In 2005, the mud and the mold and the stench of Katrina — the hurricane and flood and every bit of human tragedy that the name came to represent – nearly did New Orleans in, and ultimately changed the city in ways we’re only beginning to understand a decade later.
It’s been a long recovery since Katrina arrived early on a Monday morning, Aug. 29, but New Orleans — at last — has room to celebrate. The Mardi Gras parades never stopped rolling, the debutantes are dancing, the economy is booming and an influx of newcomers is bringing fresh ideas to the city. But as a new, stronger New Orleans emerges, deep problems persist. The murder rate is soaring, the poverty rate remains stubbornly high and the city itself — sitting mostly below sea level and sinking — is susceptible to another big storm.
New Orleans’ next challenge is to use its newfound strengths to tackle those long-simmering issues, even as it holds onto its laissez les bon temps rouler traditions.
Katrina was not, in the end, a hurricane for the record books — meteorologically speaking. Erratic, it strengthened and waned as it staggered from the Bahamas across Florida, then swept down into the Gulf of Mexico where it revved into a Category 5 storm and pointed straight for New Orleans — long enough to cause last-minute panic, but not long enough to reach the city with its full force. Its eye stayed just east, passing over Plaquemines Parish, in the “toe” of Louisiana, as a Category 3.
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A different kind of disaster was in the making in New Orleans, though. By the time Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation, less than 24 hours before the storm would hit, too many residents were stranded, unable or unwilling to flee. Thousands sought refuge at the Superdome, offered as a “shelter of last resort.” Others stayed in their homes. The hurricane arrived just before daybreak, and although it caused monumental damage along coastal Mississippi and Alabama, New Orleans was relatively intact.
Katrina, the greater disaster, was just beginning. An unprecedented storm surge put pressure on the levee system, and at least three levees holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to the north of the city gave way. New Orleanians, exhausted but relieved to have weathered the hurricane, recall the shock of watching manhole covers pop open as water erupted, flooding 80 percent of the city. In low-lying neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward (also one of the city’s poorest), the water rose too quickly for some people to escape first-floor apartments. Others scrambled into attics and pried holes in roofs to stay alive.
More than 1,000 people died in New Orleans (of about 1,800 in the entire region hit by Katrina) as a horrified world watched the city drown on television. The helicopter shots of submerged, darkened neighborhoods. SOS messages painted on rooftops. Stories — Rumors? It was hard to know — of looting and shootings and rape on streets and in the Superdome and Morial Convention Center, where the city locked people in — for safety, officials said.
More than a million people in the Gulf region were displaced by the storm, and it would be months before people in large sections of New Orleans could return safely to their homes — if their homes were standing. Toxic green and black mold had crawled in after the water receded. Stinking refrigerators lined curbs. Bodies were pulled from flooded houses. Damage totaled $135 billion, according to The Data Center, an independent research group. The devastation was brutal, overwhelming.
Countless studies and hearings would prove Katrina was a man-made disaster. Nature sent the hurricane, but levees failed primarily because of design and construction errors by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A chaotic, finger-pointing mess of local, state and federal officials did a heck of a job mismanaging rescue and relief efforts. Remember FEMA Director Michael Brown? Relieved of his duties about a week after Katrina, “Brownie” is now a radio host in Colorado. And Nagin, who went on to win a second mayoral term in 2006, was sentenced last year to 10 years in federal prison on money laundering and bribery charges related, in part, to contracts for Katrina recovery.
It’s been a grueling slog out of that mud, but here’s the thing about New Orleans: It never gave up. Just six months after Katrina hit, the city defiantly pulled out its party clothes and brass bands and celebrated Mardi Gras the way New Orleans does best, with parades. “We gotta laugh to keep from crying,” one reveler told NPR then.
Historians and disaster experts say the spirit of a place, what makes it feel unique, also can make it more resilient in the face of collapse. New York after Sept. 11. San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.
“There is a very deep wellspring of social memory, collective memory and cultural pride in New Orleans that was drawn upon to inspire recovery,” says Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who writes about the city. “It’s almost as if neighbors and neighborhoods discovered themselves and gave themselves voices, historical depth and cultural meaning once they realized that they were on the brink of being destroyed.”
New Orleans is regaining its place as America’s destination for bacchanalia. The city’s distinct faubourgs, new museums and riverfront parks, a year-round calendar of festivals and a thriving restaurant scene welcome travelers. More than 9 million people visited in 2014, on par with pre-Katrina levels, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
New Orleans is more than a tourist destination, though, and it reaches far beyond the famous French Quarter (which was barely damaged). The city has worked to reposition itself as an economic engine of the South and a city of the future.
