by Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS - Last week, I joined the people of my beloved hometown of New Orleans in commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a natural and manmade disaster of biblical proportions that claimed 1800 lives and caused more than $100 billion in damages. Katrina V, as this year's remembrance has been called, is a tale of two cities. According to a new report from Brookings and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, "Despite sustaining three shocks in the last five years [Katrina, the economic downturn, and the Gulf oil spill], greater New Orleans is rebounding and, in some ways, doing so better than before."
There is no doubt that due to the extraordinary resilience of New Orleans citizens, coupled with sustained assistance from a steady stream of volunteers, and a more effective response from all levels of government, large parts of the city are coming back. Signs of hope include the allocation last week of $1.8 billion in federal funds for New Orleans schools damaged during Katrina, notable improvements in the levee system, and a sweeping overhaul of the New Orleans police department whose actions after Katrina earned it the label as one of the worst and most corrupt in the nation. This is especially painful for me because my successor Ray Nagin's inept leadership completely dismantled the remarkable police reform that took place when I served as Mayor of New Orleans from 1994-2002. In an 8 year period of reform crime dropped by 60% and corruption was snuffed out. This will hopefully begin to change due to the renewed confidence in government that will come with the election in February of a capable new mayor, Mitch Landrieu. But in places like Pontchatrain Park, where I grew up and in the Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered the worst damage from the storm, progress has come much too slowly, and much more needs to be done.
I saw some of these disparities first-hand last Sunday during my attendance at a rally and memorial for the people of the Lower Ninth who lost their lives during the storm. While the high spirit of the community remains unbroken, there is no doubt that the pace of the neighborhood's recovery is lagging behind. By most accounts only one-fifth of the Lower Ninth's 20,000 residents have returned since 2005. There is evidence that inequities in reconstruction funding along with arduous bureaucratic hurdles and the exclusion of many of the neigborhood's surviving and displaced residents in recovery planning has resulted in large patches of the community still languishing in shambles. So, even as we celebrate New Orleans' remarkable resilience, this is no time for "irrational exuberance." As I told the crowd at the rally, "Until the Lower Ninth is back, New Orleans is not back."
It is remarkable that a hard-hit neighborhood like the Lower Ninth Ward is still standing today. There were calls by some after Katrina for it to be abandoned and never rebuilt. But the people there and throughout New Orleans have never given up hope. That is what struck me most about my visit back home last week. While New Orleans is grateful for more help from the government and the continued goodwill of a nation, its citizens are no longer standing on rooftops of despair waiting to be rescued. In the spirit that is New Orleans, the city is rebuilding itself.