10 New Orleanians on How Katrina Changed Their City

As worldwide media dissects, assesses and prescribes amid the 10th anniversary of the storm, we asked residents to tell their own stories, in their own words.

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Photography by William Widmer

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You’ve likely noticed that this feature looks a little different than most we publish. There is not one byline; there are 10. Likewise, there is not a single authoritative narrative, but rather 10 first-person essays, each with its own distinct perspective and focus.

We chose to mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this way because it would be impossible for one story to encompass the myriad experiences and truths that underlay New Orleans’ rebound from what can only be described as a complete failure of local and federal government systems and policies. There is no single metric that can measure the ongoing evolution of a city and no one voice that should be privileged in the recounting of something as complex as post-disaster recovery.

Even the word “recovery” itself doesn’t accurately summon what it means to rebuild a community that was unhealthy long before disaster struck and never quite agreed on a collective vision of what a “return to normal” would be.

All of the writers included in this feature are advocates for their city, each working in a different sphere to make change in the place that is home. One of them, Aria Mason, a vocalist and educator, writes about the post-Katrina phenomenon of “jargon aphasia,” while retired judge Calvin Johnson describes how the storm catalyzed reform of the city’s broken criminal justice system.

Fair housing lawyer Cashauna Hill tells about ongoing housing discrimination and writer Abram Himelstein reflects on being a white transplant in a historically African-American city that is now attracting more white transplants than ever before. Jessica Williams, a parent and someone who attended New Orleans public schools before the storm, offers the most honest assessment I’ve read yet of the city’s heralded K-12 makeover. For those wondering about what will happen the next time a hurricane builds in the Gulf of Mexico, Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist Bob Marshall offers a fresh vantage into New Orleans’ continued vulnerability to disaster and climate change.

In these essays, you’ll read not just about what it means to rebuild a modern American city, but also what it feels like to the people living it. Please use the orange square to the right to navigate among the stories and as always, please share the voices that resonate with you.

— Ariella Cohen, Next City editor-in-chief

Shannon Powell, lifelong resident and musician, dances in front of his house in the Treme section of New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Why I Refuse to Call My Hometown Nola

I’m a typical Creole girl.

Made in Treme, born Uptown, and raised in Gentilly in a multigenerational household with beaucoup music, dancing and loud, hilarious people: gumbo at birthday parties, mirliton vine on the fence, off-color phrases in Creole, and Mass every Sunday. Food was love, and love was celestially delicious.

My mother’s family has roots in the gens du couleur libre (free people of color) community two centuries deep and forebears with African, French, Sicilian, Spanish and indigenous American roots.

Culture and tradition were integral to daily life, and as I grew, finding my voice had more to do with my personal development. In an environment where my culture was predominant, my identity was a fabulously comfortable pair of shoes and its etymology common knowledge. As the 20th century closed, New Orleans was ostensibly in decline. Our city was at its zenith as “murder capital of the world,” replete with failing schools and crumbling infrastructure. For those of us growing up in relative security, we focused on its joys and hoped challenges were being addressed.

We believed our strong collective identity would never fundamentally change.

I went away to college, believing I chose a similarly diverse environment at a private university in the nation’s capital. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I entered AMERICA!, a land of unseasoned food, interaction-free parades and smothering, unquestioned white privilege. It became increasingly evident to me that New Orleans was a sovereign nation, and my intersectional existence as a black multiethnic woman and a left-of-center devout Catholic made me a unicorn outside of its borders.

I was desperately homesick. It was then I heard my voice for the first time. I became a vociferous defender of differences in the cultural norms between the boisterous beauty of my culture and that of the heartland.

Although I formed some enduring friendships while in college, I also witnessed, perhaps for the first time, the ease with which a majority group dismissed the reality of people of color. I watched with disdain as classmates who resisted exploring the causes of disenfranchisement were accepted to service programs in my hometown where they could “save those poor people,” in their words. It steeled my resolve to come home and be part of the city’s future.

I graduated in May 2005 and came home, eager to enjoy the city as an adult. The events at the end of August turned all my dreams upside down. In my family alone, upwards of 30 homes were destroyed here and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. My mother and I shuttled between several Texan cities before we were able to see our house, destroyed by 11 feet of water.

So much has been written about the devastation of the levee failure, but what struck me most was the total absence of life: no birds, no grass, nothing but mold. Our house was marinating in a chemical gumbo — every surface bore thick curtains of black, green and white mold. We were beyond uprooted. Rather than angry or frustrated, I found myself in shock.

The mold in the house made physical what my emotional climate had for weeks: It left me silent. My vocal cords were literally paralyzed for months and I couldn’t speak above a whisper. At the most painful time in my life, I could take no comfort in my usual application of my music as metaphysical analgesic. I could not reach out to those similarly afflicted to discuss the swirling mélange of emotion I was pickling in.

While I underwent vocal rehabilitation, my speech pathologist told me that my condition was possibly neurological, not an allergic reaction, and I might have aphasia, a language disorder that causes those affected to have a disturbance in the way they formulate and comprehend speech.

It seemed fitting, since I couldn’t find words to express my feelings. The physiological silencing I was experiencing compounded my experience as a refugee. I say refugee, not the toothless, trite “evacuee,” because I quickly learned that, though Americans, we were strangers in a land that did not welcome us. We felt unheard as we set about untying the Gordian Knot of personal recovery while working the stages of grief and simultaneously navigating bureaucratic labyrinths to receive minimal aid.

All I knew for sure is that I needed to find a way to get back home and be a part of whatever happened next to my hometown, even if I did it as a mute. When I asked my grandfather, a revered civil rights activist, what I should do, he advised me, “When you have grandchildren, and they ask what you did to help, make sure you feel good about your answer.”

When my prodigal voice returned after three months, I took that as a sign that I could begin to be of help and I chose to enter a program, a branch of AmeriCorps, that was founded as a recovery and rebuilding team.

When I arrived in Baton Rouge, I discovered I was the only corps member of 50 directly affected by the storm. I found wonderful support among the corps and was forthright about harvesting my experience to expose them to the truth of the disaster.

The next thing I knew, when I wasn’t busy with a service project, I was sent across the country to fundraise for the program. I was happy to do it, because I thought it offered an opportunity to be a voice for my community to those making meaningful change. Soon I discovered that my input wasn’t welcome, just my story and my singing ability. When people heard my story, and wanted to help me personally, the leadership actively discouraged them from doing so. As my team was gutting houses for others for free, my mother and I had to pay to have our houses, which the corps toured to get “the real story” as part of training, emptied and gutted by strangers.

The Press Park development in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans

While I no longer had physical aphasia, I began to witness a new kind of aphasia: jargon aphasia.

