New Orleans after the Storm: Lessons from the Past, a Plan for the Future

October 1, 2005

Drawing on an analysis of New Orleans’ recent development history, New Orleans after the Storm: Lessons from the Past, A Plan for the Future shows how the region’s past development trends exacerbated the catastrophe, and suggests how the region might rise again on a better footing by undoing the mistakes of the past.

Before dawn on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina—a Category 4 storm with winds up to 145 miles per hour—shifted slightly to the east and roared into the central Gulf Coast just east of the city of New Orleans.

What followed—after an illusory day of relief that the city had been spared a direct hit—was a nightmare that shook the nation.

Tens of thousands of mostly black New Orleanians who had remained in the city were seen climbing to their rooftops as the floodwaters rose, notwithstanding massive pre-storm evacuations.

Thousands and thousands of modest houses in low-lying urban neighborhoods and others in white and black suburbs were inundated, while the higher-value French Quarter and downtown remained dry. And all the while more than 20,000 people—again, mostly poor African Americans—waited, sweltering, in grim conditions in the New Orleans Superdome as water and food ran low, begging for relief.

In sum, a shocking onslaught of images of human suffering pierced Americans’ complacency, forcing them to grapple with enduring issues of race, class, and the city as had no event in years.

What went wrong in New Orleans, and how should the nation respond? Clearly, it will take years to sort through the chaos of August and September 2005 to fully answer those questions. But it is possible—even in the near aftermath of the hurricane—to draw some initial conclusions about why Katrina wreaked such havoc, as well as to derive from New Orleans’ past some lessons for the future and use them to inform a plan for rebuilding a better New Orleans.

This report draws such conclusions, proposes such lessons, and outlines such a plan.