NEW ORLEANS — Three years ago, the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina swept through Chanel Jolly's childhood home. She returned from Texas to be near her father, to volunteer at her church, to rebuild her city.
"I'm a New Orleans girl," she says.
But now Jolly, 38, sees her city shifting underneath her feet.
Four months ago her company, Chevron, moved its corporate offices with 500 jobs out of downtown New Orleans to a location 24 miles north on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. A commute that once took Jolly just minutes from her new Uptown condo now forces her to rise before dawn to make a drive that has become symbolic of the changing relationship between New Orleans, long the physical and psychological center of the region, and its surrounding communities.
While miles of blighted houses still scar the landscape of the south shore of the lake, acres of new residential and business development have sprung up on the north shore.
While Orleans Parish is still gasping for its economic breath, places like St. Tammany Parish across the lake enjoy unprecedented sales tax revenue jumps of as much as 24 percent compared with before the storm.
The result is a new New Orleans populated by people who fluctuate between optimism and exasperation: Optimism that 72 percent of the city's households have returned. Exasperation over the stalled pace of repopulation, increased crime and a political leadership that seems permanently mired in corruption and incompetence.
While die-hard New Orleanians like Chanel Jolly continue to toil to revive their city, a hard-to-accept reality taunts them from the north:
Suburbia has enveloped them, and it's populated by people they once called neighbors.
Styleless, but dry
Explaining the attraction of places like Covington and Mandeville in western St. Tammany means acknowledging what New Orleans lacks.
Higher ground, for one thing. This was one of the refuges for thousands of evacuees when the levees broke Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans.
Sure, it's a suburbia devoid of streetcars or ancient ironwork balconies, where the newly opened Caf? Du Monde franchise has a drive-through window.
But this area that has long been a destination for white flight boasts public schools that have historically outperformed their counterparts to the south.
"There's a whole philosophy on the north shore that's different," said New Orleans native Patrick Anderson, 29, who just bought a house with his wife in Mandeville after three years renovating his damaged properties in the city.
The final straw for Anderson came in late 2006, when Orleans and Jefferson parishes' voters re-elected U.S. Rep. William J. "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, even though the congressman was the subject of an FBI inquiry that turned up $90,000 in marked bills in Jefferson's freezer. Jefferson has since been federally indicted on 16 charges of public corruption.
"That would never fly on the north shore," Anderson said. When Anderson's contractor license was up for renewal, he claimed his temporary evacuation home on the north shore as his permanent residence.
Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to attracting businesses to a 12-parish region, sums up the transformation of the area in theater terms.
"This is a story in three acts," he says. "Act 1 is New Orleans as the center of the universe. Act 2 is Katrina comes and exposes the kingdom in decline. And Act 3 is the regionalization of the area."
This is hard to swallow for those who have spent the last three years responding to the emotional rallying cries to "Bring Back New Orleans." The number of households returning to the city increased by only 3 percent last year. The year before it was 20 percent.
And despite three years of community meetings and the infusion of hundreds of millions in redevelopment money, an estimated 65,000 of the city's properties are still considered blighted, according to a study by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. That's almost twice as much as Detroit where boarded-up houses are a common sight thanks to automotive industry cuts.
Only 73.5 percent of eligible homeowners have received state funds earmarked to help them rebuild — and even now, the pace of those awards is slower than before.
"This has always been a slow-moving place," said Rusty Keasler, 38, a New Orleans homeowner who is seeking a carpool buddy for the drive north across the lake so he can train for a new career in insurance. "And now we're moving even slower."
The line of failure
This shift would not be as apparent to visitors whose journey from the airport to the more storied parts of the city avoids a view of the nasty mess Katrina left behind.
To many residents it's obvious.
People like Wayne and Stephanie Crescioni lived for months like RV pioneers on their empty and darkened block in the heavily flooded Lakeview neighborhood until their new, raised home was completed last year. They see progress, but still marvel at what has yet to be done.
"I thought we'd be further along," Wayne Crescioni said before pointing to a newspaper story that told of a recent Katrina leadership award handed to Mayor Ray Nagin while protesters picketed outside.
Pickets included a local gadfly who helped uncover corruption in a federally financed, locally managed program, now under FBI investigation.
In parts of neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Treme and the 9th Ward, the brown line etched by floodwaters is still visible. Homes that are manicured, gutted and renovated sit next to homes that still haven't been touched.
Where is everyone?
There's no clear picture of where the estimated 200,000 former residents of New Orleans now live. But it's not hard to see that places like St. Tammany Parish have become a settlement for many displaced families.
Take St. Bernard, the storm-crippled parish just to the east of Orleans. Working-class families that lived generations in the same neighborhoods of St. Bernard have re-established their clans in new developments along the north shore.
Some joke St. Tammany Parish is now "St. Tammanard."
Susan and Charles Furlan live with their two daughters in a brick home at the end of a newly paved cul-de-sac on the northern edge of Covington, 10 minutes from Susan's mother, her sisters and their children.
The Furlans never imagined moving here. Neither did sisters Carley or Hannah, ages 15 and 14.
"St. Bernard was our home, and it was the best place that I knew and that's because it was the only place I knew," Carley said. "That was our life. So, to us, it was the dearest place in the world."
But the move north has come with opportunity. Carley, now a sophomore, was named Louisiana Student of the Year in the eighth grade, and Hannah is in the running for the same.
But moving to the north shore has not meant abandoning the city, or its infamous ways. Mandeville's mayor and his staff are embroiled in a scandal over misuse of public funds and the fraudulent awarding of contracts.
"I think that whether we like to admit it or not, we are connected at the hip," said Marty Meyer, a real estate agent and former chair of the St. Tammany-West Chamber of Commerce.
Meyer, who was just elected to chair Greater New Orleans Inc., moved from New Orleans in 1991 and located his business here not long after. But he still claims the city when he travels.
"New Orleans is the brand," he said. "There isn't another New Orleans."
Contact Rebecca Catalanello at email@example.com.