New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

29 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Honor Katrina’s victims by continuing to rebuild a stronger community: President Barack Obama.

On Thursday (Aug. 27), I traveled to New Orleans to mark 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated communities across the Gulf Coast and shook America. ON THE “SLIVER by the river,” the stretch of precious high ground snug against the Mississippi, tech companies sprout in gleaming towers, swelling with 20-somethings from New England or the Plains who saw the floods only in pictures.

When a city goes through a tragic and traumatic shock — whether in the form of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, violent unrest or major population loss — the road to recovery can look endless.New Orleans was devastated first by an act of God in Hurricane Katrina, then, and still more significantly, by a failure of men and their government, as levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers gave way in just the ways experts had long warned. A visit to the Lower Ninth Ward would have seemed unimaginable in the storm’s immediate aftermath, but today the waters have receded — replaced by a region that is moving forward. A new $1 billion medical center rises downtown, tourism has rebounded, the music and restaurant scenes are sizzling, and the economy has been buoyed by billions of federal dollars. But the journey can also be liberating, freeing leaders from the mistakes of the past, opening new avenues for rejuvenation and turning what is often the most undervalued quality in government — imagination — into a necessity.

And in contrast to other disasters, when well-oiled response machinery kicked into gear, politicians and bureaucrats at every level proceeded to let down their constituents. That spirit, familiar to all New Yorkers, is alive and well in New Orleans, and nowhere is it more apparent or productive than in the city’s public schools. But on the porch stoops of this place so comfortable with the cycles of death and decay, they still talk about living in some kind of Atlantis-in-waiting.

Predictably, the grim consequences of the disaster and its aftermath were borne by the city’s most vulnerable, and predominantly African-American, residents. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slashed and snarled into New Orleans, on Aug. 29, 2005, newcomers take their juice with chia seeds and buy fixer-uppers, and longtime locals fret that the city is no longer theirs, that it’s too expensive and might lose its soul. In Biloxi, clergy and community leaders were to gather at MGM Park for a memorial to Katrina’s victims and later that evening the park will host a concert celebrating the recovery.

If Katrina was an example of what happens when government fails, the recovery has been an example of what’s possible when government works with local communities as a true partner. Katrina’s force caused a massive storm surge that scoured the Mississippi coast, pushed boats far inland and wiped houses off the map, leaving only concrete front steps to nowhere. Together, we’ve delivered resources to help Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida rebuild schools, hospitals, roads, police and fire stations, and historic buildings and museums.

The neighborhood was one of the bastions of black homeownership in America when water burst through floodwalls on one side, pushing houses passed down through generations off foundations and trapped residents on rooftops pleading for help from passing helicopters. And we’re building smarter, from elevating homes to retrofitting buildings to improving drainage, so that our communities are better prepared for the next storm.

Hurricane Katrina, which badly damaged most of the school buildings, forced the city and the state to confront a broken system as they dealt with other calamities. The neighborhood still has some of the lowest rates of people who’ve returned after the storm, but they will be having a daylong celebration to mark the progress they have made.

Yet the city’s very survival as an inviting and vibrant space has made it into a symbol of resilience, an inspiration for other places savaged by nature’s whims and man’s mistakes. In addition to the former president the event will feature performances by the city’s “Rebirth Brass Band,” award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien and Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias. Our goal was to rebuild a city and a region as it should be — a place where everyone, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how much money they have, has an opportunity to make it. The long-term impact of the conversion of its schools to an all-charter system and the decision to demolish large public housing developments in favor of new mixed-use housing will be debated for years.

In a series of events in the week leading up to the actual anniversary, the city has held lectures, given tours of the levee improvements and released a resiliency plan. New Orleans is today in many ways a new city, and in some ways a better one — though celebrating its revival rings hollow to those forced out of the homes and neighborhoods they loved. The final task, of course — the one without which all the other gains could prove futile — is ensuring that the levees hold, God forbid, next time.

