As this weekend’s storm has reminded us, hurricanes can be a threat to U.S. cities on the East Coast as well as the Gulf. But the vast changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina have had little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles.
Six years after the federal levees failed and 80 percent of the city was flooded, New Orleans has lost 80,000 jobs and 110,000 residents. It is a whiter and wealthier city, with tourist areas well-maintained while communities like the Lower 9th Ward remain devastated. Beyond the statistics, it is still a much-contested city.
Politics continue to shape how the changes to New Orleans are viewed. For some, the city is a crime scene of corporate profiteering and the mass displacement of African Americans and the working poor; for others it’s an example of bold public-sector reforms, taken in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that have led the way for other cities.
In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans saw the rise of a new class of citizens. They self-identify as YURPs — young urban rebuilding professionals — and they work in architecture, urban planning, education and related fields. While the city was still mostly empty, they spoke of a freedom to experiment, unfettered by the barriers of bureaucratic red tape and public comment. Working with local and national political and business leaders, they made rapid changes in the city’s education system, public housing and nonprofit sector.
Along the way, the face of elected government changed in the city and state. Among the offices that switched from black to white were mayor, police chief, district attorney and representatives on the school board and City Council, both of which switched to white majorities for the first time in a generation. Louisiana also transformed from a state with several statewide elected Democrats to having only one: Sen. Mary Landrieu.
While black community leaders have said that the displacement after the storm has robbed African Americans of their civic representation, another narrative has also taken shape. Many in the media and business elite have said that a new political class — which happens to be mostly white — is reshaping the politics of the city into a postracial era.
“Our efforts are changing old ways of thinking,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, shortly after he was elected in 2010. After accusing his critics of being stuck in the past, Landrieu — who was the first mayor in modern memory elected with the support of a majority of both black and white voters — added, “We’re going to rediscipline ourselves in this city.”