Mitch Landrieu: What we’ve learned in the decade since Katrina

Photographer Carlos Barria holds a print of a photograph he took in 2005, as he matches it up at the same location 10 years on, in New Orleans.
Photographer Carlos Barria holds a print of a photograph he took in 2005, as he matches it up at the same location 10 years on, in New Orleans.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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This week, we commemorate ten years since New Orleans and the Gulf Coast faced the costliest disaster to occur on U.S soil. One million homes were damaged and a million residents were displaced. We lost over 1,800 of our fellow citizens.

As the lieutenant governor of Louisiana at the time, I saw firsthand the outpouring of support that came from the generous hands, hearts, and wallets of people from across the world. Even in those dark and trying times, there were uplifting moments.  But I also knew that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed homes and lives at such an unprecedented scale that not even the wealthiest philanthropist or most efficient government institution could single-handedly save us from the rubble.

In the wake of Katrina, many of us on the ground came to realize that what New Orleans ultimately needed–more than donations, more than kind words, and more than any one person–was a new way of doing things. Making a serious commitment to working together, we hoped, would be New Orleans’ best chance at making a comeback.

It turns out we were right. The push toward a more collaborative New Orleans was inspired by a new approach to problem-solving that at the time was beginning to gain steam worldwide. Eschewing the old model in which governments or NGOs try to address the planet’s ills on their own, the emerging approach emphasized the importance of pooling brainpower and resources through partnerships. It was the new way of doing things our nearly 300-year old city desperately needed.

Perhaps the most influential champion of this new strategy was Bill Clinton. I had the opportunity to meet with the former president when he came down to New Orleans on behalf of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund following the hurricane and subsequent levee failures. He had recognized this moment as a global challenge rather than just a local disaster. It was then that we heard about his plans for the Clinton Global Initiative–a cross-sector platform that eventually transformed philanthropy and informed our efforts to put New Orleans back together.

Unfortunately, collaboration doesn’t happen on its own and it doesn’t always come easy. The hurricane laid bare the deep divisions along racial, socio-economic, and political lines that have been generations in the making.   After beginning to clean up the wreckage and laying loved ones to rest, it was time to think about the future of our city. Eventually, one thing became clear: Instead of rebuilding the New Orleans that once was, we had to create the New Orleans that always should have been. And we knew that every person in this city had to be considered as we started building back.

That’s what we’ve been doing. By moving toward collaboration over the last decade, we’ve been able to shift our focus from recovery to innovation. We’re now one of the fastest growing major cities in the country. Our regional economy has added more than 14,000 jobs in the last few years by diversifying our economy with a focus on digital technology and biosciences–and by getting the recovery and rebuilding boom on track. We’re improving health by focusing on prevention. We recently became the first city in the country to effectively eliminate veteran homelessness. New public schools are opening with more modern facilities, better student achievement, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and more kids going to college than before. We’re reducing blight faster than anywhere in the country. And entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is 56% above the national average.

None of this would be possible if the city had stuck to business, philanthropy, or politics as usual. The things that are working the best in New Orleans right now come from a new focus on partnerships. When federal, state and local government aligned with private sector, philanthropy, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and community leaders, we created a model the rest of the country could follow.

Our progress over the past decade hasn’t been a straight line, and we have a long way to go. But we’re at our best when businesses such as Toyota partner with community organizations to better prepare us for future disasters, and when NGOs such as Global Green USA assist the city in building LEED-certified schools. The city is also the best version of itself when it comes together to ensure that everyone has an equal chance at opportunity. That’s why I look forward to the cross-sector partnerships that we have in the works to continue to address the deep challenges posed by a national murder epidemic and the workforce challenges and unemployment crisis that plagues African-American men in New Orleans and across the nation.

By picking ourselves up and being forthright about our challenges, New Orleans is also paving the way for the rest of the world. For example, we have stood at the forefront of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, powered by the Rockefeller Foundation that provides 100 cities across the globe with the resources and expertise to effectively weather the literal and figurative storms of the 21st century, be they social, economic, or physical. New Orleans’ leadership in this project, including the recent installation of a chief resilience officer who sits in City Hall, and the release of the country’s first holistic and actionable resilience strategy, is helping other cities think critically about ways to mitigate their vulnerability to contemporary challenges.

As time goes on, more people realize that New Orleans is a city unique in its treasures, but not in its problems. About 52% of Americans live in counties and parishes along the coast. And many of the things that Katrina revealed about New Orleans–from poverty and housing to infrastructure and climate change–are issues that will have to be reckoned with in cities and island nations far beyond the Gulf. If we have to face the same challenges, then there’s no reason that any of us should face them by ourselves.

New Orleans is a story of collaboration. And a story of resurrection and redemption. We are resilient. Come hell or high water–and we’ve had both–this is our home.