"The perception is that everything is fine, which is far from the truth," McAllister says as we near downtown. "We've got a ton of people who want to come home, but they don't have any homes to come to."
We drive past Tulane University Hospital, which was without power in the aftermath of the storm. "Their doctors and nurses did what they could to try to save their patients, but…" says McAllister, his voice trailing off. At least the hospital is operational; nearby Charity Hospital remains closed.
A few minutes later, as we pass the First District Police Station, McAllister nods toward a low-income housing project left abandoned after the flooding. One of the frightening trickle-down effects of the inner-city exodus is that some of the gang members and drug dealers who used to live or do business here have relocated to Jefferson Parish or neighboring cities outside New Orleans. Turf wars rage in and out of the area.
"It looks like these projects aren't going to reopen, so all of these people haven't returned," McAllister says. "Or if they have returned, they've had to re-establish themselves somewhere else, whether they had the money or not."
Money. That's a sensitive subject in New Orleans. You can't talk to locals here without their frustration with the government bubbling to the top of the conversation.
McAllister is no different. He sees an opportunity for his city to rebuild and improve its infrastructure, beginning with its beleaguered school and health care systems. He sees a chance to build affordable housing for the disenfranchised. He sees hope. And he sees debilitating political inertia.
So I ask him, if we were talking about predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhoods in need of massive reconstruction, would there be a greater urgency and effort to rebuild?
"I don't know if it would happen any quicker," he says, quick to add that the more affluent Lakeview area also remains in distress. "Nine times out of 10, probably yes. But I think if you look at it, just the whole process, nobody's ever been on the same page, from the federal to the state to the local, so how can you expect them to be on the same page when it comes to funding? Meanwhile, people sit and wait and suffer.
"Say you're a person who doesn't have a 401K and you don't have a savings account," he says. "Then you're starting over from scratch with zero. You took a bag for two days thinking it was a little trip. 'Well, a storm is coming to New Orleans, so I'm going to take a two-day trip. We'll be back.' But there's nothing to come back to. That's a story I've heard tons and tons of times from a lot of people."
McAllister takes a right at Broad and Orleans. You see blocks and blocks of boarded-up houses, almost every one bearing a spray painted X on the front. The quadrants of the X include the date of the inspection, the origin of the inspection crew, whether the crew entered the structure and, in some cases, the human body count or graffiti notes that read "No cat found" or "Live dog."
The city isn't without its celebrity benefactors. Denzel Washington, Harry Connick Jr., Bill Cosby and assorted Saints, Hornets and other NFL, NBA and MLB players -- among others -- have visited and contributed to the rebuilding effort. The city, McAllister says, is a shell. "And you can do what you want within it, as well as outside of this city. But if they don't start with education, it's going to be hard."