Excerpt from ‘Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later: A View from Chicago’

But how is the city of New Orleans now, five years later? I reached out to a few residents that lived there before, during, and after the storm. Jarret Lofstead, instructor at Loyola University New Orleans and Senior Editor at NOLAFugees Press told me:

If you’re asking how the New Orleans of 2010 meets the expectations of the immediate post-K era, that’s a funny question. Despite all the well-documented tales of community, heroics and resiliency, the anxiety of 2005-06 was centered on whether or not the city would continue to exist, and in what shape: what neighborhoods and institutions would remain. We all rallied around the fleur-de-lis, a banner representing those cultural elements that make the city unique. None of that has changed.On the other hand, what has changed is the skin that’s been laid over the daily life of the city. For the past four years, we’ve been told about all the wonderful innovations, new businesses, ideas, housing and institutions that will ensure New Orleans achieves its potential in the 21st century. Some oft-touted examples include “more restaurants than before the storm,” “more young professionals moving to the city,” the Recovery School District/Charter School System, Brad Pitt’s Make It Right houses in the Lower 9. But scratch the skin and more restaurants with fewer people means less revenue. More young professionals, but check the job postings in the Times-Picayune or Craigslist; are there more middle-class jobs? Ask the workers at Avondale, which is about to close.

Lofstead points to a new wind turbine company setting up shop in Michoud that’s providing 600 new jobs. But that replaces NASA’s assembly plant that produced external fuel tanks for the space shuttle program and had provided as many as 5,000 jobs at one point in the 1980s, but fell to 2,600 in 2009 and down to around 1,000 this year. A recent report said that 93,000 jobs have been added in New Orleans since the storm as the population has increased to 86 percent of what it was before the storm. While the city’s new charter schools have seem some limited success (Chicagoans will recognize Paul Vallas, New Orleans Recovery School District superintendent as the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools), the city’s public schools continue to struggle, many still in the state’s failing category on test scores. And, as Lofstead points out, “We’re getting better, but we’re still the murder capital.”

Gary Gautier, a long-time resident of Mid-City who’s house took on eight feet of water during the flood, echoed concerns over crime: “It really does seem worse than ever. In my neighborhood alone, we had one armed robbery that I know of in the 5 years before Katrina; now we have several a year plus a couple of carjackings. And although it is true that murder victims are usually (but not always) targets known by the killer, this is not true of armed robberies and carjackings, which overwhelmingly affect innocent bystanders. And you hear of the same thing more commonly now in Lakeview or out around UNO.” Gautier also notes the increase in young adults in the city, a youth movement local leaders will help reverse what’s been called the city’s “brain drain“: “There is some trickle of young, energetic professionals into the city post-Katrina. I don’t know if it’s enough to have a truly salutary effect, but it is a positive sign.”

So there are reasons for optimism even though, beneath the surface, as Lofstead notes, things are still very much as they were before the storm: “There are surface changes, but New Orleans is fundamentally the same. The levees may have been improved, but they are still woefully inadequate. If you want to buy a house, you have to buy it on the floodplain because you can’t afford to buy where it’s dry.”