In this space each year at this time, we take stock of how New Orleans is coping " an exercise that is sometimes painful, but often cathartic. Despite all that Hurricane Katrina has done to southeast Louisiana, people here have a resiliency of spirit that restores us as a community. Through it all, we remain unbroken. Some days, just living to get up and fight another day is victory enough. Other days, we actually feel a tinge of optimism. The year 2007 saw a lot of both kinds of days. As the New Year approaches, we prefer to look back and count the days that made us feel good about New Orleans' prospects rather than those that dragged us down. We honestly believe that counting our blessings is the surest way to steel our resolve for the long days that lie ahead. Here goes:
The Recovery continues. Sure, we all wish it were moving faster, but at least New Orleans is getting some traction beneath its recovery efforts. Examples include the fact that New Orleans' population reached the 300,000 mark right before Christmas, according to demographer Gregory Rigamer of GCR & Associates. In many once-flooded neighborhoods, pioneering homeowners are taking the next step after gutting their homes; they are moving back. And, of course, the whole world now knows that there's hope for the Lower Ninth Ward, thanks to the incredibly generous efforts of actor (and new New Orleanian) Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right initiative is rebuilding 150 homes in the hardest-hit part of the Lower Nine.
The Road Home is solvent. After many stops and starts, the embattled Road Home program finally started giving homeowners the grants they sought in appreciable numbers this year. Moreover, mid-year concerns that the program would run out of money disappeared when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu secured another $3 billion in federal funds by attaching a rider to a crucial (read: not vetoable by President George Bush) defense spending bill.
Other recovery funds are coming. At the state level, the city secured $300 million in a revolving fund from the Legislature. The money " $23 million a year " will pay for infrastructure and capital improvements. And earlier this month, the city locked in another $294 million from the Louisiana Recovery Authority for the 17 'target zones" identified by city recovery czar Ed Blakely. Those are among the many millions in federal and state funds that will help fuel the city's recovery over the next decade. Above all, we now see evidence that infrastructure improvements are taking their rightful place " center stage " in local recovery efforts.
There's new life on The Avenue. The reopening of the Camellia Grill in Riverbend was an emotional as well as a dining triumph, attracting worldwide attention and, more important, the hallmark long lines of patrons eager for chili-cheese omelets, grilled cheeseburgers, chocolate freezes and more Camellia Grill favorites. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar also returned to limited service " ahead of schedule! " and it won't be long before the historic trolley line resumes full service on St. Charles and Carrollton avenues.
The festivals are back. From Mardi Gras to Jazz Fest, from the return of Essence Fest to another successful VooDoo Fest, local celebrations hit high notes this year. And it's only going to get better in 2008 as several new festivals joined the lineup of reasons to visit " and live in " New Orleans.
The Inspector General is in. After more than a decade of talking reform, the City Council finally stepped up and put into place a real Office of Inspector General. The city's new Ethics Review Board hired one of the nation's top IGs in Robert Cerasoli, and the council members bucked Mayor Ray Nagin's delay tactic and fully funded the OIG in its first year.
Welcome to Broadway South. Although statewide in its application and scope, the new Broadway South legislation, authored by state Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans, will have a dramatic impact on the city's nascent theater district. Broadway South combines state and federal tax credits to spur redevelopment of the downtown area's historic live theater venues and to lure Broadway-bound productions that will bring hundreds if not thousands of jobs.
Public schools are improving. New Orleans' public schools still have a long way to go, but they didn't get to be the nation's worst (before Katrina) overnight. Now, thanks to intense local and national interest, hordes of volunteers and young education professionals who have moved here to make a difference, charter schools and traditional schools across New Orleans are poised to make huge gains. The immediate beneficiaries will be school children, but this is actually good news for everyone.
For these and many other reasons, New Orleans is truly blessed. And for that, we should all be truly grateful.