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More than 1,800 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods eight years ago.
New Orleans was one of the hardest-hit places, particularly its Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, where some of the city’s poorest residents live. It’s still struggling to recover.
But business leaders proudly point to how New Orleans has recently been designated a top boomtown and “aspirational” city in the U.S.
Journalist James O’Byrne says New Orleanians are more optimistic about their city now than they’ve ever been.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Eight years ago today, Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, leaving 1,800 people dead and the rest of the country shocked and appalled. Here is how NBC News reported it.
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BRIAN WILLIAMS: There are an uncounted number of the dead tonight. Looting was everywhere. In a city with no basic human services, there is little police can do. Today, we found the body of a dead man on a street corner...
HOBSON: Well, last night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proclaimed New Orleans America's comeback city. Bloomberg recently named the Big Easy the No. 2 boom town in the U.S. But vacant homes and lots still dot the city. Crime is still a problem; so is poverty.
In a few minutes, we're going to be joined by a journalist who lived through the storm, but joining us now from WWNO in New Orleans is Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans. That's the city's economic development group. Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL HECHT: Thank you, Jeremy, great to be here, appreciate it.
HOBSON: Well, I assume that you agree with Bloomberg, that New Orleans is a boom town. Tell us why.
HECHT: New Orleans is a boom town for a number of reasons. In many ways, it hasn't just come back from Katrina; it's come back better than before. And so the intrinsic strengths that were always here - which were the river, energy, culture, which is incredibly important in an increasingly homogenous world - those are being allowed to shine through because we've now addressed the issues that were holding us back for so long. Issues like corruption, issues like vulnerability to flood, issues like business conditions that weren't ideal have now been addressed.
And it's been a combination of elected leadership, like the governor and the mayor; but also for the first time, the business community has stood up and is addressing these issues straight on whereas for many decades, I would argue, the business community really abdicated responsibility to the elected officials. Now, the business community is addressing these issues head-up, and the results we're seeing in the media.
HOBSON: Well, give us some examples of the companies that have come to the area. Tell us who - which new businesses have you attracted?
HECHT: Well, I think my favorite and most significant one over the past few years is GE after a 17-month search decided to put their very first IT Center of Excellence for GE Capital, the second-biggest division of the fourth-largest company in the world, right here in New Orleans, 300 jobs, six-figure salaries.
And I think that that was important not just because of those jobs and the win itself but because of the validation and the message that it sent to the rest of the world that New Orleans hasn't just come back, but now it's come back really even better than before.
HOBSON: Do you see tech as the center of New Orleans' economic rebound? Because we have heard that New Orleans has been called a tech hub now, although a lot of cities do call themselves tech hubs.
HECHT: Well, what's interesting is that the New Orleans of today is actually much more diversified than it's been in decades. So on one hand the foundational industries of energy, oil and gas and of international trade are still the most important in terms of absolute number of jobs.
But now we're diversifying off, and Forbes had a recent article, cities that are winning the battle for IT jobs, and New Orleans came in number three in the country, right after Silicon Valley in San Francisco. We're also building one of the biggest medical corridors in the country, the biggest VA in America.
And then we have a whole new industry, which I call emerging environmental, whereby we're now seen as some degree the Dutch of North America. We're seen as the individual that had the best experience and technology to deal with natural disasters. So right now there are actually dozens of New Orleans companies that are in New York who are managing hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts assisting others with events like Sandy.
HOBSON: Michael Hecht, you worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City following 9/11. Is New York an example? Is that something that New Orleans is now looking towards as it tries to rebuild and build a new future for itself? What are the other cities that are good examples, good models for New Orleans?
HECHT: That's a great question. I look back certainly to New York but really the New York of the '90s, which came from being a place that everybody was leaving, escape from New York, to become the New York of today. Or you could look back to Miami of the '70s, which was really kind of the Miami of "Miami Vice" and now is the international hotspot that it is, and even back to Chicago and the Great Fire, which Chicago came back from and became the city beautiful and what it is today.
So when cities have these really down moments, when they have their near-death moments, to some degree it's like individuals. When you have a near-death moment, then you can actually learn how to live again. And I think that's what we're seeing here in New Orleans, where having the event of Katrina and all the pain and suffering that it's brought, has given us an opportunity to reassess and deal with issues that we might not have dealt with absent the trauma.
