It has been four years since the levees surrounding New Orleans gave way in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Four years since the disaster destroyed nearly 100,000 units of housing, displaced more than one million Gulf Coast residents, and crippled the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Southeastern Louisiana. Four years since Americans were abandoned on their rooftops and in shelters-of- last-resort while the world watched in horror and disbelief.
In 2008, the sub-prime lending market crashed, national housing values plummeted, unemployment rose sharply, and the stock market crashed. When federal levees failed, New Orleans flooded with lake water. When federal oversight of banking failed, the nation flooded with bad debts and entered into an economic recession. Like New Orleanians after Katrina, Americans in communities throughout the United States faced disasters of home loss, job loss, and displacement.
We are all living in Katrina Nation now. And it is time to confront the lessons of New Orleans or risk that our national recovery will be similarly delayed and incomplete.
Lesson 1: Infrastructure matters.
Few cities offer a better example of the critical need for infrastructure investment than New Orleans. New Orleans' flooding after Hurricane Katrina was due exclusively to failing federal levees. The collapse of this core infrastructure destroyed one of America's greatest cities. The city is still surrounded by levees no stronger than those that gave way four years ago. These inadequate levees have tremendous economic consequences. Many residents are afraid to return home because of insufficient hurricane protection. As a result, without full population replacement the city misses out on valued taxpayer income and faces a substantial budget shortfall. Poor levees also make many businesses reluctant to invest in the city, undercutting efforts to grow and diversify the local economy.
When the Obama team was in transition from election to inauguration, "infrastructure" was the buzzword. But in the past eight months little public or media attention has focused on these critical projects. The lesson from New Orleans is this: if we ignore seemingly inconsequential failing infrastructure, the results may be dire. One need only turn to the fatal bridge collapse in Minnesota or look towards Burlington, Iowa where failing levees caused days of flooding.
As we work hard to hold both federal and local officials accountable for investing in New Orleans' built environment, we urge our fellow Americans to ask questions about the infrastructure redevelopment projects in their own communities.
Lesson 2: Economic and human development must be connected.
New Orleans is facing tremendous challenges to full restoration, but it has one vital asset: its people. The people are uniquely resilient, famously hospitable, tenaciously loyal, and stunningly diverse. But the citizens of New Orleans have often suffered under corrupt or inept leadership.
That leadership has failed to invest in and support key education reforms. In the most recent legislative session, Governor Jindal sought to slash millions of dollars of essential funding from the secondary education budget. Simultaneously, contracts have been let for the redevelopment of public and private buildings, to the exclusion of local businesses and employees. As a result, thousands of residents are lacking education and job opportunities.
Post-Katrina New Orleans reminds us that human development and opportunity are imperative for economic development and business opportunity. It is a lesson our nation must also learn during this economic crisis. President Obama has taken a step in this direction by encouraging Americans to enroll in college.
Lesson 3: Government must play an important role.
During the past four years hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians have returned to the city they love, courageously carving out new life despite rampant crime, unpredictable education, sparse housing and limited economic opportunities. During these years tens of thousands of other Americans have come to New Orleans to clean debris, gut homes, care for patients, plant gardens, and tutor children. During these years, dozens of community based, non-profit organizations have innovated strategies of urban farming, housing construction, education reform, neighborhood renewal, and artistic revitalization.
While these grassroots efforts are extraordinary, they have proved insufficient for the herculean task of restoring New Orleans. Despite the spirit and commitment of its people, the city's levee protection is inadequate, its violent crime is soaring, its school system is failing, its local economy is overly dependent on tourism, and its neighborhoods are ravaged by blight. For example, millions of volunteer hours over four years have put more than 2,000 units of housing back into commerce. While noteworthy, the success pales when one considers that more than 80,000 units of housing were damaged.
New Orleans teaches us that individuals and families bear an important responsibility in restoring the city and our nation. New Orleans shows the innovative capacity of civil society and local entrepreneurship. But New Orleans also reveals that recovery is limited without effective, transparent, responsible government action.
We have seen similar lessons in our national politics. President Obama saw that the collapse of the American economy meant government needed to react with a stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers and other government programs to reverse the tide of the slowing economy.
This stimulus money is having an impact in New Orleans. For example there is substantial road construction happening in the city as a direct result of the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Some of these projects had been stalled over a decade.
Lesson 4: Racial injustice and racialized politics can block reform.
James works in civil rights law. Melissa is a professor of race and politics. We understand the continuing realities of racial inequality in America. Schools and neighborhoods are still shockingly racially segregated. Racial segregation has a tremendous impact on student achievement, home values, transportation access, health outcomes, and concentration of poverty.
This is true in New Orleans and throughout the United States.
But there is another insidious effect: our often racially separate worlds can breed prejudice, distrust, and misunderstanding. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina national public opinion research revealed huge racial differences in how Americans perceived the disaster and how they thought the country should respond. In a similar way New Orleans politics has been deeply racially divided since the storm. Many votes of the city council have split along racial lines and race has been used as a wedge too many times.
These same patterns are obvious in American politics. Despite the historic election of our first African American president, race has often taken center stage in current national politics, infecting everything from immigration discussions to the health care reform debate.
The lesson from New Orleans is clear: racial injustice and racialized politics too often stand in the way of doing what is best for the whole community. We need both local and national leadership that will stand for fairness for all people while also refusing to misuse historical racial antagonisms for their own purposes.
The survival of New Orleans is no longer just about restoring America's most distinctive city. We are all living in Katrina Nation now. Learning the lessons of New Orleans may just have the power to save all of us.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University. James Perry is executive director of Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and a candidate for mayor of New Orleans in 2010. They have a home in New Orleans' 7th ward.