Five Years Later
How Katrina changed New Orleans and the way I think about my hometown.
The changes in the Crescent City since Katrina have been sweeping. Soon after the storm, the state assumed control of New Orleans' lowest-performing public schools. In 2007, the city council voted to demolish 4,500 units in the city's housing projects, with the promise they'd be replaced by mixed-income residences. This year, Landrieu and the city's new inspector general's office have moved to reform City Hall's notoriously corrupt contracting process. And the Justice Department and the FBI, among others, are assisting efforts to reform the New Orleans police force, which the mayor portrayed upon taking office this May as "one of the worst police departments in the country."
These reforms have won loud acclaim from good-government types. "The New Orleans Index at Five," a new series of reports from the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, argues that the city has grown more resilient since Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, Brookings and GNOCDC say (PDF), neighborhood organizations have assumed a stronger civic role, more children have gained access to good schools, and the long process of reforming the city's public housing and criminal justice systems has taken its first steps.
For everything that's been done, New Orleans' structural problems haven't gone away. Before and after Katrina, there's been a perpetual tension between the city's unbreakable culture and its fragile economy. Brass bands and social-aid and pleasure-club members have come back to the city in force, showing a will to re-establish the traditions that make New Orleans unique. The city, though, hasn't been able to modernize an economy centered on tourism, oil and gas, and shipping. A nationwide recession, the BP oil spill, and the announced closure of Avondale shipyard have made those revenue generators look more tenuous than ever.
Katrina also exacerbated New Orleans' existing racial tensions. The hurricane, whose consequences fell disproportionately on poor, black residents, diminished the share of African-Americans in Orleans Parish from 67 percent in 2000 to 61 percent as of 2008 (PDF). Landrieu, New Orleans' first white mayor since his father Moon Landrieu in 1978, won office with sweeping black support, declaring that his victory "[struck] a blow for a city that decided to be unified rather than divided." Still, the city's divisions can't be wished away. The 2007 public-housing demolitions were viewed by some community leaders as a plot to rid the city of low-income African-Americans. And the harrowing reports of racially motivated shootings in the days after the levees broke—a white ex-New Orleanian was recently indicted on hate crime charges for spewing epithets before shooting three black "outsiders" in Algiers Point—have reinforced the idea that racial reconciliation is an impossible dream.
Though there are plenty of reasons to be cynical about post-Katrina New Orleans, the city's near-death experience has a way of changing your perspective. Each trip back home now feels more precious, a chance to visit the treasured spots I imagined washing away in 2005. But I also venture more widely than I did when I was growing up, checking in on the progress in the Lower Ninth Ward, meandering through Gentilly and New Orleans East, and admiring the extravagantly beaded Mardi Gras Indian costumes at the House of Dance and Feathers. Katrina was a personal disaster, but it also allowed me to appreciate all of the ways New Orleans, and New Orleanians, are interconnected. More important than the Saints and the music and the culture, I now see, is the fact that everyone's riding it out behind the same untrustworthy floodwalls and levees.