New Orleans, La. — “Slowly.”
That’s how locals here describe how the Crescent City is recovering from August 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. While it has miles to go, however, New Orleans noticeably has advanced since I visited a year ago. It has improved vastly since November 2005, when I witnessed how badly The Storm had socked this southern belle.
First, the bad news.
After devouring duck po’boys and onion rings at Crabby Jack’s last Monday, my friend Randy Boudreaux gave me a magical misery tour of blighted neighborhoods. Major thoroughfares like Central City’s Claiborne Avenue still feature shuttered businesses. Entire commercial buildings stand vacant. Some have gutted, open-air lobbies. Others are encased in plywood rather than plate glass.
The Lakeview neighborhood — where affluent whites were washed out like the Lower Ninth Ward’s poor blacks — is “hit or miss,” Boudreaux says. Approaching Lake Pontchartrain, Canal Boulevard contains many damaged, empty houses, although the debris that clogged front lawns and sidewalks is long gone.
On a side street just west of Canal, Boudreaux stops his car.
“This is typical Lakeview,” he says. He points to an attractively appointed home with elegant woodwork, lush grass, and palm trees that flutter in the sunny breeze. On either side sit forlorn relics of former dwellings.
Boudreaux, a local attorney whose family arrived around 1760, believes that newly planted trees, repaired potholes, and improved municipal lighting around town “have boosted local government’s performance from an F to a C+.”
Now, the good news.
New Orleans remains a non-stop laugh attack. From street corners to nightclubs to Jazz Fest, local guitars, clarinets, and tubas never rest. The continuous music, constant cocktails, and crawfish, oysters, and crabs begging to be devoured keep residents and visitors endlessly blissful. As much as Katrina physically battered New Orleans, its spirit of boundless revelry emerged unscathed.
It also looks brighter. Thanks to new street lamps and repaired neon signs, a certain post-Katrina dimness that gripped New Orleans nightly now has lifted. In well-visited areas, at least, active storefronts, fresh paint, and foot traffic all suggest a growing vibrancy.
Whatever City Hall’s faults, state government seems in good hands under Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s 36-year-old, pro-market Republican governor. Since his January 14 inauguration, he has proposed and signed stringent ethics reforms in a state where corruption grows likes Spanish moss. Pelican State officials, for instance, no longer may benefit personally from public contracts.
Jindal scrapped a business-utilities tax and accelerated the repeal of manufacturing-equipment and business-debt levies. A seemingly sympathetic legislature is weighing a 10-year phase out of state income taxes. While some fret that revenues will winnow, Jindal says he would approve such radical tax relief, if lawmakers identify matching spending reductions. “My only requirement is that it be fiscally responsible,” Jindal declared. Supply-side growth and resulting revenues, of course, could replenish state coffers. Offshore-oil royalties also are gushing in, further easing tax cuts.
Meanwhile, Jindal advocates a $10 million experiment involving 1,500 school vouchers. Charter schools are blossoming like magnolias. With the government system shattered after Katrina, private and experimental schools like Sojourner Truth Academy, Akili Academy, and Lafayette Academy advertise for applicants on city buses and on small signs planted in the tree-lined “neutral grounds” (as locals call them) that divide large streets. Some fledgling schools accept donations.
New Orleans and Louisiana also will benefit from the Pelican Institute, a brand-new, free-market think tank. From offices 29 stories above Poydras and Tchoupitoulas Streets, Pelican’s president, Kevin Kane, watches freighters lug goods up and down the Mississippi River, while gamblers carry their fortunes in and out of nearby Harrah’s Casino.
“I’d like for us to become the primary generator and communicator of good policy ideas in Louisiana,” says the recovering attorney. “Not long ago, people gave up on New York City, but good policy fueled rapid improvements. The Manhattan Institute helped lead that process, and we’d like to have similar impact here in New Orleans and Louisiana.”
After graduating Tulane University and Loyola Law School, Kane and his wife spent five years here before moving to New York City. After four years, they returned with their two kids in March.
“I was willing to relocate my family here on short notice because we recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help revive a great city and state,” Kane says. “And despite its problems, New Orleans is a wonderful place to live.”
Let’s hope energetic optimists like Kevin Kane — natives and transplants alike — rejuvenate this ever-eccentric, incessantly entertaining, thoroughly enchanting metropolis.
© 2008 Scripps Howard News Service
– NRO contributing editor Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.