New book on a resilient New Orleans six years after Katrina

In this summer of disasters, from Hurricane Irene to the devastating earthquake in Japan to the wildfires in Arizona, a new book looks back on how one area—New Orleans—rebuilt after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Resilience and Opportunity (Brookings Institution Press, 2011) draws on the lessons learned in the hurricane’s wake and chronicles the capacities needed to rebound.

We sat down with Amy Liu and Kathryn Foster to talk about resiliency and how New Orleans is capitalizing on its strong social ties in rebuilding a better New Orleans. BRR member Kathryn Foster wrote the introductory chapter framing the ideas of resilience and opportunity, and Amy Liu, BRR member and codirector and cofounder of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, is the book’s editor, along with Roland V. Anglin, Richard M. Mizelle, Jr., and Allison Plyer.

BRR: Why write this book now, six years after Hurricane Katrina?

Amy Liu:  I think enough progress has occurred in New Orleans in the last five years that it is worth stepping back and reflecting on what has been learned. And there is great demand for such lessons.  We have unfortunately witnessed a regular spate of large-scale disasters in recent years — Hurricane Irene and its harsh impact along the East Coast, the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, and the earthquake in Haiti and ChristChurch.  These, and the upcoming ten-year anniversary of 9/11, are all reminders of the frequency and diversity of large-scale disasters on major population centers. Furthermore, Hurricane Katrina is the costliest disaster in U.S. history and the third costliest in the world.  History will regularly turn to this region for lessons on how it tackled one of the world’s greatest catastrophes.

BRR: The title is two words: resilience and opportunity. Why that title? What does it signify?

Amy Liu:  We called this book Resilience and Opportunity because we think these two words capture the key goals a region must aspire to in the wake of a major shock.  A region must emerge with greater capacities to adapt to or absorb any future crises (resilience).   And it must bounce back with better social, economic, and environmental outcomes (opportunity).

BRR: A point you make in the Introduction is that disasters can sometimes come with a silver lining in that they can clear the slate, so to speak, and allow communities or regions to start anew, in a healthier way. In the Gulf, what kinds of things were impeding progress and have they changed post-Katrina?

Amy Liu:  Mayor Landrieu said it best recently, “Katrina did not cause our problems. The problems in New Orleans did not start on Aug. 29 [2005]. It did not start when the levees broke. The only thing Katrina did … was to magnify that which already existed.”   Further, the mayor added, “Katrina woke us up…We finally have been given the opportunity to assume the responsibility that we failed at many, many years ago…”

That is the crossroad most communities face after a major shock, especially one that so exposes what was badly broken prior to the event.  Does the region build back to its prior state?  Or does it try to move toward a better, more prosperous path?  In Japan, the disaster there has raised new questions about the country’s overreliance on nuclear energy.  In New Orleans, citizens and leaders have committed to not go back to the past but to rebuild better than before.  That means addressing head-on decades of high poverty, wide racial and economic disparities, a weak economy, and unsustainable development patterns.  While reversing those outcomes will take time, New Orleans is in the midst of a series of systemic reforms that may put them on the path to healthier outcomes.

BRR: What does “resilience” mean to an urban planner?

Kathryn Foster: Planners, both urban and rural, understand resilience, not only in the sense of cities and regions reforming themselves over time, but also in the sense of preparing for alternative futures.  As part of their professional wiring, planners believe that a community that envisions its goals and means to achieve them, especially in the face of a difficult trend or acute challenge, is more likely to succeed. In other words, good planning begets resilience.

BRR: Kate, you note in your chapter that “resilience” has two parts: capacity and response. A place can boast certain elements that enhance its capacity to respond to a disaster, like strong social capital, a diversified economic base, low levels of inequality, for example. It would seem, given the tragic days and weeks after Katrina, that New Orleans had little capacity to respond to this emergency. Would you agree? And why?

Kathryn Foster: The immediate aftermath of Katrina certainly peeled back the curtain on relatively weak capacity in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  New Orleans is relatively diversified economically, but had high levels of poverty and income inequality, and relatively low financial security, including a high proportion of residents without health insurance. Other parts of the Gulf Coast were more affluent, but less economically diverse.  Having strong resilience capacity is no guarantee of strong post-crisis performance, but it does provide a foundation and environment for effective recovery.

Amy Liu:  I agree that New Orleans exhibited few resilient capacities prior to the disaster. While it may have some economic diversity, those core industries are all declining.  I think today, the region is still struggling with the core economic characteristics that would help buffer the region from the impacts of future shocks, such as skilled labor, low inequality, and economic diversity in industries that are strong.  However, since Katrina, the region has found its social capital mojo!  Citizens are highly engaged in civic issues and have become very knowledgeable of public issues, actively shaping public decisions.  Many new coalitions have formed to call for the end to the status quo and advocating for new reforms.  New neighborhood organizations and nonprofit developers have created new capacity to rebuild their own communities in ways that are more equitable and opportunity-rich.