Jargon aphasia is a type of dysfunction where an individual’s speech is incomprehensible to others, but appears to make sense to them. I noticed that as recovery and renaissance began in earnest, my voice and that of other native Orleanians were brought on board for “street cred” but little else.

Education nonprofits brought locals on board to attract people to their programs only to decry the way time was wasted by local holidays — perhaps the most puzzling attitude to Mardi Gras ever. Off-handedly, they sneered that the local climate bred lazy educators not fit to run schools. Charter networks employed teaching artists for enrichment programs, but often didn’t prioritize or respect their curricula.

Our dissenting voices were quieted as recommendations made by local residents during post-storm forums went unrealized, mental health resources went unreconstructed and trauma in a returning populace went unprocessed. Neighborhoods began changing from authentic seats of culture into increasingly white theme parks teeming with Orleaneophiles taking second line classes and founding walking clubs with salty, PG-13 names. Meanwhile, endeavors led by young professional natives, often those of color, went unsung in the local and national press even though we were more likely to be committed to the work for the long haul.

Little by little, the nicknames natives had used for New Orleans for decades — the Crescent City, the N.O., the Big Easy — started being supplanted by the city’s postal abbreviation Nola. It was on shirts, signs and, increasingly, in conversation.

For me, the rise of Nola is more evidence of jargon aphasia.

Nola is a twee, cutesy, sparkly place with organic gluten-free gumbo, artisanal beignets and coffee with hand-ground chicory where newcomers are more local than the locals. Nola is a tritone without the third sound, a shadow of the real thing, a half-life built on the shiny side of traditions that has been gutted of the gritty struggle and veracity that bore them.

If I have the choice, I will take the home of the frozen cup, endless games of Pitty Pat, $10-and-under poor boys and door poppers. I want my kale in gumbo z’herbes and my juice in a strong cocktail. I will take New Orleans, me.

Aria M. Mason, mezzo-soprano, is a vocalist and musician. She is a founding member of the acclaimed ensemble OperaCréole, the nationally acclaimed New Orleans opera chorus.

The waiting room of the Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Building a Culture of Health in a City of Drive-Through Daiquiris

The ground upon which New Orleans sits was formed by thousands of years and a continent’s worth of sediment emptying from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, the silt and mud became a land mass; plants grew and trees put down roots; animals came and humans followed. New Orleans was born.

Mud of a different sort was everywhere after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees. But as that mud washed away, something new sprouted in New Orleans’ soil: a culture of health. In the aftermath of Katrina, few could have predicted that the next 10 years would bring a profound transformation to the health system here in New Orleans.

The immediate focus after Hurricane Katrina was on restoring critical health services. With most of the region’s hospitals closed and the city’s health workforce dispersed following a mandatory evacuation, impromptu clinics sprang up and a U.S. Navy hospital ship docked in New Orleans to provide healthcare to returning residents.

In the midst of the challenging months after Katrina, community leaders were already beginning to turn their attention to redeveloping the health system in New Orleans. In a fiercely urgent letter written just weeks after the storm, Karen DeSalvo — former health commissioner for the City of New Orleans and current acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — laid out a vision for a redesigned health system, one that would “be better than what we had before and perhaps [would] be better than any other healthcare system.”

She was not alone, and this bold vision crystallized. In November 2005, less than three months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, a collaborative planning group published a “Framework for a Healthier Greater New Orleans.” The framework called for expanded access to primary and preventative care services, as well as an improved public health infrastructure and healthy neighborhood designs.

Ten years later, this vision has largely become a reality. Prior to Katrina, the city’s indigent care was predominantly provided through the venerable Charity Hospital, known as “Big Charity.” With a reputation for never turning patients away, Charity was an institution beloved by New Orleanians for its compassionate care, but this highly centralized system presented barriers to access for many low-income residents.

Today, a network of neighborhood-based health centers is providing high-quality care to over 100,000 patients each year, regardless of their ability to pay. The number of Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) has grown from two in 2005 to 11 in 2015, which is a key indication of growth in the primary care infrastructure of the New Orleans area.

The city’s hospitals have also been rebuilt or replaced. In 2014, the New Orleans East Hospital opened, replacing a facility that was destroyed during Katrina. And the new University Medical Center, the successor to Charity Hospital — which closed following Katrina and never reopened — will open in August 2015 as a $1.1 billion, 2.3-million-square-foot facility providing state-of-the-art care. In addition, a new VA hospital will also open in 2016.

Charity Hospital, which never reopened after Katrina, is surrounded by a series of fences and barbed wire.

At the same time, a nascent culture of health has emerged. A broad spectrum of partners from across the community are working together to improve population health by making healthy choices easier, creating environments that promote health and addressing factors that impact health outcomes. Fit NOLA, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s initiative to make New Orleans one of the top 10 fittest cities in the nation, brings together over 200 partners to promote physical activity and healthy nutrition. We have also adopted an innovative public health approach to addressing violence, including Nola for Life, Mayor Landrieu’s comprehensive murder reduction strategy, and the Blueprint for Safety, a model policy for coordinating the criminal justice response to domestic violence.

Health has also been a key policy consideration as the city has been rebuilt. Earlier this year, the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a smoke-free ordinance banning smoking and vaping in all bars, restaurants and casinos. A 2011 complete streets ordinance requires that all modes of transportation — walking and biking, in addition to cars — be taken into account when streets are redeveloped. As a result, New Orleans now boasts nearly 100 miles of bikeways and trails, up from 10.7 miles in 2004.

Due to all these changes, New Orleans’ ranking in the County Health Rankings — a report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute — has improved for three consecutive years.

To be clear: Much work remains. New Orleans continues to struggle with high rates of violence; sexually transmitted infections, including HIV; and persistent concerns about the lingering mental health effects of Katrina. In addition, the social determinants of health — social and economic factors such as poverty and housing that impact health outcomes — loom large in New Orleans. For example, a recent report found that nearly two in five children in New Orleans live in poverty.

As our community looks ahead to the next 10 years, we are renewing our commitment to equity. Over the next decade, we envision building a healthy New Orleans through equitable social and environmental conditions and policies, programs, and partnerships that promote health.

We will continue to build resilience through strategies that focus on public health preparedness, not just response. We will work with healthcare partners to ensure access to primary care and behavioral health services. We will advance a “health in all policies” approach to local governmental decision-making. And we will advance equity by addressing the social determinants of health.

This big picture outlook and constant drive for improvement is part of the new path forward for New Orleans. We are, in the words of Mayor Landrieu, rebuilding New Orleans “not as she was, but as the city we always wanted her to be.” On this ground, a culture of health has not only taken root, but it has also flourished.

