New Orleans — I think that for most of us knowledge comes when you need it. This weekend, I learned more about the post-Katrina life of New Orleans. And it baffles me.
There’s so much that still needs to be done. In a world in which we build entire Olympic villages in a few years, how can we be seven years down the road and still have so much unfixed damage there?
When Katrina hit, even having never been there, I knew that NOLA, as she’s affectionately known as, was a part of American culture that we could not let die. Now, I believe that even more. When Katrina news fell off the front pages I went back to my own life, not knowing or, frankly, caring about what was happening there. So what I learned this weekend about how much is still left to be done there, I’m amazed and somewhat appalled.
My friends and I paid for one of those city tours, which gives you a quick look at and history of the city. We walked away from that tour shaking our heads: how can the city be putting so much money into the infrastructure for the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras yet there are still more than 10,000 buildings that the city needs to demolish — and move on — from Katrina.
One example: From what we were told by our guide, the city is building park space and a pedestrian bridge to get to it, yet just blocks away are shells of homes that the owners have walked away from and left as health hazards and eye sores and constant reminders of what both the city and our country failed to do for the residents there. (This is the $30 million project known as Crescent Park.)
According to the mayor’s website, there were 70 “priority projects” completed since May 2010, at a price of $101 million. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, by the way, was not the mayor in August 2005, when Katrina hit the city. His administration’s priorities were on libraries, parks and public safety facilities.
The issue, I’m sure, is finding a good balance between services for the residents and services for tourists, which account for about 70 percent of NOLA’s economy. Those tourists bring in the money the city needs to rebuild itself. For 2013 the city is scheduled to spend $186 million on 47 projects, most of which seem to be mostly public service facilities, including several police and fire departments.
But what of housing?
The mayor’s online biography says he has a plan to eliminate those 10,000 blighted properties by 2014 and enhance existing neighborhoods. But why will this have taken nine years to accomplish? On one hand it’s easy to ask why the city or state government didn’t step in, condemn and raze these heavily damaged neighborhoods. On the other hand, how can government take any action without input from the people who live there. There’s no easy solution, I guess.
So much needs to be done and so quickly. Or did it? How long would it have taken to razed and rebuild significant parts of the Ninth Ward? Cities around the world erect Olympic villages in less time than the seven years since Katrina struck. Many of the residents relocated for a year or more. If their out-of-town stays had to be extended by another six or 12 months, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have come back. While that’s sad, NOLA is a great town — how many people could have been attracted to relocate there after the city had rebuilt into an even better city?
Fortunately for the city there are many people and organizations that have stepped up to help out. Probably most notable is Brad Pitt´s Make It Right Foundation, which more than half way complete on its plan to build 150 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Volunteers are still coming to the city (and other areas affected by Katrina) to help rebuild. My first night there a group of students from a Long Island, N.Y. came into the restaurant where I was dining to celebrate their week of work. It’s good to see those efforts continuing.
Of course, as an outsider and in hindsight it’s easy to come up with a million ways the situation here could have been handled. What I can tell you as that this city needs to be rebuilt because it has so much to offer America. It’s not just the beads and the beer of Bourbon Street. It’s the culture, the music, the literature, the history and the future that are the reasons we need to invest in New Orleans.
This was my first visit to New Orleans and hopefully not my last. If you haven’t been to New Orleans, put it on your bucket list. You’ll enjoy your visit and they need your money.
(See my post elsewhere on this site for more photos from my trip.)