As the holiday shopping season began at full throttle last week, there was no sign of things letting up. Business owners across the parish whisper of record or near-record sales, and sales tax collections -- along with daily traffic snarls -- add objective weight to those anecdotal signs of post-Hurricane Katrina recovery.
In fact, one would have difficulty challenging Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's description of Jefferson as "the epicenter" of southeast Louisiana's economic rebound after Katrina.
Tricia Thriffiley, marketing director at Lakeside Shopping Center, confirms Broussard's assessment and notes that the economic bounce isn't limited to building materials or replacement products such as furniture or cars. Sales of high-ticket items such as jewelry and designer-brand sales are up at Lakeside, which added three new stores in 2006, and Thriffiley predicts this holiday season "will be fabulous" at the landmark Veterans Memorial Boulevard mall.
Although some experts, according to Thriffiley, have forecast the boom to level off in 2007, Thriffiley thinks sales could still rise in the coming year. "It should be interesting," she says. "We've been told to expect some stabilization, but the [state] Road Home program will be coming in then, so I can see our boom continuing."
Metairie resident Lisa Polizzi shares that outlook. She is a consumer and a business owner in Jefferson, as well as the mother of two children who were still in diapers when Katrina hit. A month before the storm, Polizzi and her business partner, Ericka Frey, bought Adele's Dancewear from Polizzi's grandmother, who had owned the Veterans Memorial Boulevard store for more than 50 years. A few days after the storm, when Polizzi called Frey from her hotel room in Philadelphia, Miss., their prospects looked grim.
"Ericka stayed in New Orleans, and we were trying to figure out what to do," Polizzi recalls. "We sell dancewear. That's not a necessity when the whole city's under water. Who needs dancewear, and who is going to buy this stuff?"
Polizzi and Frey devised a plan. Frey, who is married but doesn't have children, worked on restarting the business, giving Polizzi and her husband Vinnie time to think about their family's future.
A week after the storm, Broussard announced that residents could return home for one day to assess the damage and gather clothing and other essential items. The parish Streets Department already had started clearing roadways of downed trees and other debris, but the job would take three weeks. Broussard, acting under emergency powers, determined it was better to keep the parish empty while preparing for rehabitation.
"It was very critical in those post-Katrina days to develop a plan that got sustainable living created fast enough to allow for businesses and residences," Broussard says. "That's why, in our original plan, we emphasized we were going to keep people out until the armies of utility trucks could come in and finish their work."
Polizzi's husband, Vinnie and brother, Anthony Salvaggio, made the trip back to check the Polizzis' home near Lake Pontchartrain off Transcontinental Boulevard. The roof had been ripped off, causing ceilings to collapse, and one room of the house had flooded. Vinnie packed his SUV with as much as it could hold, not knowing when his family would return. Still, when he walked into the couple's hotel room after his one-day journey, he gave his wife his honest assessment.
"Lisa, we're pretty good."
For the Polizzis and many other Jefferson residents, that day marked the beginning of the recovery. It continues today -- on both the home and business fronts.
Adele's Dancewear has shared in the business resurgence. Lisa Polizzi and Frey opened their store on Sept. 29, 2005 -- exactly one month after Katrina.
"It's the best thing we could have done," Polizzi says. "When people came back, they needed us. Last year was a great year for business. September is usually the busiest month [when they were closed], but it just picked up in October, November, and December and kept progressing. People were happy we were here."
Bob Hennessey, vice president of his family-owned Metairie mainstay, Morning Call Coffee Stand, agrees that people were thankful to have businesses back. He adds that the repopulation and the increased commerce fed one another. Hennessey reports that the trend continues and "business is great" in 2006. In fact, Hennessey suspects the parish population has grown beyond its pre-Katrina level of 452,824.
"Jefferson Parish is doing really well," Hennessey says. "A lot of businesses have been opened and are doing terrific. You go down Veterans and there's a load of people."
While Jefferson has regained -- and possibly exceeded -- its pre-Katrina population of approximately 450,000 and continues to reap a sales tax bonanza, the boom times present parish leaders with a double-edged sword. Numerous improvements have been made to Jefferson's drainage system, and the number of new businesses has spiked, but officials face new challenges such as post-storm blight, a rising crime rate and generally keeping residents convinced that Jefferson Parish is still the place to be.
One of the first steps towards parish recovery was re-establishing cash flow. In the early post-Katrina days, Jefferson Parish saw very little tax revenue -- although parish workers continued providing many essential services, such as garbage collection, street repairs, libraries, police and fire protection, and building permits. Sales tax proceeds for September and October 2005 were down because the population was still significantly reduced, and without reliable mail service, property taxes were trickling in.
