Building Back New Orleans -Not as it Once Was, but Like it Always Should Have Been

Mitchell J. Landrieu is the 61st Mayor of New Orleans, having previously served as Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana and a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. You may follow him on Twitter @MayorLandrieu


TEN years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and in the blink of an eye everything changed. Across the Gulf Coast, 1,800 of our brothers and sisters were killed, one million displaced, 250,000 homes destroyed, and another million damaged—communities torn apart and scattered to the winds.

In New Orleans, the federal levees broke. It was a man-made infrastructure failure of epic proportions that resulted in floodwaters surging over the rooftops of a great American city. New Orleans was 80 percent under water, sustaining $150 billion in damages.

In the blink of an eye, our lives as we knew them were gone. As the floodwaters swallowed our neighborhoods, it became a life or death struggle in the abandoned but not deserted city. The stories are seared into our souls forever. The rushing flood pulling people under, leaving survivors trapped for days. Thousands of mostly poor, disabled, and elderly were left in the city. They couldn’t get out and were left with little to no help. There were hundreds on rooftops in the blazing Louisiana sun, crowds gathered in front of the Superdome stadium, and dead bodies floating on the streets of America.

The whole world sat, jaw dropped, gaping at the images, considering the possibility that an entire city could be gone, and wondering how this could have happened in our beloved country.

Yet in the midst of all the death and destruction, something else happened. The sun came up. As it says in Philippians 4:19: “but my God shall supply all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And, as Pope Francis has said, “in the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness.”

In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, another ‘flood’ came. This time, it was a torrent of people. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard, with our friends and neighbors, pulled thousands of people out of the water.

At their side, the Cajun Armada—a small navy of private vessels—brought fishermen from across coastal Louisiana, along with recreational boaters of all kinds, to save lives on the flooded streets of New Orleans. Backing them up was a whole legion of people coming from everywhere. In came the National Guard and the military, along with police, fire, medics, and other relief volunteers from around the world.

Together, we started to clean up, sweating in the heat, clearing away the devastation, and putting our lives back together. Together, crying over family photos that somehow escaped the deluge.

Together, sleeping on church floors and in tents; a mostly still dark city lit up by camp fires. Midwest and Northeastern accents blending with Louisiana southern drawl. In fact, from sea to shining sea, it was Americans helping Americans, citizens helping citizens, neighbors lifting up neighbors.

It was the teacher in Baton Rouge showing kindness to a scared child on her first ever day of school outside of New Orleans. A nurse in Atlanta who helped an evacuee get medication, a landlord in Shreveport who found places for families to stay.

As former Houston Mayor Bill White said, “people saw this as an opportunity for us to do something that was right for our country, as well as for our fellow Americans.” It was one of our nation’s darkest moments, but we found salvation, light, and hope from the angels among us. Those angels made real for us the Davidic Psalm that joy cometh in the morning.

Standing Back Up
Over the last 10 years, New Orleans has been through hell and high water: not just Katrina, but also Hurricanes Rita, Ike, Gustav, Isaac, the BP oil spill, and the national recession—all of it. Yet we won’t bow down, because we don’t know how. By our nature, we’re a resilient and hopeful people. As long as we have each other and God’s grace, we are going to be okay.

New Orleans has gone from being literally underwater to one of the fastest growing major cities in America, with thousands of new jobs, new industries, rapidly improving schools, rising property values, and a new, stronger flood protection that will reduce the risk from hurricanes.

Our city has stood back up, and this comeback is one of the world’s most remarkable stories of tragedy and triumph, resurrection, and redemption.

In New Orleans, necessity really is the mother of invention, and after Katrina it was either do or die. The storm had laid down the gauntlet, and those who have endured such pain will tell you: when everything is slipping away, the natural instinct is to tighten your grip on what used to be secure, struggling to hold on to what was.

