Victory has a thousand fathers," President John F. Kennedy once said, "but defeat is an orphan."
In the last month, as we approached the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, there were many fathers (and mothers) taking credit for New Orleans' remarkable comeback since the dark days of late 2005. We're not surprised.
Certainly there's a lot to be proud of. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC), which issues annual progress reports on the region's recovery, had plenty of good news in "The New Orleans Index at Eight." Among its findings: New Orleans weathered the recession better than most of the rest of the country, with a net gain of jobs since 2008; entrepreneurship here is sharply higher than in comparable cities; and New Orleans now has 34 arts and culture nonprofit organizations per 100,000 residents — more than twice the national per capita rate. A much-quoted Bloomberg report last week said New Orleans is one of the country's "fastest-growing U.S. commercial real estate markets," and noted that local tourism spending is also at an all-time high.
Those successes were among the good news that Gov. Bobby Jindal touted in an op-ed he penned last month in the run-up to Katrina's anniversary. Calling New Orleans "America's Comeback City," the governor boasted of his administration's "strengthening governmental ethics laws, cutting taxes, revamping our workforce development programs and reforming our education system so that we could create a competitive business climate." Very little of that, of course, had anything to do with the New Orleans metro area's rebound from Katrina. A far bigger factor was the infusion of recovery funds from the federal government — the kind of federal funding that Jindal frequently disdains, except when he can arrange a photo op of himself presenting an oversized check with his name on it.
Truth be told, politicians played only minor roles in southeast Louisiana's comeback after Katrina. The real leaders were mostly ordinary people who simply decided they had had enough of corruption, deal-making and politics as usual. Citizens who previously felt powerless to drive meaningful change suddenly became enraged and engaged, and the impact was both immediate and enormous. Neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and new as well as longstanding civic organizations decided virtually overnight that the people were not going to put up with the same old, same old any longer. People demanded change, and because the people spoke loudly and in unison, the politicians had no choice but to respond.
The result was a seismic shift in south Louisiana's political climate. Local levee boards were consolidated, professionalized and de-politicized (though Jindal is doing his best to "hijack" the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East in order to derail its lawsuit against energy companies). The city's seven assessors' offices were combined into one. Our two sheriffs' offices were combined, and failing local public schools were taken over by the state's Recovery School District, which has broken new ground in promoting charter schools and education reforms.
By almost any measure, New Orleans has shown the world the power of resiliency in the face of tragedy. It hasn't been easy, and much remains to be done. For starters, if politicians are going to pat themselves on the back for New Orleans' successes, they must also take responsibility for the ways the city has yet to improve. New Orleans' successes have not been the rising tide that lifts all boats.
The GNOCDC report made it clear that our city's violent crime rate far outpaces the national average; life expectancy in New Orleans falls below the national average (particularly among African-Americans); and incarceration rates, while lower than the local per capita rate in 2004, are still among the highest in the world. Even success has its price: people here are spending a higher proportion of their income on housing than ever before; home prices and rental rates have gone way up as new development has come to town.
Kennedy was right about taking credit for victories and avoiding blame for defeats — particularly among politicians. As we mourn those lost to Katrina and celebrate our city's rebirth in the storm's wake, it's important to remember exactly who are the "thousand fathers" and mothers responsible for New Orleans' triumph over adversity. They are the people who stayed, came back and moved here after the storm — the people who invested time and money, blood and sweat and many tears. Above all, they are the citizens who hold themselves and their elected officials accountable on every level.