How will we know when New Orleans is rebuilt? Will it be when all the jobs and public services are back in place? Will it have to do with the amount of money spent? Or will it be when the number of displaced families receiving federal housing aid dwindles from 600,000 to just a few?
In truth, no consensus exists. But that has not stopped rebuilding from going forward, as government agencies, businesses and New Orleanians all struggle to start over. Now, 100 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it is worth asking: Just who is benefiting from this rebuilding? And how much has actually been accomplished?
Data are scarce, but there are enough indicators to illustrate what the residents of New Orleans are discovering upon their returns. To start with, the job market is significantly smaller. Fast-food chains may be passing out signing bonuses, but the metropolitan area has still lost more than 220,000 jobs. Vital public services are functioning selectively, which has a tremendous effect on what type of people can return. Before the storm, more than a quarter of residents relied on city bus lines; with only 10 percent of the fleet now in service, returnees need to have cars to get to jobs and shopping.
Fortunately, tourists may also be coming back. Numbers here are even scarcer, but we do know that nearly one out of every two hotels and one out of every three restaurants have reopened. It is not clear how many paying customers are actually visiting, but the growing number of "open for business" placards have been a welcome sign for everyone in the bankrupt city.
In effect, New Orleans remains in a state of emergency more than three months after it was officially declared. While some people - particularly those with their own transportation and children in private schools - have been able to start remaking their homes and lives, most everyone else remains in a holding pattern.