New Orleans undergoing challenging recovery

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Some good news is beginning to emerge out of New Orleans as rebuilding moves along four years after Hurricane Katrina, but the city and surrounding environs are still plagued by questions about levies and housing, a panel of New Orleans experts said at an event put on by a New Orleans advocacy group.

The good news is that the city is presenting a “model of resiliency” in how it is pulling itself back up in the wake of the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, said comedian and New Orleans resident Harry Shearer, who was the voice of many characters on “The Simpsons” television show. Shearer and eight other panelists, plus moderator and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, were part of the event entitled “Housing, Education and Health in New Orleans Today,” presented by the nonprofit group Friends of New Orleans, of which Isaacson is a founding board member.

As New Orleans transforms its schools and health care institutions, it could become a national model, other panelists said.

“Public education reform is part of the silver lining of the Katrina cloud,” said Tony Recasner of New Schools New Orleans, which works to support effective charter schools. The city had one of the nation’s worst public school systems, but in the wake of Katrina, neighborhoods have been taking their schools back, Recasner said. Sixty percent of the city’s children now attend a charter school, which is an independently operated public school, and test scores have been on the rise, Recasner said. 

Health care in New Orleans and Louisiana was in sad shape before Katrina, according to Tulane Medical School Dean Benjamin Sachs, with 23 percent of the population (in New Orleans) uninsured, forgoing preventative care and relying on emergency room visits for treatment. This has resulted in one of the most expensive health care systems in the nation but one of the worst in terms of outcomes, Sachs said.

But physicians and community activists in New Orleans are looking to change that, and hope their eventual success can be a template for the rest of the nation as it struggles to reform the health care system. Sachs points to examples where abandoned buildings in New Orleans have been converted into community health centers.


 Dustin Franz/Aspen Daily News
Kristin Palmer, executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, speaks at a discussion about housing, education and health in New Orleans at the Koch Building at the Aspen Institute on Wednesday evening.

With billions of dollars of reconstruction work ongoing throughout the New Orleans metro area, New Orleans has withstood some of the worst effects of the recession. But a recent influx of available workers without a corresponding spike in available jobs has caused the New Orleans unemployment rate to jump to 7.3 percent from the previous post-Katrina level of 5 percent, according to information presented by Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Local leaders worry that the ongoing construction work also will not serve as a basis for a healthy economy going forward, Plyer said.

Plyer also reported that about 90 percent of pre-Katrina residents have moved back to their homes throughout the metro area.

But rental housing prices have spiked 40 percent since pre-Katrina days, thanks to a reduced supply. This remains one of the city’s great challenges, Plyer said.

Between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, $150 billion worth of damage befell the Gulf Coast region. But only $75 billion in funding for recovery is available, mostly from the federal government, followed by insurance companies. Charitable giving makes up a small piece of the pie.

Much of these relief funds have yet to be distributed, or have been distributed ineffectively, as the somewhat agitated crowd in the Koch Seminar building at the Aspen Institute grumbled “where’s the money?”

Among the panelists was Janet Woodka, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding under the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama administration. She explained that the Obama administration is examining ways to better coordinate the release of funds and to reduce friction between local, state and federal agencies.

Another topic of contention is the levee system that surrounds New Orleans, which failed in places after the storm, causing the catastrophe.

Woodka said the levees are being brought back up to where they should have been pre-Katrina. But she also said there might be better solutions out there and that a collaboration is under way between New Orleans leaders and Dutch experts in that below sea level country’s system of dikes.

 

curtis@aspendailynews.com