Outside the 2,000-bed temporary shelter in Baton Rouge's River Center, a Church of Scientology band is performing a version of Bill Withers's classic Use Me - a refreshingly honest choice. "If it feels this good getting used," the Scientology singer belts out, "just keep on using me until you use me up." Ten-year-old Nyler, lying face down on a massage table, has pretty much the same attitude. She's not quite sure why the nice lady in the yellow Scientology Volunteer Minister T-shirt wants to rub her back, but "it feels so good," she tells me, so who really cares?
I ask Nyler if this is her first massage. "Assist!" hisses the volunteer minister, correcting my Scientology lingo. Nyler shakes her head no; since fleeing New Orleans after a tree fell on her house, she has visited this tent many times, becoming something of an assist-aholic. "I have nerves," she explains in a blissed-out massage voice. "I have what you call nervousness."
Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan ("It's the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot"), Nyler tells me what she's nervous about. "I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back." "Why not?" I ask. "Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone."
I don't have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she's on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighbourhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city.
An hour earlier I had interviewed New Orleans's top corporate lobbyist Mark Drennen. As president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., Drennen was in an expansive mood, pumped up by signs from Washington that the corporations he represents - everything from Chevron to Liberty Bank to Coca-Cola - were about to receive a package of tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations so generous it would make the job of a lobbyist virtually obsolete.
Listening to Drennen enthuse about the opportunities opened up by the storm, I was struck by his reference to African Americans in New Orleans as "the minority community." At 67 per cent of the population, they are in fact the clear majority, while whites like Drennen make up just 27 per cent.
It was no doubt a simple verbal slip, but I couldn't help feeling that it was also a glimpse into the desired demographics of the new-and-improved city being imagined by its white elite. "I honestly don't know and I don't think anyone knows how they are going to fit in," Drennen said of the city's unemployed.
New Orleans is already displaying signs of a demographic shift so dramatic that some evacuees describe it as "ethnic cleansing." Before Mayor Ray Nagin called for a second evacuation, the people streaming back into dry areas were mostly white, while those with no homes to return to are overwhelmingly black. This, we are assured, is not a conspiracy; it's simple geography - a reflection of the fact that wealth in New Orleans buys altitude. That means that the driest areas are the whitest (the French Quarter is 90 per cent white, the Garden District 89 per cent; Audubon 86 per cent, neighbouring Jefferson Parish, where -people were also allowed to return, 65 per cent).
Some dry areas, like Algiers, did have large low-income African-American populations before the storm, but in all the billions for reconstruction, there is no budget for transportation back from the far-flung shelters where those residents ended up. So even when resettlement is permitted, many may not be able to return.
As for the hundreds of thousands of residents whose low-lying homes and housing projects were destroyed by the flood, Drennen says the city now has an opportunity for "21st-century thinking": rather than rebuild ghettos, New Orleans should be resettled with "mixed-income" housing, with rich and poor, black and white living side by side.
What Drennen doesn't say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans's poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built.
Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate - 17.4 per cent, according to the 2000 census. At that time, 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market hasn't improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still there and still vacant. It's much the same in the other dry areas: with landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents, the French Quarter has been half-empty for years, with a vacancy rate of 37 per cent.
The citywide numbers are staggering: in the areas that sustained only minor damage and are on the mayor's repopulation list, there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish is included, that number soars to 23,270.
At three people to a unit, homes could be found for roughly 70,000 evacuees. With the number of permanently homeless city residents estimated at 200,000, that's a significant dent in the housing crisis. And it's doable.
Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, whose Houston district includes some 150,000 Katrina evacuees, says there are ways to convert vacant apartments into affordable or free housing. After passing an ordinance, cities could issue "Section 8" rental certificates that would pay the rent on the homes until evacuees find jobs. Jackson Lee says she plans to introduce legislation that will call for federal relief funds to be spent on precisely such rental vouchers.
"If opportunity exists to create viable housing options," she says, "they should be explored."
Malcolm Suber, a long-time New Orleans community activist, was shocked to learn that thousands of livable homes were sitting empty. "If there are empty houses in the city," he says, "then working-class and poor people should be able to live in them."
According to Suber, taking over vacant units would do more than provide much-needed immediate shelter; it would move significant numbers of poor residents back into the city, preventing the key decisions about its future from being made exclusively by those who can afford land on high ground.
"We have the right to fully participate in the reconstruction of our city," Suber says. "And that can only happen if we are back inside."
But he concedes that it will be a fight: the old-line families in Audubon and the Garden District may pay lip service to "mixed-income" housing, "but the Bourbons uptown would have a conniption if a Section 8 tenant moved in next door. It will certainly be interesting."
Research assistance provided by Aaron Maté. This article was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com).