Today’s eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Louisiana is an occasion to remember, in a special way, the most-costly natural disaster in American history.
We usually use anniversaries to summon what we might otherwise forget. But even without the rituals of remembrance, Katrina’s mark on life in south Louisiana doesn’t seem destined to fade anytime soon.
The realities of the storm’s aftermath continue to deeply shape some of this region’s most important policy questions. The ongoing debate concerning the availability of federal flood insurance — a critical issue for residential and commercial development in south Louisiana — is in large part the result of the horrific failure of key levees after Katrina came ashore.
The question of flood control is also inextricably linked with the health of Louisiana’s coastline, which has been compromised in its ability to slow hurricanes because of coastal erosion accelerated by poor environmental practices. Katrina added urgency to that issue, which rests at the heart of a controversial lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The lawsuit accuses energy companies of making coastal areas more prone to flooding and asks them to help pay for remedies.
The scale of Katrina’s destruction involved the federal government in a sustained effort at regional recovery. The sloppiness of Washington’s initial response to the disaster raised doubts about the ability of large government bureaucracies to address pressing challenges. But federal spending on the recovery helped get south Louisiana back on its feet, affirming a role for federal intervention in catastrophic events. In this way, Katrina became a touchstone in the continuing question of government’s ideal role in national life.
The growing power of regionalism as a concept of economic development is a big legacy of Katrina, too. The storm forced New Orleans and Baton Rouge government, civic and business leaders to work together more closely, a partnership that’s still a work in progress.
Katrina prompted a spirit of reform in New Orleans, an ethic that’s extended to public education and various initiatives launched by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Two federal consent decrees seeking sweeping reforms of the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison suggest how much work remains in solving the city’s problems.
We’ve been heartened by the resilience of south Louisiana’s people in rebuilding from Katrina’s devastation, although we know that the recovery is far from complete.
The path toward recovery is still challenging. But as Edward R. Murrow once said, difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.