"Property taxes never stopped being due, but the whole process ... stopped for a while," says Bert Smith, executive assistant to Parish President Broussard.
Parish officials quickly realized that they faced a severe -- and immediate -- cash flow problem. Looking ahead, they feared an even bigger hole in the 2006 budget, based on early projections that property taxes would decrease by as much as 50 percent because of storm damage.
Tim Whitmer, who has worked for the parish for 27 years and who recently returned as Broussard's chief administrative assistant -- the highest non-elected office in parish government -- says Jefferson Parish's consistent ability to stay within its budget year after year proved to be a major advantage.
"We've always been very conservative in nature in Jefferson Parish when it comes to our finances," Whitmer says. "We would rather budget low and have extra money at the end of the year than budget high and take things away at the end of the year. This conservative nature served us well after Katrina."
Proof of Whitmer's statement comes in the parish's AA bond rating, the highest in the state and a reflection of Jefferson's diligence in paying its bills in a timely manner. That makes it easier -- and cheaper -- for the parish to borrow money.
Which Jefferson did.
The state authorized Jefferson Parish to borrow up to $30 million to meet its immediate post-storm cash flow needs, anticipating reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Like many homeowners, the parish is still waiting on that reimbursement. But, true to its conservative spending practices, the parish has borrowed only $20 million of the $30 million that was authorized. The state has since extended an additional $40 million line of credit for drainage improvements, and the federal government has come through with a Community Disaster Loan (CDL) that has raised Jefferson's borrowing power to a total of $136 million. To date, the parish has drawn a combined $114 million on those loans, says Gwen Bolotte, director of the parish's Finance Department.
One reason the parish didn't have to borrow all that money is because the feared loss of property tax revenues didn't happen. Collections for 2006 fell just 6 percent compared to 2005.
Broussard says the loans were critical to changing residents' initial perception of the parish.
"You have to remember there was a lot of doubt on people's minds about the condition of their community," Broussard recalls. "People made decisions to stay or go based on what they found government was able to provide. When they came back to Jefferson Parish, they saw schools reopened, government services continuing, and vital services back in place. That gave them the incentive to stick it out and stay."
Laura and Paul Politz were probably typical of many Metairie residents in that regard. They chose to place their three kids in schools in Shreveport for the 2005 fall semester. Laura stayed with the kids while Paul, an attorney, returned home to work and start the rebuilding process. Laura says the choice was difficult, but the couple knew it was only temporary.
"I still can't believe what happened," she says. "But we always were of the mindset that we'd deal with it -- rebuild and come back."
The Politz home in Metairie Club Gardens flooded during Karina, and the downstairs of their two-story house needed extensive work. Within the first month, they had gutted the first floor and started a project that would last until June. As for what caused the flooding, Laura isn't interested in assigning blame.
"I understand it was the levee breach, but I don't know for sure," she says. "I guess it doesn't really matter at this point."
Other Jefferson Parish residents aren't as kind in their assessment. Many still resent Broussard for evacuating pump operators before Katrina made landfall, a decision that many say caused "The Broussard Flood." Since the storm, parish officials have had to rebuild infrastructure and improve hurricane preparation plans -- and Broussard has struggled to rebuild his political standing as well.
Whitmer believes Broussard made the right choice -- "life over property." He adds that officials now hope to make sure "that no parish president will ever have to make that decision again." To that end, the parish has built pump station safe rooms, which are intended to eliminate the need to evacuate pump operators.
The safe rooms at various pump stations will allow operators to stay behind while a storm passes -- and keep pumps operating by remote control. The rooms are designed to withstand winds up to 250 miles an hour, are placed above the range of tidal surges, and are equipped with a week's worth of fuel, food and communication devices. The original plan called for 15 pump stations to have safe rooms, but that number was scaled back to eight because of costs. Kazem Alikhani, director of the Jefferson Parish Drainage Department, says he hopes to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the other seven.
As for the flooding that occurred in Old Metairie and Old Jefferson -- a 2,500-acre area known as Hoey's Basin -- Alikhani says the cause was the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach and problems at Pump Station No. 6, which is shared by Orleans and Jefferson parishes. By agreement, Orleans is entitled to 76.5 percent of the station's pumping capacity and Jefferson gets the remaining 23.5 percent. During the storm, the station failed and both parishes lost all capacity.
To prevent future floodwall breaches, the Corps of Engineers has installed temporary floodgates near the mouth of the 17th Street Canal. The gates will close if a storm surge rises above a certain level. However, when the gates close, Pump Station No. 6 could become an even bigger concern because water it pumps into the canal would have nowhere to go.
Alikhani says the solution is relatively simple: "We'll do it through gravity and pumping to achieve our 23.5 percent share."
