An Illustration from AD: New Orleans After the Deluge
On August 29, four years ago, Katrina made landfall at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. The next several days — and months — demonstrated how natural disaster can interact with human decision to cause catastrophe.
While what happened in New Orleans is only part of the story, it is an especially compelling chapter. It was not the raging storm that wreaked the worst havoc. Katrina did, however, sweep away a forest of fig leaves. It was no longer possible to obscure the long-term consequences of corruption, short-sightedness, and naked self-interest.
After a troubled and agonizingly slow start, New Orleans is in recovery. A report released earlier this week by an urban planning firm finds, “By all measures, New Orleans continues to grow. The city has recovered 77% of its population and more than$10 billion in new investments is underway. New businesses are emerging within the film and media industries, and the Health Care and Tourism industries are expanding.”
The New Orleans Index, a project of the Brookings Institution, provides a fabulous data-set and acute analysis of what has happened in the four years since. Some highlights:
- New Orleans has 65,888 unoccupied residential addresses.
- The number of households receiving mail in New Orleans is now 76.4 percent of the pre-Katrina number, up from 49.5 percent three years ago.
- Ongoing investment in recovery has softened the blow of the recession. Among the 100 most populous urban areas, the New Orleans had the sixth lowest unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2009.
Housing prices for the New Orleans metro region fell 0.3 percent from first quarter 2008 to Q1 2009. This compares to a 6.9 percent average decrease for the 100 largest metros across the same time frame.
- FEMA has obligated $900 million for infrastructure repairs in Louisiana since last July, bringing the total to nearly $7.8 billion, of which 58 percent has been paid to localities.
At the end of July the project directors for the New Orleans Index offered, “Residents and leaders are eager to get beyond ‘disaster recovery’ to implement bold plans for creating a sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous city and region. Locally, key moves are creating the foundation for transformation to meet residents’ long-term aspirations.”
Last Sunday, the Times-Picayune ran a largely laudatory story of the Obama administration’s support — and strategic shift — related to recovery. The reporters, Jonathon Tilove and Bruce Alpert, note that in the, “first six months of (Obama’s) term, half his Cabinet has visited the Gulf Coast, with 19 senior administration officials making a total of 30 trips to the coast, 20 to Louisiana.”
The reporters interviewed a number of local leaders. “In the view of Paul Rainwater, who as the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority is the state’s chief hurricane recovery adviser, the Obama administration has exhibited an understanding of something fundamental about Hurricane Katrina that the Bush administration never did: that this was not another disaster, but a catastrophe beyond ‘anything anybody’s ever seen before.'”
“They appreciate that recovery is recovery and that it doesn’t always fit into a nice, neat package of rules, it’s a messy business, and it’s tough, and if you really want people to come back you have to look at it in a different way, ” he said.
Jed Horne, a writer living in New Orleans claims, “At its most interesting, New Orleans has become a laboratory for its own reinvention and perhaps for the reinvention of other cities as well. We have made real strides toward reshaping government, the school system included. We have the opportunity, if we don’t blow it, to get health care and public housing right. Our very travail has made New Orleans a magnet for people from all over the country with a sense of adventure and a will to make a difference.” (Oxford American, September 2008)
This shift from victim, innocent or complicit, to hero for others to follow is — while fraught — an amazing transformation.
Rebecca Solnit has written a new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that examines “extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.” She looks hard at the aftermaths of Katrina, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 explosion of the SS. Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbor, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and 9/11. What Solnit finds is remarkable and recurring resilience.
In an interview with Rumpus Solnit explains, “What is kind of beautiful about Katrina is that even though the media and officials (were) working hard at telling us everyone in New Orleans was a monster, in the immediate aftermath more than 200,000 people invite displaced strangers into their homes through hurricanehousing.org and an uncounted horde go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to give, to love, to be in solidarity, and to rebuild–a moment like Freedom Summer magnified a thousandfold. It matters, and it’s deeply moving.”
Clearly there is still much to do. The GCR & Associates report also found, “There are pressing challenges the city must face to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. These include the large number of blighted and abandoned properties; the lack of affordable housing for many low income renters; the loss of more than 80,000 jobs in the metro area; and lingering concerns about the robustness of the region’s hurricane protection system. As the region shifts into a more active rebuilding period, it will be increasingly important to monitor critical investments while continuing to address the issues of poverty, poor education and lack of job opportunities that will inhibit long-term growth.”
Katrina, and certainly its aftermath, was a catastrophe for New Orleans. There was a sharp break with what had gone before. Full recovery is not possible. But there is the potential for something different than recovery, even something more… perhaps redemption.
Looking for what this might tell us of resilience, an excerpt from a poem by New Orleans poet Kalamu ya Salaam:
We are achievers, strivers, climbers, those who visit the summits
regardless of the roughness of the mountain
we have prepared ourselves to climb
despite hurricanes and hard times
we have disciplined ourselves to keep on keeping on
Hope, reality collide in post-Katrina New Orleans (Associated Press)
Wetlands restoration needs to move faster (Times-Picayune)
Good Times for New Orleans tourism are rolling (USA Today)
Post-Katrina poll finds mixed results (Council for a Better Louisiana)
Entrepreneurs take to Big Easy (Wall Street Journal)
Help citizens help themselves (Times-Picayune)
Blight dims post-Katrina optimism (Fox News)
Residents struggle to rebuild homes in post-Katrina New Orleans (Southern Studies Institute)
Praise for Obama on Katrina (Associated Press)
The State of New Orleans: An Update (New York Times, Op-ed)
Four years after Katrina, a mix of progress and inertia (USA Today editorial)
Katrina remains cursed by rumour, cliche, lies, and racism (Rebecca Solnit writing in The Guardian)
AD: New Orleans After the Deluge (including online graphic documentary)
AD: New Orleans After the Deluge (NYT Book Review)