And the new New Orleans, I would argue, is actually better than the New Orleans that was here on August 28, 2005.
HOBSON: I did notice, however, that back in 2005, the population of the city was 460,000; it is now, or at least at last check, about 100,000 less than that.
HECHT: Yeah, that is true. So the population of Orleans proper is at about 76 percent of what it was before. But if you look at the entire region, it's actually back to about 92 percent. So what's happening is that the population, the economy, is just functioning on a greater, more regional level now, which is really how most economies function.
So largely we're repopulated, and we actually are now repopulated in a different way. We were named the brain gain champion of America for more people under 25 with a college degree than anywhere in the country. And we're also more diverse than we've ever been before. And so we actually are repopulating, just in different places and with a slightly different mix.
HOBSON: And what about those who are being left behind? Half of African-American men don't have jobs in New Orleans. Forty-two percent of children live in poverty. The rent is high in some places. What about those who are not being brought along with this rebound?
HECHT: Well, that really is the key question, and so when you talk about New Orleans being named number one for education reform in the entire country, it's so important because over time, if the revitalization is not shared by everybody, then it's not going to be sustainable.
So the fact now that the graduation rates from the Orleans public schools exceed the national average, the fact that the number of failing schools in Orleans has now dipped below 10 percent for the first time in decades is incredibly hopeful because the point you're raising is a real one, and we have to ensure that the newfound prosperity is shared by all, otherwise it won't last.
HOBSON: Michael Hecht is president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc. Michael, thank you so much for joining us.
HECHT: Jeremy, thanks so much for the opportunity.
HOBSON: And up next we'll hear from a New Orleanian journalist who was there, lost a lot, and is still there.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And later in the program, a dramatic, historic agreement in football, the NFL settling lawsuits brought by thousands of players over brain injuries. We'll have that complete story. And Jeremy will be back to New Orleans in one minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking about New Orleans eight years after Hurricane Katrina. There aren't any more families living in FEMA trailers but still lots of vacant and decaying homes, even as some see the city turning into a boom town. Let's turn to one journalist who lived through Katrina and, like so many New Orleanians, lost his home, was part of the New York Times Picayune's Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering the storm and is now director of state content for NOLA Media Group. James O'Byrne, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
JAMES O'BYRNE: It's a pleasure to be here, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, what do you make of what we just heard from Michael Hecht, that the city is turning into a boom town, that it's a tech hub and that businesses are excited about coming to the Big Easy?
O'BYRNE: Well, it's not an exaggeration really. The thing that happened after Katrina that I think was a little unexpected was we had a gigantic influx of people drawn to New Orleans because they wanted to help the city. And they spent a lot of time here, and many of them fell in love with the city.
For those who aren't from New Orleans, it has a particular pull on some people, and they learned that it was an extraordinary place to live. It has great culture, great music, great food but also great people. And the resilience that it has displayed since Katrina was something that inspired a lot of them, and they've come to live, not just young people but also people in mid-career, as Michael mentioned, have come here to set up shop.
HOBSON: You were there before, during and after. Is there anything that is not there now that was before? Is any secret of New Orleans missing?
O'BYRNE: You know, that was a big fear after the storm, that because of the devastation and the fact that is true that the people who have had the hardest time coming back to New Orleans are the poorest people. But New Orleans' culture has shown the same kind of resilience, I think, that the city's overall business climate and everything else has shown.
And it doesn't seem like a place that is devoid of anything. In many ways, it seems like a richer place. I stood on a bridge on August 29 eight years ago and watched about a giant river of water 10 feet deep flow toward the city. And if you had told me then that we would be where we are eight years later, I would have not believed you, and I would have thought it impossible.
HOBSON: Well, tell me about your personal story, James O'Byrne. You lost your home, as we said, in Katrina.
O'BYRNE: I did. I lived in the Lakeview part of the city, and one of the things that people often don't understand about Katrina who weren't here is that it was an indiscriminate storm in that it destroyed neighborhoods regardless of income or socioeconomic position. And so it destroyed Lakeview just as effectively as it destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward.