This month and going forward Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city will mourn the lives lost to Katrina. He'll recognize the city’s accomplishments and launch the planning for New Orleans’ 300th anniversary celebration in 2018.
Not that anyone should tell New Orleans how to throw a party, but here’s an idea: Turn the tricentennial into a debutante ball, a coming-out party for a city that, after everything it’s been through — because of what it’s been through — takes a seat alongside other strong American cities. We see a New Orleans that has grown up, not just by surviving the worst but by transforming into a stronger metropolis.
Landrieu is a champion of the rebirth story and has been touring the nation — he visited with the Chicago Tribune editorial board in July — to highlight the city’s economic growth, fixes to the levees and, he swears, political reform. He seems to know that he has to keep hammering away at other issues too, some old and some familiar to cities across the U.S. Here, we believe, are the keys to New Orleans’ post-post-Katrina success:
• Keep adjusting to the new demographics: Population fell to 200,000 after Katrina from 455,000 before, and now hovers around 350,000. New Orleans is a far whiter city now, with a growing Hispanic population that was virtually nonexistent before the storm. The loss of nearly 100,000 African-American residents is most apparent on the abandoned streets of the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, two mostly black areas. Despite pockets of redevelopment, both feel eerily empty today.
Tensions flared in 2006 when New Orleans considered converting these areas into “green space.” The idea fizzled; no one knew how many residents would return. In 2015, large swaths of property have not been redeveloped and, with wild plant growth galore, nature is reclaiming turf. The city can keep its commitment to rebuilding all neighborhoods but should revisit the idea of clustering residents and creating large park lands in surplus spaces. That would help the environment and create safer neighborhoods with more reliable city services for all residents.
• Invest more in flood protection: From an environmental standpoint, the viability of the entire city remains in question. Landrieu is quick to talk about the $14.5 billion in federal funding New Orleans spent to fix its levees, but he also concedes they still leave it vulnerable. The coastline around southern Louisiana also is eroding, and New Orleans is sinking. No surprise that “coastal restoration” is a hot topic, and we urge Landrieu to support more of it. New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf are poised to receive portions of an $18.7 billion settlement with BP over the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill. New Orleans and its neighbors should invest their shares strictly in coastal restoration efforts.
• Maintain the brain gain: A city that once relied on the tourism and oil and gas industries is diversifying, with growth – 14,000 new jobs since 2010 – particularly in digital media, bioscience and environmental and conservation-related industries. A long-sputtering medical corridor, dubbed the “BioDistrict” in Mid-City, is projected to create 10,000 jobs over the coming decade. Meanwhile, New Orleans has jumped on the startup bandwagon with its tech incubator, Idea Village, and an influx of smart millennials is moving to the city. One longtime New Orleanian told us it was like an invasion of valedictorians. But venture capital funding lags in the city compared with other emerging startup hubs like Austin, Texas, so New Orleans will need to lure more big investors in to keep the kids from moving on to the next hot spot.
• Focus on the poor: At the same time, New Orleans, and Landrieu, risk the 1 percent problem – appearing to steer resources toward the city’s affluent core at the expense of its poorest communities. A Data Center report earlier this year showed that despite economic growth by other metrics, the city’s child poverty rate had reached a startling 39 percent in 2013. That’s a return to pre-Katrina levels and far higher than the 22 percent national average. The report attributed the problem to low wages and challenged leaders to create more quality jobs for the poor. We’d like to see New Orleans harness some of the energy from its startup community and create new models for job creation that lift the poorest out of poverty. As The Data Center cautions, “Children in poverty are much more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect, and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship.”
• Reduce the crime: This is the toughest one. But if the city is to be more than a tourist destination and continue to attract those smart, young entrepreneurs, it has to be safer. The murder rate is hitting record levels this year. More crimes are being committed during the day, too, which shakes a community’s sense of safety. Landrieu told us about his NOLA for Life murder-reduction strategy and says he’s adopted Chicago’s CeaseFire approach and is training interrupters to work on troubled streets. We don’t have answers for New Orleans, but we know it needs to be the city’s No. 1 priority.
Yes, many of these challenges apply to other cities. But if New Orleans now is taken seriously enough to have its strategies weighed against those of bigger metropolises, that’s a rise in stature. It also testifies to this more mature New Orleans’ biggest accomplishment: It’s moving on. The city won’t be bulldozed. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and City Park and the French Quarter all survive. The chatter that consumes New Orleanians now—school choices, gentrification, rising housing costs, potholes, traffic— is the kind heard in thriving cities nationwide.
We like how Terrence Fitzmorris, a Tulane historian and longtime New Orleans resident, parlays a past disaster into an enduring imperative. “It was like a wake-up call,” he tells us. “Katrina gave us an opportunity to move beyond our own complacency, so let’s not blow this.”