- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Major swaths of New Orleans remain uninhabitable two months after Hurricane Katrina hit, but about a third of its population has returned, businesses are slowly reopening and construction workers are arriving for the enormous task ahead.

The amount of debris to be removed — 50 million cubic yards — would span 5 football fields piled a mile high, says Nicol Andrews, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s a staggering amount of debris,” Miss Andrews said.

As Congress decides how to fund rebuilding the area’s infrastructure, local leaders are determining which areas to repopulate and prioritizing the task list for reclaiming the city, 80 percent of which was under water for weeks after several parts of its levee system failed.

A major part of reopening the below-sea-level city is deciding what to close, what to demolish and when to begin.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans is considering closing a number of churches, including the 163-year-old St. Augustine’s Church in the country’s oldest black neighborhood, as city inspectors try to determine what houses are salvageable.

Meanwhile, eight of the city’s more than 120 public schools are scheduled to reopen this month, and the archdiocese has opened three of its more than 50 schools and expects to open seven more in January.

“It’s hard, but every day it gets better and we’re coming back,” says Colleen Rangel, a real estate broker who added that “some ZIP code areas are completely unpopulated.”

“Things are getting back to normal, the women and children are coming home, but we still have a lot of challenges ahead,” Mrs. Rangel said. “Nationally, we’ve been forgotten, but we knew all along that it’s up to us to rebuild.”

The party is still going on in the French Quarter where more than 60 businesses, mostly bars and restaurants, and 10 major hotels have been inspected by city officials and reopened.

Molly’s at the Market on Decatur Street stayed open through both Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

“Someone had to keep it going,” said employee Karina West. “Tourists are already in town, we even had a couple come down here for their honeymoon,” she said.

Curfews remain in effect from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the residential areas, now home to about 150,000 people — down from nearly 500,000 — and between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on the streets of the French Quarter and Central Business District.

“Bourbon Street is swinging again,” said Missy Staggs, an insurance adjuster assigned to the city six weeks ago. “It’s a good time for people to come here because crime is down, all of the hoodlums have run out. It’s so beautiful, I’ve fallen in love with the place.”

As for the rest of the city, “it’s devastated, it’s bad,” Miss Staggs said.

Citywide, about 15 percent of 3,507 restaurants are open, and economic development officials say a lack of manpower and housing remains a major obstacle.

“If people can’t live here, people can’t work here,” said Brittany Gay, spokeswoman for the Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development corporation.

Officials at Louisiana State University are threatening to shut down its medical school and health sciences center unless Congress and the state send an infusion of money.

Dr. Larry Hollier, dean of the LSU Medical School told the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday the school has lost more than $88 million and has laid off more than 1,000 employees and 350 faculty members.

“We’re in a tailspin. We have a disaster about to hit,” Dr. Hollier said.

Tens of thousands of homes marked by rescue workers with a spray-painted red “X” denote where nearly 900 bodies have been recovered, and many neighborhoods are only open to “look and leave visitation.” Residents are urged to get tetanus shots from a dozen mobile hospitals and health clinics before venturing into the devastated area.

Local leaders also fear that Superdome damage may give San Antonio car dealer Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, an opportunity to move his team to either his hometown or to Los Angeles, where pro football has been absent for a decade.

This week, the state Legislature convened a special two-week session to take on everything from building code regulations to oversight of levees to tax relief and a nearly $1 billion deficit in the $18.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The state attorney general’s office this week said it is investigating whether the collapse of canal floodwalls during Katrina warrants criminal or civil action. Attorney General Charles Foti said Monday he wants to know whether poor construction or design flaws contributed to the wall failure.

The Orleans Parish district attorney’s office also confirmed it started a preliminary investigation into the materials used in the floodwalls.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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