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New Orleans Getting Stronger, but Katrina’s Problems Linger 5 Years Later

August 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A new report from the Brookings Institution shows New Orleans' population and economy are rebounding five years after Hurricane Katrina, plus the city now has better schools, better access to health care and a stronger criminal justice system. Gwen Ifill speaks with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and scholar Amy Liu about findings.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the road back for New Orleans and the problems that remain.

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina carved a path of disaster and destruction through the Crescent City, changing life there forever. The storm flooded roughly 80 percent of New Orleans, destroying more than 180,000 homes and much of the infrastructure.

What’s more, the region has survived a triple whammy: Katrina, a national recession, and, most recently, a catastrophic oil spill. But a new report out today by the Brookings Institution in Washington takes a mostly upbeat look at the city’s halting recovery. It finds New Orleans’ population is back up to 350,000, roughly 80 percent of its pre-Katrina total. The poverty rate, at 23 percent, is the lowest since 1979, although still 10 points above the national average.

In the greater metro area, the number of jobs has now reached 85 percent of the total held in August 2005. And average wages in the region are up 14 percent.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nice to see you.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama took note of the achievements when he visited a charter school in New Orleans last year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m especially glad to come back here, because I remember, four years ago, right after the storm, a lot of people here felt forgotten. But, because everybody worked hard, everybody kept hopeful, everybody was determined to rebuild, you know, you now see just a school that is

doing much better than it was ever doing before the storm.

GWEN IFILL: Overall, the study finds New Orleans has emerged from the flood with better schools, better access to health care, a stronger criminal justice system, and a renewed presence in arts and culture.

And the region got a big psychic boost when the New Orleans Saints won the last Super Bowl, after a successful season in the same stadium that sheltered desperate thousands after the storm.

But some areas of the city remain bleak. Many of those driven from ruined homes in the Lower Ninth Ward never returned. Some of the neighborhood is now rebuilt. Much of it is still abandoned.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the challenges facing New Orleans today, we turn to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who took office last May, and Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and co- author of the report.

Mayor Landrieu, I want to go through those — that triple whammy there:

Katrina, the economy, the oil spill.

Start with what’s happened since Katrina, especially on the housing front. Are people back? Are their homes rebuilt?

MITCH LANDRIEU(D),Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana: Well, there’s no question that those three things hurt, and they hurt really badly.

But I think that you can see from the report that we’re heading in the right direction. We’re getting a lot of the fundamentals right. We’re rebuilding the core infrastructure — but that we have some challenges. Housing in some parts of the city are doing well, housing in the other part not so much.

I will be leaving here to go down to Lower Nine and Upper Nine to talk to the community about ways that the city can continue to work to rebuild that neighborhood, because it’s so important to us. But the report was positive. I want to thank Amy and the Brookings Institute for giving us some baseline to work off of, and, as it said, heading in the right direction, but somewhat of a ways to go.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Liu, let’s talk about the school system, one of the other big questions — question marks after Katrina, and even before Katrina.

Has there been an overall improvement? And how much farther yet does the city have to go?

AMY LIU, Metropolitan Policy Program Deputy Director, Brookings

Institution: Well, I think what this report finds is that there are some really promising signs.

And, first of all, this region is starting to, you know, rebound, in some ways, better than before, in terms of some signs of a healthier economy — you have already mentioned the better schools — and some better social outcomes.

And I think building back better than before is really critical, because we have put all these federal investments into this community, and we want to make sure we don’t replicate some of the problems that the city had before.

But I think the other real promising sign is the fact that the people of New Orleans have been really working hard to really change the systems that were really broken in the past.

You’ve already mentioned the schools, the health care systems, the criminal justice systems. And by — and we’re starting to see some promising outcomes as a result of those changes.

But I think what it also shows is that the people of New Orleans actually are starting to show the capacity to really reinvent themselves. But, as the mayor said and as the report shows, there are — this is a city and a region that is a work in progress, and there are a lot more challenges that remain.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mayor Landrieu, when you go out to your community meetings tonight and other nights, and you tell people, look how much better things are, do they just say to you, yes, sure, I’m feeling much better, or do they say, yes, but look how much more we have to do?

MITCH LANDRIEU: Well, really, it’s a combination of both.

I think Amy pointed out the most salient point, is, first of all, we’re still here. And people predicted that we wouldn’t be. Secondly, I think the people here have shown tremendous resilience, especially in the face of the BP oil spill.

Thirdly, they have shown a capacity to want to build back better than before, not concentrating on getting to where we were, but really how, transformationally, to change structures in the areas that she spoke of.

But when it’s really on the ground, you really get a tale of two cities. Some people are doing better. Some people are doing worse. Some people are doing both at the same time. I do think that there is a sense of eternal optimism here, though, as hard as it’s been. And that always gives us continued hope.

It’s very hard. This is not an easy walk that we’re walking. But at least I think most people think we’re heading in the right direction. They’re impatient. They’re a little bit frustrated at where we have gone, because, of course, you want to get back as quickly as you can. But I think they know that we’re eventually going to get there.

