As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina, let’s take a moment to celebrate. Many signs point to our recovery and progress, if not sweeping transformation: New Orleans ranked No. 1 on Forbes’ list of “America’s Biggest Brain Magnets”… was named “America’s Best City for School Reform”… No. 1 Most Improved on the Wall Street Journal’s “Best Cities for Business” list… voted No. 2 travel destination in the U.S. and Canada in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards 2015 (second consecutive year). … We have eagerly accepted these kudos as a recognition of our efforts to bring New Orleans back stronger and better than before the storm.
With all these accolades, it’s tempting to draw a line under a decade that started out with chaos and despair but ended with hope, reform and growth. However, as we recognize the accomplishments of the past decade, we now need to turn toward the future of New Orleans. Claiming victory too soon would be detrimental to our long-term prosperity.
What should New Orleans focus on in the next decade to make the city a model, if not the model, of resilience, recovery and transformation?
I see two critical issues among the many that require continued concerted effort: 1) flood protection and coastal restoration; and 2) pre-K through 12 public education and youth success.
Every single day, Louisiana loses roughly the acreage of all football stadiums in the NFL taken together. To further illustrate our precarious situation, New Orleans tops the list of cities across the country likely to get hit hardest by climate change, according to the Weather Channel’s Climate Disruption Index. Without drastic action, by 2100 — possibly sooner — New Orleans will likely be no more — the consequence of staggering land loss, rising sea levels and the threat of hurricanes. Everything we’ve fought for will sink into the ocean and, eventually, into oblivion.
The good news is that we know what to do. Louisiana’s 50-year Coastal Master Plan, which was adopted in 2007 and is being updated every five years, provides a detailed strategy for restoring our coastal ecosystem and improving flood protection, with the ultimate goal of creating more land than is being lost to the Gulf.
The price tag of $50 billion is steep, and a Tulane study estimates that it will likely cost at least twice as much to implement the measures outlined in the plan. Still, we must overcome the financial obstacles, considering what’s at stake. The estimated $8.7 billion from the recent BP settlement that will partly fund the plan (assuming that the dollars are spent as intended) is encouraging, but it will take broader, more genuine ownership from the oil and gas industry — which has acknowledged responsibility for 36 percent of land loss — as well as the state and federal government and other public and private stakeholders to secure the resources to see the master plan through. Electing a governor and other legislators who won’t kick the can down the road would be one crucial step.
Persistent educational inequality also is eating away at our city’s future. Despite the significant improvement of our schools, intransigent problems remain: students in failing schools (currently 6 percent) and insufficient funding for public preschool and child care, to name a few. Compounding the situation further, thousands of young people in our community are neither in school nor working (third-highest estimated rate of youth disconnection in the U.S.).
Several laudable efforts are the state’s recent move to differentiated funding for special needs students, the Early Childhood Education Act of 2012 mandating (but unfortunately not funding) an overhaul of early learning programming across the state and emerging collective impact initiatives that create on-ramps to school and work for struggling young people. Without more endeavors like these, our community will continue to be vulnerable to poverty, crime, poor health outcomes and other social ills.
Much has been achieved to increase opportunity in our community, but more needs to be done to put our children and young people on educational and career pathways that prepare them for work and life. After all, research has shown that a community’s resilience, or “adaptive capacity,” rests on the capabilities of educated and engaged citizens.
I recently read that resilience includes both an element of recovery and an element of change. At this milestone in our recovery, we need to rededicate ourselves to the task ahead — creating enduring positive change and building the “new” New Orleans of 2025.
Scott Cowen is the former president of Tulane University.