though there are vacant lots where houses once stood. A way of life is showing changes, though the city's annual Mardi Gras celebration and zest for good food, music and the NFL's New Orleans Saints had remained intact.
Bike lanes have been added, linking outlying neighborhoods with the French Quarter and downtown while a post-Katrina expansion of a streetcar service is another sign of progress.
Some lifelong residents talk of relishing renewed normalcy.
Stephen Assaf, a musician whose raised cottage was pushed off its foundation when a levee gave way, took payouts for the property and invested in repairing another house blocks away. He didn't want to leave his neighborhood.
Sipping coffee at his parents' home, he recalled the scene there after Katrina: several feet of muck all over with a car in the backyard pool and a tree running through the front doors. Eight years later, the home has been renovated, re-landscaped and many neighbors are also back in their renovated houses.
"It's looking nice here," he said.
The city is not without its trouble-spots. A crime problem predating Katrina remains. And there are questions whether post-storm reforms have really improved schools.
Many scattered far and wide when the city was abandoned. Those who came back talk of weighty decisions.
In 2008 at her rebuilt home in the city's Lower 9th Ward, Valeria Schexnayder drew praise from U.S. Rep Nancy Pelosi as an inspiration for others to start anew in a neighborhood that had been all but wiped out. Now years later, Schexnayder said, she couldn't have imagined how slow recovery would be.
"We're still living in a jungle," she said, seated on a porch with friends. She took in a view that included rebuilt homes but also vacant lots overgrown with weeds.
Linda Rhodes, who lives nearby, said she doesn't regret returning.
"This is home," she said. "This is home."