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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"It's hard to have faith in politicians here," says Taylor. "I have no neighbors. My kids have no kids to play with. You can't even get the city to cut the grass."Skip to next paragraph
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It's now Landrieu's job to cut the grass, find neighbors, and rejuvenate the Lower Ninth. In short, he has to win the hearts and minds of residents like Taylor.
Says John Frye, a Bourbon Street Lucky Dog vendor, "[Landrieu's] got a big mess to clean up."
The mayor started by targeting a New Orleans staple: corruption. Landrieu slashed the salaries of city council members, oversaw the auditing of the city's budget, created stricter rules for use of city-owned vehicles, and redrafted the system for dealing with outside contractors. He also announced 138 projects to upgrade fire departments, libraries, recreation centers, and health clinics.
Moreover, he's named a reform-minded police chief, and he says he is investigating how and when governance of the city's public schools should be transferred back to local officials. State officials have run the school system since Katrina, with students showing dramatic improvement.
But his grander plans involve hopes of broadly recasting New Orleans' economy. And he is blunt about what needs to happen to make that a reality: better schools and lower crime.
"Everybody comes down and says, 'I love the people, it's real, there's nothing false about that place … but the crime is high, the schools are no good, and you can't make a living,' " he says. "No matter how many tax incentives I give away, if the city's not safe and the city doesn't produce smart people that can [fill] the jobs, I could give them away and [businesses] still wouldn't come."
Like many before him, Landrieu is counting on New Orleans' bedrock bohemian ways and unique character as a magnet. But he also wants to branch out.
He envisions New Orleans becoming a center of film and digital media production, a leader in biomedical research and technology, and – using the Gulf oil spill as a catalyst – a clean and renewable energy research hub for the oil and gas industry.
"Wouldn't it be a great story of resurrection and redemption if BP, rather than being forced to do everything, decided that it really wanted to change its behavior and become the model for clean energy in the world and move their [US] headquarters from Houston to New Orleans?" he asks.
The mayor's desire to diversify the New Orleans economy through knowledge-based industries is right on target, says Amy Liu, deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.
The city's entrepreneurial culture has "skyrocketed since Katrina" and remains its primary strength, says Ms. Liu.
"Most of the new business start-ups [since Katrina] were by individuals in the construction and tourism and hospitality sectors, but it doesn't mean there isn't the capacity to start businesses in other sectors," she says.
For the time being, Landrieu is operating on goodwill. His father, who was mayor between 1970 and 1978, was well regarded as a progressive by rich and poor, black and white.
For example, a 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council suggests that the US Army Corps of Engineers' $15 billion, 100-year flood- protection plan, due for completion in 2012, is not guaranteed to stand firm against Category 5 hurricanes.
Landrieu says he is "not comfortable" with that assessment and suggests that President Obama will need to intervene.