Rebuilding. Reopening. Realizing.
If you rebuild it, will they come?
That is the big question this city's credit unions are asking about members as they struggle to come back from the decimation of Hurricane Katrina.
"At this point, it is still too soon to tell how many of our members will return," said Mia Perez, director of marketing and business development for Greater New Orleans FCU. "We have employees who are still trying to make that decision for their families."
This statement came several weeks after Perez told The Credit Union Journal that her greatest concern for her credit union and CUs across New Orleans, was the disbursal of membership.
"We can build new branches. We can buy new computer equipment. All that stuff can be replaced," Perez pointed out just days after Hurricane Katrina struck. "But it won't mean a thing without the members. A credit union is nothing without its members, and our members are spread all across the country right now."
And the big question is when they will come back-if they come back at all.
"We know some will stay where they are," GNO VP Information Systems Ed Vollenweider observed. "We just don't know how many. And so much of it depends on how quickly they are able to move back. The longer it takes for the city to rebuild, the more time people will have had to make new lives for themselves elsewhere."
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for New Orleans credit unions has been helping their employees find housing so they can return to work.
For New Orleanians whose homes were destroyed, temporary housing will be defined in months-and in some cases even years-as opposed to days or weeks, and for those whose jobs were also washed away by Hurricane Katrina, there often appears to be little reason for them to return, particularly if they have managed to find housing and jobs and put children into schools elsewhere.
"Those who have children will be particularly loath to pull up roots again," said Perez.
It's one thing for a person who evacuated to nearby Baton Rouge to sit tight and wait for New Orleans to blossom again-some day. It's another thing to be several states away. Texas, for example, expects a large number of hurricane evacuees to make the Lone Star State their permanent home.
But even neighboring Baton Rouge expects a good number of New Orleanians to stay put, regardless of what happens in New Orleans.
"Baton Rouge took in about 235,000 evacuees," said Steven Moray, executive director of the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce. "These numbers are preliminary, but we believe somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 will stay. People will be making permanent decisions in the next few months."
Moray said the national press has been calling and asking him what it's like to be a boom town, but he insists that the massive influx of people hasn't exactly turned Baton Rouge into Las Vegas.
"Pockets of the economy have done well, but most businesses have been under strain. Only 36% said they have been positively impacted by Katrina," Moray explained. "There has always been a strong link between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, so what hurts New Orleans also hurts Baton Rouge."
While real estate, for example has, indeed, boomed as evacuees rent apartments, hotel rooms and even buy houses in Baton Rouge, the city's infrastructure wasn't developed to handle the sudden population explosion. The result: snarled traffic that turns what used to be a five-minute drive pre-Katrina into a 20-minute or even hour-long drive post-Katrina.
"For some business, like air conditioning services, for example, doubling and tripling the travel time cuts into their bottom line," Moray offered, adding that while the traffic problems are nothing more than a nuisance for some businesses, those problems can cut off the very lifeblood of others.
And it's not just the business sector that is suffering. School systems and other public institutions are footing the bill to serve evacuees and are not being reimbursed for that.
"The sense of urgency has left Washington altogether," Moray commented. "Now it looks like Congress won't pass a relief package before Thanksgiving."
Just as disconcerting as the perceived lack of urgency are the various relief proposals being considered, he noted. "One plan calls for Louisiana to provide matching funds," Moray said. "If that happens, there will be problems."
That's because a hefty percentage of the state's revenues are generated in New Orleans, and that revenue stream has been shut down to a mere trickle, likely for quite some time to come.
"Our big concern is that the nation will turn its back on New Orleans as Katrina fades off the front page," Moray noted. "Already, the plight of New Orleans is fading from the national consciousness."