Eight years ago, a Category 3 hurricane made landfall over a major American city — New Orleans. In the long, protracted recovery, the city changed and redefined itself — not so much as simply a visage of the past, but as a move forward.
But, in light of a 46 percent population drop, massive damage to the city’s infrastructure and facilities, a lack of emphasis and leadership in the government’s responses and the reality that the city was already in economic decline before the hurricane, the recovery of New Orleans post-Katrina has been challenging, particularly for the city’s Black male population.
In a new report from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released Wednesday, the New Orleans Index at Eight, New Orleans compared favorably with growing cities that the city may wish to emulate and to cities economically similar to New Orleans prior to 2000.
“[The] New Orleans metro has weathered the Great Recession impressively,” the report stated. “The recession took hold locally in 2008, and the metro lost only 1 percent of its jobs before the economy rebounded. In contrast, the nation hemorrhaged jobs beginning in 2007 and lost 6 percent before its turnaround. By 2012, the New Orleans metro had fully recovered, and employment levels surpassed the 2008 peak by 1 percent. At the same time, the nation remained 3 percent behind its pre-recession employment level.”
This, however, does not belay the fact that the report also points out that the city’s African-American community is falling behind the rest of the city, with the economic discrepancy felt by Black men increasing in comparison to their White counterparts.
Diminished opportunities for New Orleans’ Black men
Katrina, for the most part, passed over New Orleans, instead hitting the surrounding parishes. What damaged New Orleans was the poor design and operational problems of the city’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-constructed levee system, which prevents the below-sea level city from flooding and which separates the city from the Mississippi River. The levee collapse caused flooding over 80 percent of the city and completely submerged all of Saint Bernard Parish, the east bank of Plaquemines Parish and most of the Lower Ninth Ward.
These were the areas where most of the city’s poorer residents and African-Americans live. Recovery to these areas has been slow, and, at times, stalled. This has resulted in an educational attainment level below national levels, with only 11 percent of all African-American men in New Orleans possessing a bachelor’s degree or better. As of 2011, only 53 percent of New Orleans’ Black men were employed, compared to a national average of 61 percent. The city’s poverty rate is 29 percent — 13 points higher than the national rate.
New Orleans finds itself separating from the blue collar port jobs that have supported its economy in the past and is investing in skilled technology jobs, such as the recent explosion of jobs created in petrochemistry in New Orleans in the wake of the oil boom. A June report issued by Loyola University’s Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy argues that this untapped manpower resource could be a boon to the city’s construction and manufacturing sectors and key to revitalizing the city.
“If New Orleans is to substantially reverse decades of economic decline, high crime rates, and a shrinking city tax base, then greater educational attainment and economic progress for African-American men will be critical,” the report stated.
Since Katrina, the number of low-skill positions in the city has diminished, as a decrease in shipping traffic, due to expanded use of railroad and air freight transit and recovery efforts following the disastrous Deepwater spill and the resulting drilling moratoriums, reduced business in the Port of New Orleans, once one of the busiest ports in the nation. This created a situation in many of the city’s historic Black neighborhoods in which continuing decay and economic desperation persist, in which there was less money coming in, pre-recession.
This is reflected in the more than 3,000 Katrina-ravaged lots yet to be cleared in the Eighth and Ninth Wards. Attempts to clear the lots — including the Lot Next Door Program, which allows property owners to “adopt” destroyed lots adjacent to their own in order to redevelop them, and attempts by the states to sell them as development packages — have resulted in little improvement. A city-sponsored analysis from the U.S. Postal service found that 43,000 blighted properties still exist in Greater New Orleans.
“Right now nobody on those 3,000-plus properties is contributing. It’s costing the city and state government to maintain them. Police got to go out there, run kids out of there, drug-users,” said Errol Williams, the tax assessor in New Orleans. “That’s a cost to the city. If they sell one, it comes back on the tax rolls, I’m happy.”
“Our primary goal was to think about the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans,” said Lindy Boggs Center Director Petrice Sams-Abiodun, and in doing that, to be “sure to be very vocal that poor or marginalized men, and in particular African-American men, had access to opportunities.” Since 2000, average salaries for Black men in New Orleans have fallen 11 percent to $31,018. In the same period of time, wages for White men have risen 9 percent to $60,075. Most experts feel that city can only recover via the injection of money into the most blighted neighborhoods, which can best be done by providing jobs and employment opportunities.
Since 1980, the number of Black men in New Orleans that have received at least two years of college education remains stagnant at 15 percent, despite the high school graduation rate exploding. In contrast, 66 percent of White new orleans men have as least an Associate’s degree.
“If we could address the inequalities and disparities of Black men, we’d have a stronger New Orleans,” Sams-Abiodun said.
In light of a city that, eight years later, still has storm-ravaged lots yet to be cleared, the recovery is a continuing process. However, there is hope that the New Orleans yet to emerge from Katrina will be more than what was lost.
As stated in the Data Center report, New Orleans’ economy has rebounded in general. The median household income in New Orleans dropped eight percent from 1999 to 2011 to $44,404, compared to a national drop of 11 percent to $50,502. The city’s 2012 job count exceeds the pre-recession count by one percent, compared to a national average of a two percent drop.
427 out of every 100,000 adults in New Orleans has created a business, representing an upswing of 129 percent, compared to a national average of 320 entrepreneurs per every 100,000 adults. The city now counts 34 nonprofit groups in its borders dedicated to the arts and culture, compared to a national average of 13. City crime rates are now lower than pre-Katrina levels, as well, but is still 39 percent higher than the 2011 national average for property crimes and 105 percent higher for violent crimes.
“Eight years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina struck our shores, devastated our state and left the city of New Orleans in peril,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R – La.) wrote in an op-ed for NOLA.com. “Many people thought the city would never fully recover, but state and local leaders have worked together to prove the doubters wrong. What has happened in the eight years since Katrina is truly remarkable, as New Orleans has reestablished its historical position as one of the world’s great cities for both culture and commerce.”
“Thanks to determined work over the past few years at both the state and local levels, New Orleans today outshines virtually every expectation from the bleak days after Hurricane Katrina. Twenty years from now, people may look back at this time as one of the most remarkable turnarounds of a major American city. As New Orleans approaches its tricentennial, we will continue working to make this great city a shining example of urban possibility.”
The new challenge for New Orleans is to find a mean to share the recovery with all of its residents. “These are all tremendous accomplishments, but our work isn’t finished,” Jindal concluded. “As part of our commitment to making Louisiana the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family, we aren’t going to rest now.”