APPEL: Our Wasted Katrina Opportunity

Fourteen years ago, one of the largest man made disasters of all time struck New Orleans. We all know the story, Katrina had passed leaving behind only moderate wind damage, the city breathed a great sigh of relief. Then almost at once the flood walls were breached and the rest is history.

But it is what happened after the water was drained that has left an even more lasting impact on one of America’s great cities. Katrina was a disaster of incredible magnitude but in its wake, it left New Orleans incredible opportunities for re-birth. An opportunity few cities are ever are offered.

For the twenty years preceding Katrina, New Orleans had seen its economic base rapidly erode. With that factor came increasing out-migration, poverty, crime, and blight. As an old city New Orleans had and still has very expensive infrastructure demands that seem always to be ignored. Certainly, before Katrina New Orleans was a city in trouble.

Within weeks after the disaster some of the most brilliant people in the world, experts in city planning and water control descended on New Orleans. The city planning effort was led by the world-renowned Urban Land Institute (ULI). What they offered was a plan to re-create New Orleans into a modern and prosperous city. A city that, though its roots were firmly planted in the 18th century, would be viable in the 21st century.

The ULI plan was based on simple economic facts of life. As they found better economic conditions elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people had left the City and few expected them to return. Based upon resources but especially fiscal resources, the City was physically too big to properly manage. The City’s school system was abysmal at best.

So, since so much of the devastated or flood-prone areas lay empty of inhabitants, the proposal was to redesign it and shape it into a smaller core city that was manageable within expected resources and with the size of the economy that could be expected to grow from it. The thought at the time was to concentrate resources and people and then grow outward.

Of course, this grand plan excluded those folks who were the previous inhabitants of the areas that were at least temporarily abandoned. And those folks fought back hard. The result was the now infamous meeting between black leaders and then Mayor Nagin, after which the Mayor gave in to political pressure and promised the world that New Orleans would be a “chocolate city.”

My intent is not to criticize the few for not wanting to surrender their ravaged property to a new vision of New Orleans that would have benefited the many. My intent is to discuss the results of the decisions made at that time.

In my estimation the ULI couldn’t have been more correct in its analysis. New Orleans in 2005-06 just didn’t have the resources, the businesses, or the people to back-fill the full footprint of the city. I would argue that it still doesn’t. Though it is important to note that due to declining economic prospects many citizens had out-migrated well before Katrina, what after Katrina had been the physical and economic structure of a 635,000-person city had shrunken to only a little over 300,000 inhabitants. Vast tracts of the city were abandoned or were wrecked beyond habitability.

Beside the massive cost of re-building after Katrina, New Orleans still had to pay for normal city services plus the added cost of drainage in a city below sea level. And most concerning, the Big Easy’s fiscal resources, dependent as they are on economic activity, were and still are limited. As no one knew then how much business would return, there was some question as to whether the city would have enough fiscal might going forward.

So yes, ULI was correct. But logic doesn’t vote and, for better or worse, we know that Mayor Nagin rejected logic in favor of his voter base. So fast forward to today. The ULI principle that the city just could not provide for its original full footprint continues to haunt us. It has massive new external flood protection, but its internal flood control is very questionable. High crime rates, decaying infrastructure, a weak economy, massive poverty; all symptoms of a city in trouble.

One must wonder if Mayor Nagin had had the political courage to walk out of that church and declare that it was a new day for New Orleans. That we would re-build the city within its ability to be a great city for all people. A city that, while starting somewhat smaller in 2006, would, in but a few short years, have been able to return to its once full size but ever so much stronger. One in which prosperity not poverty was the metric that we all measured its success by.

Instead politics ruled the day and today New Orleans has basically recovered to where it was just before Katrina; a city in which potholes are everywhere, its business district floods almost regularly, poverty is pervasive, and whose people have limited prospects for prosperity.

Lost opportunity? Without a doubt. And without a doubt such opportunities rarely occur.

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