The day before Katrina took its final, fateful turn, Ray Nagin still had that familiar gleam in his eye, still smiled his infectious smile.
I was sitting in the mayor’s City Hall office with several of my colleagues from The Times-Picayune that morning, talking about a future that involved anything but water in the streets and desperate citizens trapped in attics or outside New Orleans’ most famous buildings, as their shell-shocked neighbors who’d evacuated watched helplessly on TV.
No, we were talking about Donald Trump.
The larger-than-life developer had just signed a deal to convert a Poydras Street parking lot into the city’s tallest building and to open a “condotel,” a combined hotel and condo building marketed to high rollers drawn to Trump’s showy style. Ecstatic over the big-name investment downtown, the mayor called it a tipping point in the elusive quest for an economic resurgence.
Frankly, the same goes for New Orleans.
The Trump project was a typical pre-Katrina plan, a quick-fix, an attempt to jump-start a sluggish economy and create a better business climate on the fly.
It would have drawn headlines and provided some jobs, of the largely low-wage tourism variety, but it wouldn’t have done much to change the city’s underlying problems — its poverty, its precarious reliance on one sector, the brain drain that forced many young residents to leave town in search of real opportunity, the lack of investment in basic infrastructure and other needs. Same with Nagin’s Hail Mary idea soon after the storm to create a gambling district on Canal Street.
We are better than that. And even though Trump never built his skyscraper, we are better off.
This summer of remembrance has been tough on locals. Political leaders, understandably, have put a positive face on the recovery, and there is indeed much progress to celebrate, even if it sometimes feels like doing so gives short shrift to those who didn’t come back or are still mightily struggling. Amid all the hoopla, it’s been hard to find emotional space to take stock of what’s lost, and to mourn it.
The true story of the past 10 years, told in full, is double-edged.
The area witnessed unspeakable federal indifference, followed by spectacular support to the tune of $71 billion. Much of that money fixed what was broken before Aug. 29, 2005. That includes flood defenses, which are now stronger thanks to some of the quickest and most ambitious engineering you’ll ever see. It includes gleaming new school buildings that signal to students that they matter, a massive improvement over the old days, when the Orleans Parish system struggled to provide working bathrooms.
Local and state government failed in so many ways and made the situation worse, through ineptitude or indifference, for many. But it also stepped up. The beleaguered, much-maligned $10 billion Road Home program wound up helping most of the 130,000 residents who took part.
People left, far more quickly than they were trickling away before Katrina. But they also came back, and others arrived for the first time. And those who did helped build an economy that’s more sustainable, more diversified than the one that saw a building with Donald Trump’s name as the be-all, end-all.
The gains haven’t benefited everyone equally, of course, and rectifying that should be the mission for Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his successors, in time for the next big Katrina anniversary.
This is a huge, intractable problem, but it’s not the worst problem to have.
We know. We’ve seen the worst, and come out on the other side.