But the people who now populate the city aren’t necessarily the ones who fled it. “The Chocolate City” that the bungling and corrupt Katrina-era mayor, Ray Nagin, famously described in the wake of Katrina is still majority black, but its African-American population has shrunk by nearly 100,000 — to 59 percent from 67 percent. Pedagogic power was decentralized to the schools, along with flexibility in setting salaries and work rules and in establishing professional-development programs for teachers. It’s why we believe in programs like My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative devoted to making sure that all young people, especially our boys and young men of color, have the opportunity to achieve their potential.

Because of the grit and determination of the American people, our businesses have created 13 million new jobs over 65 straight months, and our unemployment rate has fallen from 10 percent to 5.3 percent. Two independent studies released this month show that over the past decade, the percentage of students meeting basic standards has gone from less than half to almost two-thirds. Five minutes down the road, at the opposite end of Tremé, Dianne Honore, 50, rented half of a brick double across from Louis Armstrong Park a couple of years back. For instance, charges of screening out struggling students led to a new enrollment process in which all schools accept all students, no matter their academic background. Honore, who lived in Texas after being flooded out, just “got gentrified,” six years after coming home, she says. “Some days, you feel like your culture is still drowning.” On the Friday before Mardi Gras, Patrick Comer and 150 of his friends, entrepreneurs all, spilled out of Arnaud’s, a venerable French Quarter restaurant, and onto Bourbon Street.

But the undeniable improvement in student achievement shows New Orleans has as much to teach the country about the smarter education policies as it does the dangers of climate change. Those problems can’t be dealt with effectively without expanding the progress being made in the schools, but Mayor Landrieu and other community leaders are bringing the same spirit of innovation that has made that progress possible to other areas of the city’s life. If we stay focused on that common purpose; if we remember our responsibilities to ourselves and our obligations to one another; then from Texas to Florida, we can rebuild a region, and a nation, that’s worthy of our children, and worthy of the generations to come.

Forbes recently named New Orleans “America’s biggest brain magnet.” The city saw startups launched at a 64 percent higher rate than the national average from 2011 to 2013, according to the Data Center, an independent research group. New Orleans as a magnet for “nieux” business would have sounded like fantasy a decade ago. “It was a very insular community that was scared of new people,” said Tim Williamson, a New Orleans native who runs a business incubator called Idea Village. “The day after Katrina, everybody became an entrepreneur.” KEITH WELDON MEDLEY smiled at first.

And on their shopping list was almost everything that could be had in these neighborhoods — a collection of Creole cottages, shotgun doubles, warehouses, and small manufacturers at a humpback bend of the Mississippi River. In the evolution of post-Katrina New Orleans, few phenomena have been more striking than the dramatic demographic shift of places such as Bywater from majority black to majority white. One census block group in Bywater dropped from 51 percent African-American before Katrina to just 17 percent afterward; the largest went from 63 percent to 32, according to an analysis of U.S. census data. “You saw all these white people. Obviously they were displacing black people who were here before,” said Medley, an African-American historian who lives in the Marigny house where he grew up. The market, which opened in 1875, sold po’ boys and shrimp-by-the-pound in an atmosphere of rotting charm before Katrina; it now houses pricey food stalls.

And though the vandals were roundly condemned, they also sparked a conversation about the identity of the city post-Katrina, and particularly about the character of poorer neighborhoods. After Katrina, there was a rush to buy up properties in the sliver-by-the-river neighborhoods such as the Marigny and Bywater — anything that didn’t flood. An empty foundation next to a spruced-up place with bright, clean siding next to a sagging wreck with a hole in the roof next to a house with a brand-new deck. Jesse Perkins, a 54-year-old sewer manager who grew up in the Desire public housing development, lives across the street from a large seniors’ apartment complex that was devastated during Katrina and now sits 10 years later with caved-in roofs and smashed-out windows. But this year, there’s been a spike in violence, and the city registered its 100th murder nearly two months earlier than the year before. “The city, on balance, is far better off than before Katrina,” says the writer Jason Berry, who’s accustomed to the nightly symphony of sirens that has spread beyond the poorest sections. “But it’s still a break-your-heart kind of town.”

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