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Gulf Coast could be poised for comeback

Can the Gulf Coast make it all the way back from Katrina and the oil spill? The answer, political leaders, environmental scholars and economists say, is yes.
Image:  A Vietnamese oyster fisherman stands idle at the docks in Empire, La.
A Vietnamese oyster fisherman stands at the docks in Empire, La. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has complicated recovery from Hurricane Katrina for refugee fishing communities along the Gulf Coast.Gregory Bull / AP
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After five years, there are still so, so many questions.

Can the Gulf Coast make it all the way back — not just from Hurricane Katrina, and not just from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and not just from the recession, but from the toxic multiplier effect of all three?

The answer to all of those questions, Gulf Coast leaders, environmental scholars and economists say, is yes.

The first thing these people — the rebuilders and analysts and planners who have wrestled with Katrina’s legacy for five years — want you to understand is that it’s still bad in the Gulf Coast:

  • Only 22 percent of the 18,000 residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, which was all but obliterated by floodwaters, have returned, and still sit unspent . Across the greater Gulf Coast region, more than 4,000 of the poorest and toughest-to-house residents remain without permanent housing , while tens of thousands of homes remain vacant or uninhabitable.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder remains disproportionally high — in the region. “I guarantee you there have been many deaths in this city just due to the fact that people were having so much stress right after the storm,” says Frank Minyard, the coroner for Orleans Parish and New Orleans. In the larger region, more than a third of the children in displaced families have been clinically diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety or depression since Katrina hit.
  • The , which soared amid the collapse of law enforcement after Katrina, remains double the national average.
  • In New Orleans, median household income among African-American families is $26,000 below that of white families, and for Latinos, it lags by $15,000. In the hardest-hit areas of coastal Mississippi and Alabama, employment remains as much as 10 percent below what it would have been had Katrina not come through.
  • Annual percentage declines in tourism are projected to remain in the double digits for at least two more years, constricting a significant source of the region’s revenue. That’s on top of tourism income that’s already 40 percent below what it was before Katrina hit; meanwhile, tourism officials say on resort beaches will make the matter worse. 
  • The oil spill beyond what disappeared after the hurricane, and a moratorium on the offshore drilling that employs tens of thousands in the region remains in place.

And yet:

“Despite all these three shocks” — Katrina, the recession and the oil spill — “New Orleans is rebounding and, in some ways, beginning to rebound better than before,” says Amy Liu, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution, who co-directed a massive five-year overview of the Katrina recovery for the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

In Mississippi, says Gov. Haley Barbour, “almost anywhere on the coast, except the very far west, you couldn’t really tell anything had happened if you didn’t know what it looked like before.”

“Our beaches are beautiful; the waters are clear; the fishing is fine,” he said.  

‘Not about survival but about resurrection’Remember, the response to Katrina was a failure so complete that it became political shorthand, like “Watergate” and “yellowcake uranium.” Today, political critics are always on the hunt for what they can flourish as “Obama’s Katrina” — a signature breakdown that tars Barack Obama’s presidency the way Katrina tarred George W. Bush’s.

But national assumptions about the Gulf Coast are a poor reflection of what’s actually happened there over the past five years, say Liu and her co-author, Allison Plyer, deputy director of the New Orleans data center. They are part of a growing community of environmental and economic specialists who are trying to overturn the common view that the hurricane and the oil spill were ultimately crushing blows to the Gulf Coast.

It’s a view taking hold with leaders at all levels of government, who say that while we should never lose sight of the destruction Katrina caused, it’s just as important to recognize the self-reliance and entrepreneurial spirit it unleashed.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for example, says New Orleans’ schools, arts communities and neighborhoods have blossomed. The future, he says, “is not about survival but about resurrection.”

Mayor Les Fillingame of Bay St. Louis, Miss., where downtown is thriving again, says his city is “in full-mode revitalization.”

“I feel we are well beyond recovery,” he says.

The takeaway, says Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University in New Orleans and an economist by training, is that “overwhelmingly, there are more positives than negatives five years after Katrina.”

Hurricane sounded alarm for long-term planning, engagementWhat happened? Basically, Katrina happened.

Before Katrina, New Orleans never had a great deal of civic engagement, says Frederick D. Weil, a sociologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That’s why the city actually shrank in population even as the rest of the so-called New South was booming over the last half-century.

But instead of retreating into their historical parochial shells, New Orleanians came together, Weil says in a project on civic engagement after Katrina, funded by the National Science Foundation. In the absence of working government structures, “communities were motivated to work together to further their recovery,” Weil concludes in the paper, which was excerpted in the New Orleans data center report.

