Two years ago Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast of the United States, devastating a wide area from Louisiana to Alabama, with an especially tragic outcome in the city of New Orleans, where a surge of water caused by the storm toppled levees and flooded much of the city. Today, New Orleans continues its slow pace of recovery and urban experts envision a somewhat smaller and somewhat different city. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Houston.
Two years after Katrina, a large number of people who refer to themselves as being from New Orleans still live in Houston and in other cities around the country. Some say they want to return; some are resigned to stay where they are.
The population of New Orleans is growing and some business has come back, but in many respects the city is still a shadow of what it was before Katrina. Among those watching its progress is urban geographer and Tulane University professor Richard Campanella. He says the population loss from Katrina should be seen as an acceleration of an already existing trend.
"We have been losing population steadily since 1960," he noted. "So what Katrina might have done is simply rocket us forward on that trajectory. But my sense is that we are going to stabilize at about 20 percent to 25 percent less than pre-Katrina."
Campanella says census figures and more recent surveys show a dramatic shift in population resulting from Katrina and its aftermath.
"We were at 484,000 in the 2000 census," he noted. "Just before Katrina we had dropped to 452,000, so that is a loss of 32,000, without the hurricane. Then, after Katrina, a year ago, we were at about 200,000 and that has since risen to the upper 200's, somewhere between 260,000 and 290,000."
If Campanella's predictions are right, New Orleans will have a population around 350,000 by the year 2015. He hopes those who return will avoid the mistakes made in the past and not settle in areas of the city that are below sea level. He notes that 100 years ago hardly anyone lived in those areas. They were developed only after a system of levees and pumps was established, providing false hope that they would be safe from flooding.
Using satellite images and other data, Campanella and his students have found about 2,000 parcels of land above sea level in New Orleans that are currently idle or underutilized. He hopes the city will focus on developing some of this land for residential homes.
"Remember the higher ground areas are the historic districts, so these weedy lots on higher ground represent tears in the historic urban fabric," he explained. "So, by redeveloping them, not only do you get people out of harm's way, but you mend those tears."
But whatever happens Richard Campanella sees the New Orleans of the future being far different from what it was before Katrina. Blacks once represented 70 percent of the population, with whites at 28 percent and Hispanics and Asians dividing up the remaining two percent. Now, he says, the Hispanic population has surged, Blacks are down below 50 percent and whites are just above 40 percent. Another change he sees is fewer children in many neighborhoods and fewer elderly as well. These trends result from poor schools and a weak healthcare system.
But, come what may, Campanella believes New Orleans will continue to be an exciting place to live.
"Whether one sees these shifts as good or bad, they are complex and fascinating phenomena and it is really an amazing place to be right now," he said.
Richard Campanella teaches geography at Tulane University and lives in the Bywater section of New Orleans, not far from the famous French Quarter.