The five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina marks more than just the five years since the initial Category 3 storm that hit on August 29, 2005.
The hurricane was the largest of its strength to approach the United States in recorded history, and the sixth strongest hurricane ever recorded, causing major or catastrophic damage in Louisiana, Mississipi and Alabama.
The storm killed more than 1,800 people, mostly from Louisiana and Mississippi – though experts find it hard to determine an exact death toll.
The hurricane and the floods that followed after the breaching of levees left 80% of the city flooded one foot or more – and up to 20 feet in some areas.
In the five years since Katrina hit, the New Orleans area has seen a rise and fall of growth and delay after dealing with not just the hurricane, but the recession and recent oil spill as well.
A report by the The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, a group that provides decisionmakers with research and policy ideas for improving the health and prosperity of cities and metropolitan areas. posed the question: can New Orleans really recover?
Despite some troublesome findings, researchers of the report concluded that despite some fallbacks, the city and metro area have been recovering from Katrina and may even “be on the path to transformation.”
The 2005 disaster, which destroyed over 182,000 homes and related public infrastructure across the seven-parish metro area, “exposed the weaknesses of our national disaster response,” the report stated.
Citizens and businesses began returning to some parts of the city in late September, continuing through the rest of 2005.
Six months after the hurricane, city and hospitality industry officials declared New Orleans “open for business” by hosting the 150th anniversary Mardi Gras celebration, welcoming 350,000 visitors.
The aftermath of the hurricane also saw an increased spirit of community service and voluntourism – with donations from more than 70 countries, and support from many organizations and volunteers.
Two years after the hurricane, the city began to repopulate further – public school enrollment increased, old homes were demolished and new construction was picking up the pace.
However, the recession stalled the recovery’s momentum – home sales fell, private investments dropped as housing tax credits lost their value, and layoffs increased.
Still, federal housing and infrastructure rebuilding dollars still flowed, “buoying” job growth and “cushioning” New Orleans from the worst of it.
In early 2010, the city began to see the light at the end of the tunnel – the New
Orleans Saints claimed their first Super Bowl title (“in the very stadium that symbolized the abject failure of the Katrina response,” according to the report), Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor in a decisive victory, and “HBO rolled out its drama, “Treme,” which has served to underscore, both to New Orleanians and others across the country, the many assets that make New Orleans special and unique,” according to the report.
The major findings of the report stated that despite the three major ‘shocks’ New Orleans has experienced, greater New Orleans has had an increase in civic capacity and many systemic reforms, and may be rebounding better than before.
However, the report also states that “key economic, social, and environmental trends in the New Orleans metro area remain troubling, testing the region’s path to prosperity.”
The final finding in the report says that the city of New Orleans and its partners must use the oil spill as an opportunity to further progress towards prosperity.
The report states that early signs of encouragement are the repopulation of the city. The New Orleans metro recovered more than 90% of its population and 85% of its jobs by June 2010.
The metro area also shows growth from its historic trends in several indicators of prosperity: improved average wages, average wages, greater entrepreneurship, and less poverty.
However, the report notes that these ‘improvements’ are as a result of market and demographic change, rather than any intentional actions.
Despite signs of encouragement, however, the Institute finds that the economy is sluggish, and reliant on a few lagging industries – tourism, oil and gas, shipping – industries struggling to stay vibrant.
“The shift to a more diverse regional economy lags as stagnant or declining legacy industries still dominate but are not contributing to overall improved living standards,” the report states.
Researchers say a smaller economy is not a problem if the economy is productive, boosting the standard of living for all workers and residents. However, over the last 30 years, the metro area’s productivity has grown only 6%, while it grew 51% nationally.
The report states that higher education has replaced ship building as the fourth largest industry, but while the growth of knowledge-based jobs is encouraging, it is small compared to “the extreme job losses in the oil and gas, tourism, and shipping sectors.”
The report also cites a relatively small educated workforce, stark social and economic disparities, and high numbers of suburban poor.
While people of color make up 45% of the metro area population and 69 percent of the city, Black and Hispanic households earn incomes that are 44 percent and 25 percent lower than whites, respectively.
Suburban parishes are home to the majority of the New Orleans metro area’s poor, with enarly 93,000 poor residents living there – “creating wide implications for social service delivery, affordable housing, and transportation choices throughout the metro,” the Institute finds.
Other issues highlighted in the report include severe housing cost burdens, especially for renters, the coastal wetland erosion, and the high and increasing levels of crime.
Still, the New Orleans mayor has had encouraging words for the city’s residents.
"We are no longer rebuilding. We are now creating,” Landrieu said. “Let's stop thinking about rebuilding the city we were and start dreaming about the city we want to become. The world deserves a better New Orleans... today is a new day, today is a new time."
Sameea is a journalist and editing professional specializing in development/construction, green building & education.