Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remained in perilous condition. With the city broke and reeking of the corruption that would send outgoing mayor Ray Nagin to federal prison, no one could be confident in 2010 what its future might hold.
The Saints’ Super Bowl victory in February offered a powerful morale boost, but even that moment of civic elation was undercut two months later by another disaster that reminded everyone of the precariousness of life in South Louisiana: the BP oil-rig explosion that tarred coastlines and destroyed fisheries by spilling millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
On May 3, 2010, 13 days after that disaster started, Mitch Landrieu became mayor of New Orleans.
Jump ahead, and the next mayor will inherit a city that has taken giant steps forward. Population is up, and so are jobs. Tourism is booming. Property values have soared. City Hall’s books are now balanced, and tax collections have climbed. New retail stores have opened. So have three hospitals.
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Billions of federal dollars have fortified the city's hurricane protection system and built dozens of new schools. Billions more will be spent to rebuild the city's crumbling streets and modernize Louis Armstrong International Airport.
But the new mayor — who will take office next year as New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial — also will inherit a city where violent crime is rising, 911 response times have grown intolerably long, a quarter of the population remains mired in poverty and predominantly African-American neighborhoods continue to lag.
“The question in 2010 was would the early resurgence from Katrina continue or was the initial return of population and investment simply a swan song?” said Michael Hecht, the president and chief executive officer of Greater New Orleans Inc.
“If you look at the data, they seem to support that the city and region have continued to improve and .. . actually to transcend ... New Orleans in 2005. But while we have made undeniable progress, we have not reached success in terms of sustainable improvement for all New Orleanians.”
The race to elect the next mayor will take clear shape by the close of business Friday, the deadline for candidates to qualify for the Oct. 14 primary. So far, four people have said they will run: former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris and businessman Frank Scurlock. At least two others — state Rep. Walt Leger and businessman Sidney Torres — have said they are weighing the race.
On firmer footing
Whoever wins will take over a city on much firmer footing than Landrieu did in 2010.
Landrieu soon learned that the city had spent millions of dollars it didn’t have, that the Police Department would exhaust its money midway through the year and that if the city kept up its spending, it would end the year with an overall $97 million deficit.
“We weren’t just paying last month’s bills with next month’s money,” said Andy Kopplin, who served as Landrieu’s chief administrative officer until 2016. “We were paying bills from two or three months ago with next month’s money. That’s the only way you can function when you have a negative fund balance.”
At the time, FEMA trailers still dotted the landscape, New Orleans had the ignominious honor of leading the nation in blighted housing, and federal investigators were zeroing in on Nagin for taking payoffs from city contractors.
“I think they inherited the least competent city government I'd ever seen in this country and the most corrupt — a really tough experience,” David Osborne, a veteran consultant hired by the city, said in 2011. “I just haven't run into this level of dysfunction before, and I've been doing this work for almost 25 years.”
When Landrieu took office, the city’s population was 343,829, or 80 percent of the pre-Katrina population of 455,000. The latest Census Bureau estimate, in 2016, put the population at 391,495, or 86 percent of the pre-storm level.
Population growth, however, appears to be slowing. In 2016, more people moved out of New Orleans to other areas of the United States than moved in from elsewhere in the country. The city’s population increased only because births outpaced deaths and because of international migration.
For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, more people moved from New Orleans to other area…
The city’s racial mix has held mostly steady during the Landrieu years, with African-Americans accounting for about 60 percent of the city’s population, down from about 66 percent before Katrina. White people account for about 30 percent, while the percentage of Hispanics rose from 5.2 percent in 2010 to 5.6 percent in 2016.
Naiky Ramos is now one of New Orleans’ Hispanic residents, having moved from Honduras to the city in 2014 to be with her parents, who had preceded her.
Ramos came to study English, which she did for a year at Delgado Community College. Now the 27-year-old works as a waitress at Casa Honduras, a restaurant on Crowder Boulevard in New Orleans East owned by her brother.
“There are more opportunities here,” she said during a break from waiting on customers.
One reason is that the number of jobs has risen at a healthy pace, from 170,343 in 2010 to 192,201 in 2016, roughly tracking national job growth, despite the drop in oil prices that has hammered oil-related businesses in New Orleans.
Counting the 'wins'
Hecht, sitting in a 34th-floor conference room with a sweeping view of New Orleans, pointed to the new University Medical Center and Veterans Affairs hospital in Mid-City and rattled off some of what he sees as “wins” in recent years:
New Orleans ranked fifth in the country in population growth of millennials from 2010 to 2015. Provision Healthcare recently announced it would spend $100 million to build a proton therapy center that is expected to attract visitors wanting advanced cancer treatment. GE Digital has created 300 jobs here and plans to create 300 more. Other recently created high-tech companies — including Zlien, Arcon and Lucid — are thriving.
