NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is approaching the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a mammoth storm that caused the levees protecting the city to break and submerge vast swaths of the Crescent City. In the run-up to the anniversary, The Associated Press sat down with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, to discuss the storm, the anniversary and the city's future.
PROBLEMS BEFORE THE STORM
Landrieu said that after near-death experiences there's a tendency to want life to go back to exactly the way it was before. But before Katrina, the city was struggling with both the post-9/11 tourism slump and a historically dwindling population: "We're going to ask ourselves whether the city was perfect the day before the storm or whether or not we had problems. And the fact of the matter is that New Orleans was a descending city before the storm hit us, that we had, for lots of different reasons ... a city that in 1960 was bigger than Houston and Atlanta but that on Aug. 28, 2005, was now smaller than both of them and getting smaller."
A CITY ON THE RISE
Landrieu said that, 10 years after the storm, the city is moving in the right direction. More people are moving into New Orleans and property values are going up, he said: "The city of New Orleans through all of the difficulties, through all of our imperfections, through all of the things that we have done wrong, has finally started to get it right. And we are now an ascendant city. ... While we still recognize that we haven't gotten close to being perfect, we're in a much, much better position today."
DIVERSIFYING THE ECONOMY
Tourism and oil and gas development are two of the largest sectors of the city's economy. But tourism jobs often don't pay well, and fluctuations in the energy market can be volatile. Landrieu pointed to various possibilities to diversify the economy, such as expanding port operations. He said that project needs "massive investment" from the federal government. The state could also become an expert in managing water similar to the way the Netherlands has, or become a medical center with the construction of two new massive health care centers: "Not only are we going to use that to take care of indigent folks and to train, doctors but also to do massive research."
COASTAL EROSION THREAT
In the past decade, the Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt the intricate flood protection system that defends the city to a tune of nearly $15 billion. But little has been done to stop the coastal erosion that takes an estimated 17 square miles a year from Louisiana — former barriers between the city and hurricanes. Pointing to the oil and gas that comes from Louisiana and the importance of the city's port to Mississippi River shipping, Landrieu said coastal erosion should be a concern for the whole country: "If we don't fix the coast, New Orleans will cease to exist as we know it. Period. End of story. And so people need to digest that and to think about what that means. Everybody in America has a stake in this fight because it's not about New Orleans, it's about the nation's national security and it's about the nation's energy security."
LAW AND ORDER
Crime remains a major issue. Newly released police figures show a number of crimes — armed robberies and assaults, for example — have declined this year, but the homicide rate spiked by nearly 30 percent. Landrieu has been criticized for not initially hiring more police officers, but he points to a city near bankruptcy with a $100 million deficit when he took over and expensive court-mandated reforms: "We literally had to lay off and furlough citizens. We were in a position of having to make choices between really bad choices and really more bad choices. ... We never cut funding for the police. We did stop hiring for a minute."
In the wake of the South Carolina church shooting and a widespread backlash against Confederate-era symbols, the mayor, who was elected by a wide biracial coalition in this majority black city, proposed the removal of four prominent Confederate symbols, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. The city is studying the issue, but there's been pushback from some residents who say it's part of the city's heritage: "These monuments were imposed on the people of the city at a very specific narrow window of time that doesn't really reflect who New Orleans is or who we want to be. That's not to say we shouldn't remember our history, but if we remember our history, we should remember our whole history."