Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later

The full and lasting effects of Katrina on the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast cannot be measured or understood in years, but rather in decades. However, in reading today's Chronicle article regarding the five-year anniversary of the worst natural disaster in recent US history, I did want to look back at some predictions regarding that city's fate that, five years later, turned out to be rather wrong:
After Katrina, some pundits wondered aloud whether New Orleans was all but dead, or whether it was even worth rebuilding. Now such talk seems silly, not just because its beloved Saints are Super Bowl champions, and not just because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building a $14 billion project, its largest ever, to protect the city from future storm surges. Katrina's wake exposed a vein of intense loyalty that runs deep, in many cases generations deep. Allowing the city to die or worse, contract into a living tourist attraction — the seedy sister of Colonial Williamsburg — was unthinkable.

I remember well some of the prognostications regarding New Orleans's eminent demise in the months after Katrina. I read numerous articles (here's one) suggesting that the city should not be rebuilt because it was in such a geographically-vulnerable area or because it was such a socioeconomic mess; that the diaspora of people - especially the poor - from New Orleans should actually be encouraged because, removed from an environment of concentrated poverty, crime, poor schools and corruption, those people would thrive; or that New Orleans was destined regardless of rebuilding efforts to become the underpopulated, economically-irrelevant "living tourist attraction" the article mentions. I recall reading numerous predictions that Baton Rouge would permanently surpass New Orleans as Louisiana's principal city, much the way Houston surpassed Galveston as Texas's principal city after the Hurricane of 1900.

That, of course, hasn't happened. New Orleans has regained over 70% of its pre-Katrina population - 2009 Census estimates put the city's population at about 355 thousand but more accurate numbers won't become available until this year's census results are reported - while Baton Rouge's 2009 population is estimated to be about 225 thousand. This article mentions that more than 90% of the entire metro area's pre-Katrina population has returned.

In retrospect, the idea that people would, or even should, decide to simply abandon an entire city - even in the face of the devastation wrought by disaster or the problems the city faced even before the disaster - seems pretty foolish. Aside from the social, cultural, familial, economic, legal, capital and generational ties that bind people to their city, there is also the very basic and powerful concept of "home." New Orleans, for all its problems, is "home" to a great many people, and that's why the overwhelming majority of them have moved back. While it's true that many pre-Katrina residents have yet to return - the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, has recovered less than a quarter of its pre-Katrina population - and while it's true that, as the residents have returned, so have the city's pre-Katrina problems - the city's poverty rate of 23% is double the national average and the Crescent City has resumed its role as the nation's murder capital - the simple fact is that New Orleans will not be the Galveston of the 21st Century.

There are post-Katrina success stories to be found in New Orleans - for example, a charter school system that is improving educational performance - but there is still a lot of work left to be done and a lot of questions left to be answered (including these five issues that will affect the city's abilities to withstand the next hurricane). The twin traumas of the recession and the BP oil blowout have hampered recovery efforts, and the psychological strain of a recovery that is now beginning its sixth year cannot be understated. But humans are nothing if not preserverant, and that's why, even after came Hell and high water, New Orleans remains.

USA Today has a rather interesting interactive multimedia site about the effects of Katrina and the recovery effort.

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