A rebirth for New Orleans

The Big Easy still faces dire challenges. But if we have the national will, we can find new solutions for America's age-old problems of poverty and racial inequity.

Published August 30, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

New Orleans nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina yields powerful images of hope amid incalculable devastation. None was more compelling to me and the group of Virginians I traveled with than the man in St. Bernard's Parish cutting his grass as though his life depended on the evenness of the rows.

For blocks and blocks, we encountered ruined houses and abandoned cars, as if the floodwaters had only just receded. Then we passed a house that had been immaculately restored. In front, the lawn-mowing man seemed oblivious to us -- the only motion on the street for what may have been hours. It was as if by making his own piece of New Orleans perfect, he could wipe away the ruins that surrounded him.

This chance scene speaks to the broader recovery effort. With Herculean effort in specific areas, progress has been made -- levees have at least been restored, the housing market is moving, and tourism is coming to life. Yet in much of the greater New Orleans area, progress is uneven or absent. Gas is running at about 40 percent of its pre-Katrina level, and electricity at about 60 percent. Seventeen percent of the buses are running. Twenty-nine percent of the schools and 23 percent of the childcare centers are open. Unemployment in the city is up, and unemployment among the hundreds of thousands of evacuees stands at approximately 23 percent. More than 100,000 Louisianans remain in FEMA trailers, caught between their past and their future.

These indicators underscore the broader challenges exposed by Katrina's winds. The images of people pleading for help on rooftops, and of thousands -- mostly poor and African-American -- stranded in the Superdome showed the city as a sort of ground zero for overlooked national problems: poverty, racial disparities, a lack of preparedness for natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and the inability of government at all levels to competently maintain infrastructure and deliver basic services. In the months since television cameras left town, Louisianans have been left to grapple with these challenges out of national view, and -- despite President Bush's bold rhetoric in Jackson Square -- without adequate federal help.

Yet we do the Gulf states and the nation a disservice if we merely look back on the mistakes made after Katrina hit. Instead of simply seeing the tragedy, we should see opportunity -- to fill in Louisiana's empty spaces with new structures and to seek new solutions to these intractable national problems. To do so, we should work with the Louisiana Recovery Authority and local communities to draw on the best ideas and practices in government, academia, the nonprofit world and the private sector from around the country. It's time to put America's best thinking to work.

Take New Orleans' school system, plagued by inequality and underperformance before Katrina. Instead of merely standing it up as it was, what if we made a real effort to build a model urban school system, with a healthy mix of traditional public schools and public charter schools? With less than a quarter of the preschools open in New Orleans, what if pre-kindergarten education, early childhood healthcare and childcare services were coordinated so that every child entering school were fully prepared?

There is so much that can be done. Dilapidated levees, flood walls and pumping stations can be replaced by 21st century infrastructure. Eroded wetlands can be restored. Housing stock can be rebuilt with incentives to encourage mixed-income neighborhoods. An overwhelmed healthcare system can be buttressed by new technologies and methods to bring care and medicine to more Louisianans. And within each of these efforts, best practices can be developed to serve as models for states and localities around the country that face similarly intractable challenges.

On our trip, we focused on healthcare. Only half of New Orleans' hospital beds are open, and a great deal of equipment has been lost. In one makeshift emergency room set up in an abandoned department store, wires hung from the ceiling. After consulting with Louisiana officials, we have pledged Virginia resources. First, we're working to establish network connections, so doctors and patients in New Orleans can link to Virginia health care facilities. Second, we're looking for donations of high-end diagnostic equipment. And third, we're sharing the Pharmacy Connection software and training, to extend a program we established in Virginia to help low-income and uninsured folks work their way through the red tape to find discounted medicine.

The Gulf states cannot rebuild alone, and they should not have to. After the horrific images of 2005, Americans yearned to do something they haven't yet been asked to do under the Bush administration: Come together.

And we're not going to get it right in the Gulf region unless we do come together -- black and white; rich and poor; local, state and federal; public and private sector. The challenges in New Orleans are not Red or Blue -- they are American. We must recognize that if we get the reconstruction and revitalization of this uniquely American city right, it will benefit all Americans -- by serving the common good and by developing new solutions to painfully old problems.

Over the past few years, the world has watched as the United States -- the nation that put a man on the moon and vanquished communism -- has struggled to get electricity running in Baghdad and struggled to save our own people in the Superdome. Maddeningly, these failures have often been preventable and can be attributed to an approach to governance that values ideology over competence, party politics over unity, and spin over accountability. To get it right, both in how we rebuild New Orleans and in how America is viewed by the world, we must turn to a new chapter of politics and governance.

Our obligation is both moral and practical. As we drove by that man cutting his grass, trying to restore his little island in a sea of destruction, one of our hosts suggested that he might not make it. Anything from a failing economy to rising crime could derail his dream of renewal. I don't think the American people want to accept that proposition. Americans want to live in a country where that man gets the fair shot at a better life that he has earned, and where the natural and manmade tragedy that befell New Orleans is eclipsed by a brighter future that holds new and more hopeful lessons for us all.

By Mark Warner

Mark Warner was governor of Virginia from 2002 to January of this year. He chairs the Democratic PAC Forward Together.

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