Katrina Anniversary: Where Things Stand on New Orleans' Economy

Storm Stirs Melting Pot of Culture

If anecdotal evidence from the city's restaurant tables suggests a change in culture, the hard data backs it up. Just as Katrina reshaped the Louisiana coastline, the power of the storm changed the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the city.

According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nine out of 10 people now living in New Orleans lived there during the time of Katrina. But the 10 percent who moved in after the storm are "substantially younger, more educated, more likely to be white and more likely to be renting."

Of the hundreds of thousands who fled in 2005, many of those who never came back were the urban, largely African-American poor.

"It can be a very difficult place for a lot of people," said Plyer, pointing out that median rental prices in the city are now an average $900 per month. "Many of the poorest individuals were not able to come back."

Today, Orleans Parish is still mainly African-American, and the New Orleans population is on the whole more middle-class.

Racial Divisions Change in Post-Katrina Years

In a city that struggled with racial polarization for decades, a surprising effect of the storm has been a softening of racial divisions. For the first time in decades, the city has a white mayor, Mitch Landrieu.

"Relationships between black and white, which were unique to begin with in the city, have also begun to change," said Arnold Hirsch, a professor of New Orleans studies at the University of New Orleans, who first moved to the city in 1979. "The Landrieu administration represents not a retrogression. I think it represents a good hope for the city."

That could be in part because New Orleans' population, long a melting pot culture, has diversified and shifted in other noticeable ways as well.

"It's a different mix," said Hirsch. "As part of the rebuilding process, there's been a huge influx of immigrants coming in from Mexico and elsewhere to help work on the city."

Sense of Hopefullness Returns to New Orleans

Five years after Katrina, New Orleans still has much to overcome, from a rising crime rate to the 50,000 homes that remain blighted or abandoned.

But there's also an undeniable sense of optimism.

"We've seen that we can take the future of our city in our hands," said Plyer, expressing the wish of many that New Orleans can continue to seize an opportunity to become even better than before Katrina struck the Gulf coast.

"There's a delicate sense of hopefulness here," said Hirsch. "It's still a little soon to tell where we're going to wind up."

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