How Katrina revived New Orleans
The following is a guest post by Amy Liu, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the New Orleans Index at Five. The opinions expressed are her own.
This weekend, President Obama will head to New Orleans to mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He should use this opportunity to present a plan for the future, not merely acknowledge the past.
We know how these anniversary rituals go. Fact sheets summarize administration achievements. Remarks feature on-the-ground successes. But this year, successes are tempered by the lingering uncertainties and unmet needs of the massive Gulf oil spill.
The president can’t avoid the entanglement of two of history’s worst disasters playing out on his watch in the same region. Luckily, the tremendous progress made post-Katrina in New Orleans offers a lesson for how the administration should shape its post-oil spill recovery efforts.
Thanks to the combination of federal and philanthropic investments, New Orleanians have been able to put the city and metro area on the path to transformation and long-term prosperity.
Katrina exposed the long-standing problems that faced New Orleans – poverty, racial and economic disparities, a stagnant economy, unsustainable land use, and failing public services, such as public education, criminal justice, and health care. The last thing taxpayers and local residents want is to have billions of dollars spent building back those failures.
In the last five years, New Orleanians, with federal, state, and other partners, have worked tirelessly to reinvent their metro area. There is now a land use master plan, which has the force of law behind it, that will guide future development without the rules being changed arbitrarily by a developer or a city official, which has happened in the past. This is a big deal in and of itself and also because most cities haven’t updated their land use plans in 20 years.
There are nearly 100 new community-based clinics that offer quality preventive care to low-income and minority patients. There is a more integrated, efficient and fair criminal justice system coming into view. The overhaul of the public schools is producing a higher share of students proficient in math and English. And a new inspector general’s office is rooting out fraud, waste, and corruption.
While economic trends in greater New Orleans are still fluctuating from the impacts of the recession and the oil spill, there are early indications that the regional economy may be performing better than in previous decades; there is growth in knowledge-based jobs, average wages and entrepreneurship.
Yet, greater New Orleans is still a work in progress. The Gulf oil spill, like Katrina, exposed remaining challenges. The New Orleans metro economy continues to be sluggish and overly dependent on a few industries that have been shrinking long before the oil spill — tourism, oil and gas, and shipbuilding. A shortage of educated workers holds back the region’s transition to a more innovative future. The rapidly-eroding wetlands are ill-equipped to protect the coastal economy and quality of life.
The Obama administration has asserted its long-term commitment to the Gulf Coast. The President, then, must use this Katrina anniversary to present plans that respond to the economic and environmental fallout from the spill while furthering the transformation that has begun in greater New Orleans, including:
- Sustaining current post-Katrina reforms, such as the progress in health care and the criminal justice system. Housing and neighborhood opportunities represent a mere beginning on a long road of systemic improvements.
- Diversifying the metro economy by providing incentives and tools to help leaders, workers and firms join the nation’s transition to a more clean and renewable energy future, expanding its energy portfolio.
- Strengthening existing and growing industries, such as helping to modernize the port as a vehicle for doubling exports and expanding U.S. capacity to handle an increasing volume of freight.
- Giving minority- and women-owned enterprises opportunities to participate in the post-oil spill cleanup and recovery efforts.
- Restoring the wetlands as part of a comprehensive approach to coastal protection that builds on the levee reconstruction and structural solutions to date. This would have the added benefit of creating jobs and strengthening the region’s engineering and innovation in coastal protection products and services.
With the overall economic recovery wavering, it is time to use limited public and private sector funds in ways that will have bold, far-reaching effects.
If Obama can partner with the people of greater New Orleans in this shared vision for prosperity, he will leave a lasting legacy of having catalyzed the most successful urban transformation in recent history.