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Owen Gutfreund,
Professor of History and Urban Studies, Barnard College

How did you first learn of the Katrina disaster a year ago, and what were your first thoughts?
Like most people, I learned of Katrina's approach through the news media. There was the brief moment when it seemed as though New Orleans had survived the onslaught, and that the storm had passed. I breathed a sigh of relief -- for the city as a whole and for my friends and acquaintances in the area. Then the levees broke and the city was devastated. Right away I started to think about the difficulty of rebuilding a city that was already struggling with a high poverty rate and a weak local economy.

Given all your work on American urban history, was the New Orleans catastrophe predictable, and if so, in what ways?
As neither a meteorologist nor an engineer, I'm not in a position to say much about the flooding itself. But the post-Katrina catastrophes -- the inadequate relief efforts, the rebuilding proposals that focused on real estate development opportunities and not on rehabilitating the devastated lives, the political logjams, the finger-pointing -- were, I think, predictable. On the national political scene, cities and their residents have become increasingly irrelevant now that there is a clear suburban electoral majority. Alleviating poverty has also been low on the political agenda in Washington. As an impoverished city, New Orleans has suffered from both of these political trends, so it should come as no surprise that disaster-response, aid and initial rebuilding efforts were so resoundingly ineffective.

Where are we one year later: what are the outstanding urbanist issues that need to be addressed by New Orleans policy-makers?
Assuming that we are able to establish satisfactory protection from further flooding and storm damage -- no small task in itself -- then we must also facilitate the development of neighborhoods that are mixed-use and mixed-income, to the greatest extent possible. Furthermore, if the city is to thrive, it should be served by a comprehensive mass transit system that has not been designed solely for poor people.

There are two huge hurdles to overcome. First, it will be difficult to attract private capital to build affordable housing, so policy-makers must link the more lucrative real estate opportunities with obligations to build middle and low-income housing, through thoughtful and integrated efforts. Second, people must acknowledge that the New Orleans economy was too weak to adequately support the population that had been there, even before Katrina. The post-Katrina local economy may take decades to grow strong enough to sustain a city as big as New Orleans was, if ever. So the recovery and rebuilding efforts should support displaced residents trying to rebuild their lives elsewhere -- not just provide funding and a plan for rebuilding the city itself.

Back to One Year Since Katrina


AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.

Published: Aug 25, 2006
Last modified: Jun 05, 2007