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New Orleans: Returning to Life, a Decade After Katrina

While Hurricane Katrina knocked the wind out of New Orleans—displacing hundreds of thousands of people and devastating the region's economy—the city hasn't let this massive blow hold it back. In the decade since the deadly storm made landfall, the city's tourism and event industries have bounced back—and then some.

A decade ago this month, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history changed the dynamic of one of the country’s most vibrant cities.

Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans—and the ensuing breaking of the city’s levees—had a long-term devastating effect on the metro area, four-fifths of which was flooded by the storm. Throughout the U.S., the storm left more than 1,800 dead and an estimated $100 billion in damage, much of that damage hitting New Orleans and surrounding areas in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The city’s tourism business—a major driver of growth—likewise declined significantly.

Facilities like the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the Louisiana Superdome saw their normal usage as event venues take a back seat to basic human necessity. The New Orleans Times-Picayune was forced to go online-only due to the storm, as millions of readers around the world were following along closely. And after the storm, more than 400,000 people were permanently displaced.

“We Could Reconstruct What We Were”

But a lot has happened since August 29, 2005—including much rebuilding. And the result is something of a great comeback story. Last year, 9.5 million people visited the city, according to the Associated Press—nearly triple the number who visited the city during its nadir in 2006. The city sports 600 more restaurants than it did in 2005—with many restaurateurs eventually returning to the city—and more than 850 new hotel rooms.

Part of the reason for the bounce-back was that officials weren’t willing to give up on it. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which was forced to cancel $2 billion in business [PDF] as a direct result of the hurricane, had much to salvage in the wake of the storm.

“We had no idea if we’d ever be whole again,” explained Stephen Perry, the bureau’s CEO, in comments to Travel Weekly. “But I could see that the historic core—Marigny, the French Quarter and Uptown—was dry. That meant that the parts of the city that were irreplaceable were safe. We knew then that we could reconstruct what we were, despite the depth of the tragedy.”

Those neighborhoods all came back to life—but so, too, did many other parts of the city. The city’s cultural districts have bounced back significantly, as have events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which draw hundreds of thousands of people to the city each year.

The city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand both its airport and convention center. And the metro area is even seeing some major critical acclaim: Earlier this year, Travel and Leisure named New Orleans the second-best city to visit in the United States, behind only Charleston, South Carolina.

An Imperfect Recovery

While things have improved significantly since 2005, the recovery has been inconsistent. Some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, remain largely abandoned, according to Mother Jones. And while most residents believe the city has recovered, according to an NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the results showed a significant gap in opinion on that question based on race.

But Mitch Landrieu, the city’s current mayor, notes that the city’s progress nonetheless remains an example worth following for other urban areas up against the wall.

“We made the decision to change,” he said in comments at the National Press Club on Tuesday. “And what has emerged on the other side is the premier example of urban innovation in America. Because we had to, New Orleans has taken on the toughest of challenges, showing the whole nation what it takes to make progress.”

A busy night on New Orleans' Bourbon Street. (iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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