New Orleans

Like many Americans, we were curious to visit New Orleans to see how life is returning since Katrina.  It’s been more than three years since the hurricane hit, the levees breached, and Mayor Nagle famously declared that New Orleans was being neglected due to ‘racism’.  Having seen corruption first-hand in New Orleans, I was wondering whether progress was being made, whether the nation’s generosity was being wasted, and whether the hard hit areas were making a comeback.  New Orleans is unique in American history with its strong multi-cultural heritage.  As a result, simple assessments – and simple approaches – rarely are effective.

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The French Quarter pretty much looks like it always has.  It wasn’t particularly hard hit and life appears normal.  (One amazing thing for us was that we found a place to parallel park the big rig so we were able to walk around the French Quarter.  What are the odds of that?)  Unfortunately, Bobbie ended up with food poisoning and spent the next several days severely ill. 

Outside the French Quarter life is a different picture.  We visited the Lower Ninth Ward which had been particularly hard hit.  Before Katrina, the Ninth Ward was a packed, vibrant, and often dangerous area.  Predominately black, the area had a reputation for being unsafe for residents and tourists alike.  The term ‘urban blight’ certainly applied to the run-down buildings and occasional abandoned building.  But the area was densely populated and seemed to have its own strong of community.

Today the Ninth Ward is largely unrecognizable.  Entire blocks are condemned.  Houses have been razed, turning what was once a dense block of houses into an empty concrete patchwork open field.  For many houses that still stand, the spray painted markings on the outside serve as chilling reminders where rescuers noted the number and room location of the dead.  Schools, shops, and more are nearly all gone.  More than 3 years later it still looks like a disaster or even a war zone.

 Not everything is a wasteland:  there are individual new homes that have been constructed.  Looking like any modern house in a new neighborhood, these homes are far nicer than what they replace.  Few and far between and located next to overgrown lots, rubble, or a condemned house, they raise the question of ‘why?’  Assuming that insurance money paid to rebuild the house, it’s hard to see how the owners have made the right economic decision to rebuild.  It’s certainly admirable to be at the forefront of rebuilding a community, but when the surrounding area immediately means that your house is worth less than what it costs to build, it is tough to see how an average family can make a good decision to stay and rebuild.

 New Orleans’ population remains well below pre-Katrina levels and the destruction in the lower Ninth Ward serves as a real example of the challenges in rebuilding the city.  A few homes do remain and serve as critical housing for the chronically poor.  Displacing them only makes life harder.  But without wholesale redevelopment – in some cases outright bulldozing of square miles – it really is tough to see how New Orleans makes a comeback.  Even redevelopment isn’t easy:  building from the ground up would be a lot easier than rebuilding in New Orleans because the areas must be cleaned up first and the legal issues associated with abandoned properties, etc. make the costs even higher.  And all that is before any politics or corruption get involved. 

Three years after Katrina, New Orleans is still one of the world’s great cities.  If New Orleans manages to rebuild there is no question it will be better than ever, but, but significant challenges remain.