Owen Courreges: Stop saying New Orleans is ‘better’ after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina

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Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in case you’ve been locked in a closet for the past few weeks and have thus been spared the maudlin, self-indulgent navel-gazing of every commentator that comes down the pike.

For some, Katrina was an opportunity seized. The guiding narrative is that of a city in decline that took advantage of adversity and emerged stronger. It’s a characterization of Katrina that’s equal parts appalling and inaccurate. We are not in a better position as entire swaths of neighborhoods lay in ruin and our population is greatly reduced.

Yet the myth persists. Just last week the internet was abuzz over an opinion piece by Kristin McQueary that ran in the Chicago Tribune in which she yearned for a Katrina-like disaster to strike Chicago and give it a firm kick in the pants.

“I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury,” McQueary wrote. “A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”

This revolting emission of verbal diarrhea struck a nerve with, well, virtually everyone in New Orleans. The levee breaks after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and directly caused more than 1,800 deaths. Viewing Katrina as a positive event, even an enviable one, is nothing less than disgusting.

McQueary later apologized and clarified that she was merely wishing for a catalyst for dramatic political change in Chicago, particularly relative to the city’s finances. Even then, however, her narrative was off. New Orleans didn’t suddenly change after Katrina. Reforms have been a mixed bag at best, and scandals still trickle out. The struggle for clean, efficient government continues much as it did before the storm.

Nevertheless, for all the kvetching about McQueary’s absurd piece, our own leaders often seem to be saying the same thing.

In his “State of the City” address given this past May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu boasted that New Orleans is “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding.” Citing a laundry list of improved statistics, Landrieu continued: “It didn’t happen by accident. It is all part of our larger approach to government — cut, reorganize and then invest the savings in what matters most so we can grow.”

Admittedly, there’s nothing shocking or particularly offensive about a politician tooting his own horn. However, the degree of triumphalism is a bit unsettling. One needs only drive through New Orleans East (you don’t even have to leave the freeway) to see that there are parts of the city that are definitely still in the process of recovery and rebuilding.

Yes, progress has been made on some fronts, and there’s no gainsaying the idea that the storm itself made certain reforms possible. However, even those reforms are hotly contested, and even the most ardent opponent would have to concede that they involve trade-offs. For example, many in the city are justifiably pleased that the old, Dickensian public-housing complexes are being replaced. Nevertheless, at the same time, there’s less public housing overall.

Regional Transit Authority head James Reiss summed up the feelings of many after the storm when he declared: “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.

Reiss’ words, opportunistic as they were, resonated with a certain class of locals. In hushed quarters, you can still hear them speak of Katrina as some sort of cleansing rain.

Thus, it’s an easy thing to ask the diaspora of New Orleanians to return, as Landrieu has prominently done. It’s easy to proclaim that the city is recovered. It’s harder to acknowledge that sections of the city are still in horrid condition ten years later, and that Katrina was, in fact, seen by many locals as an opportunity to change the city in ways that make others feel less welcome.

Perhaps what unnerved us so much about McQueary’s column wasn’t that the sentiment was reprehensible, or that it was expressed by an outsider. Perhaps the real problem was that we’ve heard it all before, albeit not quite so explicitly.

Alas, it’s easier to rally the villagers with pitchforks and torches than it is to engage in genuine introspection. As we approach Katrina’s tenth anniversary, we could definitely use a great deal more of the latter.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

14 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Stop saying New Orleans is ‘better’ after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina

  1. I have to start an annual tradition of leaving New Orleans between August 24-Labor Day, so I can miss all this BS about Katrina.

  2. One might say, the way New Orleans was heading before Katrina, was a slow death. Many people would be dying anyhow from sheer lack of attention – it wouldn’t be so public and so massive at one time – but many innocent people were dying from lack of care. It is a shame that it took a Federal Flood and a massive storm to wake us up, but human nature as it is, sometimes things have to get a lot worse before they get better.

  3. Reiss’ words were quoted in the Wall Street Journal. They were really despicable -esp when he included “demographically” in there. It was obvious what he was talking about and what that crowd hoped to accomplish. The irony, of course, is that the Reiss crowd were Nagin’s biggest supporters in his first election. That statement directly led to Nagin’s u turn, his “chocolate city” nonsense and the city was effectively left with 2 nutball factions for a few years.

  4. I generally agree with your POV, Owen, but not on this one. No doubt there is still much to be done before we can say we’ve completely recovered, but New Orleans IS better today than it was on Aug. 24th of 2005. I say this without hesitation. Were there winners and losers? Yes, of course. But the city was a winner. (West Jeff, St. Bernard parish, and the I-10 service road corridor in Metairie, by contrast, were not.)

