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The damage that Hurricane Harvey is doing to the greater Houston area raises haunting memories of the devastation that New Orleans faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Once the waters have receded, the time to rebuild will begin. National, state, and local leaders will soon be arguing about how much should be allocated, but more importantly, they will have to decide what a successful recovery looks like. More than a decade post-Katrina, New Orleans’ experience provides some important lessons and warnings.
For some, the path forward is to return the city to where it was before the waters rose. Normalcy is their goal: Repair what has been broken, restore what has been lost, ease the pain of those who are suffering, and do what can be done to prevent another catastrophic flood in the future.
Those guiding the rebuilding of New Orleans also saw it as moment to address the nagging problems of urban blight, poverty, unemployment, and crime. Fueled by billions of dollars in government and philanthropic recovery funding, New Orleans sought to reshape itself as a modern, urban city that could attract millennial professionals as key community revitalizers. Improving the condition of the city’s resident poor, underemployed population was not the central goal for those driving the recovery process forward. As with school reform, local control and focus were sacrificed to a grand vision of a new New Orleans. And, as with school reform, a wide racial divide was ignored as well.
The Texas communities now struggling to get through the immediate impact of a 500-year flood will soon face the need to rebuild. Government and community leaders will know shortly how much of their community’s infrastructure needs rebuilding. When the water recedes, they will know how many of their citizens have been forced to relocate and will not be able to immediately return.