GWEN IFILL: At the risk, Mr. Mayor, of being a bummer here, let me just read some of these numbers to you: a $67 million budget deficit, which you talked about last week, a poverty rate of 23 percent, which is 10 percent more than the national poverty rate, tourism, oil and gas industry, shipping industries, on which you rely, not bounced back yet.

What has to happen next in order to begin — able to get these underpinnings to support your optimism?

MITCH LANDRIEU: Correct.

Well, let me address both of those. My optimism is not just trying to gloss over the bad things. My optimism is with our ability and our willingness to confront the real problems, to acknowledge that they’re there, and then to work to beat them back.

For example, on the poverty rate, that’s not really a good number, but it is down from 28 percent. So it’s trending in the right direction. And for the first time, we’re actually counting it, talking about it, and coming up with a strategy to deal with it.

That $67 million budget deficit was hidden for the past years. What we did was, we identified it, and then I took actual steps to get rid of that $67 million budget deficit between now and the end of the year. And so it’s that kind of approach that’s really different that gives us least a sense of optimism that we’re going to get better.

In terms of the big, big structural things that are problems — and we have a lot of them — we have to begin to come up with strategies that deal with them in very specific ways, that give people the sense of hope and optimism that we have acknowledged them, we’re going to deal with them, and we’re going to keep trending in the right direction.

The way you do that is continue to get out into the community, talk to them, ask the community for help. And what Amy hasn’t told you is that one of the great outcomes of this report is, we have really aggressive neighborhood participation now, and the community is beginning to build the solutions from the ground up.

And the schools are the best example of the success that you can generate from that kind of civic engagement.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Liu, I have some numbers I want to ask you about as well, and it’s about who is benefiting from the rebound — the rebound that there has been in incomes, in the median income level.

According to your report, black and Hispanic households earn incomes that are 44 percent and 25 percent, respectively, lower than what white incomes

– white households earn. What do you do with that?

AMY LIU: There is no doubt that we still have really wide racial and economic disparities in the city.

You have already talked about the — you talked about the wage gap, the high poverty. We also have real disparities in terms of educational outcomes in the community. So, this is one of the great challenges facing the community.

I think what we need to do is, as we reinvent the economy, which you also flagged as a really important problem, is that we need to really upgrade the skills of the workers there through retraining, through access to community colleges, to access to higher ed.

But we also know that — as we heard from some earlier clips, that the administration is going to be involved much longer in the coast, now that the well has been capped. And, so, we’re going to see additional investments to help the workers and the business in the community.

As those dollars to restore the coastal wetlands, to restore infrastructure in the area come down, we need to make sure that some of the small minority businesses really get access to and participate in those — new contract work.

So, I think there’s a number of opportunities we can really work towards to close that gap. The one thing I want to also mention that is real disturbing and I think is a concern for many people is that we still have a challenge of ensuring that a lot of the folks who have left the city have a chance to come back.

The reason why the — one of the principal reasons why the poverty rate has dropped down is because a lot of low-income folks have not come home. And part of that reason is rents have gone up 40 percent since the storm. I think there are now 58 percent of the rental population in the city can’t afford to live in the city at this point.

So, not only do we need to close those disparities, but we need to ensure that we have an opportunity for households of all incomes to live in the city.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mayor, I also want to talk to you about what Amy Liu has suggested about the impact of the oil spill.

Part of your — your plan here was to create this coastal wetlands restoration program. How much has that been derailed, frankly, by the damage we have seen from the oil spill?

MITCH LANDRIEU: Well, there’s no question that that oil spill was damaging, not only to us, but to all of America.

You know, Louisiana and the coast has been at the tip of the spear for the nation’s quest for energy independence and economic security, and this BP oil spill has just laid bare how vulnerable we are. But the question now is, just like after Katrina, how do we not spend time blaming people, but find a way to restore, to find some redemption, to find a new way out?

And one of the things that BP can do, if they really do want to make it right, and the rest of the oil industry, is come and headquarter actually in the city of New Orleans and begin to rebuild that coast.

You know, for a long time, we have exploited that resource, and we have not restored the coast or the things that are necessary, so that we can use that resource well. And that attitude has got to change. We have to see a complete change, not only in the leadership of BP, but in the corporate responsibility of BP and the rest of the oil industry.

It also can help us close that wage gap that Amy was speaking about, which is a very, very serious problem. There is no major American city that can sustain a wage gap like that between the African-American, Hispanic and the Caucasian community.

And so we have to work really hard. I instituted a new DBD program a couple of weeks ago in the city. We’re going to make sure that all the federal funds that are spent down here are spent in a way that African- Americans, minorities, women have an opportunity to participate, not just in a small portion, but to build capacity, so that they would actually become prime contractors.

And, finally, on the education piece, this is why the — what we’re doing in education is so critically important. If we can get those schools moving in the right direction, that is the best way to give people an opportunity to close that wage gap.

It is a very serious problem. It’s one that we have to attack in a very aggressive way. And we don’t have a lot of time to do it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, as we have been doing for the past five years, we will keep watching.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Amy Liu, thank you both very much.

MITCH LANDRIEU: Thank you so much.

Thank you, Amy.

AMY LIU: Thank you, Gwen.