“We knew when we finished the first film that the story wasn’t over,” says Lee. “It was clear it would take a long time for the city to get back on its feet.” Lee and his crew arrived in New Orleans in Feb. 2010 during a new wave of optimism, led by the Who Dat Nation, the community of passionate fans of the NFL champion New Orleans Saints football team. “The mood in New Orleans was great when we got there,” Lee recalls. “They’d just won a Super Bowl. They had a new mayor and people’s spirits were high.”
New Orleanians were also encouraged by a series of legal victories that promised accountability for some of the devastating damage done to their homes by massive flooding during and after the storm. Notably, in Nov. 2009, a federal district court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was culpably negligent for poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a major navigation channel, which led to some of the worst flooding after Hurricane Katrina. The ruling paved the way for long-awaited financial restitution.
Amidst the ambitious plans to reinvent the city, Lee also uncovered a deep undercurrent of mistrust. Many residents say that recovery efforts mask an effort to transform the city famous for letting the good times roll into an “economic engine” that will benefit only an elite few.
A lack of affordable housing is one of several serious ongoing problems faced by the city’s poor, especially the primarily African-American residents of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard’s Parish. The four large public housing developments have been shuttered, and rents have soared, with the average fair-market value of an apartment rising from $578 in 2005 to $881 in 2009. Only 38 percent of the private homes destroyed in the hurricane have been rebuilt.
“Some parts of the city are rebuilt,” Lee notes. “But a lot of houses in those areas are in the same condition they were five years ago.”