Charlotte Parent is the director of the nationally accredited New Orleans Health Department, where she leads the City of New Orleans’ efforts to improve health outcomes.

Katy Reckdahl and her son, Hector Campbell (age 10), in front of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Living Recovery, One Birthday at a Time

My son, Hector, is a Katrina baby, born as the hurricane was moving ominously toward the Louisiana coast. So I mark the time that’s passed since then by my son’s birthdays.

In the beginning, when my newspaper colleagues and I interviewed disaster experts, they would tell us that recovery can take 20 years for a badly damaged area like New Orleans. Hector will be an adult before the city where he was born is physically rebuilt. The psychological recovery may take another generation, or more.

When Hector was a toddler, we lived on North Rampart Street, at the edge of the French Quarter and the Treme neighborhood.

In the year or two after Katrina, the area was gray and quiet, with few birds and ever fewer young children. Hector was a neighborhood novelty. He was showered with love in a way that starkly contrasted with my worries about raising a young child in a place where dust and mold led to a newly common ailment known as “the Katrina cough.” On top of that, only a handful of daycare centers were open. Most of the city’s parks and playgrounds were fenced off and covered with white FEMA trailers. We’d look out our second-floor window toward Treme and see nothing but darkness.

Hector’s father is a jazz trumpeter. We nearly always had someone sleeping on our couch because they had a gig in town but no bed, or a flooded house that was nothing but a wooden shell.

In that post-Katrina period, our daily routine was to stop into Matassa’s Market, the corner grocer where I experienced my first labor pains, then stroll a few blocks down St. Philip Street so that Hector could climb on a favorite fire-engine jungle gym. The aging playset stood in front of the Treme Community Center, which had been a buzzing hub of children before the storm but stood dark and empty for years afterward.

Finally, eight years after Katrina, the center reopened. Hector and his cousins learned to swim there, and I often pile them into the car for a trip to the pool. But the Treme Center is an example of how recovery is not always linear. The pool was open for a year, then closed for a year, since shoddy repairs needed to be re-done.

Eight years seems extraordinarily long. But lengthy FEMA worksheets show hundreds of buildings where issues as small as door repairs or floor sanding must be negotiated one by one.

Despite this, New Orleanians moved the FEMA process forward in a way that can’t be documented in spreadsheets. People in a city with a reputation for patience became impatient, demanding that their community centers, firehouses and libraries re-open.

The impatience can be observed in other ways. Before Hurricane Katrina, I rarely heard drivers honking. Now I hear them several times a day. In a city known for its leisurely pace, life has sped up. At first, when we returned, I blamed the increase in honking on the newcomers who have flocked to the city in recent years. But now I also think that New Orleanians who have lived through so much are fed up.

Like so many others, I’ve had it with orange cones and potholes, as I bounce home in my aging car.

Last year, I looked through documentation of street repairs and found that one of the reasons they have taken so long is that FEMA can only pay for damage caused by a natural disaster. So FEMA, state and city experts need to agree on the disaster toll for each city street versus pre-Katrina wear and tear. Diagrams of individual blocks look like crazy quilts. Sometimes, FEMA will only agree to pay for two spots in one block, maybe a 20-by-15-foot section here and a 15-by-12 section there.

Still, a lot has improved over the last few years, across the city and within my own household. This fall, Hector will enter fifth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology in the Lower Ninth Ward. Thanks to its determined leaders, King was gutted very early and its renovations were finished by mid-2007, when many school buildings sat untouched.

King re-opened as part of a massive transformation. It began in the wake of Katrina, when the state of Louisiana took over the city’s failing public schools and replaced them with independent charters. Today, the city’s public schools are more than 90 percent charters. In some ways, King is different because when it re-opened, the principal hired a staff of seasoned teachers, a rarity in many New Orleans schools, which now rely heavily on recent college grads.

Officially, King is now the most-requested school in the city’s OneApp, a central application process that allows parents to request seats at nearly all city schools. Yet often, people I meet say, “King, where is that again?”

To me, that’s reflective of how few people really know the city’s schools these days. During the years after Katrina, charters with upbeat names like Success and Renew moved into renovated buildings and talked with parents about school philosophies in ways that made them all seem the same. I can’t tell you the number of times that I interviewed parents at the time who chose their children’s school based upon one criteria: their loyalty to its building. For instance, if they attended Frederick Douglass High School, parents often feel most comfortable sending their child there, even if the school was now run by the charter group KIPP.

The city’s schools are ranked by test scores. But in a town where extended families are so close, I look at cousins. If one cousin attends a school and everyone in the extended family sees it’s a good school, other cousins will transfer there. If there was a way to rank the rate of cousin transfer, we could better understand whether a school was succeeding.

On the last day of school in May, I drove up to King at noon, as instructed, and read a magazine while I waited for Hector to emerge. Big dump trucks rattled past my car, bringing detritus from a flood-damaged house that had been demolished a few blocks away in the Lower Ninth.

Soon, I realized that all of the other parents had already driven off with their children. I got a little worried. Then I saw Hector trudge out the door, toting a Ziploc bag full of water that contained Julius, the class fish, a miniature shark we had agreed to care for during summer break.

Hector got in the car, glum-faced. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Aren’t you happy that it’s summer?”

“Yes,” he said. “But I’m really going to miss Mr. Moorman.” It’s become our annual ritual. He can’t imagine liking the next year’s teacher as much as the last.

As we sit in the car, another dump truck roars past us. Happiness amid recovery. Until the recovery is truly complete, this is the best we can ask for.

Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based news reporter. She has written for the Times-Picayune, the New York Times, National Geographic and numerous other publications.

A crowd gathers at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. (Photo: Idea Village)

Entrepreneurship in the Anti-Silicon Valley

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina washed upon New Orleans a deluge of innovation, investment and sheer muscle. Today, the community of entrepreneurs that I am part of is building a new ecosystem of opportunity, one that we hope will be able to one day soon help to bridge the city’s wide economic disparities.

Now, entrepreneurs enjoy remarkable access to people and resources that can help them realize their visions. Yet there is a tension at the core of this entrepreneur-led renaissance. Even as the national media and think tanks like Brookings Institution report glowingly on the city’s vibrant startup scene, most people involved in the movement are well aware that more than 50 percent of black males here are unemployed and that incomes have flatlined in the community over the last 10 years. We can’t ignore the question of inclusivity if we want to see the city as a whole thrive.

One response toward a more inclusive ecosystem has been what I call the “big tent,” pioneered by nonprofit entrepreneurship incubator Idea Village through its annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW).

