NEW ORLEANS Talking about New Orleans a decade after Hurricane Katrina, people here often reach for the Biblical, describing an economic and cultural resurrection.
Helped by billions in recovery money, buoyed by volunteers and driven by the grit of its own citizens, the city is enjoying a resurgence. Reforms from schools to policing to community engagement and water management are in progress, buttressing people against the next monster storm.
But in the same breath, people also point to the many left behind. This ‘New’ New Orleans is whiter and more expensive, and blacks still suffer society’s ills disproportionately, especially in the chronically neglected Lower 9th Ward, a bastion of black home ownership before the floodwalls failed.
“A lot of folks say things are so much better, the economy is so improved, and other people are going to say it is so much worse,” said Allison Plyer at The Data Center, a think tank in the city. “And both those realities are true.”
Katrina swamped 80 percent of New Orleans with polluted water up to 20 feet deep. More than 1,500 from Louisiana died, the National Hurricane Center reported a year later. Hospitals and police were overwhelmed. The economy shut down. Survivors felt abandoned. Many evacuees didn’t return.
It seemed like a death blow for a city already suffering from crime, racism, poverty, corruption and neglect. New Orleans is a national treasure, where African-American, French, Spanish and Caribbean traditions had mixed for nearly three centuries. Could the people who create its unique forms of music, food and fun survive such devastation? Could they thrive?
“We’re still standing,” said Jannis Moody, a young black woman enjoying a free concert featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. “What’s clear” is that the people of New Orleans “are a resilient people.”
The city has recovered nearly 80 percent of its pre-storm population. Most public schools are being run as private charters, and the graduation rate has jumped, although criticism abounds. The old Charity Hospital, a first and last resort for the uninsured, has been replaced by a gleaming new University Medical Center.
Louis Armstrong Airport, where thousands tried to flee in August 2005, now handles more passengers than before Katrina. There are more restaurants. New businesses open 64 percent faster than the national average. Sales revenue this year is up.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a French Quarter mansion and built new housing, part of a wave of up to 40,000 new residents, Tulane professor Richard Campanella estimates. Countless “YURPS” (young urban renewal professionals) and millennials followed the recovery and insurance money to what seemed like a “kind of undiscovered bohemia,” he said.
At Launch Pad, a co-working space meant to foster community, co-founder Chris Schultz said the storm “catalyzed people who stuck around to really care about the city.”
“The city has changed and ultimately we needed to change,” said New Orleans native Brooke Boudreaux, operating manager at the iconic Circle Food grocery near Treme, a neighborhood that calls itself “the Birthplace of Jazz.”
Once catering almost exclusively to black customers, the flooded grocery finally reopened last year, responding to an influx of Hispanics and whites by adding tamales and organic produce to New Orleans staples like Camellia red beans.
The Industrial Canal cleaves the Lower 9th Ward apart from all this. Eighty-year-old Oralee Fields calls it “the wilderness” as she looks out from her porch in frustration at the vegetation overtaking her street. “I had nice neighbors. We all grew up together, children walking home together from school.”
Massive piles of garbage and homes ruined by toxic mold are gone. What remains in the Lower 9th is an emptiness. Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” houses, community gardens and a new $20.5 million community center attest to hard-fought progress. But only one school has reopened, and few stores.
Generations of home ownership worked against the Lower 9th, because many lacked the flood insurance mortgage lenders require, said Sierra Club activist Darryl Malek-Wiley. Reconstruction money matched pre-Katrina market values that didn’t cover rebuilding. A protracted debate over whether to abandon the Lower 9th as livable space slowed recovery.
The city’s black population is down from two-thirds before Katrina to about 60 percent. Those who remain earn half the income of white households. Thirty-nine percent of children remain in poverty.
“When Katrina hit, you got to see the real New Orleans, people who were trapped at the Superdome and the Convention Center — 99 percent poor, black. We don’t have anyone who seems to know how to fix that problem,” said Wayne Baquet, who owns Lil Dizzy’s Cafe in Treme.
With cheap rentals largely destroyed, rents skyrocketed by 43 percent. Public housing projects were demolished and replaced with lower-density housing. Thousands of families remain on a waiting list for subsidized housing. Many workers face longer commutes.
“The quality of the housing is definitely not worth the price that they’re charging now,” said Adrian Brown, a chef in the French Quarter who moved outside the city center.
New Orleans capitalized on “the power and the spirit of the comeback,” said Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc., but most of the disaster relief and philanthropy has come and gone. He says the next 10 years will likely be harder than the first.
At the “Rebirth” concert, an upbeat crowd enjoyed a lush summer evening, with kids playing and couples swaying as the Mississippi lapped at the levee.
“You’re not going to recover from the impact of Katrina and be the same,” concertgoer Torrie Jakes said. “Do I mourn the loss of that New Orleans? Yes, but do I like the new parts of New Orleans? Yes, I do.”
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