So what it generally did on an individual level is, it destroyed wealth. So if you had nothing, you have less than nothing, and those people have had - a lot of those people had a great difficulty getting back to the city because there hasn't been a - there hasn't been a concerted effort to compensate individuals.
The compensation has been at the institutional level and in rebuilding the schools, rebuilding the infrastructure, making the flood protection system much better. But on an individual level, it has an effect. So you end up losing - for example, people in the middle income lost, for example, all their college savings for their kids; or they had to downsize; or they had to sell their house, and they now rent. Or for every individual it's different, but the - even though the city is doing well, the effects of Katrina on a personal level never really leave.
HOBSON: I should say that I came to New Orleans and met with you. you took me on what you describe as a misery tour through many of the areas that were still seeing trouble from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. This was just last year. And I believe that we drove by the site of your home, it was the first time you had been back since you had to leave.
O'BYRNE: Yes, and now there is a new home on that property, and someone's living in it, and it's an interesting - the neighborhood that I lived in doesn't feel like the same neighborhood in a lot of ways because a lot of the smaller, older houses have been torn down and replaced with much bigger houses, and people have bought double lots and built bigger and higher. So it feels a little alien to me.
The other that's alien about it is that Katrina removed an extraordinary amount of the trees in the city, big oak trees and elm trees and everything else. So it's much less vegetated than I remember it. But it was odd to drive up to that lot.
HOBSON: How are you doing today?
O'BYRNE: I'm doing great. I live in a different part of the city. I live in the Marigny, which is just on the edge of the French Quarter. I walk to work every day. I feel the new energy of the city. It is a great place to live. And I think for those of us who loved the city before the storm, we love it more now. It's not perfect, it has problems like every city does, but it feels like for the first time that we recognize those problems, and we're figuring out ways to try to solve them.
HOBSON: Well, one thing that's very difference is the defense against another potential hurricane is much, much better than it was before. Tell us about what has been done to increase the defenses around New Orleans?
O'BYRNE: Well, the federal government has spent $15 billion on flood protection systems in New Orleans since the storm, and our hurricane reporter Mark Schleifstein recently dug up a Corps of Engineers map that they recently did that showed the likely flooding in the city from a 100-year storm and a 500-year storm, and those flood levels have gone down dramatically since Katrina.
So in my neighborhood, where I used to live, where there was 12 feet of water in the street after Katrina, they predicted the same kind of storm would put less than two feet of water in the street, which is just, you know, a heavy rainstorm in New Orleans parlance.
So the system is much more robust. It is much stronger. It is much higher. And we feel a lot more confident that a similar size storm would not do the kind of damage that it did.
HOBSON: Is there more that needs to be done?
O'BYRNE: Yes, right now they're working on moving the pumping stations to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, which is on the northern border of the city. That's important because the main failure in Katrina were the sea walls that line the drainage canals. And by moving those pumping stations, which cost billions of dollars, it will take those sea walls out of the equation, and they'll no longer be a threat.
HOBSON: What about the Lower Ninth Ward? This was famously the poorest and most hard-hit part of town. I know that now Brad Pitt has been building houses there, solar-powered houses up on stilts. But how is that neighborhood doing, and have the people who were there originally returned?
O'BYRNE: The people - the Lower Ninth Ward is still pretty devastated. There is a core of activity around the organization that Brad Pitt started called Make It Right. The Make It Right homes sit on the edge of the Lower Ninth Ward near the wall that crashed down and destroyed much of that neighborhood, and that part is slowly coming back.
And you see houses and residents coming back around those Make It Right houses. So it has served as an incentive and an impetus for further development. But the neighborhood as a whole is a shell of its former self and still mostly empty and deserted.
HOBSON: James O'Byrne, finally I just want to ask: Would you describe New Orleans as a boom town in 2013?
O'BYRNE: I would on some levels absolutely. The amount of activity and the amount of entrepreneurial spirit that exists there right now is accurately portrayed, I think in these stories that you see nationally.
HOBSON: James O'Byrne is director of state content for NOLA Media Group, talking with us about New Orleans eight years to the day after Hurricane Katrina. James O'Byrne, thank you so much.
O'BYRNE: It's my pleasure, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And still to come today, we'll have a look at how the Syrian conflict is affecting already chilly U.S.-Russian relations. But the latest news is coming up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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