What started six years ago as a way to connect business school students from universities like Stanford and Cornell with needy New Orleans entrepreneurs has mushroomed into a seven-day event that last year attracted more than 10,000 people. Think Shark Tank meets Mardi Gras meets the social justice-themed Allied Media Conference. More than 20 local organizations with areas of focus that include gender, ethnicity, culture, geography and industry provide programming for NOEW.

Our ecosystem is imperfect, but we are making progress. The vision: an anti-Silicon Valley with ideas not coming from a few elite incubators but rather flowing from the grassroots on up.

We don’t have Sand Hill Road or Google. Instead there are accessible, if not unlimited, resources for start-up growth and a highly visible platform — NOEW— for organizations that wish to develop and promote programs specific to their constituents. It is an ecosystem based on local culture and identity.

In New Orleans, most post-Katrina companies are conscious of the alignment between their standing and contributions to the community, and the sustainability of their business enterprise. The most successful companies in this lot — Turbo Squid, Federated Sample, iSeatz, Kickboard — have made it a pillar of their business strategy.

What’s grown from these visceral responses to the incomprehensible circumstances of Katrina is a brand of entrepreneurship that remains mindful of its origins and is steadily growing in breadth and sophistication.

Philanthropic first responders are moving to scalable enterprise. Disorganized support networks are efficiently organizing into educational programming and startup accelerators. A growing network of community-focused angel investors and curious Silicon Valley-based VCs are emerging from the early emergency financing of foundation grants, and legions of wild-eyed, inexperienced and necessary risk takers are matriculating through the entrepreneurial Darwinism. The result is increasing capability and success. The first wave of entrepreneurship was, not surprisingly, young. More recently, the movement is swelling with seasoned business people, including expats returning with years of experience and resources, networks in tow.

A key element in the success of the New Orleans entrepreneur ecosystem is a focus on the city’s unique areas of opportunity, which include both under-optimized assets and our deepest, intractable problems. These industry “verticals” include innovation in the areas of food and hospitality, energy and entertainment as well as water management, climate change, and education reform. Locally grown 4.0 Schools has become a national model for “ed-tech” incubation and will be leading similar initiatives across the U.S. The focus on indigenous verticals further aligns the entrepreneur movement in New Orleans with its cultural identity and offers, perhaps, some opportunity to link past and future as the city evolves.

When considering the entrepreneur movement in New Orleans it is tempting to suggest that any progress is better than the failed, fated existence that exacerbated the destruction caused by the failure of the levees in August 2005. But that would be disingenuous. Because while entrepreneurship can be a powerful solution, it implicitly stands on the shoulders of what’s come before, repurposing assets. It consumes and reapplies community resources — human, natural and capital — that belong to all. In the end it must contribute rather than extract, with a value proposition to the community that strengthens and improves the quality of life of its members. Which is why we remain vigilant and engaged as the city moves forward. We can’t and won’t confuse progress with success.

Robbie Vitrano does a lot of stuff. He co-founded Trumpet, Idea Village, Naked Pizza, Spiffly, Freedom Pizza. He tries to live in the Venn diagram of pay it forward, creative intelligence, meaningful work, friends and family.

Orleans Parish Prison looms behind residential buildings

How Katrina Forced Us to Reform a Broken Criminal Justice System

How do you run a criminal justice system when all that remains are 6,300 evacuated inmates wearing battered, removable wristbands and soiled jumpsuits?

Katrina had blown away the jail, which had, before the storm, been widely misused. Instead of just holding defendants who posed a flight risk while awaiting trial, the misnamed Orleans Parish Prison also held thousands of pretrial defendants who didn’t pose a risk, but couldn’t afford to pay a financial bond. There was no effective mechanism to determine risk then, and there certainly wasn’t one after, with no functioning jail, the courthouse flooded, records gone and new arrestees to process.

Wristbands identified each inmate and the severity of their offense. People in jail quickly learn to identify weakness and immediately, people began to swap bands. We had those arrested for the most minor of offenses in cells with those convicted of the most heinous of offenses.

That was the men. For women, the situation was worse. Female inmates were transported to male prisons; their heads were shaved and breasts taped.

The bus/train station became the temporary jail with the magistrate court conducted on site. We would use prisons, law school moot courtrooms, federal courtrooms and other state courts to conduct other court matters.

Amid this chaos, plenty were wrongly incarcerated and virtually everyone was forced into conditions that no person should have to endure, no matter their debt to society. We were still finding individuals who were wrongly incarcerated months after the storm.

Katrina had only magnified the disarray of New Orleans’ criminal justice system. A report I co-authored with Mathilde Laisne and Jon Wool of the Vera Institute shows a system overly reliant on incarceration as a response to crime, misusing commercial bonds to extract revenue from incarcerated individuals, devastating communities, and ultimately failing to address violent crime.

For those of us working within that system, the storm made very clear: We needed to reexamine how we jailed people. Everything from the courthouses to the jails had to be rebuilt, but rebuilt at what size?

When a proposal to replace the damaged jail with a new 5,832-bed jail became public, community groups rallied against it with a message: New Orleans could not afford, financially or ethically, to continue incarcerating its residents at a rate five times the national average. When jail beds are built, they get filled, too often in New Orleans by people convicted of nonviolent offenses, who pose no flight risk, but can’t afford to pay bond.

A working group convened by the mayor determined that New Orleans would only require 1,485 jail beds by 2020 if incarceration policies were reformed. That meant people who could receive probation on the arrested offenses would not be jailed. People with traffic offenses — save third or higher DUI offenses — would not be jailed. Crucially, a Vera Institute-assisted project has shown good if modest results increasing the number of low flight risk arrestees being released on non-financial bail, so that those people too don’t end up jailed.

In retrospect, our problem in New Orleans before the storm was that we didn’t care. We didn’t care about the cost, or the societal impact, or the people we were imprisoning. We thought there was a correlation between harshness on crime and public safety. In fact what we cared most about was how the public perceived us. We had a formula, large jail populations equal public safety equals reelection. We were right about the latter but wrong about everything else.

Judge Calvin Johnson (ret.) served 18 years on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck, he was Chief Judge of the Court.

Members of the Black Mohawk Mardi Gras Indians parade at the Jazz and Heritage Festival (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Prettiest Culture to Survive Katrina Is Now Under Threat

Two months before the life-changing storm, I watched Big Chief Tootie Montana’s funeral meander through Treme. The streets were packed. There were beautiful Mardi Gras Indians as far as I could see. The great musicians of New Orleans and the not-so-great musicians were all there. The older black folk watched from their homes as two white horses carried Tootie through the neighborhood. Some stepped outside and nodded approvingly at the passersby and others watched from inside their screen doors. Tootie Montana was our elder statesman, our befallen hero, who died in city council chambers condemning police harassment of the Mardi Gras Indians. Big Chief Tootie died on the battlefield. There are some in the community who believe that the killer storm was called forward by the ancestors, because of the circumstances of Big Chief Tootie’s death.

