Sunday, April 29, 2007

New Orleans residents arming themselves ...

By Mary Foster, for Associated Press:

Sixty-four-year-old Vivian Westerman rode out Hurricane Katrina in her 19th-century house. So terrible was the experience that she wanted two things before the 2006 season arrived: a backup power source and a gun. "I got a 6,000-watt generator and the cutest little Smith & Wesson, snub-nose .38 you ever saw," she boasted. "I've never been more confident." People across New Orleans are arming themselves — not only against the possibility of another storm bringing anarchy, but against the violence that has engulfed the metropolitan area in the 19 months since Katrina, making New Orleans the nation's murder capital.

The number of permits issued to carry concealed weapons is running twice as high as it was before Katrina — this, in a city with only about half its pre-storm population of around 450,000. Attendance at firearms classes and hours logged at shooting ranges also are up, according to the gun industry.

Gun dealers who saw sales shoot up during the chaotic few months after Katrina say that sales are still brisk, and that the customers are a cross-section of the population — doctors, lawyers, bankers, artists, laborers, stay-at-home moms.

"People are in fear of their lives. They're looking for ways to feel safe again," said Mike Roniger, manager of Gretna Gunworks in Jefferson Parish.

Citizens, the tourism industry, police and politicians officials have been alarmed by the wave of killings in New Orleans, with 162 in 2006. A Tulane University study put the city's 2006 homicide rate at 96 slayings per 100,000 people, the highest in the nation.

National Guardsmen and state police are patrolling the streets of New Orleans. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, which posted a record 66 homicides in 2006, the sheriff sent armored vehicles to protect high-crime neighborhoods.

In New Orleans, police have accused the district attorney of failing to prosecute many suspects. Prosecutors have accused the police of not bringing them solid cases.
Some people are losing faith in the system to protect them.

Earnest Johnson, a 37-year-old chef who lives in Kenner, bought his first gun recently and visits a shooting range regularly. "Things are way worse than they used to be," he said. "You have to do something to protect yourself."

Kevin Cato, a 41-year-old contractor, bought a .45-caliber handgun for protection when he is working in some of the city's still-deserted areas. "But it's not much safer at home," Cato said. "The police chased a guy through my yard one time with their guns out."

In New Orleans, the number of concealed-carry permits issued jumped from 432 in 2003-04 to 832 in 2005-06. In Jefferson Parish, 522 permits were issued in 2003-04, and 1,362 in 2005-06.

Mike Mayer, owner of Jefferson Indoor Range and Gun Outlet in suburban Metairie, said that despite the dropoff in population, sales are up about 38 percent overall since Katrina.

Just how many guns are out there is anybody's guess. Gun buyers in Louisiana are not required to register their weapon or obtain a concealed-carry permit if they keep the gun in their house or car.

In a measure of how dangerous New Orleans is becoming, guns are finding their way into criminal hands at an alarming rate. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' "time-to-crime" analysis of the interval between the legal sale of a gun and the time it is seized in a crime investigation is five years on average around the nation, said ATF spokesman Austin Banks. In New Orleans, time-to-crime is six months, he said.

This sometimes happens because of "straw purchases," in which a buyer obtains a gun for someone not legally eligible to purchase one. Many guns also are stolen from homes and cars.

While many are buying guns for protection, only two defensive killings of criminals by civilians took place in New Orleans in 2006, according to police. No charges were filed against the shooters.

Westerman, an artist who lives in the city's Algiers neighborhood, is prepared to use deadly force.

"I'm a marksman now. I know what I'm doing," she said. "There are a lot of us. The girl next door is a crack shot."


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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Obstacles - Demographics ...

From MarketWatch:

Another nagging concern prominent in the minds of public officials these days is the federal government's failure thus far to waive a 10% match from the state for Katrina recovery efforts, which would save Louisiana roughly $1 billion.

To those such as Sen. Landrieu, it's another example of the federal government's slighting of Louisiana since the storm. It follows such incidents as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's slow-footed response to the initial crisis, as well as proportionately larger sums of federal aid that made it to states like Mississippi, considered friendlier to the Bush Administration.

