Taking Stock: New Orleans Five Years After Katrina

Aug 24 2010

This month, as the “Katrina babies” head off to kindergarten, we New Orleanians are collectively taking stock of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go. Two recent reports offer yardsticks to measure our progress and lack thereof. The Urban Conservancy has a few measurements of our own for your consideration.

A concise video summary of The New Orleans Index at Five released by The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) and Brookings Institution urges cautious optimism. The Index includes a report called Measuring New Orleans’ Progress Towards Prosperity which provides 20 indicators (such as wages, affordable housing, public safety, coastal wetlands) in four broad categories (economic growth, inclusion, quality of life, and sustainability).

The indicators do in many cases suggest progress towards prosperity, with improvements in school performance, neighborhood quality, and median household income. But the report also acknowledges areas that need our continued attention, including overall population decline, displaced residents, lost housing, deficiencies in public transportation and crime rates. Read the full report here.

A new and sobering report from the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), titled The Price of Civilization, alerts us that the $67 million operating budget shortfall our city faces is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions needed to shore up and maintain our deteriorating street, drainage and sewerage systems. “Without prioritization and coordination,” says the report, “New Orleans risks making substantial investments in streets, only to have the work undone by leaking subsurface infrastructure. The city could end up with leafy neutral grounds flanked by neighborhoods that flood too easily.”

Even so, it is imperative that we analyze these challenges within the context of all that is right in post-Katrina New Orleans for two very important reasons. First, the good news stories are not merely window dressing or wishful thinking; we are seeing long-fought and hard-won profound, historic, systemic change in our city affecting access and equity, transparency and consistency. They show us what successful citizen-led transformation looks like when projects are indeed prioritized and coordinated. Second, recognizing these extraordinary victories for what they are strengthen our resolve to maintain our forward momentum through whatever challenges lie ahead.

In that hopeful spirit, the Urban Conservancy presents its “Top 10 Post-Katrina Victories List.” The items come in no particular order. We’d love to hear yours.

1. Master Plan and CZO. In early August, the City Council adopted the Master Plan that was developed with community input; creation of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance is underway. Both documents should provide assurances for developers, businesses, and residents of transparency and consistent application of rules and regulations. “The rules won’t change in the middle of the game,” says Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. “You will not be able to just whimsy and whamsy change zoning.”

2. Engaged citizenry. This has been evident since Katrina, as individuals, neighborhood associations, and small nonprofits worked together to rebuild and renew their home town. The Master Plan, the Lafitte Corridor, the streamlining of assessor, levee board, and sheriff departments, the creation of the Inspector General’s office and the general vibrant localism all come from the passionate devotion of New Orleanians to their city.

City Park’s renaissance is another example of citizen engagement. Who can forget the ragtag volunteer brigade of residents living around the park, self-deprecatingly dubbed the “Mow-rons” who provided their own lawnmowers and labor to keep the park grounds under control when the Park staff had been decimated? Remember the Mow-rons fondly next time you visit this cultural and recreational jewel among urban green spaces. The New Orleans Museum of Art is surrounded by acres of playgrounds, bike trails, boat-friendly lagoons, and beautifully refurbished iconic mainstays like Storyland, Botanical, Sculpture and Carousel Gardens, as well as new amenities like the dog park and the Great Lawn.

3. Trees. Newly planted trees on South Claiborne, St. Claude, Louisiana, and other avenues are an important investment in future air quality and general quality of life. Starting with the guerrilla gardening in 2005 and 2006 - people planting in neutral grounds and sprucing up public spaces when the city was MIA — there has been a renewed focus on the benefits of greenspace, the tree canopy, and walking paths by individuals, nonprofits like Hike for Katreena, and the City.

4. Engaged city government. While we haven’t yet seen enough of Mitch Landrieu’s administration to judge it, early evidence suggests that there is much more focus on public policy, reform and fiscal accountability than we saw during C. Ray Nagin’s tenure. Mayor Landrieu has demonstrated that he is listening and thinking and actually doing. His emphasis on transparency, his commitment to opening the hospital in New Orleans East, his advocacy for better hospital design for the LSU-VA complex (link), and his administration’s functional working relationship with the City Council are all examples of a responsive City Hall. Many of Landrieu’s 100 Projects reflect the priorities of New Orleans’ citizens.

5. Transit improvements. Support for biodiesel busses, additional bike lanes and bike racks, pedicabs, and expansion of streetcar service are all indicators that alternative transit options are multiplying. We still have far to go to make New Orleans a bike friendly community, but it’s progress. And organizations like the New Orleans Metro Bicycle Coalition the NolaCycle Bike Route Project are keeping the biking community connected, informed, and engaged.

6. Education. While quality education options continue to fall far short of demand, the gap is perceptibly narrowing as innovative charter schools open and capital improvements in school facilities get underway, creating new learning environments.

Not every school has been or will be successful, but performance indicators suggest that we have made dramatic improvements over the dysfunctional school system that prevailed before the storm. These improvements coupled with Louisiana’s commitment to improving early childhood services through programs like Bright Start could result in major changes in our city’s PK-12 educational systems.

7. Cultural offerings. New galleries are popping up along commercial corridors like Oak Street, Freret Street, and St. Claude Avenue and 18 other areas throughout the city that have been designated Cultural Products Districts, enabling works of art to be sold tax-free and providing historic tax credits to stimulate commercial and residential investment. It is not coincidental that the music and theatre, restaurant and art scenes along these corridors are also vibrant.

8. NOLA Awareness. Both locals and the rest of the world increasingly see and appreciate our unique and fragile city and its surrounding region through a more nuanced lens. Part of this burgeoning awareness comes from the media saturation post-Katrina and post-Oil Spill, but if skyrocketing numbers of applications for slots in Tulane University’s freshman class are any indication, the attention is on balance good for the region.

9. Capacity for disaster response. There is still a long way to go before an effective coordinated disaster response plan is in place, but there is a growing recognition of the need for a coordinated response at federal, state and local levels in the case of a major event. Businesses are demonstrating growing awareness of the importance of planning for disruptions and New Orleanians have become skilled at developing persona disaster plans as well.

10. Criminal justice. Reform-minded Chief of Police Ronal Serpas doesn’t mince words; his new “You Lie, You Die” zero-tolerance campaign to rout out and immediately dismiss dishonest police officers is an example of reforms underway at tne NOPD. Development of advocacy organizations like Safe Streets/Strong Communities, creation of the office of the Independent Police Monitor, and top-to-bottom reform of the public defense system are all steps in the right direction.

What- we’ve hit 10 already? Well, here’s your lagniappe:

11. The World Champion New Orleans Saints. Enough said.

If there is a leit-motif to all of the documentaries, reports, memoirs and retrospectives on New Orleans five years after Katrina, it is this: we are a city that is at once rich in excess and desperately in need.

Both the Price of Civilization and the New Orleans Index at Five reports highlight a second, less headline-grabbing but equally resonant theme for residents shoring up our infrastructure, our levees and our coastline: prioritization and coordination. Between Katrina’s aftermath, the Great Recession, and the BP Oil Disaster, New Orleanians have developed organizational skills that make us a particularly scrappy and self-reliant tribe. Let’s reflect on our victories and revel in them for a moment, and then get back to work. There’s a lot left to do.

Filed under: Editorials | Katrina