Hurricane Katrina anniversary: Can New Orleans' new mayor revive the city?
Mitch Landrieu wasn't mayor of New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit. But he is now, and at the five-year Katrina anniversary, residents are looking to him to move the city forward.
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He was not mayor then. Moreover, he was defeated by incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin in an election only seven months after the hurricane left 80 percent of the city under water.
But he is mayor now, having taken office in early May, and it is now his challenge to bring to New Orleans the hoped-for post-Katrina renaissance that has never fully taken form in the five years since.
For much of the nation, this month – the fifth anniversary of the storm – marks a moment to chronicle how far New Orleans has come. But for voters in New Orleans – and for the man they elected earlier this year – it is time to address how much further the city needs to go.
Yes, tourism has recovered from its 2006 post-Katrina lows of 3.7 million visitors, but last year's total – 7.5 million – is well below the 2004 peak of 10.1 million.
And yes, Mayor Nagin is gone, but his regime's legacy is perhaps Landrieu's greatest challenge: a $67.5 million deficit and little in the way of progress against New Orleans' endemic corruption.
For his part, Landrieu finds hope from the very fact that he was elected to solve this predicament.
He is the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father, Moon, was mayor in 1978 – and he was swept into office with 66 percent of the vote in a six-way race. In other words, New Orleans turned its back on a long history of racially divisive politics – emphatically – to elect Landrieu.
"I am the same person I was four years ago," (when he lost to Nagin), "but the people made a different choice," he says during an interview conducted in his city hall office. "What's becoming clearer to us is, as much as we ask the federal government to help … people here now instinctively know that it's our responsibility to turn the city around. And if we don't make good choices, and we don't keep after it, the city won't succeed."
Success, however, is not always easy to define. Certainly, the town is no longer a tableau of destruction, with broken levees and 182,000 destroyed homes. There are new start-up businesses, tidy homes set amid immaculate landscaping, and, of course, the French Quarter – still robust.
Yet 50,076 homes remain "blighted" – 23 percent of the city's residential addresses, according to "The New Orleans Index at Five," a Brookings Institution report. That's down from one-third of the city's residences being deemed blighted in 2008, but it still puts New Orleans far behind other economically troubled cities such as Flint, Mich.; and Detroit.
Blight was a problem even before the storm, but Katrina accelerated it, says Sam Rykels, assistant secretary of the Louisiana State Museum. New Orleans' historic character is now "in precipitous decline," and it will take considerable "political will" to change the city's property rights laws so decaying buildings can be reclaimed, says Mr. Rykels.
Resident Ms. Taylor of the Lower Ninth Ward has her home back thanks to Make It Right, the foundation created by actor Brad Pitt – and for that she is grateful. But sitting in her home directly across the street from the portion of the levee that broke in 2005, she feels almost as though she is living on a remote Midwestern homestead, not the middle of the Big Easy. The house sits amid silent plots of untamed grass.