The cover story on New Orleans that WORLD ran four years ago brought in lots of letters, in part because the city had received abundant national attention four years before when Katrina hit. As much of Detroit is a frontier town now, so New Orleans was in 2009, and I wanted to see how the pioneers are getting along.
The overall trend is positive. The area’s levee system, improved at a cost of $14.5 billion, worked well during Hurricane Isaac, which made landfall last Aug. 28-29 and stalled for hours, building a 14- to 15-foot surge in one area that rivaled Katrina’s. Governmentally, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is an upgrade over ex-Mayor Ray Nagin, indicted in January on 21 counts of corruption.
Economically, New Orleans has a jobless rate of 4.7 percent, with many young people moving in and many business start-ups employing them. Living costs and state and local tax burdens less than those of many other cities encourage entrepreneurship. Katrina’s clouds even had some silver linings: City lending institutions did not have the opportunity to fall as far into sub-prime loans as their counterparts in other cities did. With many homes literally under water, builders did not churn out spec homes that would soon be underwater financially.
Educationally, the multiplication of charter schools—most New Orleans children now attend them—has led to more children learning how to multiply (and read, and write). Katrina forcibly closed failing schools where school officials had feared to tread, and the result has been improved test scores, greater discipline, and more innovation. The biggest gap now: an enormous shortage of Christian schools.
Long-term environmental problems remain: Wetlands around New Orleans continue to disappear. The urban environment still has hazards, as often-mistrusted police seem unable to stop the surge that has made New Orleans once again the nation’s murder capital and a drug haven as well. (Gambit, a New Orleans alternative weekly newspaper, has spotlighted teenage heroin use, and a Drug Demand Reduction Coalition reported that young adults in New Orleans use drugs at double the national average, with 6 percent of 10th-graders selling drugs.)
But what about the individuals profiled in our cover story: Where are they now?
Pastor J.B. Watkins (St. Roch Community Church in the impoverished 8th Ward) has had to conduct many funeral services for murder victims, some as young as 15, but he also says, “We have much to be grateful for … 70-85 people regularly attending Sunday service … numerous weddings and baptisms … the park next to the church is full of organized sports activities … people are constantly reminding me of how the church is blessing them.”
The St. Roch Community Development Corporation, housed in the church, renovated a nearby property that artist Aaron Collier and his wife purchased. The building includes an apartment where the Colliers live, studio spaces for Collier and five other artists, and a modest exhibition space.
Troy Glover—trapped in a house when Katrina hit, floated out on a door, survived days in the Superdome, bused to Texas, returned to New Orleans to graduate from high school in 2009—is still involved with St. Roch and attempting to finish college. He still helps with the church’s youth summer camp.
Toy Harmon, who was pregnant with her first child four years ago, now has two little boys “who have turned our lives upside-down in a wonderful way. … This is our city. This is our children’s city. We have a call to pray for the city and to serve her.” She and her husband Doug are “amazed by the number of families and individuals who continue to move here to be part of the rebuilding.”
Bank president Guy Williams says New Orleans government is improving: “Political corruption thrives when people think it’s amusing, but when you’re trying to save your community you can’t mess around. … The idea that corrupt politicians are amusing is gone.” He has also seen the formation of many small businesses: “More people see life as uncertain, so ‘I’d better do it now.’”
In 2012 innkeeper Joe Rabhan’s Bed & Breakfast had its best occupancy and revenue record going back 11 years, pre- and post-Katrina. He’s happy that New Orleans received 21 tourism awards last year, including Conde Nast Travelers’ World City and Top Ten City awards: Travel + Leisure named it the best city for shopping.
Four years ago pastor Ray Cannata said he had eaten in 650 different New Orleans restaurants and wanted to get to 1,000. And yet, a man has to know his limits: “When I hit 747 places in 2011, that was all the non-chain restaurants within the city limits at that time,” so he stopped counting. He notes that the city’s film industry is growing and so are the quality and quantity of its festivals: “My own Mardi Gras krewe (the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi—we dress up like creative versions of Elvis and ride mini-scooters) has grown from just 35 people before the storm to 130.”
Ben McLeish runs the St. Roch Community Development Corporation, which now emphasizes financial literacy, jobs training, and small business development. McLeish also tried to develop one young man, Eric Green, whom he had met when Eric was a mischievous seventh-grader. Eric came to the wedding of Ben and Stephanie McLeish and became like a son to them, living with them for a year. They caught catfish out of the Mississippi River.
As Eric climbed the rungs of his teenage years, though, he often fell off the ladder. Sometimes he called McLeish to take him to the hospital or pick him up to escape someone who wanted him in the hospital. Drugs, crime, trouble. Sometimes, as on Christmas Eve, 2012, McLeish was able to talk with him about Jesus. Twelve days later, in a blog post titled “Loved dearly and deeply missed, my son,” McLeish wrote: “You were on an intense search to make pain & brokenness go away but it seemed like nothing could medicate the deep wounds. We reassured you of our love for you and our deep concern that the path you were on would lead to your demise.”
Shortly after Christmas, 21-year-old Eric apparently overdosed. He never woke up.
Where are they now? McLeish wrote in his blog letter to Eric, “I have sought solace in the story of the Prodigal Son and hope and trust that you have made your way home to our Heavenly Father who has rushed out to embrace you and throw a party for you—not because you somehow repented as you passed away but because the profession of Christ Jesus as your savior you once made was true.”