New Orleans a model for America's struggling cities
Don Ames Reporting
Following a devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a disastrous Gulf oil spill in 2010, some predicted it would take decades for New Orleans to recover.
But the city's remarkable comeback now has others looking to the Big Easy for lessons in recovery.
Officials from Detroit...struggling to overcome economic collapse, to New York...still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, want to know how New Orleans successfully bounced back from the destruction it had been dealt.
Bloomberg Businessweek says cities across America are now looking to New Orleans as an example of overcoming adversity.
Michael Hecht, President and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., says it's a new role for New Orleans.
"We are being held up, now, as a model for the first time," says Hecht. "In fact, we're pivoting from being seen as victims of disaster to being seen as masters of disaster. So, whether it's economic collapse or levee collapse, people are looking to us for the answers, in terms of how to get things right."
He says the challenge is that, there is no panacea. What happened here was a unique situation wherein a city and a region had a near-death experience. And. like individuals that have a near-death experience, that's sometimes what it takes to make one take a deep look at what it is you're doing wrong and make some changes.
As a result, says Hecht, the New Orleans region is much better managed in terms of its elected officials, its business leadership and civic leadership than it's been in decades.
"But, the other part of it is that we will end up benefiting from about 150 billion dollars in funds coming into the state and region, post-Katrina. So, there are some lessons to be learned, but in other ways, the post-Katrina experience is unique."
So, what is it, exactly that New Orleans is doing so well?
"We have developed two things in terms of our leadership character that were lacking before," Hecht says. "One is imagination. We now have the ability to imagine ourselves competing on a global scale and we're actually doing it. Whereas before, maybe we only competed against Mississippi...now we're winning projects like GE Capital, where, literally, we're competing with locations around the world."
"The second thing is we have a level of determination and discipline that was lacking before. For example, the real reason for the success of the charter school movement is not that the schools have more freedom, but that, now, we've developed the discipline that...when schools are not working, we shut them down. And, I think that level of discipline was not there before."
Regarding imagination, Hecht points to Idea Village and entrepreneurship in New Orleans.
"That's a huge part of it, although it's hard to says whether that's a cause or a consequence. It's probably both. Before Katrina, statistically,we lagged the rest of the country by 25 percent in terms of startups, per capita. Now, as just measured by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, we exceed the national average by 56 percent in the number of startups, per capita. So, if necessity is the mother of invention, you could say that Katrina was the biggest and the baddest momma of them all. And we've become much more inventive as a result."
Hecht says that's good news for the economy, and the spirit of the region. But, he says it's also a consequence of all the new people that have come into the region since Katrina...whether they be newcomers, or people like himself who are coming back after having been gone for a generation.
Hecht says, New Orleans is, indeed, a shining star.
"But, what people have to realize is that, very soon, we're going to get back to the new normal. The Katrina funding is going to run out over the next couple of years and the rest of the country is coming out of the great recession. So, within two or three years, we're going to be competing on a level playing field with the rest of the country, and that's going to be the true test. When the Katrina money is not there and everybody else is not mired in recession, can Louisiana compete and win? I think the answer is, 'absolutely yes'. But that's still to be told."
In the meantime, though, Hecht says New Orleans can serve as more than a model for other cities that are struggling.
"New Orleans should serve as both a model and an inspiration."
The nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation, which helped New Orleans boost its resiliency, is now letting cities with at least 50,000 residents apply for a chance to get the kind of help that New Orleans received. The goal: to create more shock-proof cities and spark a global conversation on how to prepare for unexpected disasters.
The 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, as it's called, is the centerpiece of a $100 million push to promote urban resilience. The Foundation will choose the winners after applications close on September 23rd and work with each city to assess and boost resilience, with money to hire a chief resilience officer and help prepare plans.