Our Views: Learning from Louisiana recovery

As residents of the East Coast attempt to rebuild after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, many of them will look toward New Orleans for lessons in storm recovery. The Crescent City’s experience in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina — a process that’s still in progress — already is being used by recovery experts plotting the East Coast’s rebound from Sandy.

That relationship was affirmed in a recent opinion column on the New Orleans recovery by New York Times writer Joe Nocera. The biggest lesson that Nocera gleaned from his recent visit to New Orleans is that in spite of large institutional support for recovery efforts, many of the most-important elements of the post-Katrina recovery effort have happened at the grass-roots level, without help from the bureaucracy.

Nocera interviewed Roberta Gratz, a writer who has owned a house in New Orleans since 2007, and is writing a book about the Crescent City’s recovery efforts.

Gratz pointed to Magazine Street, the celebrated New Orleans shopping venue, as an example of recovery done from the bottom up.

“This is one of the longest shopping streets in the country,” she told Nocera. “There are residential and commercial buildings, and local stores and chain stores. Very little was done for streets like this because the big money went to the tourism districts. This grew back organically.”

The point isn’t that federal assistance for massive disasters isn’t necessary. That support has — and will continue to be — a large part of recovery efforts after national disasters. But at the neighborhood level, nongovernmental recovery advocates can often respond more easily and quickly than large institutions.

“Despite the billions of dollars appropriated for Sandy recovery, would the rebuilding be as ad hoc, and as volunteer-dependent, as the initial emergency phase?” Nocera asked. “If New Orleans is any indication, the answer is yes.”