If rainwater can't drain into the 17th Street Canal, the water naturally flows down into Hoey's Basin. The parish decided to help gravity along by digging two retention ponds -- one at Pontiff Playground and another at the Causeway and Airline Drive junction -- and by adding new pumps to move water out of the 17th Street Canal into the Lake Pontchartrain when the gates are closed. Flap gates have been added to prevent drain lines connected to the 17th Street Canal from flowing back into the parish.
Meanwhile, the Drainage Department has also flushed all drain lines throughout the parish and cleaned all catch basins. Alikhani says he is confident the pumping system can handle major rainfalls. Still, residents need to be realistic.
"The pump system we have in place [is one that] we're hoping can protect us against a 10-year storm," Alikhani explains. "The entire drainage system is designed for a 10-year storm [9.2 inches of rainfall over 24 hours]. If you get a 100-year storm, you're going to get some flooding."
Laura Politz says she's satisfied with the changes that have been made to improve drainage. After her children finished the 2005 fall semester in Shreveport, she and the kids rejoined Paul in late December. They lived upstairs in their home until renovations were completed. Her hope is that parish officials have learned from their mistakes and will plan better in the future. Rebuilding their home isn't something she wants to do again.
"I can't say that living in my upstairs was very fun with three kids and no kitchen, but we weren't alone doing that. We had a lot of company," Politz says.
In addition to drainage improvements, the spike in sales tax collections has also helped Jefferson Parish target blighted properties -- a growing concern after Katrina. Parish Councilman Chris Roberts of Gretna says blight can lead to bigger social problems.
"It's a deterrent for law-abiding, tax-paying citizens to want to live in Jefferson Parish because they are worried about their quality of life," Roberts says. "More than often, blighted properties that are occupied typically have a higher population of individuals that involve themselves in criminal activity."
Roberts says his concern led him to push for a new environmental court in Jefferson Parish. The purpose of the court will be to streamline cases involving blight instead of letting them languish in the legal system. Judge Steven Windhorst will preside over the new court. The first trials are set for Dec. 14.
Inspection and Code Enforcement Director Louis Savoye says blight will continue to be a hot topic for several years. Savoye's department already has registered more than 700 complaints of neglected property this year. The volume of complaints is challenging the already overwhelmed department, which this year has received more than 12,000 applications for building permits -- triple the amount in a normal year. The council recently agreed to seek outside help with the growing number of violations. Savoye admits that, with some homeowners or landlords failing to respond to the complaints, the problem is likely to continue to affect the parish landscape for a while.
"The big challenge over the next several years will be the residential property damage that's out there right now," Savoye says. "Getting those owners to do something."
Jefferson Parish's Department of Environmental Affairs also plays a part in battling blight. Marnie Winter, department director, has overseen the massive storm debris collection as well as rodent and mosquito control, and home demolitions. So far, Winter's department has received more than 800 requests for demolitions. More than 500 have been completed.
After the storm, the Polizzis weren't about to let their home become blighted. After Lisa and Vinnie met with their insurance adjuster in October 2005, the family moved back into their house. The repairs are ongoing -- Lisa hopes to be finished soon -- but she's happy with her progress as well as the neighborhood's recovery.
"There's been some house demolitions, but for the most part people are back," she says. "Some of us, myself included, have to have our floors taken out, and just today I saw huge piles of trash in front of someone's house -- they must be just getting started. But the trailers are leaving and it's improving. I wouldn't say blight's a concern for us."
Parish officials also want to mitigate a close relative of blight: pollution. Winter says the storm debris pickup is 95 percent completed, and the Streets Department spends weekends collecting trash on parish and state roads. Last month, the Streets and the Parks and Parkways departments joined a citizens' group, Jefferson the Beautiful, to launch Releaf Project, a six-month tree-planting initiative. Orleans Parish is also part of the project.
Former Jefferson Parish Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Turner sees these kinds of partnerships as a formidable force in dealing with blight and pollution. Turner now works part time for the parish designing beautification programs. She believes it's up to ordinary citizens to make the changes they want.
"You need to take a stand in your own parish," Turner says.
To that end, Turner has established the Veterans Boulevard Beautification Project, an ambitious attempt to beautify the length of Veterans from the 17th Street Canal to the Kenner line. The project will include landscaping neutral grounds along the boulevard as well as the periphery strips of parish property located in store parking lots lining Veterans. The strips are leased to businesses for customer access, and the money raised from the leases will fund the program.
Turner has enlisted the LSU Agricultural Department to bring anti-pollution curricula into local schools to teach kids how to respect the environment. She feels it's necessary to instruct children at an early age that pollution is not only against the law, but also morally reprehensible.
"It's one of the parts of moral development," Turner says. "We have to go beyond saying, 'It's not my mess,' to 'It's not my mess, but I'm going to clean it up.'"
