BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

The tale of two cities four years later

Posted by egehl on August 28, 2009

Four years.  It’s a symbolic timeframe in many ways.  Four years of college and highschool.  Four years until the next Summer Olympics.  Four years until the next Presidential election. 

However for those of us living in New Orleans four years has further significance. 

It marks how long it has been since Hurricane Katrina touched on our shores and destroyed nearly 100,000 units of housing, displaced one million residents, killed 1,800 people, caused $1 billion in damage and crippled the Gulf Coast. Four years since Americans were abandoned on their rooftops and left for days without food and water while the world watched in horror and disbelief.  Tomorrow, August 29th, marks the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a day anyone who lived through it will never forget. Katrina 1

This anniversary is a chance to recognize the rebuilding and positive changes that have happened, but also a time to remind the rest of the nation that work in the Gulf Coast is far from done.

A lot has changed in four years but unfortunately much has stayed the same as well.  Residents of the Gulf Coast have a keen understanding that the rest of the country has long ago moved on but there are important lessons learned from Katrina that should never be forgotten.  New Orleans is arguably ground zero for every major social problem facing this country—poor education, crime, lack of affordable housing, deteriorating infrastructure, and fractured communities due to racial, class and cultural tensions—and the nation should be mindful about what happens here.  The storm gave New Orleans a chance to start over in many ways but with that comes a lot of growing pains as the city’s population, neighborhoods, and demographics change. 

This anniversary could be the last time that Americans perk up and have a sense of genuine curiosity about what’s happening in New Orleans because the farther we move away from the event the fuzzier our memories become.  Therefore it is the responsibility of New Orleans citizens to provide an honest and stark picture of our reality and remind the rest of the country what’s happening here.

For those of you that don’t know, New Orleans has a long way to go.  If you drive through the Lower 9th Ward it feels like the storm happened yesterday.  New Orleans is very much a tale of two cities—the parts that flooded (which was 80%) and the parts that didn’t.  The parts that include the popular tourist areas such as the French Quarter and Tulane are back up and running and have the same charm seeping from them as before the storm.  But other parts of the city tell a different story and whenever I have visitors in town I insist that they see New Orleans beyond just the pretty and fully functioning areas. 

When the economic crisis hit last year, Americans began to face what citizens of the Gulf Coast have been dealing with since August, 2005—abandoned and blighted housing, a healthcare system in crisis, increased crime, small businesses closing and infrastructure falling apart.

Housing remains the linchpin issue for the region as many low and moderate income residents are unable to return home because there is not enough quality affordable housing.  Most public and affordable housing units were destroyed and very little have come back on line or residents face funding gaps in their Road Home money so they cannot fully rebuild their home.  In addition like the rest of the country, New Orleans has suffered from the market and investor crisis so housing projects have been stalled or left incomplete.

Katrina 2It’s important not to solely dwell on the doom and gloom and recognize the disaster’s silver linings.  Since the storm, and continuing today, a large influx of amazing, dedicated volunteers and students have descended upon the area to clean up our schools, provide pro-bono services, and rebuild hundreds of homes.  Nonprofits have become the backbone of the recovery and risen to the challenge of trying to help those most in need.  The nonprofit sector is a stronger, more organized and more cohesive group since the storm and they are a force within the city. 

Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was an insular city that according to the 2000 census included a population where 77 percent were considered natives, defined as those born anywhere in Louisiana.  New Orleanians have a history of being a prideful bunch, and rightfully so, because our city is one of the most unique cultural treasures of this country.  However that pride got in the way of our growth and progress, and outsiders never felt invited into our exclusive circles and traditions.  That has changed since Katrina with an influx of new young professionals entering the city because they want to make a difference and be part of the rebuilding process.  Their talent has been desperately needed for years and the creativity, motivation, and commitment to civic engagement they bring to the community has brought a renewed energy to the recovery. 

Ironically New Orleans has been deemed somewhere to “ride out the recession” because Katrina prevented the city from experiencing the lofty housing bubble crippling the rest of the country and recovery efforts have sustained jobs and prevented major losses. 

According to Entrepreneur Magazine, New Orleans has become a mecca for entrepreneurs and a new potential for our region’s rebirth.  If you have a good idea, bring it to New Orleans.  People are hungry for savvy, outgoing business-minded entrepreneurs that can come up with innovative solutions to our most pressing issues.  Our city has produced a burgeoning entrepreneurial culture that is attracting people of all walks of life interested in coming up with new ways to solve long-standing problems.  

The recovery of New Orleans for the past four years has been a people centered effort—individuals, small businesses, neighborhoods and nonprofits.  However while the tenacity and passionate efforts of the grassroots are worthwhile and significant, it cannot meet the massive needs of a major American city.  We needed the government’s support in the immediate aftermath of the storm and the same remains today.  However unfortunately we are the poster child for government failure and how limited a recovery can be without effective, transparent, responsible government action. 

The fourth anniversary brings up a lot of mixed emotions for New Orleans citizens.  While we feel a sense of pride for having survived through the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history and how far we’ve come, we also feel saddened and daunted by what hasn’t been accomplished and what exactly the future holds.  Regardless, knowing the citizenry of this great city I have full confidence that we will persevere toward creating the sustainable and prosperous community we all dream of so that we can be a model for the nation.

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4 Responses to “The tale of two cities four years later”

  1. Joyinhome said

    Eli, thank you for this post! Obama talked about the anniversary the next day in his weekly address and I shuddered at the lack of progress and memory of images since Katrina.

    I have heard many local communities discussing the anniversary and lack of movement. While this is great, it reinforces that individuals are the ones taking the reins and a larger more comprehensive effort is neccesary. We need a tangible way for people to become re-engaged and to advocate for the rebuilding of NO.

    You make an excellent point: NO is the microcosm of what the nation has seen since the economic crisis hit last year —abandoned and blighted housing, a healthcare system in crisis, increased crime, small businesses closing and infrastructure falling apart.

    The key to progress for NO will be tying into the national crises and associated policy. It is unfair that the city is getting left behind AGAIN as so many were left four years ago on roofs and underwater on that fateful day.

  2. […] including how to track down the families who have moved due to the foreclosure crisis, the ramifications of Hurricane Katrina and the thousands of Gulf Coast residents still displaced, and a heightened sense of paranoia among immigrants that the government will use the Census to […]

  3. […] 4. The Tale of Two Cities… […]

  4. There is obviously much more to research about this. I think you made some good points in Features also. Keep working ,fantasitc post!

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