We are not 100 percent sure of when or why the Mardi Gras Indian tradition started, but there are theories. One suggests it was an easy way to escape during slavery. A slave could dress as an Indian and make his way out to marooned Native American communities in the swamp. Another theory suggests it was a way to pay homage to the indigenous Americans of South Louisiana who offered us refuge and respite from white men who enslaved us, chased us to the swamp with shackles and whips.

Mardi Gras Indian culture has a hierarchy. Spy boys run in front of the gang to look for trouble. Flag boys carry long spectacular poles, some almost 10 feet tall, displaying the name of their gangs. Spectators and rival Indian tribes can identify them from blocks away. The Big Queen is the highest-ranking female; she stays by the Big Chief’s side. The wildman keeps unwanted visitors away from our leader; he’s the crowd control expert. His headpiece is usually adorned with horns. The head Negro in charge is the Big Chief. They’re all pretty, but he’s the prettiest.

Every Mardi Gras Indian takes pride in his or her ability to push a needle and thread through fabrics to create their own masterpiece. Calling one of these suits a costume is a sure way to get punched in the eye. Revelers playing make-believe wear costumes; Mardi Gras Indians wear suits. The one who wears it is the one who made it. This tradition is serious business to the purveyors of the culture. They take pride in the beauty of their gang’s suits, bragging about how their gang uses the most refined ostrich feathers, while their rivals wear cheaper chicken feathers. They remember the year their Big Chief wore all white, or the year his red suit was accented in blue.

It is an ironic world, where a hybrid concoction of machismo meets beauty pageant. Mardi Gras Indians take pride in calloused hands and hurting fingers pricked by pushing needles through fabric and beads several hours a day. They boast about being the prettiest Indian in the land, but exude a spirit of fight and defiance. Their mantra is “never bow down because we don’t know how.”

When I was a kid my grandmother would tell me stories about the Indians. She said at one time the mock hatchets and guns were real. In fact there’s a standard Indian song called “Cory Died on the Battlefield.” These days Indians prefer to express their bravery and courage in songs. Indians only do call and response, another gift from our West African ancestors. The lead does the call, and the followers do the response. They look and listen for a strong charismatic voice with a sharp tongue, and a quick wit, where adversaries are destroyed in words.

The culture has a soulful dance, and the followers can call by name the ones who do it best. Spy Boy Skeeta of the Apache Hunters is my favorite. Big Chief Donald Harrison of the Congo Nation is one as well. He’s a brilliant New Orleans saxophonist who carries on the tradition of his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. I remember seeing Junior at the first Super Sunday parade after Katrina. The crowds were huge and the parade was part family reunion and part affirmation of a New Orleans recovery. Big Chief Donald Harrison strutted down Orleans Ave, in his full Indian regalia. He wore a beautiful blue suit accented in white.

Dancers at the funeral of Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana (AP Photo/Megan Nadolski)

Katrina shined a huge spotlight on New Orleans and her unique cultural artifacts. People wondered if we had lost them for good to the failed levees. I myself wasn’t sure. Amid the uncertainty, documentarians of all kinds rushed in to capture the culture. Mardi Gras Indians became celebrities on Flickr and Facebook. Films were produced, articles published and dissertations written. David Simon made a TV show, “Treme.”

By now, the Mardi Gras Indians are no longer a mysterious subculture of the black working-class. These days, when I see the Indians parading on New Orleans streets, there are just as many white people as there are black. Tourists come to see big black men dressed in feathers and sequins and buy cold Heinekens from the neighborhood guys. Before Katrina, these neighborhood celebrations of the black working-class would be among the last places you would find white people or the black middle-class, let alone a tourist.

I don’t fear the attention. Attention can’t destroy the Mardi Gras Indian culture, but there is a real threat looming. I fear our Indians will suffer the same fate as the brave Native Americans they honor.

The white folks are coming. Not the ones coming to see the dancing, but the ones who are coming to purchase homes in their neighborhoods. Housing prices have skyrocketed in the neighborhoods where Indians and other working-class black folk have lived for decades. The custodians of the culture that made Treme famous can no longer afford to live there. They get pushed out, and chased to New Orleans East, a land that was still a swamp in 1950.

And as that neighborhood becomes more working-class and more black, the fewer amenities it has, and the more it resembles the marooned Indian communities of the 18th century. In the meantime the newcomers claim the land the Indians have been forced to leave. The new people don’t understand the intricacies of the culture, and they don’t care. In some neighborhoods the approving waves or nods from front porches have already changed to suspicious stares. When the music is too loud or the parade too long, the police get called.

I believe that we’ve lost Treme and if we aren’t careful we will lose Central City, the Lower Ninth Ward and other bastions of black culture in New Orleans. Gentrification is trying to do what Katrina couldn’t. The Indians couldn’t be taken by Katrina’s floods and likely will weather this storm too. The question is how. Reservations, after all, can take many forms.

Chuck Perkins lives in his hometown of New Orleans. He’s a well-known poet, radio talk show host, club owner and band leader.

Townhouses in the Columbia Parc housing development, a mixed-income neighborhood that replaced the old St. Bernard projects in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans

Katrina Didn’t Wash Away Housing Discrimination

Ten years ago, New Orleans faced one of the worst disasters in American history. In the face of widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians once more showcased their trademark resilience and spirit.

Ten years later, New Orleans once again thrives. The city is in the midst of an economic revival, and new residents continue to flock to the area. But even amid tremendous growth, many of New Orleans’ most vulnerable residents remain, for all intents and purposes, excluded from a city they’ve lived in for generations.

Today, almost 60 percent of New Orleans renters are “rent-burdened,” defined by HUD as any family spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Furthermore, about one-third of the city’s renters are severely rent-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of their salary on rent and utilities.

Low-income residents face impossible choices about whether to accept substandard housing conditions, or spend higher percentages of their incomes on housing. In particular, former public housing residents and current Section 8 voucher holders must figure out how to navigate an increasingly hostile market. After Hurricane Katrina, over 5,000 units of public housing (3,077 of which were occupied) were demolished when the Housing Authority of New Orleans took the four largest housing developments — known as the “Big Four” — offline. As of today, only about 600 of those units have been replaced.

