The empty streets, deserted avenues and abandoned houses prompt a gnawing question, nearly 17 months after Hurricane Katrina: Is this what New Orleans has come to — a city half its old size?
Over and over, the city’s leaders reassure citizens that better days and, above all, more people are in the future. Their destiny will not merely be to reside in a smaller city with a few good restaurants and curious local customs, the citizens are told.
But some economists and demographers are beginning to wonder whether New Orleans will top out at about half its prestorm population of about 444,000, already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960 Census. At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are likely to be small.
“It will be a trickle based on what we know now,” said Elliott Stonecipher, a consultant and demographer based in Shreveport, La. "Low tens of thousands, over three or four or five years, something in that range. I would say we could start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn’t get high visibility.”
Half. That's 222,000 people. That would make New Orleans, one of the most noteworty and historic cities in America, only a few hundred people larger than Plano, an unremarkable suburb of Dallas.
Some of the economists interviewed this story see this as a good thing:
Political leaders, worried about the loss of clout and a Congressional seat, press for people to return, but a smaller New Orleans may not be bad, some economists say. Most of those who have not returned — 175,000, by Mr. Stonecipher’s count — are very poor, and can be more easily absorbed in places with vibrant job markets, they say.
Large-scale concentrations of deep poverty — as was the case in New Orleans before the storm — are inherently harmful to cities. The smaller New Orleans is almost certain to wind up with a far higher percentage of its population working than before Hurricane Katrina.
“Where there are high concentrations of poverty, people can’t see a way out,” said William Oakland, a retired economist from Tulane University who has studied the city’s economy for decades. “Maybe the diaspora is a blessing.”
The other economists interviewed talk about the high levels of poverty, the high levels of non-participation in the workforce compared to other Southern cities, and the inherent immobility of the poor population in New Orleans. As one puts it, New Orleans was "a basket case." And it's hard to argue with the data. But is the solution to poverty, even deeply entrenched and harmful poverty, to have the poor driven out of a city via the force of a natural disaster? To send them scattering across America to places they can be easily "absorbed"? To "fix" New Orleans, to make it a better city than it was before, would require tremendous effort on our part. Of that there's no doubt. But why would not at least try? Why not do for New Orleans after Katrina, what should have already been done before? Of course such an effort requires a certain amount of leadership. We are clearly lacking it these days. When our President doesn't see fit to even talk about New Orleans in the State of the Union address, what message does that send to America?
More infuriating than anything George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address was what he didn't say. Congress and the nation heard nothing, zilch, nada, not a single, solitary word about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and the devastation that remains from the worst natural disaster in United States history.
...Bush promised that "we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities." He vowed that "this great city will rise again." Then, as usual, he acted as if saying something were enough to make it true.
Bush said there was "no way to imagine America without New Orleans." No imagination is needed -- the New Orleans that we knew before the flood no longer exists.
It appears our President's intentions were set somewhat lower than his soaring rhetoric would have us believe. It is without question in my mind that had President Bush truly meant what he said, and acted accordingly, sparing no effort to rebuild New Orleans, we would now be looking at the beginnings of a new, healthier and vibrant city. Such is the power the President of our nation wields, that he could direction millions-or billions-to the rebuilding of a city, and lead Americans by example to conclude that it would be the right thing to do, to not let the city founder, but to make it into something new, into a city that welcomes the poor back with open arms and gives them the opportunity to climb out of poverty. Instead that opportunity has been lost. Our President lost interest some time ago, the media has lost interest but for stories in the papers here and there, and the American people have lost interest. The people of New Orleans will struggle to build what they can, while our eyes are turned elsewhere.