Landrieu points out the same 10% match was waived after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, after Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and a slew of other disaster. The per-capita cost to state residents of those disasters totaled several hundred dollars, while Katrina and Rita amounted to $6,700. The normal threshold for waiving the fee is $100, she said.

"Why is there any hesitation, when we present numbers [that show] that it's $6,700?" Landrieu said. "It's so unprecedented, it's not even on the same page."

New Orleans' makeup

Finally, there remains the thorny issue of how New Orleans should look going forward. The city has tried to come up with development plans for a smaller city, but Mayor Ray Nagin is opposed to excluding poorer neighborhoods from the region's revitalization. Besides, it's unclear whether New Orleans will be that much smaller. Figures show that 80% of residents want to return.

Currently, it seems market forces will determine the city's fate. A tour of the devastated areas indicates that thus far, homeowners with stronger insurance coverage and credit standing for reconstruction loans have been able to rebuild. Areas such as the middle-class Lakeview region on the northwest side are rife with building activity.

But the further east you go, the more difficult it becomes to witness New Orleans' rebirth. Redevelopment is more sporadic in the Gentilly neighborhood and virtually non-existent in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. Much hinges on whether homeowners in those regions will be able to get their Road Home funding, or perhaps, other sources of capital.

Kopplin, from the Recovery Authority, said Katrina and Rita caused $100 billion in damage. Two-thirds of that will be recovered via insurance and governmental aid, but there will be no compensation for the remaining third unless more aid comes through, he says.

Gov. Blanco says that the best measure of a region's recovery seems to be where it stands after five years.

"I don't know if the five-year measure is going to be the meaningful measure for us, but I do think in five years we'll have critical mass and we will be feeling more like we're whole. I don't know that we'll be 100%. I don't think we will be."

Russ Britt is the Los Angeles bureau chief for MarketWatch.


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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Obstacles - Levees and Floodgates ...

From MarketWatch:

Critical to easing concerns among insurers -- not to mention all returning New Orleanians -- is levee construction. The Army Corps of Engineers has become a villain of sorts to many residents, with signs dotting the New Orleans landscape that say "Blame the Corps." One T-shirt exhorts engineers to "Make Levees, Not War."

To beat a statute of limitations issue over Katrina litigation, the city recently filed a $77 billion claim against the Corps alleging faulty levee construction. Whether that will evolve into a full-fledged lawsuit remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Corps is working to beef up the 350 miles of levees that surround New Orleans and adjacent parishes.

Since the Corps plugged holes where levee walls toppled and flooded the city, it has been raising levee heights at various points throughout the city either via earthen dams or concrete barriers. Roughly 220 miles of levees have gotten Corps attention.

Floodgates have been installed at the mouths of two of the canals that broke -- at London Avenue and 17th Street -- in an effort to keep hurricane-fueled storm surges from filling them up. A floodgate also was installed at the Orleans Avenue canal, which did not burst.

What is unclear is whether the floodgates will keep those two canals from breaking open in the future. The Corps dodged a potential bullet last year when a mild hurricane season didn't force it to employ a temporary fix for closing the floodgates -- cranes that easily could have toppled in high winds. The floodgates now have been outfitted with motor-operated winches to close them.

Further, the Corps is scrambling to outfit enough pumps at the gates that will shoot out rainwater that is pumped from city streets into the canals. And if that isn't enough, the levee walls themselves weren't buried deep enough in some cases or built on shaky ground.

"There are foundation issues with each of them," said John Meader, deputy director of the Corps' Task Force Hope, which oversees levee rebuilding. But it remains in question whether the Corps can completely reconstruct the walls; it hopes the floodgates will do the trick.

The Corps has spent roughly $1 billion of the $5.7 billion appropriated for levee reconstruction. Work is expected to continue through 2011, Meader said.

More to come ...


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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Obstacles - Building Capacity and Insurance ...