Displaced public housing residents whose homes were demolished were given Section 8 vouchers in hopes that they would find acceptable private-market housing. However, we now know that instead of providing mobility to low-income New Orleanians, the reliance on vouchers has instead concentrated low-income people in chronically poor and racially segregated neighborhoods that are cut off from infrastructure and city services. It is clear that access to quality, affordable housing remains elusive for many residents in post-Katrina New Orleans.

However, low-income residents are not the only persons adversely affected by New Orleans’ post-Katrina housing landscape. In the summer of 2014, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) began an investigation into whether African-Americans were being denied access to high-opportunity neighborhoods in the city.

GNOFHAC worked with trained mystery shoppers — known as “testers” — who sought housing in prime New Orleans neighborhoods. The neighborhoods covered by the investigation were those that provide access to infrastructure necessary for life success: quality schools, reliable public transportation, grocery stores and low crime rates. The results were published in January 2015 and found that African-American testers were denied access almost 50 percent of the time.

In the tests, African-American mystery shoppers were slightly better qualified than their white counterparts in income, career paths and rental histories. Yet landlords consistently provided less favorable treatment to African-Americans testers, often making stereotypical assumptions and in many cases subjecting African-Americans to a more burdensome application and approval process than the process offered to white testers.

Racial discrimination in housing has been a persistent and unfortunate theme in New Orleans, exacerbated by the tremendous pressure on the post-Katrina rental housing market. From individual landlords seeking to capitalize on the whiter, wealthier makeup of the city’s residents post-2005, to local government entities promulgating legislation that has a disproportionately negative impact on people of color, unlawful discrimination continues to drive the marginalization of people of color and other minorities.

After the levees broke and floodwaters rushed through the greater New Orleans area, St. Bernard Parish — a community directly adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward — suffered extreme damage. In 2006, the Parish was in the midst of rebuilding. Motivated by the fear that displaced African-American residents of New Orleans would seek housing in St. Bernard Parish, the local government passed a law mandating that private homeowners seeking to rent their homes to tenants could only rent to persons related to the homeowner by blood.

At the time, over 90 percent of the homeowners in St. Bernard Parish were white. By extension, the majority of their blood relatives would also be white. Even though the law did not explicitly state that African-Americans were prohibited from renting homes, the law functioned to effectively bar African-Americans from renting in St. Bernard Parish. After a federal court declared the “blood-relative ordinance” to be a violation of the Fair Housing Act, the Parish government then banned the building of all multi-family housing, in another attempt to restrict the access to that community.

With ever-rising rents in the city and the associated cost burden for low- and middle-income earners, New Orleanians are increasingly pushed out of the city’s center to far-flung and surrounding communities. If the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a marker in time for us, then the next 10 years are critical: City leaders, advocates, policymakers, housing providers and other stakeholders must work to advance housing choice and opportunity in neighboring communities like St. Bernard; to ensure access by all New Orleanians to neighborhoods marked by infrastructure, wealth and opportunity; and to bring those same assets to neighborhoods that are struggling.

New Orleans is a city that greatly values the contributions of its culture bearers — the musicians and artists upon which New Orleans’ reputation as a cultural mecca have been built. Further, the contributions of the workers who drive New Orleans’ service-based economy are invaluable. This point in the city’s history presents a unique opportunity to live our values and ensure those same families can continue to live in the city that they’ve always called home. We must act decisively, and think creatively, to solve the affordability and access crises.

Cashauna Hill is executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC). Hill is a graduate of Spelman College and Tulane Law School.

Local residents ride their bikes past Dauphine Street in the Bywater District.

I Moved Here and Ruined the Scene

Like most gentrifiers, I arrived in New Orleans seeking refuge from the suburbs. I was looking for a place that had not been created to order by the Protestant Work Ethic, where the terrible architecture of American post-war wealth did not rule. I wanted a place where the fundamental values of the city were not so linearly pointed away from joy.

I was 25 years old when I came to New Orleans to visit my family in 1996. I ended up in a bar where people sang 15 songs together. It was transcendent, and I made immediate plans to move to the city. This type of story is cliché in New Orleans; its variations include falling in love with the people, the architecture, the culture, the pace, the climate, the light, or the fact that strangers talk to one another.

New Orleans is easy to marvel at. My dad would say, “So beautiful, and so close to America.” This felt true to me, and it also felt talismanic. I had a perverse confidence at the end of the 1990s in New Orleans’ ability to continue to ward off American capitalism. There were the structural problems that seemed to slow gentrification: segregated schools; a city government at war against its own people; the uneven enforcement of law; tickets on cars parked for community events.

I naively thought these structural problems would continue to prevent capitalism’s renewal in the city. And there was the ongoing racism of America — the continuing disinvestment from African-American cities. I took great joy in living in what Kalamu Ya Salaam called “The only African city in North America.”

So I took comfort that I was safe from suburbia, never reckoning with how much of suburbia I was bringing with me. Like most punk rockers, the word gentrification was on my lips. I saw the early signs in my neighborhood, near the Fair Grounds: home prices rising, white families buying in. “For Sale” signs moved the neighborhood only one direction — toward whiteness, toward a Protestant vision of a city. The suburbs were beginning to encroach upon the city. And the politicians were celebrating every step toward a wealthier and whiter city.

That is where we were in 2005. New Orleans’ residents  had already endured a thousand cuts before the levees failed us. And after the water was pumped back into the lake, we took stock, both as individuals and as a community. Most of us wanted to come back home, to rebuild. And the government helped some of us more than others.

Instead of a new and glorious city, the utopia in which our “Elysian Fields,” would be more reality and less aspirational, we rebuilt a city largely the same, predicated upon racist laws and a disdain for the working-class. To be specific, we recreated structures that had been built by colonization and racism. Public housing residents were evicted and their homes demolished under the guise of redevelopment plans that would result in fewer units, built years after families had already been forced to start over elsewhere.

The most egregious — the formula for the Road Home program, funded by Congress and administered by Baton Rouge — created a situation in which homeowners were given money not based on the cost of rebuilding, but rather on the pre-Katrina worth of the house. So neighborhoods that were already gentrified received bonus money. Or, put another way, working-class black neighborhoods were penalized for being mostly African-American.

I can’t help but lament the conversations that did not carry the day during the last 10 years. I’d like nothing more than to blithely agree that New Orleans has won with pluck and spirit and a can-do attitude, but that narrative flies against what I have seen on Dumaine Street in the last decade. I am not sure that New Orleans has won, or what it has won.

