Guest column: The New Orleans model for revival after Hurricane Katrina

by Scott Cowen | The Advocate

Nonprofit leaders, businesspeople, government officials, philanthropists and resident leaders from across the country are in New Orleans today and tomorrow to decipher the secret of “comeback communities.” How do cities like New Orleans rebound from hardship? More practically, what makes communities resilient and how can all of us drive efforts to strengthen our communities?

It’s not serendipitous that NeighborWorks America, the congressionally chartered community development nonprofit that for more than 35 years has provided affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families and empowered individuals to improve their communities, has chosen New Orleans as the host location for this cross-sector gathering. How New Orleans as a community stepped up in the face of the Katrina disaster bears important insights into what works and what doesn’t when trying to rebuild and sustain healthy communities. As a keynote speaker at the Comeback Communities Summit, I will share my perspective on New Orleans’ remarkable resurgence.

A recent public opinion poll commissioned by NeighborWorks America suggests that part of the reason why New Orleans can arguably lay claim to being “America’s Comeback City” is a strong sense of community among our residents. For example, 86 percent of people from the Gulf Coast region who were interviewed for the poll said they would recommend their community to someone looking to live somewhere else with a strong sense of community, compared with only 78 percent of the national sample group. Gulf Coast residents also reported more frequently that they have seen people in their community come together to solve problems or make improvements in their community. These findings didn’t surprise me, and they sure apply to New Orleans.

Whenever I speak about New Orleans’ comeback, I like to emphasize that the city chiefly rebuilt itself by itself. The people of New Orleans rolled up their sleeves and brought back schools and businesses and pieced back together entire neighborhoods through the power of grass-roots partnerships and communal responsibility. Our efforts were fueled by both a survival instinct and a strong desire to come back home. But many of us also felt an obligation to work toward transformative change and rebuild New Orleans better and stronger than before. Katrina could not wash us away. Nor did we let a recession or a massive oil spill stop us from making New Orleans a better place. In many ways, New Orleans has become the epitome of urban resilience because of its engaged citizenry.

Admittedly, there were days in the fall of 2005 when I wasn’t sure whether New Orleans and Tulane were going to have a comeback. But thanks in large part to our strong sense of community — and the resolve and resourcefulness of New Orleanians — we began to form unprecedented partnerships between institutions and organizations and launched new initiatives and nonprofits to address pressing needs. Along the way, we had successes and failures, engendered anger and disappointment, but in the end we paved a way to a brighter future.

At Tulane, we undertook a number of changes to weather the crisis, some of them drastic and a few of them controversial. Of all the decisions we made to save Tulane, launching a center for public service, expanding our community partnerships and integrating public service into the core curriculum were the most fundamental and powerful changes. We redefined what it means to be a Tulane student. In fact, before we reopened our campuses, I repeatedly told students: “If it is not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don’t come back.”

Almost 10 years later, New Orleans has become a hub for startups, a seedbed of social innovation, a model of school reform and a magnet for educated young people. Citywide we are seeing progress and growth across a number of measures, including economic development, health care, flood protection, ethics reform and K-12 public education (having good schools tops the list of most important aspects of a strong community, as reported by participants in the previously mentioned poll).

We cannot declare victory yet, but New Orleans undeniably is on an upward trajectory. Clearly, if it hadn’t been for the people of New Orleans who rebuilt our beloved city and developed a new vision for its future, there would be no comeback story to tell.

Scott Cowen is president emeritus and Distinguished University Professor at Tulane University and author of “The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America.”