Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution is an insightful but friendly analyst of our state’s response to the historic challenges since the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast.
Her judgment: Louisiana hasn’t done so badly.
At least in the sense that regional leaders have made some changes and overdue “systemic reforms” in the wake of the tragedy of the giant hurricanes.
She and her colleagues have produced a new Brookings Institution Press book of essays on the recovery, “Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the Gulf Coast After Katrina and Rita,” that focuses on changes in the region since the storms.
It also highlights the fact that New Orleans’ prospects were dismal before the storms came.
“High poverty and racial disparities, failing public schools, high crime, a segregated health care system, a struggling economy, and fragile coastal protection (just to name a few) combined with miles of ruin to create a daunting recovery agenda,” Liu writes. “Yet, after some fits and starts, New Orleanians and their many partners have risen to the challenge.”
Of course, the erratic tenure of now-departed Mayor Ray Nagin gets little or no credit for the upsides of Louisiana’s recovery efforts. However, the sluggishness at the top of City Hall might well have led citizens to become more involved.
“Their deep desire to rebuild their beloved home and city translated into unprecedented levels of citizen participation in public meetings, greater public sophistication of civic issues, and new coalitions that called for the end to government corruption, violent crime, and poor health outcomes,” Liu said. “The urgency to fix neighborhoods more equitably led to the rise of new community organizations and nonprofit housing developers.”
She also noted a new emphasis on affordable housing in Mississippi as one consequence of citizen engagement since Katrina slammed the Gulf counties of that state.
In New Orleans, Liu noted both an “infectious optimism and can-do realism” in the leadership of new Mayor Mitch Landrieu, working on turnaround strategies in the city. There are also positive signs in the neighborhood revitalization projects that are being built in the city.
We applaud the efforts of New Orleans’ constructive engagement with the future, as the city turned its back on progress and settled in a stifling political and economic status quo for a generation.
Louisiana and Baton Rouge in particular desperately need a vibrant New Orleans, better as an economic and political partner than the one we had before.
As Liu says, enormous challenges remain. “The region needs to step boldly into a more innovative, energy diverse, post-recession economy that delivers meaningful prospects for residents. A deep investment in coastal wetland recovery must complement the re-opening of oil leases off the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi,” Liu wrote.
“The Gulf Coast’s post-Katrina future is still unfolding. But New Orleans is teaching the world it knows how to turn disasters and desperation into hope and opportunity. It’s a comeback story not just for the disaster hall-of-fame but the annals of urban history.”
We like to hear that kind of upbeat report, and hope that it unfolds in the future in a way that enhances not only the city but the entire region.