Today, New Orleans feels like a precious echo of the New Orleans that was irresistible to me in 1997. The architecture has been preserved and often fetishized. The tropes of the city are lauded on T-shirts. Like most of America, there is a current, near-evangelical pride in the hyper-local. But most of this pride is manifest by the arrivistes (to disparage in the hyper-local way of 200 years ago). And though many are respectful of the ground on which they stand, there is no denying that the arrivistes cannot fathom the history that made the culture that now withstands all of the puns (you can add “eaux” to anything that ends with an “o” sound).

The city has withstood waves of immigrants before, and is likely to withstand and tolerate this current wave as well. But there is no mistaking this: The city has more of the Protestant Work Ethic and world view from which I was seeking refuge. People now distribute business cards and talk shop at social gatherings.

I say all of this as participant in the last wave of gentrification, a group who often now sits around and complains about the current unaffordability of the city, because I want the lessons learned over the last 18 years to be heard. For a city government to allow gentrification to go unchecked — it is never checked by New Orleans’ government, only celebrated — is to declare that the government hates and wants to displace the current residents. To make plans for not nearly enough affordable housing is planning to displace those who need affordable housing. And that is what the city is currently planning. 

This puts me at odds with my own original impetus to move to New Orleans. I wanted to get away from seriousness required by government policy. To live in a place where community members spend their collective wealth playing dress-up and throwing parties. But to do so without inviting everyone means that the parties will only get worse. And there is nothing I would like to admit less than to admit that I have already been to the best party.

Abram Shalom Himelstein is the co-founder of the Neighborhood Story Project. He is the author of What the Hell Am I Doing Here: The 100 T-Shirt Project and co-author, with Jamie Schweser, of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing.

Arise Academy, a new charter school in the Dr. Charles Drew School Building on St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans

I Am a New Orleans Public School Grad, But My Child Won’t Be

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and a state takeover ripped apart and re-stitched New Orleans public schools, I’m a little more comfortable with the options on the table.

I feel better about sending my son to public school today than I would have in 2005, when a majority of schools were deemed subpar, when local improvement plans changed as often as school superintendents did, and when a high school valedictorian tried and failed six times to pass Louisiana’s graduation exam.

I’m just not sure he would get in to the places I want to send him.

My sentiments are no different from that of many parents. As those with competing views about education reforms argue over who’s running the schools and whether charter school gains are real, we’re filling out the OneApp, attending the packed lotteries, and parsing out which schools, charter or no, will be the best fit for our children.

That’s not to say those other arguments aren’t important. But for some parents, they miss the point. The single-most important factor, for me and others, is whether there are enough top-rated schools for my child and everyone else’s.

And 10 years post-Katrina, there aren’t.

Attending school in New Orleans before the disaster was a matter of means. If you had the cash or could find it, you sent your kid to private school and bypassed the frustrating system entirely. If your child was smart or a good test-taker, you could try your hand at one of the more selective magnet schools.

With neither means nor test-taking skills, you enrolled your child in the neighborhood school and risked the ills that came with it.

Growing up, we were fortunate enough to have both. I spent three years in private school before my mother enrolled me in the public magnet school where she taught. From then on, it was magnets or bust. As the end of elementary school neared, the kids in my gifted class spoke of the rigid admissions test at Lusher Alternative Elementary and of McMain Magnet Secondary School’s impressive, if weathered, building on South Claiborne Avenue.

There was no talk of my neighborhood school, Pierre A. Capdau Junior High, nor of the dozens of other low-performing schools that were a system majority. I ended up at McMain, then Edna Karr Secondary School.

Though much has changed now, much has not. There are more schools with higher scores, but former magnets and long-time top performers — Benjamin Franklin High, Lusher, McMain and more — are still the only names many parents trust. And scores of other families still find the cash for private school.

For anyone invested in public education, therein lies the problem.

When I attended a lottery at a New Orleans public school some time ago, I could tell the pickings were slim by the number of cars wrapped around the block. The cafeteria was packed with meticulous parents who had completed the precise admissions requirements to the letter, and who were now ready to trust a bingo cage with their child’s shot at a great education.

I was unsurprised when my son finally was placed somewhere in the 20s on the school’s second-priority waiting list. Though other parents placed higher, no one found out that day whether they’d gotten in, or even how many spots were available. We found out soon after that few children seeking seats in most grades made the cut. A year later, we moved to a different parish, seeking better neighborhood and school options. 

Today, that appears to be the norm for most parents seeking top schools, whether the schools hold lotteries or join centralized enrollment. Of 80-plus schools open in the 2013-14 school year, only eight received A ratings. Most of those are under the Orleans Parish School Board and did well before the storm. The Recovery School District, which largely authorizes the city’s independent charters, has no A schools.

School reform critics, pointing to the number of schools with low scores, have questioned the city’s progress. When the only schools with room are failing or mediocre, parent choice is an illusion, they claim.

Still, proponents point to improvement. Even as A schools are few, subpar schools have shrunk, from 73 in 2005 to 13 last year. Three of those 13 have since been closed, and another four are alternative schools for students who would otherwise drop out. And individual students, by many state and even some national metrics, are doing better, though there’s still much work left to be done.

But in what was perhaps the reason some educators initially critiqued letter grades, slow progress doesn’t matter to parents who see a C, D or F on a school’s report card. Many parents want what I want: a first-rate education for their children, as judged by state and national standards. And in a landscape where a low letter grade can mean an eventual closure, other parents avoid schools with average ratings in a bid for stability.

That’s why high schools like Edna Karr and McMain are the first and second choices on the OneApp, and why hundreds of parents fill out Franklin’s applications each year. It’s why they take off work to muddle through admissions tests and lotteries and competing deadlines. And it’s why they’ll continue to do so, until all schools offer equitable educations.

Ten years after Katrina, the city’s schools have progressed in small, steady steps. Perhaps in 10 more years, my child and every other child will attend schools that have grown by leaps and bounds.

Jessica Williams covers Jefferson Parish education for NOLA.com/the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. She is a New Orleans native and a product of New Orleans public schools.

Bayou Bienvenue in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

How to Decide If New Orleans Is Storm-Proof Enough for You

A friend of a friend approached me at a party with a confession and a question.

The confession: He had fallen under the spell of New Orleans, my hometown. He loved the music, the food, the architecture and — more than anything else the joie de vivre attitude that permeates this least American of U.S. cities. His visits were lasting longer.

The question: As a native and a reporter who has covered its environmental issues for 40 years, did I recommend moving here? Had its new, $14.5 billion levee system made it safer from future Hurricane Katrina?

It’s a routine I’ve become accustomed to since Hurricane Katrina.

I told him to grab another beer and have a seat. The answer to this question is never simple, or short.

Basically it comes down to three questions:

How comfortable are you with risk?

What will the national political trend be over the next two decades?

How old are you?