Crime, on the other hand, is everyone's mess. For decades, people migrated from Orleans to Jefferson to escape crime. Jefferson's relatively low crime rate has always been a big part of the parish's appeal. The latest crime statistics, however, could dull some of Jefferson's allure. The parish murder rate rose 31.4 percent in the first eight months of 2006, with 46 murders. There were 35 murders during the same period in 2005. On the other hand, reported rapes decreased 35 percent and the number of robberies dropped 28 percent. Assaults were up 17 percent.
Roberts thinks the rise in certain crimes can be traced directly to migration out of New Orleans public housing developments.
"When you empty out the projects in New Orleans and you put them into apartment complexes in Jefferson Parish, it's not going to take a Ph.D. to realize our crime rate problem is going to go up," Roberts says, echoing comments that have drawn criticism from civil rights leaders.
The Jefferson Council recently passed Roberts' resolution asking the Louisiana Recovery Authority not to accept any applications for federal tax credits to build low-income housing in Roberts' West Bank council district. The resolution passed unanimously. Roberts has been particularly vocal in his opposition to new low-income housing in Jefferson, even though the parish lost an estimated 37,000 rental units during the storm.
It's not that he doesn't want people to move into the parish, he says.
"If they're law-abiding, tax-paying citizens that want to work and want to hold their kids responsible and live the American Dream -- to get off your ass and go get a job and make a living -- they're welcome to come here," Roberts says.
Broussard says it goes beyond not allowing low-income residents to live in Jefferson, because crime has no boundaries. A criminal element might have resettled in New Orleans, but that won't stop them from going into the suburbs, he says. Broussard won't speculate as to where former New Orleans public housing residents might have gone, but he doesn't think a large number of criminals moved into the parish.
"It's not an easy transition to go from public housing in Orleans to find comparable public housing in Jefferson Parish," Broussard says. "It might even be an impossible transition. The rents make it very challenging."
Over at the Morning Call Coffee Stand, Bob Hennessey works the floor four days a week, talking constantly to customers as they sit down for a cup and an order of beignets. He hears people worry about crime in Jefferson Parish, particularly their concerns about the recent spike in violent crimes on the West Bank. Even so, many remain confident that Sheriff Harry Lee will resolve the crisis.
"Everybody loves Harry Lee," Hennessey says. "We know he's doing everything to get it under control."
The Polizzis hope that will be the case. They moved to Metairie three years ago. Their home's quiet, one-block street was an ideal location, between their two families and close to Lake Pontchartrain. They still love their neighborhood, but Polizzi admits that crime is something she's more aware of than in the past.
"There was a gunpoint robbery a few blocks from our house, which is unusual," Polizzi says. "After the hurricane, someone came into the store and took my wallet out of my purse. So, yeah, it's something we need to be careful about. We know there's a lot of different people here, but for now we're just going to keep it as a concern."
The pace and progress of Jefferson Parish's recovery will be debated -- and studied -- for years to come. To measure public perception among Jefferson residents, the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center and the LSU Department of Sociology asked metro residents in March 2006 about the recovery process. In terms of overall satisfaction with life in their parish, 70 percent of those in Jefferson responded positively. A similar survey was conducted in 2004, at which time 89 percent of Jefferson respondents said they were satisfied.
Dr. Susan Howell, who headed the team of researchers for the surveys, says overall satisfaction remains high in Jefferson, but she cautions that the poll was conducted with "people in the best conditions -- they had [phone] landlines, so they weren't in trailers." Howell says the center will soon announce the results of a new survey, but she doesn't anticipate the results being dramatically different. "There are more businesses open, but I don't know about the psychological -- anxiety, worry, and stress."
The past 14 months have been stressful for the Polizzis, but also exhilarating. The family has been living in a house renovation project for more than a year, and the neighborhood is, by Lisa Polizzi's estimate, about "75 percent recovered." Most of all, her children are healthy and her business is thriving.
"We're happy in Metairie," she says of the family's decision to return. "You have to decide where you're going to be and live. I have a business here, and our oldest son just started pre-kindergarten. I think this is our home. I've only been here three years, but under the circumstances, I'm impressed with how far things have come."
Hennessey agrees, although staffing shortages at his coffee shop forced him to reduce his hours of operation. Despite that, he says his business is as profitable as ever -- and he's even thinking of selling franchises outside the New Orleans area. Hennessey adds that his regular customers are once again "laughing and having a good time" -- but they aren't worry-free.
Customers' No. 1 concern, Hennessey says, is the high cost of homeowner's insurance. On the other hand, he adds, they know that they were largely spared by Katrina, and for that they are grateful.
"No place is perfect," Hennessey says, "but people are trying to do their best -- and there's still work to be done."