Weil writes:

“Citizens had an incentive to cooperate and provide each other with mutual assistance; communities had an incentive to partner with one another; elites had an incentive to accept leadership initiatives from outside their traditional ranks; and government had an incentive to accept offers of assistance and partnership from engaged citizens and communities. 

“A virtuous circle of growing mutual trust and civic engagement began to displace the old vicious circle of distrust and disengagement.”

In their report, Liu and Plyer, citing Weil’s research, conclude that “since 2005, New Orleanians have arguably undertaken more major reforms simultaneously than any other modern American city.”

Even as poverty and crime rates remain stubbornly high, the overall quality of life is rising, thanks significantly to grass-roots campaigns to build activism in the arts and in schools and to build new commerce from the ground up, they say.

There are more nonprofit arts organizations now than ever before, at 30 per 100,000 population, the IRS says. That’s two-thirds more than there were in 2004, and it’s 2½ times the national rate.

New Orleans’ schools are arguably better than they have ever been, with 95 percent of children attending schools that meet state standards in Jefferson Parish and 59 percent in Orleans Parish — up from 80 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in 2003, the state Education Department reports.

And at 450 of every 100,000 adults, the proportion of residents starting new businesses is more than double what it was before Katrina and 41 percent above the national average, state records show.

That self-reliance is particularly important nowadays, because a hurricane like Katrina probably isn’t a one-time event, Landrieu says, and the New Orleans levee system still hasn’t been bolstered sufficiently to withstand the “category 4 and 5 storms we know are coming our way.”

Vera Triplett, a resident of the historic Gentilly neighborhood who helped found the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association in the wake of the hurricane, said “the lesson learned” after Katrina is that “we were not going to make any headway at all if we waited on the government.”

"I can tell you that in the Gentilly community, 100 percent everything we got done was because of citizens,” Triplett said this week at a neighborhood forum on the recovery.

Recovery spending buffers against recessionKatrina is also why the Gulf Coast weathered the recession that began in late 2008 better than almost any other region of the country, says Douglas G. Duncan, chief economist for Fannie Mae. The region underwent a mammoth rebuilding boom after the hurricane, work that didn’t stop as the national economy took a dive.

The recession had a real effect, economists say, especially in stalling sales of all those new homes that were being built. But in the main, federal dollars flowing to the region to rebuild infrastructure encouraged hiring, and once the recession hit, they cushioned the impact.

Employment is below pre-Katrina levels, as it is across much of the country. But at about 7 percent, the overall unemployment rate is 2½ percentage points lower than the national average, thanks to strong growth in white-collar professions, including the law, insurance and higher education.

Those jobs are better-paying than the traditional shipbuilding and engineering jobs they’re replacing, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. In New Orleans, in fact, average wages have caught up with the national average for the first time in 25 years, having climbed 14 percent since 2005.

The big unknown, of course, is what impact the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil spill will ultimately have. , especially among , and potential longer-term still need to be assessed.

While industry and government leaders and scientists disagree about how much of the spilled oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico, tourism-reliant coastal communities from Florida to Louisiana say the goop has been scrubbed from their beaches, which are open for business.

,because tourism drives 15 percent of employment along the Gulf Coast, and “the true wild card” is whether leisure travelers are getting that message, the independent economic forecasting venture Oxford Economics said in a report last month for the U.S. Travel Association.

One of the legacies of Katrina, economic analysts and disaster officials say, is the vast network of services and resources that sprouted after the hurricane. When the Deepwater Horizon blew up, they were in place and ready to go.

Those organizations learned a number of “critical lessons” about coordinating efforts and communicating timely information during the response to Katrina, says Maureen Y. Lichtveld, associate director of the population sciences program at Tulane University.

There was abundant good information immediately when the oil rig exploded, especially on Web sites created by government agencies and by reliable, scientifically vetted community organizations, she said at an oil-spill workshop organized last month by the National Academies and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Liu's project recommends that the network of agencies and community groups that formed under such great hardship after Katrina serve as a model for the longer-term environmental recovery from the oil spill. That’s because the experience of Katrina left residents of the region “better equipped to emerge from future shocks,” Plyer, Liu's co-author, says.

Plyer says: “The oil spill exposes unfinished business from Katrina. It’s actually an opportunity.”


Follow coverage of the oil spill and its aftermath in our Disaster in the Gulf section.