Treading water


Katrina's anniversary marked by insurance struggles, staffing shortages and rebuilding delays

A year ago, he came by canoe. Now Dr. Patrick McSweeney drives up to his gutted New Orleans home where a government-issued trailer obscures his front yard. A storage unit sits in the driveway to protect his remaining valuables from looters. And at his suburban practice in nearby Metairie, a leaky roof threatens to collapse a ceiling damaged by rain and mildew.

The water lines might be fading, but nearly 12 months after the nation's most destructive hurricane season tore through the Gulf Coast, reconstruction is slow. Last summer, Katrina's wrath created a 28-foot storm surge that filled the bowl-shaped city, causing billions of dollars in damages and killing more than 1,000 New Orleans residents. Despite his flood-damaged home and pummeled practice, McSweeney is faring better than most. A few blocks from his house, floodwater stench permeates from the brick building Dr. Gary Levy once called his hospital. He now practices from a modular site erected next door, leaving the temporary shelter of McSweeney's practice to draw clients from an area largely uninhabited.

The doctors, worn down by adjusters and fly-by-night contractors, aid relocated clients traveling miles to see their veterinarians, known to be among the first to rescue animals following last year's disaster.

The Big Easy's hardest times: Levy (left) and McSweeney, post-Katrina. The hurricane tore into their practices, and a year of rebuilding cemented their friendship.

Levy, reporting that 70 percent of his practice's former business returned, says it speaks to their loyalty. On a block where the electricity fails and the streets remain desolate, insurance serves as the practice's lifeline. Now $750,000 into his business-interruption plan, Levy predicts it will cost $2 million to resurrect his building from the flood's depths.

"We're in a wasteland," he says, pointing toward vacant houses that stretch for miles. "People are scared to come back. It's still too soon."

A city in flux

What frightens residents in the city under sea level is the threat of another hurricane strike on an area still healing from Katrina. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works to strengthen New Orleans' elaborate system of levies, bodies are still being found. Crime surges inside the city and critics bemoan not a single dollar of federal housing repair money has aided displaced area residents.

Abandoned New Orleans: Progress is slow in rebuilding the city's infrastructure even one year after the storm. Dr. Gary Levy (top) tours areas lying in state of pristine ruin. "People are scared to come back. It's still too soon," he says.

"Nobody's gotten a dime," Levy says.

Worker shortages and overdue government flood maps also have put rebuilding on hold. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports Levy must elevate his practice's existing floor three feet. Although haggling with insurers is reality for both practitioners, labor is hard to come by, even for those with private financial means, McSweeney says.

"An estimated 400,000 people need to rebuild, and there aren't 400,000 workers. The whole situation is just a mess," he says.

Against the wall

New Orleans' new employment dynamic also ties McSweeney and Levy's hands. Pay has risen 30 percent, making it difficult for the veterinarians to maintain staff when area workers are in such high demand. Levy's pet bather won't return because he's earning $20 an hour in a restaurant. The practitioner's since handed out $4 and $5 hourly raises.

"When Popeye's is hiring at $10 an hour with a $6,000 signing bonus, that's a problem," McSweeney says. "How do you compete with that? Let's just say I'm not above mopping the floor."

Vulnerable, exposed

Such tasks add unneeded stress to a workload that requires 20-hour days. While Levy's house incurred almost no damage from last year's storms, McSweeney struggles to rebuild his home, revive his practice and care for his 43 cats. "Once the day gets rolling, it just doesn't let up," he says.

Rebuilding also requires vigilance. Thieves steal tools and will rip the windows off homes. After losing a chainsaw, wheel barrel and the propane tanks off his trailer, McSweeney plans to protect his property with security cameras. Levy's already installed them in his temporary practice.

A rebuilding vigilante: If contending with storm damage isn't tough enough, Dr. Patrick McSweeney (far left) says crime has moved back home. He has contemplated security cameras to protect his property (middle photo, top row). Dr. Gary Levy also lost his practice as a result of the storm. The remaining photographs, taken in July, document the extent of the work that remains in New Orleans.

"You're so vulnerable because there's no way to lock anything up," McSweeney says. "People come in and out of your house all day long, and there's nothing you can do about it. They just help themselves."

Memories fade

The property damage is relative considering McSweeney lost many of his neighbors. Stories of tragedy and death are common for most New Orleans residents. McSweeney shared one: While rowing to rescue a cat in the flood's early days, he encountered a man searching for a relative. Upon discovering she was wheelchair bound, McSweeney was dismayed.

"All I could say is maybe someone got her out," he says. "But I knew it was unlikely she had survived. It's the kind of stuff we don't talk about much. It's too hard to fathom."

As he retrofits the garage that once housed his now-destroyed Jaguar into livable space, McSweeney notes he's blocked out many of Katrina's details. "You really forget a lot of things. I wonder, will I sit in this house and remember when it was filled with water?"

Levy, who leveled his elderly mother's flood-damaged home after a tornado destroyed what was left, promises if disaster strikes once more, he'll be among the first to pack up for a hasty exit.

"If anything like Katrina happens again, there will be plenty of us who'll say 'last one here turns the lights out,'" he says.

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