More from Marketwatch:

Governor Kathleen Blanco says that once homeowners receive their Road Home money, the troubles won't end there. A shortage of capable -- and scrupulous -- contractors will stall the rebuilding process. The state is trying to address that by trying to lure potential contractors to beefed-up programs at technical and community colleges.

But getting New Orleans building capacity up to speed at a pace where the city could be reconstructed in a few years will require a monumental effort, said Andrew Kopplin, executive director of Louisiana Recovery Authority. Atlanta's homebuilding industry is one of the prolific in the nation, able to build 30,000 to 40,000 units year, but New Orleans stands at about 6,000 to 7,000 a year.

More critical, however, are skyrocketing insurance rates, Blanco says. Homeowners report their insurance premiums are growing geometrically -- up to five times what they were before the storm in some cases.

"That would be the second disaster. It could be the one thing that prevents us from a rebirth," Blanco said.

"Frankly, I think that [carriers] have all overreacted. Yes, we've had devastation. It was not from a hurricane. It was from the failure of man-made levees."

Sen. Mary Landrieu is taking an aggressive tack on this issue. In recent hearings, she and other senate colleagues started to take steps to repeal federal provisions that leave insurers immune from certain antitrust laws.

"We can't, every time there's a hurricane in the United States, raise insurance rates 50% and then expect to 'let the private sector redevelop,'" Landrieu said.

Carriers have been skittish for some time about growing concerns that Gulf storms will become more damaging in future hurricane seasons, thus prompting the massive premium increases, says Joseph Annotti, spokesman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Annotti acknowledged that the New Orleans levee ruptures were more of a one-time event. He said insurers may eventually warm up to the city again once they're convinced that levees are sound. But it will take time, and the state may need to consider a public-private partnership to handle storm insurance. Reinsurers have vacated the region, thus putting more risk on primary carriers, he added.

"I think you have an industry that very, very gun shy," he said. "Katrina wiped out all premiums and profits that have been collected in Louisiana for 25 years."

More next time ...


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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Obstacles - ICF ...

More from MarketWatch:

Walter Leger is a local attorney and board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Each Wednesday, Leger appears on a weekly radio show hosted by local broadcast personality Garland Robinette where he fields questions and plays an ersatz Robin Hood for property owners frustrated by the Road Home process.

Leger offers to confront ICF for a caller who says he told the company more than the $82,000 should be awarded to him. When he said he planned to appeal their decision, he promptly was told his award would be reduced to zero. (ICF officials insist homeowners are allowed to appeal.)

Then Leger hears from a caller who laments his parents were given an award letter from ICF three months before a check actually showed up in their hands.

"We all realize that it's slower than we hoped for," Leger says as he tries to console the caller.

Leger says that ICF, which just now is beginning to hand out checks to homeowners, appears to be making progress. But he'll believe it when he sees it.

"It seems like we've made a turn," Leger said. "But we're cautiously optimistic."

David Fukutomi, special assistant to the manager of ICF's Road Home program, contends that each of the estimated 113,000 properties that are eligible for funds need to be examined case-by-case, an arduous and time-consuming process.

He adds the program didn't really kick into gear until six months ago and is processing a number of affected properties that has been unheard of before, all the while administering a program that is one of a kind. Further, he says residents are putting too much stock in the program.

"The Road Home was never intended to be a program that funded your entire rebuilding or replacement of your home," he said. "It was meant to be sort of a big helping hand of which you could receive up to $150,000, based on certain criteria."

The average Road Home award is about $81,000, he says. ICF plans to have all the homes processed by year's end, Fukutomi added, which he says will be a year ahead of schedule.

But the damage may already have been done to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who attached her name to the program. Up for re-election this year, Blanco readily acknowledges that the ordeal poses a problem for her second gubernatorial bid.

She says she tried to avoid the red tape by hiring ICF from the private sector instead of having a governmental entity administer the program.

"Well, they've been a dismal failure, too. So, you know, where do you look?" Blanco said. "I don't think there'll ever be a simple time. I think that everything will be complicated for a number of years. I just think that if people haven't seen the level of devastation, it's hard for them to understand."

More next time ...


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