New Orleans--a city that’s been scrutinized, criticized, loved, and simultaneously eulogized in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which ravaged the Big Easy 10 years ago this month--now proves itself a case study in resilience.
As manmade levees failed, water inundated 80 percent of the city, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents, destroying homes and businesses, and killing an estimated 1,800 people. Images of the flooded Lower Ninth Ward and the misery of people stranded at the city’s Superdome will haunt memories and history books forever.
What a difference 10 years makes.
The city today looks far different than it did during its bleakest moments. Substantial rebuilding has taken place, businesses have reopened, and the overall tenor of the town is optimistic. And while no one is suggesting the job is done, with large swaths of the city still languishing years later, New Orleans is having a remarkable renaissance.
“When something like this happens, you have two choices,” says Mitchell Landrieu, the current mayor of New Orleans. “You can put it back the way it was, or you can accept responsibility to put it back the way it should have been.”
Indeed, the New Orleans of today has transformed itself--departing from traditional sectors that depended on the area’s access to energy resources like natural gas, as well as its strength as a port city, to new sectors like biotechnology, software, and education technology. In the process, it’s also given a spit shine to what’s always been popular about the city, such as its music, food and other cultural assets, leading to a reawakening of all things New Orleans.
Thanks to pockets of investment for things like a new $1.2 billion medical center that will spearhead bio-tech research, and a staggering $70 billion in federal aid that has gone to rebuilding infrastructure-- including a $15 billion state of the art levee system--Landrieu says, the city has created 9,100 new jobs since his administration took over in 2010. And it now regularly tops charts as one of the most desirable places to do business in the U.S.
A Work in Progress
Still, there’s a long way to go. And the recovery has not been evenly experienced, as is evident from an August Kaiser Family Foundation study, which found that the median income for African American families in New Orleans was 54 percent lower than for whites, and 20 percent lower than the average for blacks nationally. Also in the report, nearly half of blacks reported that recovery efforts had not done much to help them, compared to 28 percent of whites.
Similarly, reconstruction efforts have bypassed some neighborhoods. The Lower Ninth Ward, the poster child for the worst the disaster had to offer, lost 80 percent of its population following Katrina, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report.
Other areas, such as St. Bernard Parish, which was also decimated, have recovered more substantially, partly due to its well-organized community and strong local leaders. The parish had 67,000 residents prior to the storm. Now there are 44,000. Meanwhile, 20 percent of its 900 businesses operating there prior to Katrina are gone. But over the last decade, it's added a new, $70 million hosptial, has rebuilt 11 of its 15 destroyed schools, and it's now protected by a defensive floodwall system. Meanwhile, average property values on undamaged property have reportedly returned to pre-Katrina levels.
While the hurricane was certainly devastating, New Orleans’ economic state before the disaster struck was depressed--and that’s also put a damper on the city’s recovery. For decades before Katrina, New Orleans had been a city sliding into decline, economic experts say. And in just the four years leading up to the storm, New Orleans lost 16,000 workers, or 6.2 percent of its workforce. The city itself lost nearly 5 percent of its population, or 23,000 residents. This was at time when the total U.S. population grew 4.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment of 6.7 percent was well above the national average of 5.9 percent.
After the storm, unemployment spiked to 15 percent, as more than 100,000 jobs were lost. The biggest areas of employment prior to Katrina had always been tourism, retail, government work, and health care. The ports helped foster a lively export trade, and proximity to the Gulf’s natural gas resources also made the energy industry important to the town. While tourism is booming once more, other areas have plenty of ground to make up. And with unemployment stubbornly at 6.7 percent, New Orleans is once more unfortunately above the national average of 5.3 percent.
“I don’t think New Orleans will ever be what it was, but you can say that about Detroit and Buffalo and other cities that have faced different types of struggles,” says Steven Horwitz, a senior scholar for the Mercatus Center, and a professor or economics at St. Lawrence University.
Cause for Optimism
Residents like Stephen Reuther, chief executive of St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce remain optimistic. He says the area now has an improved school district with shiny new facilities, an intelligent land use plan for continued rebuilding, and new infrastructure, including its rebuilt levee and storm drainage systems.
“We have become a model for resilience and disaster planning,” Reuther says.
And the city is still making strides.
“Ten years later, there is a lot of evidence that the city has pulled itself together, and it is stronger than it ever has been, and the city today is ascendant, and open to business,” Landrieu.