But the people of New Orleans took up the challenge that fate had laid at our feet, resolving to not just rebuild the city that we once were, but to create the city we always dreamed she could be.

To do it, we’ve had to fight through the agony that comes with disaster and change. There is no doubt our progress has been anything but a straight line—and Lord knows we have a long, long way to go. After all, the storm didn’t create all our problems. Our issues are generations in the making, and are shared by every other part of America.

The Decision to Change
But we made the decision to change, and what has emerged on the other side is the premier example of urban innovation in America. Because we had to, New Orleans has taken on the toughest of challenges, showing the nation and the whole world what it takes to make progress; forever proving that there are new solutions to our age-old problems.

For example, 10 years ago, New Orleans schools were considered among the worst in the country. Two-thirds of our kids were in failing schools, whereas now we have moved beyond what was once a broken, top-down system. We have created a new way defined by choice, equity, and accountability. Nearly every student in New Orleans attends a public charter school. Families who used to have only one choice for their kids can now apply to nearly every school in the city. We’ve also raised the bar across the board, insisting that schools serve every child.

In addition, we insisted that our kids need clean, healthy, and safe school buildings. So now $1.8 billion of federal funds is being invested to rebuild, renovate, or refurbish nearly every school in the city. That means outstanding new, twenty-first-century learning spaces that can help our kids thrive and realize their God-given potential.

Before Katrina, the achievement gap between the kids in New Orleans and the kids in the rest of the state was over 25 points. Now that gap has been nearly closed. Before Katrina, the graduation rate hovered at around 50 percent. Now, 73 percent of our kids are graduating on time—fewer kids are dropping out, and more kids are enrolling in college.

One of these New Orleans high school graduates now going to college is Jairron. A few years ago, Jairron wasn’t going to pass the 10th grade—let alone go to college. His mom and dad had sold drugs and both went to prison. As you can imagine, Jairron struggled. But then he enrolled in a charter school with a special focus on entering college. This made all the difference. As Jairron said, “in life you have two choices: to be defeated or to conquer. I choose to conquer.” This fall, Jairron is a freshman at Morehouse College.

His story is inspiring, and is just one example of the very real impact of our new system of schools. However, that is not to say that we are anywhere close to perfect: anyone can see that there is still a long way to go, but we are improving faster than anywhere else in America.

Besides schools, we’ve tackled improving the healthcare delivery system as well. Ten years ago, if a kid got an earache, it meant his mom had to spend 13 hours at the emergency room just to get it checked out.

In New Orleans, we say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a network of neighborhood health clinics, initially funded by a federal grant after Katrina, has endured. It is all about ‘soup-to-nuts’ healthcare in the neighborhood: everything from chronic disease management to pediatrics—with a special focus on women’s health.

All told, neighborhood health centers in New Orleans serve 59,000 patients across the region every year who would otherwise seek much more expensive healthcare at emergency rooms.

Ten years ago, Katrina was the straw that broke the back of an economy that had been struggling for 40 years. We are now creating thousands of new jobs and spurring on promising new industries like water management, digital media, and bioscience. Moreover, world class companies like GE Capital and Gameloft are expanding here. But we can’t leave anyone behind: we have to create a pathway to prosperity that anyone can follow.

In New Orleans we help entrepreneurs like Burnell Cotlon, a young man with a dream to open his own business—a grocery store in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. He received support from the city and has now done it: Galvez Goodies on Caffin Street. Built on the exact spot where 12 feet of water sat for weeks following the levee breach. In fact, in New Orleans we are in the midst of a retail and restaurant building boom. In no other city in the world would one lose more than 60,000 people, but gain about 600 new restaurants. This could only happen in New Orleans.

These businesses are opening in thriving neighborhoods where, on top of new private investment, more than $1 billion in affordable public housing is either available or coming online, numbering up to 14,430 affordable rental units for low-income families. New Orleans’ notorious old ‘big four’ public housing developments were run-down and dangerous. They did not give the people of New Orleans what they needed, nor what they deserved.

