New Orleans Six Years Later

“Greater New Orleans continues to recover and in some ways is rebuilding ‘better than before’ with emerging signs of a healthier economy, better social outcomes, and improved schools and basic services.” –  From “The New Orleans Index At Six”

This week marks the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. A new book from the Brookings Institution and a report from their partner, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, explore how far New Orleans and the Gulf region have come since the disaster and the challenges these areas still face.

Before the hurricane struck in 2005, New Orleans struggled with high crime and poverty; a sluggish economy; dysfunctional education, healthcare, and criminal justice systems; and racial and economic inequality. Though the city still wrestles with these and other problems, Brookings expert Amy Liu argues that the utter destruction wreaked by Katrina created a blank slate upon which a great deal of systemic change could be enacted.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has made significant gains in the following areas:

  • A strong educational reform and charter school movement has taken hold, test scores have improved, and a greater share of students are now at schools that meet state standards.
  • Violent and property crime have fallen, though violent crime rates are still higher than the national average.
  • Reforms have made the criminal justice and healthcare systems more equitable.
  • Entrepreneurship has boomed and the rate of new business development is much higher.
  • The gap has been narrowing between the median income and average annual wages in New Orleans and the national averages for these figures.
  • Ethics reforms have reduced government corruption.
  • A better disaster-response plan has been developed that addresses many of the evacuation failures that occurred during Katrina.

Three key factors made these developments possible:

  1. Residents used the holes left by the disaster as opportunities, building high levels of citizen engagement and develop an “informed and sophisticated network” of community-based organizations.
  2. Local efforts were backed by government and philanthropic recovery funding, the assistance of national experts, and support from federal agencies such as HHS, DOJ, and HUD.
  3. The ongoing rebuilding efforts buffered the local economy from the worst of the recession. The rate of job loss in New Orleans has been one-fourth that of the nation as a whole.

Although much progress has been made, challenges remain. Some of the most critical:

  • Environmental issues that contributed to the disaster, such as the degradation of local wetlands, have yet to be addressed.
  • Though it has been diversifying, the regional economy still relies heavily on industries that are shrinking – oil and gas, shipping, and tourism.
  • Significant racial disparities in income still exist and while white incomes increased over the past decade, black and Hispanic incomes fell.
  • Housing costs jumped after Katrina and remain high.
  • A great deal of rebuilding remains to be done and some neighborhoods are still damaged and vacant.
  • Much of the progress was built on recovery funds that won’t be around forever, so reformers will have to find new sources of money.

These reports suggest that, though work remains to be done, the people of New Orleans have used the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to bring much-needed change to their city.

Resilience and Opportunity Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita (book)
Brookings Institution Press // Edited by Amy Liu, Roland V. Anglin, Richard M. Mizelle Jr., Allison Plyer // 2011

The New Orleans Index at Six
Greater New Orleans Community Data Center // Allison Plyer, Elaine Ortiz // August 2011