It's Claude Mauberret's job to come up with an answer. He's the assessor for the Second Municipal District, which includes the Fourth Ward of New Orleans. If you have a home or a business there, Claude's the one who decides what your property is worth and thus how much tax you should pay. He's had the job for 11 years now, but that doesn't begin to tell the story. Before he took over, his dad was the assessor for this area, and before that, his grandfather, and before that, his grandfather's brother.
"It goes back to 1904," explains Mauberret. "It humbles you, the legacy thing. I've thought about it a lot since the storm, and the more I think of it, the humbler I get.
"When great catastrophes happen, the people look for someone to blame and often that's politicians. But I think this time they're looking for the higher-ups. I think they're looking to us to look out for them and stand up for them."
Toward that end, Mauberret and his six fellow assessors recently came up with some recommendations for post-Katrina taxes.
"We proposed reopening the tax rolls from Jan. 3-14," he explains. "Land values will remain the same, but we'll reduce home assessments to the minimum needed to qualify for the $75,000 homestead exemption. Most 2006 bills will be in the area of $70-$80."
He swallows hard and says thickly, "It's the right thing to do."
The slice of the pie that has stayed in the Mauberret kitchen for four generations now is based in the Fourth Ward, which stretches from Canal Street to the lake. Directly across Canal is the Third Ward, and each ward is a spouse in the political marriage that makes up Mid-City. They start together at the river and they end where all things end, at the cemeteries. In the middle is the race between hopeful commerce and gnawing poverty for available land and trying to stave off both first the burglar, then the gentrifier.
"It's the quintessential New Orleans neighborhood," says Mauberret. "And in the past five to seven years, it's made a huge turnaround for the better. Parents died and their kids were moving back from the outskirts and taking over the households, turning doubles into singles. Home ownership was going up. Mid-City was a happening place."
That last is a past tense, and it's delivered with certainty. When he adds "And will be again," it's future tense and a lot less certain. Yet Claude Mauberret likes to drive through his district because, even though it's "heartbreaking," he glories in the sight of places drawing the attention of people again. He'll quickly rattle off names of businesses he's spotted being spruced up this week: City Perk coffeehouse, Mick's Tavern on Bienville Street, and a dozen others.
But he sounds even more excited when he speaks of men and women, back home with map and claw-hammer. He'll stop and talk to these folks, ask about their plans, encourage them if they want to come back, try to change the minds of those who don't.
"I feel good about the number of people I'm seeing who are coming back to their homes on weekends to work on them," Mauberret says. "Of course, it's tougher to come in from Dallas than Baton Rouge, and I believe that plenty of our residents have gone far away. But I'm sure there'll be lots of homecomings around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and of course with the reopening of schools and resumption of utilities, there'll be even more."
One address that drew even closer attention was 218 N. St. Patrick St. It's the home where Mauberret grew up, and it took 4 feet of water. "I got out and looked, and the people who own it had already been by and had knocked out the sheetrock already."
The fourth-generation assessor thinks such efforts spawn imitators, and even though "it won't happen overnight," Mid-City stands ready for a comeback of biblical proportions.
"Sure, we had a large population of older residents, and many of them have moved to faraway places like Colorado and Tennessee," he concedes. "We just hope that if they don't come back, some youngsters will check out their places as starter homes. And they can see the good example of those around them, and we can all feed off one another."
"Old ties give place to new ones," declares the nurse in Euripides' Medea. But Mauberret isn't quite ready to pronounce the old ties fully loosened yet. He wants them to hold fast until the new ties have hardened into suitable replacements.
So he drives up and down Orleans Avenue and Navarre and Bernadotte and Colbert and Iberville and looks for old neighbors and maybe some new ones.
He looks and keeps his fingers crossed.