Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on 29 August 29, 2005, as a Category 3 storm. The city’s levees, pumping stations, sewage systems, and electrical grids quickly failed.
Over the following days, rooftop-trapped survivors watched hundreds of bodies float down flooded streets. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians huddled in the city’s Superdome for up to a week awaiting rescue. Looters exploited, then sustained the chaos across the city before the National Guard could respond. A gang of police officers began shooting bystanders and covering up the killings.
Even after order was reestablished, an exodus from the city continued: its population more than halved in a month. Live coverage from scores of media networks allowed the world to watch this ruin befall a great American city.
The spectacle was different from others that had been televised in past years. The World Trade Center had collapsed in the space of a few hours, while the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were being broadcast from half a world away. Katrina’s devastation – arguably enabled just as much by human error as natural factors – played out slowly over the course of days, weeks, and months, in America. The result was a deep and abiding social memory of the disaster: for maybe a decade, it was often the first thing anyone asked once you told them you were from New Orleans: were you there for Katrina?"
Today marks 14 years since the storm, and over the course of the city’s rebuilding a “renewal” narrative has taken hold in many circles there. It essentially runs as follows: for all of the damage Katrina wreaked, it also uncovered civic mismanagement that had allowed generations of social, economic, and racial disparity to fester in New Orleans. In laying waste to the city and exposing its systemic issues to outside eyes, Katrina offered a thin silver lining for a better rebirth.
The hitch in the renewal is that it hasn’t included everyone. All New Orleanians were affected by Katrina, but a disproportionate share of its destruction was shouldered by poor New Orleanians, and a disproportionate share of poor New Orleanians are African American. Often, these locals couldn’t afford to return home after Katrina. Demographically speaking, contemporary New Orleanians are less black, older, and more educated than their pre-Katrina peers.
Congress allocated $121.7bn to Gulf Coast hurricane relief between 2005 and 2008. For New Orleans, this relief money was complemented by an overhaul of city institutions. New Orleans’ schools – once ranked among the nation’s worst – became substituted by independent “charter schools”, often staffed by non-profit fellowship students in place of unionized teachers. Today, the state has almost no direct instructional role in pre-college education in New Orleans. This arrangement has outperformed what came before it: the city’s high school graduation rate has increased from 54 per cent in 2004 to over 80 per cent for 2018, while university entry rates have shown comparable growth over a similar period.
The city’s culture of corruption was also challenged: in 2013, Katrina-era Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted and imprisoned on fraud charges, while in 2012 the Obama Administration seized the notoriously crooked New Orleans Police Department with a federal decree. This intervention was prompted by Justice Department findings of profound graft and “unconstitutional conduct”, including racial profiling, by the Department’s officers. By early 2019, an auditor found the NOPD at or near “Full & Effective Compliance” with the majority of the decree’s priorities. A corresponding increase in efficacy has occurred: rates of homicide and gun crime have dropped to levels not seen since the Nixon Administration.
Still, the most important, still-incomplete redefinition underway is an economic one: New Orleans only emerged from a 28-month-long recession last year. According to census data, its 2017 poverty rate topped those of America’s largest 50 metropolitan areas. And the city’s population is still lower than it was before Katrina.
The energy industry has long been a crutch for the city’s economy; fossil fuels extracted in the nearby Gulf of Mexico must pass through New Orleans, via the Mississippi, to reach refineries and distribution networks in the American heartland. But the state’s oil production is now approximately 65 per cent of what it was a decade ago, and anemic global prices have increased the painfulness of the slump.
Not all local industries are sharing this fate. The city’s rich culture and easygoing ethos have yielded financial dividends through tourism: 18.5 million visitors came to New Orleans in 2018, injecting $9.1bn into the economy. Attendances for annual festivals like Mardi Gras and JazzFest continue to hit fresh records.
Yet the real hope is that new types of business will be cultivated in the city, as aided by favorable policy and the appeal of the local lifestyle. Much fanfare greeted the move of tech firm DXC Technologies into 300,000 square feet of downtown real estate, along with its intent to add 2,000 hires by 2024. State-issued tax credits designed to attract the film industry to New Orleans have been successful (though some question the net economic returns of this initiative).
And a unique entrepreneurship movement has taken hold: many of the non-profit volunteers who helped New Orleans’ rebuilding have stayed, creating a “social startup” culture using technology to expand access to health, education, and nutrition. In sum, New Orleans is working hard to redefine its commercial identity.
Young, educated Americans are the target of these efforts, as they are for competing ones in other cities around the country. Among them are members of the New Orleans diaspora who left their hometown for more promising shores long ago. Whether they can be convinced to return has yet to be seen.