A new report by the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government describes recovery efforts 18 months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as "uneven" across the Gulf Coast. The report (http://www.la-par.org/Publications/PDF/GulfGovII%20final.pdf) surveyed post-storm planning and recovery efforts from Cameron Parish to Mobile, Ala., and concluded, "While some of the hardest-hit areas have developed rebuilding plans that are guiding their efforts to piece their communities back together, residents and government officials in other devastated areas have yet to find the formula that will spur the recovery forward." The report places New Orleans into the category of "areas where severe problems remain." Jefferson Parish and Kenner, by contrast, are described as "areas where recovery is well underway."
These conclusions are not surprising. Katrina and Rita turned south Louisiana upside down, and as things begin to settle, some areas are bound to bounce back faster than others -- and many areas will be forever changed.
The report is not all critical of the city's disjointed attempts at recovery. It notes, for example, that even in the hardest-hit communities, "overall conditions are markedly better than they were in the months immediately after Katrina and Rita. Sales tax revenues are up ... the construction industry is booming ... [and] most of the hotels and restaurants are open in the New Orleans metro area ... ." Indeed, one can find small but meaningful signs of progress week to week. The reopening of Camellia Grill this past weekend, for example, marked the return of a local landmark. The report notes the city's ongoing crime problem, but cites the recent graduation of 27 new officers from the New Orleans Police Academy and a new class of 30 recruits as evidence of "positive news." Other encouraging developments include the hiring of Recovery Director Ed Blakely, the creation of an Inspector General's Office and a city Ethics Review Board, and the establishment of a four-parish digital radio system that will allow first responders to talk to one another across parish lines.
But larger issues remain. Labor and housing shortages, which are closely related, continue to hamstring the city's recovery. "The labor and housing problem can be summarized in two sentences," the report states. "Right now, there is little affordable housing in New Orleans. Businesses cannot operate without the employees who cannot afford to live in New Orleans." The report describes the need for affordable housing as "acute" and cites an estimate by the Louisiana Hurricane Housing Task Force that New Orleans needs nearly 30,000 affordable housing units, 10,000 of them for low-income families. Those problems are compounded by a spiraling murder rate and the high costs of insurance and building materials. Crime in particular "has many residents wondering whether they should leave and potential visitors and companies wondering whether they should come."
In many ways, the report is a gut check for New Orleans. While it accurately summarizes the challenges we face as a community, it also should serve as a clarion call to our political leaders to get moving. Three factors seem to influence each area's recovery, the report states: (1) how effective its local leaders have been in making decisions about what direction the recovery should take; (2) how badly its business and economic infrastructure was damaged; and (3) how quickly it has been able to tap into state and federal aid flows. "All three are necessary for the damaged areas to make any sort of substantive progress," the report notes. "When one element is missing -- for instance, the lack of specific direction from New Orleans' officials about which sections of the city they will focus on first -- the recovery stalls."
Tough times require tough decisions. Unfortunately, Mayor Ray Nagin is loath to make difficult choices even in the best of times. His penchant for punting on thorny issues -- not to mention his occasional rhetorical blunders -- will continue to impede New Orleans' recovery. City Council members could fill the void in political leadership, but they seem to lack the collective will. Recovery Director Ed Blakely clearly is not daunted by the challenges our city faces, but it remains to be seen if his straight talk will translate into measurable progress -- and how long that might take.
Time is of the essence. A year ago, all of south Louisiana worried that the rest of America was getting a case of "Katrina fatigue." Now the rest of the nation appears to be divided into two camps -- those who recognize our plight and want to help, and those who have come to resent our ongoing need for assistance. "The hardest point to make clear to those outside of the Gulf Coast region is the magnitude of the damage and the amount of time and resources that will be needed to recover," the report notes. "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not just flood a few streets and beaches and damage a few houses; they leveled -- literally -- an area the size of Great Britain. ... [T]he sheer size of the devastated areas means the recovery will take years."
Now more than ever, we need leadership. Citizens and businesses are doing their part to drive the recovery, but there are some things that only government can do. Are you listening, Mayor Nagin?