    You stated: “We are not in a better position as entire swaths of neighborhoods lay in ruin and our population is greatly reduced.” While your statement points to two aspects that most locals would not question, your correlation is over-simplified and not nearly as matter-of-fact as the way in which you present it. By that logic, we could improve our city by bringing in 10,000 ISIS fighters and putting them in acres of brand new affordable housing from the upper to the lower 9th ward. Our numbers would be up, and I-10 between Irish Bayou and the high-rise would be easier on the eyes, but no thank you…we’ve already got plenty enough haters of historic sculpture in this town…

    A lot of folks lost a lot, and I would never call Katrina a “blessing,” but in response to the subject of this article, I’d say you’re off on this one. New Orleans is ‘better’ after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina.

    • mike77nola,

      Overall, I just don’t think the city can be considered a “winner” after Katrina. There are some good points, and from the perspective of the 20% of the city that didn’t flood, it may certainly seem better, but overall the city suffered greatly. We’re still way down in population and two very large areas — New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth — have fared poorly. Housing costs are spiraling out of control, partly due to a bubble in dry neighborhoods, and partly due to ever-increasing taxes and insurance.

      A great deal of the economic renaissance in New Orleans has been more rhetoric than reality. The biotech sector seems to be a boondoggle. The film industry may founder due to cuts to the tax credit program. The tech sector has grown but not enough to offset losses in other sectors. Cost-of-living is jumping ever skyward but household incomes are not. I’m not saying that there aren’t positive developments, but I don’t think we’re better off than we were in 2005.

  5. Clearly, in some categories, the city is much better off. Flood protection is drastically improved. The economy is much better and includes almost entirely new industries like the film industry. Charter schools (and perhaps vouchers) have increased the competitiveness, and thus the quality, of the public schools. The overall state of the city’s housing is probably improved due to all the renovations and rebuilding (combined with the demolition of housing projects). Yankees flock from all corners of the North to become homeowners and entrepreneurs here. An argument for demographic improvement could certainly be postulated with the aid of a few alcoholic beverages. Even the Saints are better. I haven’t read her article, but the woman in Chicago probably had good intentions and correctly viewed New Orleans as a phoenix rising from the ashes when judged by these major categories of improvement.

    However, most categories with significant municipal government control are worse off, or the same. Taxes (including theft from traffic cameras) and utility bills are significantly higher with little to show for it. The streets are perhaps worse than ever, the NOPD is drastically understaffed, the politicians are giving away our tax money in social experiments, etc.

    Worst of all, the history of the city itself is now under siege by radical politicians. We can’t allow these ignorant charlatans to tear down our great Southern monuments and statues because they suddenly decided to be offended 150 years later. The city cannot be “better” if our cultural treasures are demolished by ISPS (the Islamic State of Perdido Street).

  6. I generally disagree with everything you write and this case is no different. I’ve lived here all my life and can unequivocally say that this city is better than it was before the storm. Not perfect, but indeed ‘better’. I also think McQueary’s piece was a poor attempt at analogy, but I got what she was trying to say and was in no way offended by it. Calling it “verbal diarrhea” is one reason you aren’t writing for any Tribune.

  7. CBD,

    Seriously? Wishing for a Katrina is something you’re “in no way offended by?” If that’s your sincerely held belief, then I am very glad that you “generally disagree with everything [I] write.” I think your view of things is likely quite insular and myopic.

    As for why I’m not writing for any “Tribune,” I don’t think it has anything to do with whether I use the phrase “verbal diarrhea.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/search/dispatcher.front?Query=%22verbal%20diarrhea%22&target=all&isSearch=true

  8. Prior to 2005 eastern New Orleans and other swaths of the city were heavily in decay. That is nothing new to the city and to claim it is due to Katrina or rebuilding is hilarious. This city has always had and will always have blighted and decaying portions of the city with our without storms and rebuilding.

    I do agree that you can’t say the city is better of because of Katrina though as you can’t lose that many lives and have that much destruction, relocation, emotional toll etc… yet be better off. However, there has been some good as mentioned by other posters that came after the storm.

    • I agree with you overall, but I question your assertion that New Orleans always had and always will have blight. Did it have blight in 1722 when it became the capital of French Louisiana, a few years after its founding? Did it have blight in 1795, when the United States gained the right of deposit in New Orleans from Spain, after having recently undergone massive rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1788 and of 1794? Were our hardworking colonial ancestors so irresponsible, incapable, and lazy as the owners of blighted homes today? Is it already set in stone that we have a future of welfare recipients with trash all over their yards who let their homes rot?

    • 200 Alumni,

      Let’s hold on a minute here — New Orleans East was not “heavily in decay” prior to 2005. It had gone through ups and downs but it’s not even comparable to how it is today. Similarly, while you had significant blight in the Lower Ninth, you still had far more people around and intact housing than you do now. It’s not a valid comparison to make.

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