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  1. Local Weather

10 years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been remade for better and worse

NEW ORLEANS — It is a wonder that any of it is here at all: The scattered faithful gathering into Beulah Land Baptist Church in the Lower 9th Ward. The men on stoops in Mid-City swapping gossip in the August dusk. The brass band in Tremé, the lawyers in Lakeview, the new homeowners in Pontchartrain Park.

On Aug. 29, 2005, it all seemed lost. Four-fifths of the city lay submerged as residents frantically signaled for help from their rooftops and thousands were stranded at the Superdome, a congregation of the desperate and poor. From the moment that the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina dismantled a fatally defective levee system, New Orleans became a global symbol of American dysfunction and government negligence. At every level and in every duty, from engineering to social policy to basic logistics, there were revelations of malfunction and failure before, during, and after Katrina.

Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was.

It is, first of all, without the more than 1,400 people who died here, and the thousands who are now making their lives someplace else. As of 2013, there were nearly 100,000 fewer black residents than in 2000, their absences falling equally across income levels. The white population decreased by about 11,000, but it is wealthier.

The city that exists in 2015 has been altered, by both a decade of institutional re-engineering and the artless rearrangement that occurs when people are left to fend for themselves. Empowered by billions of federal dollars and the big ideas of policy planners, the school system underwent a complete overhaul; the old art deco Charity Hospital was supplanted by a state-of-the-art medical complex; and big public housing projects were razed and replaced by mixed-income communities with housing vouchers.

In a city long marinated in fatalism, optimists are now in ascendance. They promise that an influx of bright newcomers, a burst of entrepreneurial verve and a new spirit of civic engagement have primed the city for an era of greatness, or at least reversed a long-running civic-disaster narrative.

"Nobody can refute the fact that we have completely turned this story around," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, talking of streamlined government and year-over-year economic growth. "For the first time in 50 years, the city is on a trajectory that it has not been on, organizationally, functionally, economically, almost in every way."

The word "trajectory" is no accident. It is the mayor's case that the city is in a position to address the many problems that years of government failures had allowed to fester. He did not argue that those problems had been solved.

As before, there are two cities here. One is booming, more vibrant than ever, still beautiful in its best-known neighborhoods and expanding into places once written off; the other is returning to pre-Katrina realities of poverty and routine violence, but with a new sense of dislocation for many as well.

Old inequities have proved resilient. The child poverty rate (about 40 percent) and the overall poverty rate (close to 30 percent) are almost unchanged from 2000. Violent crime remains a chronic condition and efforts to fix the city's criminal justice system have had mixed results: While the city's jail population has been substantially reduced, the incarceration rate is more than twice the national average.

The ability of many residents to afford housing, in a city of mounting rents and low wages, is more compromised than before. In a recent ranking of 300 U.S. cities by income inequality based on census data, New Orleans came in second, a gap that falls starkly along racial lines. According to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based think tank focusing on southern Louisiana, the median income of black households here is 54 percent lower than that of white households.

Many here are more impatient than ever to fix these old problems, yet are ambivalent about all the outside expertise and weary of change after a decade of upheaval. Others, particularly black residents, see something more nefarious at work.

"They want to push us to the side like we don't matter," said Janie Blackmon, a champion of still-struggling New Orleans East, home of much of the black middle class.

New Orleans, of course, has long wrestled with disparities of race and class and a constant anxiety that it was always on the cusp of losing its character.

And as far back as 1722, when a 4-year-old New Orleans was flattened by a hurricane, it has entertained a notion that after disaster it would finally get things right.

The difference now is that this proudly distinctive American city has become a giant workshop to test solutions to problems that are confounding the entire country. But there is almost a nation's worth of variety here in different parts of town, and success or failure will nonetheless be gauged neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block.

Paris Road runs across the New Orleans East neighborhood, one of the first parts of city to see the sun come up. The sky had barely begun to blush when 9-year-old Serenity Murdock rolled her backpack down the sidewalk, trailed by her little brother, King.

It was just after 6 on an August morning, the first day of school. The two youngest Murdock children were in for a long bus ride to KIPP Believe Primary, a charter school 18 miles away in the oak-lined streets of the Uptown neighborhood.

They would not be home again for 11 hours.

There is perhaps no topic of the last 10 years as polarizing: a piecemeal state-run experiment begun before Katrina that took off afterward into the most radical education overhaul in the country.

What had been a perpetually failing and corruption-battered school system is now hardly a system at all, but rather a decentralized network of largely autonomous charter schools, with some of the biggest name brands in education. The neighborhood school is more or less a thing of the past here. Kenneth Murdock, the father of King and Serenity, is fine with it. He likes the school, and no longer likes his neighborhood.

The suburb-within-a-city known as New Orleans East stretches for miles, a wide band of starter homes and mini-mansions. For years it was the dreamland of working-class whites and then of the aspiring African-Americans who took their place — the doctors, lawyers and schoolteachers who formed the backbone of the city's black middle class.

When the levees breached, the East flooded catastrophically. It had already been struggling. Now it is poorer. Many professionals chose to stay in Houston.

As for his children's school, Murdock said: "I got no complaints about KIPP at all," adding that his children were now reading at advanced grade levels. He noted that a good education would give them a choice about whether to stay in New Orleans, or leave.

To be honest, Murdock said, he most liked the schools in Corpus Christi, Texas. He spent two years there after Katrina, working at Wal-Mart and T.G.I. Fridays, before returning here to work as a jack-of-all-trades at Brennan's, the famed French Quarter restaurant.

He watched a police car turn a still-dark corner, where a body had been found dead a few days before. Texas was quieter, he said.

And yet, Murdock, who was wearing a T-shirt from one of the many hopefully named volunteer rebuilding groups, had returned.

"It's true that not everybody has come back as fast and that we haven't solved all the problems in the world since Katrina hit," the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said.

He tallied up the institutional makeovers - in education, public housing, health care and more - a litany of changes he sees as beginning to undo decades of negligence. "But here's the thing," the mayor said. "It takes generations for that to happen."

At seven minutes after 6, the school bus arrived. King and Serenity were the first to board.

The new year was about to begin.