Now we have converted this public housing into mixed-income communities with amenities like schools, healthcare, and transit. We can see this shift at the former St. Bernard Development, now known as Columbia Parc. St. Bernard was one of the old public housing developments, first built by the Roosevelt Administration during the Great Depression. It had fallen on hard times over the years, and by the time Katrina hit, 25 percent of the 1,300 units were empty, and the surrounding area was known for its violence.

Then the levees broke, and as the sun rose the day after the storm passed, the St. Bernard development was ten feet under water. As with everything else, we resolved to rebuild St. Bernard not as it once was, but as it always should have been.

Now, Columbia Parc is a world class example of mixed income public housing that embraces public-private partnerships and true place-based development. The master plan for the neighborhood includes newly-built schools, an early childhood learning center, a recreation facility, library, playgrounds, retail, and green space.

Plus, crime has fallen significantly at Columbia Parc. In fact, since Katrina we’ve made tremendous progress city-wide on crime reduction, and this is good.

But when I took office in 2010 our murder rate still led the nation. Now, through our comprehensive murder reduction strategy, entitled “Nola for Life,” we’ve changed our approach and put a special focus on prevention paired with tough enforcement. Last year, New Orleans hit a 43-year low for murder rates, although we still have a long way to go. This year, unfortunately, in New Orleans, and across the nation, murder is ticking up.

With nearly 15,000 Americans lost every year to murder—a disproportionate number of them young African-American men—it is clear that this crisis goes well beyond New Orleans. It is both a national disgrace and a moral outrage that so many people are killed on the streets of America every day. Stopping murder should be a national priority. Black lives matter. We should act like it.

But, of course, fighting crime and preventing murder are only parts of the criminal justice system. Ten years ago, when Katrina hit, there were about 6,000 inmates in Orleans Parish Prison. It was a prime example of mass incarceration at its worst. We were the most incarcerated city, in the most incarcerated state, in the most incarcerated country in the world.

Now, we are pushing back against mass incarceration like nowhere else in the country. We have cut our daily prison population down to about 1,800 inmates—a two-thirds reduction. At the same time, we have sought to be tough and smart on crime—by locking up the violent bad guys who threaten everybody, making fewer unnecessary arrests, providing alternatives to incarceration and pretrial services, improving case processing times, and creating wrap-around services for those of our citizens returning home to ensure they don’t go back. There must be justice and peace; black lives matter, regardless of whether they are being lost to shootings or years in prison.

We’re also making tremendous progress on combating homelessness. In the years after the storm, New Orleans had more than 11,600 people living without a home. Now, we are at just over 1,700, having this year become the first city in America to functionally end veteran homelessness.

Finally, New Orleans has become a global leader in emergency preparedness. A decade ago, none of us were prepared for a storm like Katrina, and, as such, we suffered terrible consequences. Now, everyone is on the same page and our preparations are both wide and deep.

In partnership with a local non-profit called Evacuteer, we developed the City-Assisted Evacuation Plan. Now, during a mandatory evacuation, local, state, and federal officials along with faith- and community-based organizations, are seamlessly coordinated. We provide transportation for residents and tourists unable to self-evacuate, and have an extensive special needs registry so we can take care of the bedridden and the sick.

Since Katrina we’ve had a broader cultural shift, with emergency preparedness having now become engrained in our daily lives. If you drive around New Orleans, you will see 16 large public art displays scattered throughout the city. We call these landmarks ‘Evacuspots,’ which are intended to serve as gathering sites during an evacuation. These are physical symbols of our preparedness. There are other physical manifestations of our continued renaissance; $1.63 billion being invested to reinvigorate neighborhoods with new roads, parks, playgrounds, and community centers, plus another $320 million for public transit infrastructure, and we’re about to break ground on our new airport.

New Orleans is on a roll, and—as 78 percent of our residents have said in a recent poll—we are optimistic about the future. But we have big time unfinished business.

