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Commentary: New Orleans After Katrina

Chuck Wagner/Shutterstock
New Orleans French Quarter

August 2015 will mark ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It’s been a difficult recovery with some problems still to work out. But commentator Lee Cullum says there’s good news to report.

New Orleans is back!

Almost ten years after Katrina all but swept away  that eccentric city, leaving only 230,00 people where before there had been more than twice that many, today their numbers have rebounded  to nearly 370,000. Fewer are African American now — about 60 instead of  67 percent. Their incomes are lower than when Katrina struck while those of whites have held steady, according to one researcher. Crime remains high, twice the national average. Even so, The Huffington Post has reported nobody is living in FEMA trailers anymore, and flood protection is better than it ever was.

What’s more, New Orleans's  economy is growing again. It was shrinking before Katrina. And a study at Tulane University notes the hurricane demolished one of the worst school systems  in the country. Now, under a new approach, charter schools outnumber those run by the district  by two to one. This  heretofore unheard-of emphasis on innovation and school autonomy isn't perfect but it’s beginning to pay off.

The number of people living in poverty is said to be about the same —27 percent—but a lot of college graduates have moved to the Big Easy and, as a result, restaurants are more plentiful and plenty full as well, as in noisy and jammed. Visitors rolling their bags behind them  stroll the streets and gladden hotels. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said he can’t bring back New Orleans as it was, but he wants to make the city into what it should have been.

His predecessor, Ray Nagin,  mayor during the crisis of  Katrina, has checked into a federal  prison in Texarkana, convicted of bribery and money laundering among 20 counts. He checked out of New Orleans and  bought a house in Frisco, near Dallas, not long after his indictment. But none of this is unusual for politicians in Louisiana.

Besides, that’s the last thing you would hear about on Bourbon Street where music is everywhere, sometimes at 4:00 in the afternoon.  

With blues in the night comes also the whistle of a train, serious but not insistent, reticent rather, a bit embarrassed that it was railroads to the north that flung their steely arms across the continent, embracing the west and catapulting Chicago into a beefy hegemon that would eclipse the crab and shrimp and spinach-coated oysters Rockefeller of New Orleans. Even so, barges still push enormous vats of sulphur and long metal rods down the Mississippi to the port that once dominated the Gulf of Mexico, reminding that a former senator  from Ireland may have been right when he said not so long ago that true wealth must be manufactured or mined.

Certainly the Howard Hughes Corporation knew something about attracting wealth when it created the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk in downtown New Orleans, between the water and the railroad. Neiman Marcus Last Call, Guess, even  Café du Monde with authentic beignets—they’re all there. It would be a terrific idea for Dallas, near Trinity Groves.

But Dallas is a mid-country, mid-century city, straining now toward a fresh version of itself.  New Orleans, like Charleston, Savannah and Santa Fe, is drenched  in history -- tragic, cruel, defeated, defiant, but essential to anyone who wants to understand America. 

Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and the host of CEO on KERA Television.