Post-deluge: taking stock of New Orleans

By Michelle Chen Feb 25, 2009

Fat Tuesday ushered in the perennial human-interest media showcase on New Orleans. And judging from news reports on the festivities, you’d think the Big Easy were well on the road to recovery, experiencing something of a resurgence, even amid the economic downturn. And Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reaction to Obama’s address even spun Louisiana’s comeback into a success story for flagship conservative initiatives, particularly pro-business tax cuts. (In a puzzling display of self-reliance, Jindal has also vowed to reject federal stimulus money.) But the New Orleans Index, a study by Brookings and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, reveals a more sobering picture. While the region is adding jobs and rebuilding, pockets of blight and devastation remain: “Hundreds of streets are still in disrepair. Tens of thousands of residential, commercial, and institutional buildings remain damaged and unoccupied.” The recovery mirrors the uneven social landscape of New Orleans before the hurricane. Though the New Orleans population has, according to the Index, rebounded to about three-quarters of pre-Katrina levels, the Lower Ninth Ward, pummeled by flood damage, has less than one-fifth of its original population. The French Quarter and Central Business District area, by contrast, have basically fully recovered its pre-storm population. Piers Fawkes’s photos of barren parts of the Lower Ninth offer a glimpse of the vast gulf still dividing the city along race and class lines. “In other parts of this American city,” he writes, “there is an amazing spirit of rebuilding and moving on. Here, like a set of ruins out of tourist season, the Lower Ninth Ward was dead and empty.” But while hardships persist, so does the grassroots spirit sparked in the wake of the storm. Jordan Flaherty examines a fresh wave of activism from the city’s emerging Arab, Latino and Vietnamese immigrant communities. Momentum is also building around a proposal for a Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, a massive, WPA-like program designed to give displaced residents sustainable jobs, along with a sense of empowerment and ownership in the rebuilding effort. The bruises of Katrina are enduring, but it seems no catastrophe–natural or otherwise–can keep New Orleans knocked down for long. Image: Mardi Gras Indian March, Chris Granger / The Times-Picayune