We’re already on our way, with new modern infrastructure and levees. With the BP oil spill settlement and new federal/state revenue-sharing taking effect, we finally have a partial payment on hardening key assets and rebuilding the coast.

Most of the remaining money should come from oil companies. They helped break it, so now they need to help fix it. But really, all Americans have a stake in the future of our coast, because, contrary to popular belief, gasoline does not come from the pump. It comes from us, and every year the Gulf Coast, via Louisiana, provides America with more oil and gas than that imported from Saudi Arabia. We are the tip of the spear when it comes to energy independence, and as we protect Louisiana’s coast, we really protect America.

Being Truly Resilient
But to be truly resilient, we as a city, and as a nation, can’t just build up levees against storms—or merely change how we live with water, or simply protect our wetlands. We need to do all these things. Yet being truly resilient as a society means combating other chronic stresses like poverty, inequality, violence, and racism.

To be truly resilient, we must go deeper so that we can adapt and thrive no matter what might happen with climate change or the global economy. That means a government with a regional mindset, which can both respond to a shock like a hurricane and prepare our people for the future. It means a twenty-first-century education system and broad-based economic growth so there is a pathway to prosperity that anyone can follow and no one is left behind. It means being inclusive of everyone in the community—breaking down the walls that divide us and coming together in unity.

Our goal in New Orleans has been nothing less than to create a city of peace, opportunity, and responsibility for all people—a city for the ages. We can’t leave anyone behind.

We’re not there yet, and we’re far from perfect, but the people of New Orleans are committed to their city and we know we are on the right path. Indeed, this is what we do as Americans: work hard and dream of something more—something better.

We should always remember our history and remember how far we have come as a people. In 1776, the aspirational words found in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal certainly rang hollow to many, and must have been especially ironic to the slave. For them, neither liberty nor equality were in reach. Through more than two centuries of tumultuous change, we have made progress in myriad ways.

As Pope Francis said in a recent speech at our historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia, “the history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life. […] This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”

Nonetheless, this is the message that our nation should take away from what we saw ten years ago at the Superdome and the more recent unrest on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson: we still fall short, and we still have not fulfilled the promise of being ‘one nation,’ ‘indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’ But we can get there.

The New South is Rising
So, as we turn the corner on the tenth anniversary of Katrina and look toward New Orleans’ 300th anniversary as a city in 2018, our challenge is to continue moving forward, because we have a long way to go. But it is critical to understand where we stand in the broader context: sitting at the deepest of the Deep South states, once this nation’s backwater. That backwater has changed, and now New Orleans is a beacon of light—the capital of what some have called the New South.

So, the South will rise again, but it will not be the Old South. The Old South of slavery, civil war, Confederate flags, and monuments—‘separate but equal,’ and ‘you go your way and I’ll go mine’—is gone.

The New South, led by New Orleans, is a place where diversity is our greatest strength, not a weakness. It is a place where our collective wisdom and energy combine to produce something that will benefit everyone; it is a place that understands the totality of our history and the importance of culture, family, faith, and friends; a place that combines old and new into something truly special that people want to be a part of. It is a place that understands what it means to come together in unity and wrestle with the good, the bad, and everything in between.

At the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, we in New Orleans lie at the heart of this struggle. We in New Orleans have shown what is possible: that from the worst disaster there can be rebirth; out of despair, there can be hope; out of darkness, light; out of destruction, beauty. Hope must spring eternal and faith must be the ultimate motivator.

As it says in Psalm 73:26, “my flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

I believe that this moment will define the twenty-first century, and that we cannot afford to fail. The challenge has been laid before us. It will test our resolve and our love for one another, but we have been here before, faced challenges as large and difficult, and we have overcome.

In New Orleans, again and again, our will has been tested, and together with the ever-guiding hand of God, we will always find a way, or we will make one.

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