Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is reviving – for some

Canal Street after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.