Hurricane Katrina did more than smash New Orleans' shoddy levees. It shattered faith in the government's ability, if not its will, to rescue our most vulnerable citizens, and it broke the spirit of one of America's most exuberant cities.
We didn't realize how much we'd mourn New Orleans until Katrina's rising, fetid waters turned it into a ghost town. There are just a few places in this hemisphere that embody the New World's elegantly unruly culture. Rio de Janeiro is one, New Orleans another. Its jazz, the jambalaya swirl of its cuisine and architecture the Crescent City is our boisterous soul roaring from a wrought-iron balcony. But it took a tragedy as ugly as Katrina to really make us aware of the Big Easy's beauty.
Five years after a Category 3 storm crashed into the mouth of the Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, wrecking the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida and killing 1,800 people, New Orleans is regaining its swagger. The Saints' inspiring Super Bowl victory in February helped, but there are more substantive gauges. The population, which scattered across the country in Katrina's wake, is back to almost 80% of its 2005 level. The city's $5 billion tourism industry blares like a Dixieland trumpet again. New Orleans recently regained investment-grade status on its debt as corruption-weary citizens demand more transparent government. A charter-school boom is raising dismal education standings. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which a federal judge upbraided last year for its negligent maintenance of the levees is finishing a 350-mile (563 km) reconstruction of the walls that residents hope (warily) will finally accord them real flood protection.
Like mold on the walls of a shotgun house, New Orleans' post-Katrina problems are hard to scour. Restoration of the surrounding wetlands that buffer hurricane damage is delayed. The city's unemployment rate is about half the rest of the nation's, but its poverty rate, at 23%, is double. A quarter of its residential properties are blighted, and many of its house facades still bear the ominous X's that disaster officials painted on them after the storm. Only a fifth of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward the community hit hardest by the storm and after it by government indifference have returned to live there. New Orleans still has the country's highest murder rate and, as the recent indictments of cops for allegedly murdering civilians during Katrina remind us, its police force remains a blight itself.
Still, the strains of blues and the aroma of gumbo are wafting out of the French Quarter again. New Orleans' character turned out to be more resilient than its levees, and that's something for the rest of us to trumpet.