A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
That was one of the messages Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered Tuesday as advice to other cities trying to reinvigorate or reinvent themselves.
“The truth of the matter is Katrina was a cataclysmic event. It was an eye-opening experience,” Landrieu said. “It clarified for us, because we had a near-death experience, what we had to do to change, and it was the thing that kind of got us up, moving in the right direction.”
New Orleans used the Hurricane Katrina disaster 10 years ago to fall in love with itself again and to begin to build a better city than existed before the city flooded, Landrieu said.
“I’m not telling you that it takes a cataclysmic event, but it does take the creation of a movement,” he said. “There has to be some groundswell of, ‘We can’t do what we’re doing anymore; we’ve got to change.’ ”
Landrieu’s comments came during a panel discussion organized by Politico magazine for its “What Works” series on how cities across the country are reinventing themselves.
He was joined on the panel by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars and other resources to the relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. A separate panel featured Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka, Cleveland Foundation Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard and New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who recently was the subject of a Politico profile.
Landrieu said one of the toughest things New Orleans has had to do over the past 10 years was abandon some of the comforts and practices of the past, in favor of “big ideas.” He pointed specifically to the growing acceptance of “living with water.”
“For years and years and years, New Orleans was built, engineering-wise, with the idea of keeping the water out. That’s why the levees are so high. That’s why we have these magnificent pumps so that when water comes in, we pump it out,” Landrieu said. But embracing the idea of using new technology and techniques to live with water has opened the door for a wider range of future development possibilities in the city, he said.
Landrieu said he has applied the same sort of thinking to city government.
“If it needs to go faster and you have a structure that goes slower ... you might want to think about changing (how government operates),” he said. “It’s not a small thing to say, ‘Try living with water’ versus ‘against water’; everything flows from those big principles.”
Although most of the discussion was focused on New Orleans’ ongoing recovery, Landrieu did weigh in on the situation facing Baltimore, where protests over the death of a black man who was in police custody turned violent this week, leading the governor of Maryland to declare a state of emergency and to activate the National Guard.
Landrieu said the crisis in Baltimore is a response to unresolved issues in American society, including racism and poverty.
“On the issue of race, although the arc of history bends toward justice, it does not bend by itself, and this country is not finished,” Landrieu said. “This is a discussion that you cannot go around. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You have to go through it, and we’re not very good at it, quite frankly. And until we get good at it, I think what people are saying, in the way that people say things when they get frustrated, is that there is more to do and we ignore this at our peril.”
Landrieu also restated his comment to the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday that he will not run for governor. He said he believes he can have a greater impact on the future of New Orleans as its mayor.
“In politics, I think the natural inclination is always to assume that the faster you run for higher office, the better — the more you’ll get done,” Landrieu said. “We’re coming to find that that’s not necessarily true, especially in what we call the new way of governing across America.”