Let’s start at the top.

1. How risky is it?
Without question the city is now safer from a Katrina-like storm — right now. And that qualifier is very, very important.

The new system is the best the city has ever had. It is bigger, stronger and more resilient than what it replaced. Just as importantly, the local levee districts are now overseen by largely apolitical boards that must have engineering, scientific and other professional qualifications. They have watched the Army Corps of Engineers’ every move on the new system from design to final inspection.

But the new system is actually built to a lower standard of protection than the improperly constructed one it replaced.


Well, after Katrina the Bush Administration and Congress decided it could not afford the Category 3 storm protection ordered by Congress in 1965, a standard that would stand up to a 300-year storm — which Katrina was. Instead, it gave the city 100-year protection — because that was the bare minimum required to qualify for federal flood insurance.

Still, experts say it’s better than the old system because they are confident it’s been built strong enough not to collapse in another Katrina event. The system is likely to be “overtopped” — have waves or surge cresting its heights — even in a 100-year storm. But flooding damage would be minimal.

Indeed, post-Katrina investigations showed that had the levees and walls not collapsed during Katrina, the flooding in areas where the water reached 12 feet might only have been shin deep.

“If the levees don’t fail, then over-topping is not a really serious issue,” says Bob Jacobson, a consulting engineer who reviewed the system for the local levee authority.

But this new system does not mean New Orleans property owners don’t have to worry about flooding, or damaging winds — or even storms that could overwhelm the system.

“The original system was called a ‘hurricane protection system,’ but this one is called a ‘risk reduction system,’” Jacobson points out. “That’s an important distinction. And they are only providing a system that reduces the risk from a 100-year storm, for a major metropolitan area that has a recent return frequency of about 50 years for 400-year storms.”

Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, put it this way, “It’s as if your poorly built, three-story house collapsed, so the contractor said, ‘Ok, I’ll replace it with a well-made, two-story house.’ A major metro area that has only a razor-thin commitment with insurability is one that is gambling with its future.”

In fact, these same engineers say anyone moving to New Orleans should accept hurricane evacuation as a certainty, just as residents in Western states have to accept the risk of forest fire and earthquakes.

“You better have flood insurance,” Jacobson says. “That won’t eliminate the risk, it just means you’ll be able to fix the damage when it happens.”

2. What will the national political trend be over the next two decades?
Unfortunately the future efficacy of that new system is threatened over the next 50 years by a threat facing the entire nation — only it’s much more serious and immediate in southeast Louisiana: climate change.

Measurements by NOAA show southeast Louisiana is sinking at one of the fastest rates of any large coastal landscape on the planet. And it is doing so at the same time that sea level is rising due to human-caused global warming. The state has lost about 2,000 square miles of its coastal wetlands since the 1930s, and the damage continues.

At current rates of subsidence and sea level rise, researchers report most of southeast Louisiana will be swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico before the end of the century. That will leave New Orleans sitting on a narrow ribbon of land inside levees surrounded by the open Gulf, an easy target for even small storms.

It’s all our fault. All of coastal Louisiana rests on deltas built by annual floods of the Mississippi River for about 7,000 years. When the great Mississippi River Levee System was finished in 1934 to stop the constant flooding of communities, that process was stopped, ensuring the landmass would begin to sink under its own weight.

If that’s all we had done, researchers have reported, the coastal wetlands that existed in the 1930s would largely be intact today. But that’s not all we did. About the same time those levees were being finished, oil and gas was discovered in the coastal zone. Eventually 50,000 oil and gas rigs would be drilled and another 4,000 would be placed offshore. More than 10,000 miles of canals were dredged in support of that industry allowing saltwater to rush into the estuaries, causing an annual erosion rate that reached 50 square miles a year in the 1970s.

The state has a $50 billion, 50-year plan to put the river back to work on some sections of the coast. Its computers show if all projects are completed on schedule, the state might be gaining more new wetlands than it is losing in aggregate by 2060. But Louisiana doesn’t have $50 billion. Thanks to its own contributions and the recent BP settlement, it has enough funding to keep its master plan going for about another 15 years. Unless Congress decides this is a national issue, that means the sparse wetlands buffers still protecting those new levees will be gone — putting the Gulf of Mexico against the backyards of the metro area.

Just as challenging: If sea level rise continues to run toward recent gloomy projections, even if those projects are funded, the effort might be too little, too late.

There are solutions to the climate problem, technically much simpler than building that levee system. But they would require action by Congress, something the controlling Republican Party has sworn to oppose.

Amazingly, Louisiana’s congressional delegation — with the exception of its lone Democrat, a House member from New Orleans — consistently votes against carbon regulations. An oil state with a conservative streak, these suicide votes haven’t deterred the voters from sending these same politicians back to Washington — knowing full well they will vote against the best interests of this and future generations of coastal Louisiana residents.

That political posture is causing the state problems trying to gain sympathy in Washington for its coastal crisis. The state is likened to a lung cancer patient trying to crowdsource funds for chemo treatments — but refusing to quit smoking.

So, yes the city is likely safer for the next few decades. And, yes, it has a plan to address parts of its sinking coast. But there’s a sunset clause on all of that hope unless the nation gets serious about addressing climate change.

Which leads us to that third question.

3. How old are you?
Someone considering a move to New Orleans would have to accept the anxiety of living in hurricane alley, the inconvenience of occasional evacuations and the high cost of flood insurance.

Knowing the new levee system likely won’t fail may make the risk factor acceptable. And evacuation doesn’t have to be terrible if you plan ahead. Look at it this way: There are no advance warnings on earthquakes.

But the age question is harder to resolve.

If climate change is not addressed, the chance of New Orleans’ long-term survival as a viable, livable city likely will have turned grim by 2050. The evidence will be floodwalls standing naked against Gulf rollers due to the loss of wetlands.

That means if you’re a young person looking for a stable place to raise a family, where you can watch your children and grandchildren enjoy the city you love, this requires a lot of faith, and a not so small gamble.

But if you’re 65, like me, then it’s not such an issue. My lifetime guarantee against environmental destruction is likely to hold.

So I’m getting ready for the next Saints season, planning my Mardi Gras masks, thumbing through the Jazz Fest schedule, and lining up the shrimp boils and oysters grill parties.

I’ve got the time to display that special New Orleans attitude that attracts certain people to this beautiful, troubled place.

Bob Marshall is a New Orleans journalist whose reporting on Louisiana coastal issues has been recognized by two Pulitzer Prizes.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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William Widmer is a freelance photographer who spends most of his time in New Orleans, Louisiana. He’s a frequent contributor to The New York Times and covers news and feature stories throughout the South.

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