Friday, March 10, 2006

SITREP

That's what the military calls it. Short for Situation Report, a summary of local conditions.

No more than two blocks from my house, the Lake Terrace Gardens Apartments was home to scores of citizens, many students and employees at the nearby University of New Orleans. Katrina chased them all away, of course, scattered them like autumn leaves on the wind. The apartments and my house lie just a short walk from the major hole in the London Avenue Canal, a part of the city that sat in about 10 feet of water for more than two weeks last year.

A friend copied me on a recent email the apartment management sent out to their displaced residents. While its purpose is to assure customers that they do in fact intend to reopen as soon as possible, for the rest of us it's a SITREP of progress in our fair city.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize several themes, like the lack of electricity and traffic signals in our neighborhood. But the letter also hits on the financial morass some have been tossed into, where bankers and insurance agents and government programmers wield almost total power over their fate.

I'm posting it here in its entirety:

"Dear Residents,

"It has been awhile since we have communicated with many of you and it is now six months after Hurricane Katrina hit us. With most of you have scattered all over the country and some overseas, we wanted to give you news of how the recovery is coming in New Orleans. While many parts of the City are starting to show signs of rebuilding, there are many areas where the destruction is very much evident. In some areas people are starting to move back into their homes, while in other areas the renovation of their homes has not even begun.

"We will begin by stating that it is our intent to rebuild Lake Terrace Gardens Apartments. Unfortunately, the hurdles that we face in accomplishing this task are enormous. We are having major issues with our mortgage company and Fannie Mae. While the details are not important, the bottom line is that we have literally been shut down since before Christmas. We do not know when we will be able to resume reconstruction. Regarding deposits, we are unable to refund any deposits until we settle with the mortgage company and get refinancing in place.

"Yes, we did have Mardi Gras this year and it was truly a breath of fresh air for all of us. Unfortunately, what the news media showed of the City does not truly reflect its current condition. The French Quarter has returned to normal, but many homes in the City are still without basic services (electricity, gas, and telephone). Driving around the City you can see abandon automobiles and piles of debris on the street from gutted homes. Many traffic lights are not working and many streetlights are not lit.

"Even though the population of the New Orleans is approximately half of what it was before Katrina, traffic on the interstate is terrible due to the large number of people that are working in New Orleans and who reside outside of the City. Since housing is very scarce, many people must commute quite a distance to get to work.

"Even though we have heard from all of our employees, they have not returned to the City because their homes are uninhabitable. Carolyn Harper has done an excellent job of representing Lake Terrace Gardens, but an opportunity became available for her to accept another managerial position in the City. We are sad to say that she accepted the position and is no longer the manager. Under the circumstances, we believe that this was the right decision for her to make. We wish her the best and will miss her.

"Six months after the storm, we felt that we would be far along in our recovery and our return to commerce. This is not the case. We are still without electricity or telephone service. The damage to our infrastructure was much more significant that we could have imagined. It seems that the entire property will have to have all new electrical service provided to it. The cost to accomplish this task is enormous and there are many logistical problems that we need to overcome. Until we can restore power, it is impossible to start any meaningful restoration of the property.

"Our mortgage company is withholding all of our funds. The lack of funding has completely crippled us in our efforts to resolve our financial obligations, much less start our rebuilding. While we have applied for financial assistance from the federal government, as of this date we still have not received any. We are also working with local financial institutions to assist us with the financing for the work that we need to do to bring Lake Terrace Gardens back into commerce.

"As I have said and will say again, we intend to rebuild! The City of New Orleans desperately needs housing and we will do our best to accomplish this task. Since the property will require major work, there is an opportunity for us to modernize our apartment community and make it a better place to live than it was prior to Hurricane Katrina.

"We have received many emails asking questions and seeking specific information about what is going on in New Orleans in general and Lake Terrace Gardens in particular. We, like you, are asking the same questions. While we may not give you the response that you hoped for, it is very difficult to get answers to these questions as we are living in a very different environment than we were 6 months ago. There is so much uncertainty as to how New Orleans will look in the future and what kind of city it will be. We do believe that sooner than later the issues with our mortgage company will be resolved and we can continue the rebuilding process. Until that time we ask for your patience.

"This has been a very difficult time for all of us. While our spirits may be down, our resolve to return is stronger than ever. Say a prayer for our city NEW ORLEANS.

"Sincerely yours,

"Thomas Favrot, Jr.

"Lake Terrace Apartments, LLC"

The questions that come from the letter are the same that we all have. How can we rebuild the city without people? How can people live here until they have homes? How can we build homes if there's no money available? Who will invest money in a city that might not be rebuilt?