Out of Control Policy Blog

How New Orleans Comes Back to Life

A very sharp analysis by Otis White at Governing magazine.

A 19th Century Mining Town?
How New Orleans Comes Back to Life
You'd need an empathy transplant not to feel compassion for the citizens of New Orleans as they return to their muddy, moldy homes and businesses, some ruined beyond repair. But as your heart goes out to New Orleanians, here's something to do with your head: Watch how the city revives. It may teach you a lot about how complex modern cities work.

Cities are made up of scores and maybe hundreds of interrelated systems. An obvious set: Businesses need residents to be their workers and customers, and residents need businesses for employment and shopping. As New Orleans returns to life, then, its businesses will need workers to help clean up the mess and then stay and run the businesses. Good question: Will the customers be there? It depends on the business. If it's a grocery store, hardware store or diner – businesses providing basic services – the answer is almost certainly yes. But if the business is more complex – say, a corporate law firm or a company catering to tourists – then it may take a while for its customers to return.

Then there are the residents themselves. What would bring you back to New Orleans? Well, work certainly. But you'd need a place to live, and such places may be in short supply in the months ahead. You'd need the basics, such as groceries and gasoline, but how long could you go without diversions, such as a night at the movies or an afternoon at the mall? And what about the kids? New Orleans is likely to be without functioning schools for most of the fall. How can families move back if little Antoine and Allison can't go to school?

For a while, then, New Orleans will likely resemble a 19th-century mining town: mostly male and almost entirely adult, with little to do but work, eat simple meals (hot plates and mini-refrigerators should be big sellers for people living in motels) and drink at bars. Eventually, others will return – lawyers, stockbrokers, real estate salespeople, caterers, tour guides, hotel bell captains, maitre d's, computer programmers, car salespeople and the like – but when and how? That's the thing to keep an eye out for.

Footnote: If there's a single institution to watch, it's Tulane University, whose university, hospital and research complexes constitute the largest private employer in New Orleans. Tulane's president vows that classes will begin again in January. (Freshman orientation was taking place as Hurricane Katrina struck.) But getting the other parts of the university back into business will be a monumental task. For example, when generators at the university stopped functioning, 33 years of blood samples collected as research into adolescent heart disease were ruined, destroying a major health science project. Some of Tulane's most complex and important work, then, will take a long, long time to restore.

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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