August 16, 2013
In the early days after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches, it was hard to imagine that New Orleans could rebound from such devastation. With 80 percent of the city under water and 200,000 homes across Southeast Louisiana in ruins, the task of rebuilding seemed overwhelming. But with the eighth anniversary of the disaster upon us, the transformation is stunning.
Recovery is evident in refurbished parks and repaired homes, in the expansion streetcars and renovations at Louis Armstrong International Airport, in the 72,000 Saints fans who fill the Superdome for every game and the 9 million tourists who visit each year.
Renewal goes deeper, though, as evidenced in the "New Orleans Index at Eight" report released by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center this week.
The Data Center found that the New Orleans area fared well when compared to job growth nationwide and among other cities. The job count here is up 1 percent over pre-recession numbers. That doesn't match Austin, Houston and other vibrant cities in the study, but it beats the national average and 57 cities with weaker economies, including Birmingham, Jackson and Philadelphia.
Where the New Orleans area particularly shines in the Data Center report is its entrepreneurial spirit. Between 2010 and the end of 2012, 501 of every 100,000 residents here started a business. The national rate was 320 and the rate for "aspirational" cities like Austin was 376.
The growth in entrepreneurs in the New Orleans area reflects a 129 percent increase over pre-Katrina numbers.
It is not surprising that a community in recovery would attract some entrepreneurs. But these numbers bespeak an extraordinary level of optimism and energy.
"There are some ways in which we really have changed our trajectory," said Allison Plyer, the Data Center's executive director. The growth in jobs and entrepreneurship are "a real shift" from the city's trajectory before the disaster.
"Katrina caused a break in the status quo," Ms. Plyer said. Perhaps most significant were the public policy reforms residents demanded after the disaster, including the creation of regional levee authorities, the consolidation of assessor offices in New Orleans and the transformation of the city's moribund education system.
Groups like Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, which came together in November 2005 to push for levee board reforms, have continued to hold public officials and agencies to high standards. That is crucial long-term.
The Data Center also highlighted the high level of creativity in our community. The New Orleans area has more than double the national average of arts and cultural groups per 100,000 residents.
In an indication of improved quality of life, New Orleans spent significantly more on recreation in 2012 than the city did pre-Katrina and has added more than 40 miles of bike paths.
Despite all the positives, though, serious problems remain. Crime rates in New Orleans have dropped from pre-Katrina levels but are still higher than the national average, as are incarceration rates. And the level of education among adults in the metro area -- which is vital to the ability to get a good job -- lags behind the nation. Education and job numbers for African-American men here are especially worrisome -- only 53 percent of those who are working age were employed in 2011.
Those gaps in the marketplace are an impediment for individual families, of course. But the community as a whole won't thrive long term if large numbers of people are excluded from educational and job opportunities -- and we need to all work on solutions to those problems.
In that regard, the Data Center report emphasized the need for continued reforms in public education, health care and the criminal justice system, which have the potential to "raise standards of living and build a safer and more just community."
Overarching all of those issues, though, is the continued erosion of Louisiana's coast. "Creating a new New Orleans will mean little if it cannot be protected for the long-term" from storms, the Data Center report says. The state's 50-year, $50 billion master plan for restoration and flood protection holds promise, if it is completed.
The restoration work itself can energize parts of the region's economy. If done properly and successfully, the report's authors said, restoration could "become the defining event for New Orleans -- instead of Katrina."
That is a hopeful thought as the eighth anniversary of the disaster approaches. And it would be an amazing accomplishment. But why not? Hard work has brought our region back from unimaginable damage, so why shouldn't we be able to save the coast as well? And really, we must.