BRR: What about the second part of resiliency—its performance or response to the shock? How has New Orleans performed?

Kathryn Foster: The relatively weak capacity could perhaps have been offset by strong government performance, such as good cross-jurisdiction relations, effective coordination, and appropriate emergency transport and communication, but, as the nation witnessed, these were in short supply. That said, as Amy notes and chapters in the book show, civic and other groups along the Gulf Coast have used the crisis of Katrina and Rita to develop stronger capacity to ensure better performance for the next challenge.

Amy Liu:  I think there are two ways to talk about how the region has performed since Katrina. First, all of that new civic capacity has resulted in a series of systemic reforms, made possible by responsive government and philanthropic and private-sector partnerships.  Some of those reforms include a new series of charter schools that are now delivering better student test scores; a new network of accessible, community-based primary health care centers that serve low-income patients; and a fairer and more efficient criminal justice system to keep streets safer.

Second, there are some indications that the region is beginning to perform better than its prior path.  Wage growth is improving, poverty is lower in the city (primarily owing to population shifts), and there is new, emerging growth in some knowledge-based sectors that will help make up for some of the job losses in legacy industries such as tourism, oil and gas, ports and logistics.

BRR: The Gulf is a mixture of rural and urban areas. Does rural resilience differ from urban resilience?

Kathryn Foster: Conceptually, no.  Both urban and rural areas can draw upon good economic, socio-demographic, political and other types of resilience capacity.  But practically, the environments are often different.  By definition, urban areas are more dense and complex.  Rural areas often have fewer resources and infrastructure, and require response over larger geographic territories.

BRR: In addition to a natural disaster like Katrina, the Gulf has struggled with persistent and high poverty for decades. How does that chronic “stress” affect resiliency?

Kathryn Foster: The quick answer is that poverty saddles a place with fewer resources, fewer options and greater challenges, especially in places with high inequality.  It’s thus a drag on resilience.  That said, chronic poverty may be a source of social capital, neighbor helping neighbor, and forms of resourcefulness, adaptability, and flexibility that characterize resilient people and places.

BRR: What are some promising signs of recovery in the Gulf?

Amy Liu:  I think the promising signs add up to some key lessons emerging from New Orleans and the Gulf.  First, New Orleans is demonstrating that it is possible to adopt systemic reforms in the face of tragedy.  The forces to rebuild what is familiar are so strong, but residents and leaders have reached a consensus that there is no going back.  So, bold reforms and experimentation are underway.  The book documents many of those reforms.

The region is also demonstrating that it takes strong citizen engagement and new alliances to effectively call for the end of the status quo and hold government accountable to those changes.  You see that in Japan now with citizens calling on their national government to revisit their energy policy.  It was citizens in New Orleans who pushed for the end to government corruption, the end to failing schools, and “say no” to violent crime.  It took a new statewide coalition of housing leaders to push Governor Barbour to finally deliver aid to low-income renters and homeowners who were displaced or had severe housing damage.

BRR: Where are the opportunities in the Gulf today?

Amy Liu:  What New Orleans needs to do is to build on this strong foundation to further existing reforms but also take on some unfinished business.  For instance, the state and region need to be more intentional in reversing decades of racial and economic inequality and ensuring meaningful opportunities for residents.  Growing the next generation of local leadership must be a priority to add to this region’s community capital.  African Americans and new Latinos in the area have an opportunity to form new alliances, perhaps brokered by faith-based leaders to more effectively fight for justice in housing and economic security.  Education and criminal justice reform remain works in progress that require steadfast commitment and monitoring.  National philanthropies must continue to invest in local philanthropies in the region to improve the self-sufficiency and capacity of local groups.  And while the region may now embrace a more comprehensive approach to coastal protection and restoration that goes beyond walling themselves from water, a deep investment in the coastal wetlands remains an uncertain prospect when it must be a solid complement to the re-opening of the oil leases off the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi.

I hope that the people of the Gulf Coast continue their path to reinvention that still builds off their very assets.

BRR: What surprised you the most in compiling this book?

Amy Liu:  Since I have spent nearly all of my own work post-Katrina in New Orleans, it was revealing to read about the housing and planning efforts underway in Mississippi.  The people of Mississippi faced a different set of damage circumstances than in Louisiana.  The 2005 storms impacted a number of smaller cities (versus a major urban center).  And the key leader in recovery was a strong governor who made a number of decisions facing localities.  In this situation, community leaders managed to come together quite effectively to fight for the use of federal housing and recovery dollars to serve the most vulnerable households, rather than be spent on casino and port redevelopment.  Their victory is also one worth learning from.

About the editors: Amy Liu is a senior fellow, co-director and co-founder of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Roland V. Anglin is a faculty fellow at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Richard M. Mizelle Jr. is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University. Allison Plyer is co-deputy director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Comments are closed.