Plans versus Politics: New Orleans after Katrina

Case Solution

Jonathan Schlefer, Jose Gomez-Ibanez
Harvard Kennedy School ()

On Tuesday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, causing inadequate levees to collapse and flooding the city in what was widely viewed as a man-made disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated that 105,000 of the city’s 188,000 residential units were seriously damaged or destroyed. It was the worst urban disaster in national memory. The city guides, however, were unwilling to accept the fall of New Orleans. Mayor C. Ray Nagin appointed a blue ribbon panel known as the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) to prepare a rebuilding plan by the end of the year. Its honorary members were leaders in business and non-profit organizations. BNOB approached the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a Washington, DC-based research and education organization that wanted to promote responsible development. The ULI expert panel called for a pragmatic approach from their point of view. The city lacked the resources to quickly restore services to New Orleans. You would first have to pick and select the most promising areas for reconstruction. The hope was that a living rebirth in the center would catalyze growth elsewhere. The rebuilding of the lower and poorer parts of the city, which were hit the hardest by Katrina, had to wait. In fact, it may not make sense to rebuild neighborhoods that could experience severe flooding in a future hurricane. Two-thirds of the city’s residents before Katrina were African-American, who lived disproportionately in the poorest, lowest, and worst-affected areas. Some saw the ULI plan as a conspiracy to get rid of them and make New Orleans whiter. Even many middle-class whites and blacks who did not share the conspiracy theory vehemently opposed ULI’s proposal because it seemed to make their homes and neighborhoods obsolete. Meanwhile, councilors representing subordinate districts feared ULI would disrupt their political base. Case number HKS 1862.0

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