I wrote last week about the alarming murder rate in post-Katrina New Orleansâ€”nine murders in the first eight days of 2007 (previous post). I also pointed out that the problems that New Orleans is facing are not mainly due to Katrina. Katrina merely exacerbated problems that were there before the storm.
I’m finding that more and more people are coming to this same conclusion about the Crescent City. Not only did Nicole Gelinas warn over a year ago that the pre-Katrina dysfunction of New Orleans would cripple its recovery, but now Adam Nossiter of the New York Times is saying the same thing. He writes:
“The new doubts, surprisingly, are largely not based on the widespread damage caused by the flood. Rather, crippling problems that existed long before Hurricane Katrina are mostly being blamed for the city’s failure to thrive. . . Hurricane Katrina may have brutally recalibrated the city’s demographics, setting New Orleans firmly on the path its underlying characteristics had already been leading it down: a city losing people at the rate of perhaps 1.5 percent a year before Hurricane Katrina, with a stagnant economy, more than a quarter of the population living in poverty, and a staggeringly high rate of unemployment, in which as many as one in five were jobless or not seeking work.”
Nossiter also suggests something very controversial. Even though the city’s population is about half of what it was before Katrina hit (from 444,000 to 200,000), Nossiter says that it might be best if New Orleans would stay small.
“Political leaders, worried about the loss of clout and a Congressional seat, press for people to return, but a smaller New Orleans may not be bad, some economists say. Most of those who have not returned â€” 175,000, by Mr. Stonecipher’s count â€” are very poor, and can be more easily absorbed in places with vibrant job markets, they say.
“Large-scale concentrations of deep poverty â€” as was the case in New Orleans before the storm â€” are inherently harmful to cities. The smaller New Orleans is almost certain to wind up with a far higher percentage of its population working than before Hurricane Katrina.”
Pundits and commentators who pine away for the pre-Katrina New Orleans cannot possibly have more than a tourist’s knowledge of the Big Easy. The problems of poverty, unemployment, and crime were there well before the storm, even though they were hardly noticed by those who were passing through to party in the Quarter.
My guess is that New Orleans will never again be the leading city of my native state. That baton has been passed to the capital, Baton Rougeâ€”maybe for the better. The fact that the rest of the Gulf Coast (even Mississippi which got the brunt of the storm) is recovering makes one wonder what the problem is in New Orleans. It’s become increasingly clear that New Orleans’ stalled recovery is not due to Katrina.