Perhaps the most unique city in the United States in New Orleans. A blend of Southern, French, creole, Caribbean and a plethora of other cultures, the historic city has had a place in American history like few others. In recent years, much of the focus has been on recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 devastated it and much of the region, causing more than $100 billion in damages. The aftermath was so bad that the death toll is still unknown even 12 years later — estimated somewhere between 1,200 and 1,900. Thousands of others lost their homes and businesses, and many were displaced, forced to move away if they were able. The population of the city shrank by nearly a third between 2000 and 2010, most of the loss a direct result of the disaster.
In 2017, large portions of the city have recovered. The French Quarter, long a center for tourism and history, is thriving as new and old businesses continue to woo travelers. But for the rest of the city, recovery has been slower and harder to come by. Thanks to the relatively low-cost of housing in the metro area, however, population growth has seen an uptick thanks to its location, which makes it a major port and transportation hub.
For a natural disaster, Katrina was unusually politically divisive. Conservatives pointed to the city and state’s Democratic leadership for their failures, claiming welfare programs made residents far too dependant on the government and were unable to fend for themselves for lack of knowing how. They also pointed out that misspent public funds were largely responsible for the infrastructure failure, including more than 50 dam and levee breaches which led to the majority of the deaths.
Democrats shot back, pointing the finger at President George W. Bush’s perceived slow response and FEMA head Michael Brown’s mismanagement of the disaster program. They claim that much of the devastation could have been averted had the federal government stepped in, taking over for the overwhelmed city and state. With New Orleans’ large black population, race soon entered the conversation, and Bush described the low point of his presidency being the moment when singer Kanye West claimed the president “[didn’t] care about black people.” Climate change is also cited as one of the prime causes for the storm being as powerful as it was, and New Orleans is one of the cities most at risk as sea levels rise worldwide.
More than 80 percent of the city was flooded, and reports of looting and gangs taking over trickled out into the national media. While much of the violence was overstated, it still served as an example to be trotted out by conservatives who were looking to deflect the criticism away from Bush. Victim blaming also became popular, as warnings were given days in advance, with some 80 percent of the city having evacuated at one point.
Unfortunately, most of those who were not evacuated were those unable to do so. Elderly and sick people accounted for hundreds of the deaths, and thousands of others were stranded in the city without any type of transportation to get out even if they wanted to. Many of those who stayed and hunkered down then faced dehydration as water supplies became scarce and tainted by the flooding.
Cutting through all of the political posturing, it becomes clear that failures at all levels contributed to the humanitarian disaster. Failures by the city and state certainly contributing to infrastructure collapses. Slow responses by FEMA led to untold preventable deaths. And enough civilians, though a small percentage of the populate, took advantage of the situation to attack their own neighbors and rescuers to become symbolic of the perception of New Orleans as a crime-riddled wasteland.
Twelve years later, New Orleans is still trying to shake these perceptions, with mixed results. The murder rate in New Orleans is the highest in the nation for cities over 100,000 people in 2011, though it has since been surpassed by places like Baltimore and St. Louis, and current date places it as 34th in the world — worse than places like Juarez, Mexico.
With all of that said, The Big Easy appears to be heading for a renaissance, thanks in part to recovery efforts after Katrina. New jobs began pouring in — many in construction and shipping — and tourism is once again a thriving industry. Low housing costs attract people by the thousand, and college enrollment at the various universities has climbed steadily over the past few years.
This has started to lead to gentrification in many areas, and the locals have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, many are thrilled to see their beloved city once again growing and being rebuilt, but poorer residents fear the rising cost of living that follows such growth. Rents have already begun to spike in some areas — including the previously poorer 9th ward which was hammered by Katrina.
Walking the streets even now you can see the spray painted Xs on some buildings used by disaster teams in 2005. But as the rebuilding continues, these Xs are being replaced with storefronts and new homes, though the residents will never forget what occurred here. And many are still quick to blame the politicians on either side of the aisle who failed them when they were needed most.