“Their success is indicative of the new New Orleans,” Hecht said.
Walter Lane, who chairs the University of New Orleans’ department of economics and finance, noted the retail stores that have opened since 2010 at the Mid-City Market on North Carrollton Avenue, the refurbishment of the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the Costco store on South Carrollton and Magnolia Marketplace on South Claiborne Avenue. Wal-Mart has opened stores in Gentilly and New Orleans East.
Those stores have helped boost the city’s sales tax collections from $147 million in 2010 to a projected $214 million this year.
“Fewer people are going to Jefferson Parish to buy their stuff,” Lane said. “That’s a good thing from the mayor’s perspective.”
But retail jobs pay low wages, as do many of the jobs in New Orleans’ tourism industry.
Local workers' average weekly wage of $958 in 2010 ticked up to only $964 in 2016, according to UNO’s Division of Business and Economic Research. If the 2010 wage had kept pace with inflation nationally, it would have reached $1,054 in 2016.
In the meantime, the housing market throughout much of New Orleans is now sizzling compared with 2010, said Rick Haase, president of Latter & Blum.
The preceding year's worth of home sales through May totaled $2.8 billion, or double the figure for 2010. The average sales price jumped from $216,000 to $297,000 during the same period. Homes spend an average of 70 days on the market now compared with 98 days in 2010. And sellers are receiving 95.8 percent of the sale price now versus 92.8 percent in 2010.
“The mayor inherited a cold real estate market and is handing off a hot real estate market,” Haase said, citing mostly national factors out of Landrieu’s control, including low interest rates and the recovery from the 2007-08 housing bust.
Among the beneficiaries are Dan and Noelle Ramsey, who bought a two-story, four bedroom home in Uptown two years ago. They paid $525,000 and estimate that it’s now worth $625,000 to $650,000.
Not that they want to sell. The Ramseys had wanted to move to New Orleans for a decade. In fact, they were house-hunting in New Orleans in 2005 when they had to evacuate to escape Katrina. They returned home to Phoenix, then moved to the Washington, D.C., area, but kept returning to New Orleans for visits, including for their 2009 wedding in Jackson Square.
Now they both work from home for businesses based in D.C.
They sat in their living room Friday and explained why they moved to New Orleans. As they talked, their dog Bayona and three cats — Leon Redbone, Professor Longhair and Ferdi (named after the Mother’s Restaurant sandwich) — roamed the room.
“We made the best decision of our lives,” Dan Ramsey said.
But many homeowners have not shared in the gains of recent years.
“My home should be worth more than it is,” said Byron Leonard, a 70-year-old truck driver who lives in New Orleans East, as he left a Winn-Dixie. “It feels like they’ve forgotten about us.”
Renters also continue to get squeezed, with about one-third of all tenants paying at least half of their income on rent, according to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
“Affordable housing will be an issue that the next mayor will have to confront,” said Ed Chervenak, the director of UNO’s Survey Research Center. “Certain members of the community feel like they’re being pushed out of their neighborhoods as new arrivals come in and develop neighborhoods.”
Residents can take satisfaction with the improvement in two areas that can directly affect their neighborhoods. The number of blighted housing units dropped from 43,755 in 2010 to fewer than 29,000 in 2015, according to the city, and the number of burned-out street lights fell from about 16,000 in 2010 to 889 today.
No headway on crime
But Landrieu has been unable to make significant headway on the violent crime problem. Greg Rigamer, a pollster and demographer working for Charbonnet's campaign, said surveys show that crime is easily the most important issue for voters.
The numbers bear this out.
New Orleans had 175 murders the year Landrieu took office, but 204 in the 12 months latest year ending July 5, according to Jeff Asher, who tracks crime figures for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and for private clients.
Shooting incidents have risen from 448 to 565 over the same period, and armed robberies and carjackings also are up, according to Asher.
“Reported crime is going up, and arrests have been declining,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Calls for service are going up (and) the police have inadequate numbers to respond to the calls coming in. The people committing crime are not being removed from the streets because of the police’s inability to arrive on time.”
Statistics bear this out, too. The New Orleans Police Department had 1,483 officers in 2010 but only 1,058 today. It took police eight minutes and 54 seconds to respond to an emergency 911 call on average in 2010. It’s 16 minutes now, Asher said.
For calls that are not emergencies, it took police 33 minutes and 19 seconds to respond on average in 2010. It’s now 2 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds, Asher said.
Trenise Sanders, a teacher who lives in New Orleans East, has firsthand experience with the long wait times. She said she reported to police early one morning in 2016 that a man had broken into her Toyota Avalon.
“The cops didn’t come until 7 p.m.,” Sanders said. “By that time, I had my window fixed and everything else.”