ULI’s recommendations to develop an overall framework for rebuilding New Orleans were a first step in a process for city leaders to shape the future.

While everyday reminders remained of Hurricane Katrina’s fury as the fifth anniversary of the storm passed, over the past year—particularly with the election of new mayor Mitch Landrieu, visible successes in rebuilding, and the Saints’ win in Super Bowl XLIV—New Orleans has gained a clear sense of getting its confidence back.

Then the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig exploded and oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, providing a sober reminder of the fragility of the city. The spill has triggered a collective community sigh—of resignation, exasperation, exhaustion—as everyone struggles to assess the long-term impact on New Orleans industries.

Plus, there is the continuing national recession. The economic downturn gripping most of the country has had less impact in New Orleans than elsewhere in the country over the past few years because billions of dollars of rebuilding expenditures on levees, infrastructure, houses, and other items is still moving through the pipeline.

When Katrina came ashore on August 29, 2005, it brought Category 3 winds and rain that overwhelmed the levees, unleashing catastrophic flooding of an estimated 80 percent of the city. New Orleans was at a crossroads already. Before the storm, it was facing a number of challenges: it was losing population, it had an estimated 23,000 vacant land parcels, its tax system was inefficient, its public housing authority was in federal receivership, its school district was in state receivership, its police department was under federal investigation, its redevelopment agencies were disconnected and weak, and its crime and poverty rates were among the highest in the country.

Shortly after Katrina hit, the mayor, along with civic leaders, including former ULI chairman Joe Canizaro, formed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC). The commission asked ULI “to develop a process for the redevelopment of the city based on sound planning principles, strong economic development ideals, and a practical implementation strategy.” The intent was to develop an overall framework for the city’s rebuilding as a first step in a process for city leaders to shape the future.

From November 12 to 18, 2005, two and a half months after Katrina, ULI convened 50 planners, architects, financiers, developers, and public officials for a weeklong advisory services panel. While some of its recommendations were controversial, the panel’s report emphasized strengthening the institutional capability for planning and development, creating an equitable and transparent process for financing and rebuilding, and conducting a public assessment that would quickly outline what people needed to do to rebuild safely and in which neighborhoods reconstruction could start immediately.

Except for a few—including former speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-IL)—who cynically suggested the country let New Orleans sink into the Gulf, it was as if the whole world were rushing to help. Thousands of volunteers from churches across the country, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, and many others raised large amounts of money and donated countless hours to help. The scale of devastation was severe: 1,600 persons killed, 134,000 homes flooded, an estimated 200,000 cars destroyed, and bridges, roads, sewers, water lines, and electricity gone. The primary cause of most of the destruction was the levee breaches—an estimated 38 in the New Orleans metropolitan district alone.

Living with the debris, destruction, and tragedy as one tries to move forward is no easy task. Too often the level of grief is underestimated by outsiders. Though many people came to the city in the immediate aftermath of the storm, rolling up their sleeves and wanting to get to work to help plan a better city, it was too soon to expect New Orleans residents, who in many cases had just lost everything, to now—with enthusiasm and energy, no less—rebuild. As new disasters occur, as they inevitably will, this “postdisaster syndrome” needs to be taken into account in order that people can honestly and effectively help others rebuild. In the wake of a disaster, some immediate tasks need to be executed quickly—restoration of infrastructure, debris removal, provision of financial assistance—but people hoping to help with longer-term planning and programs need to take a deep breath and wait awhile.

Over the past five years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent $5.5 billion on debris removal and infrastructure repairs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is spending $12.8 billion to repair the levees, and Louisiana’s Road Home Program has disbursed $8.5 billion to supplement insurance proceeds for owner-occupied dwellings.

Independent of the numbers, New Orleans has also undertaken some important governmental reforms. The voters approved consolidation of the number of levee boards from 17 to two; they also approved reforms in the property tax assessment system and in the courts system.

After release of the initial ULI advisory services report, the city went through a confusing and often contentious series of efforts to develop and reform the planning and zoning processes in New Orleans—processes that were essentially nonexistent before the storm. With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and through a very community-oriented process that took almost five years and entailed hundreds of community meetings, the city developed and will shortly adopt a comprehensive zoning and planning document. Because of the challenges it has faced, the city in many ways has become a model of citizen governance and participation.

The institutional capability of the city to assist and partner with private interests in development was very weak before the storm. Responsibility for financing, land assembly, and deal negotiations was scattered through various city and state agencies and departments. Only in the past few years has there been movement to strengthen the capability and streamline the process to permit effective public/private partnerships.

The New Orleans Public Schools system likely is on its way to becoming an entirely charter school system; currently, over half the schools are charter schools. Sixty-one percent of the pre-Katrina school population has returned; enrollment has dropped from 185,387 students in 2005 to 145,581 this year.

Only recently did the New Orleans Police Department ask for federal involvement in reforming its police force. Those reforms will focus on both the internal management of the force and its crime fighting capabilities.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans continues to operate under federal receivership, but it has moved forward on redeveloping mixed-income HOPE VI projects in a number of its largest communities. St. Louis–based developer McCormack Baron Salazar has begun renting units at Harmony Oaks, a $180 million, 460-unit redevelopment of the C.J. Peete community in the Central City neighborhood; the work was conducted through a partnership with Richard Baron, the 2004 winner of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, and the New Orleans Neighborhood Collaborative, a community-based organization. Other public housing communities are also now under development.

New Orleans has regained about 75 percent of its pre-Katrina population, going from 455,865 to 355,000. The city’s ethnic mix is also changing, with more Hispanic and Asian migrants arriving since the storm. The Hispanic population has risen from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent of the total, and the Asian population from 2.3 percent to 2.9 percent.

One benefit of the rebuilding effort is that throughout the nationwide recession, the unemployment rate in New Orleans has tracked 2 to 3 percent below the national average.

In spite of the setbacks from the recession and the oil spill, disappointing federal, state, and local actions after the storm, and the continuing uncertainty of rebuilding efforts, New Orleans remains a remarkable place. It is a city and a citizenry empowered. Nowhere in America is there the architecture and culture of a New Orleans. In almost losing the city, and with some saying let it go, the people of New Orleans themselves were reminded that you cannot take for granted something that you love. Those people are fiercely proud of how far they have come and what they have accomplished. The story of the revival of their city is not about government money or strong political leadership, but rather about thousands of individuals and hundreds of nonprofit organizations that believe in a future—much like those fans rooting for a team that is a perennial loser but then one day wins the Super Bowl.

The 2005 ULI advisory services panel report on New Orleans is available on ULI.org.