The cover of the most recent edition of The New Orleans Index, published by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, begins with the hopeful words: "Greater New Orleans approaches the end of its third year of recovery from a position of strength, with the vast majority of its pre-storm population and jobs." Indeed, many recovery signposts are encouraging: 72 percent of pre-Katrina households have returned to the city; New Orleans has recovered 89 percent of its pre-storm sales tax revenues; and the region has regained 87 percent of its pre-Katrina population and 86 percent of its pre-storm job base. Almost in the same breath, however, the report notes that the area's population growth has slowed to single digits in recent months, down from double-digit increases in preceding years. New Orleans continues to move forward, but the pace of some advances has slowed. Most of all, New Orleans still misses more than 100,000 of its pre-K citizens.
This week marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. At this milestone, it is appropriate to ask: What more can we do to encourage the return of New Orleans expatriates and to prompt others to call New Orleans home?
Part of the solution is better public schools. Is there a better catalyst for community development? Recently, the Orleans Parish School Board and the state's Recovery School District unveiled their school facilities master plan. The $1.8 billion plan proposes a 20-year phased implementation, beginning with renovation or new construction of 28 schools over five years. This phase will cost approximately $685 million, financed mostly by FEMA and other federal sources. Future phases will require other (read: local) funding sources.
Citizens and education officials must make sure this is the right plan. Although approval isn't contingent upon a public vote the Orleans Parish School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will decide that a public comment period runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 20. This could be the last time your voice will be heard when it comes to determining which schools and, by extension, which neighborhoods become part of the overall recovery. We encourage everyone to read the proposed plan, which is quite lengthy, and make your voice heard. It is available online at www.sfmpop.org.
Public health is another key recovery factor. According to the August issue of the American Journal of Medical Sciences, the number of physicians per capita in the New Orleans region now exceeds the national average. Additionally, the special symposium issue reports that New Orleans' health-care sector is "recovering and reforming," but adds, "certain populations and geographic areas remain dramatically underserved." Those areas include the Lower Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans, which needs a hospital with emergency room services. Tulane University and Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation recently collaborated on a new community health center, but the situation remains tenuous in that part of town.
In the heart of town, the controversy surrounding the proposed LSUHSC/VA Hospital continues to rage with regard to the VA's location. The idea of linking the VA facility to a teaching hospital has enormous appeal and obvious advantages, but it comes with a monstrous price tag: the destruction of a historic neighborhood. An alternative site at Lindy Boggs Medical Center offers the advantage of one seller and no historic impact, but the immediate synergy of shared facilities with LSU would be lost. The longer this plays out, the longer our poorer citizens and veterans will go without a hospital.
More than ever, New Orleans' future depends on public safety. We all remember Mayor Ray Nagin's promise to make crime his No. 1 priority more than 18 months ago; that has yet to happen. In terms of hurricane defenses, we are still at least three years away from the so-called 100-year level of storm protection. Thanks to grassroots groups like Levees.org and recent funding for coastal restoration, there are signs that New Orleans one day may have a better system than the one that failed. This requires constant vigilance, however.
Adequate and affordable housing is a capstone to all these recovery indicators, and the signs there remain troubling. The average rent in New Orleans has risen 46 percent since the storm, and efforts such as the Road Home's Small Rental Property Program haven't delivered. New Orleans cannot regain its working-class population without reasonably priced housing.
As we pause to reflect on the state of our city three years after Katrina, we are reminded that we all, as citizens, continue to play a vital role in the direction our city takes. New Orleanians became engaged like never before after the storm. Continued citizen engagement may be the strongest sign yet of New Orleans' recovery. We owe that to ourselves and to the memory of those our city lost during and after the storm.