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New Orleans five years later

Sunday, August 29, 2010; A20

FIVE YEARS AGO today, hell was unleashed on New Orleans. The storm surge created by the winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the city's levee system, which the Army Corps of Engineers had poorly designed and poorly maintained. For days, with much of the city flooded, people pleaded for help from rooftops, the Superdome and the convention center. Scenes of depravation, desperation and death shocked the nation and the world.

Of course, New Orleans wasn't the only site of devastation. Regions of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and other parts of Louisiana were caught in Katrina's cross hairs. The initial response was inexcusably slow, exposing holes in the nation's disaster preparedness plans. Recovery throughout the Gulf Coast region, particularly in Louisiana, was hobbled by a toxic combination of red tape, turf battles and mistrust between state and federal officials.

Still, when Air Force One touches down Sunday, President Obama will alight on a New Orleans that is recovering -- from Hurricane Katrina, the recession and this year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as well. There remain concerns about housing, coastal restoration and crime, but New Orleans is undergoing a fragile yet positive transformation that once seemed impossible. The economy is beginning to diversify. A once-inept education system is rebounding. And civic engagement is way up, promising to hold the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, accountable like none before him.

People who fled are coming home. According to a report marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the Greater New Orleans Program Community Data Center, the population of the metropolitan area is 90 percent of what it was pre-Katrina. With 100,000 fewer residents, the population of the city itself is 78 percent of what it was on Aug. 29, 2005. African Americans make up a majority of the displaced who have not returned. While they were 67 percent of residents in the city before the storm, they are now 61 percent.

Potential improvements in the public education system are perhaps the most encouraging aspect of New Orleans's recovery. In the 2004-05 academic year, 64 percent of the city's public schools were classified as "academically unacceptable" by the state. After the storm, the Louisiana State Legislature moved to take over the school district and expand the number of charter schools. There were three in 2004. This year there are 51 such schools teaching 61 percent of the city's public school students.

Many challenges remain. The demand for affordable housing outstrips supply, and scarce financial resources have made completion of home rebuilding difficult. The transformation of New Orleans public housing from warehouses of the poor to mixed-income neighborhoods is not complete. New Orleans now has a master plan to guide its post-Katrina redevelopment. In 2008, voters gave it the force of law and required the city to craft a "comprehensive zoning ordinance." That work, too, remains incomplete and will force planners to confront the question of how to rebuild in low-lying areas without putting lives and property at undue risk.

Coastal restoration is another challenge. Since 1956, the New Orleans metro area has lost 23 percent of its wetlands. They are crucial for slowing the storms that roar up the Gulf of Mexico. It will be years if not decades before these natural barriers are restored, thus making the $15 billion, 350-mile system of locks and pumps constructed by the Army Corps essential to guarding against another catastrophe. The people of New Orleans hope that the Corps got it right this time.

And then there's crime. While violent crime nationally was 455 per 100,000 people in 2008, it was 1,019 per 100,000 people in New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina knocked New Orleans -- the city and its people -- to the canvas. With the help of the federal government -- which has spent $142 billion in assistance to the affected Gulf states plus another $37.9 billion in Recovery Act funds -- and of foundations and big-hearted volunteers, they have been pulling themselves up ever since.

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