In the blur our daily lives have become (What are we having for dinner? What time was that meeting? Where's my BlackBerry?), we now forget about attention-getting tragedies almost as quickly as the 24/7 news networks make sure we hear about them. Remember the December 2004 tsunami? Just over a year after we watched frightening footage of those powerful waves sweeping up people and buildings, the coverage of these events and their aftermath has nearly disappeared. It's almost as if the Southeast Asia disaster never happened.
We cannot afford such post-Katrina amnesia in the Gulf Coast. Too much is at stake: livelihoods, communities, and billions of public and private dollars both promised and already invested. Talk to a multifamily executive who owns or manages properties in areas of Louisiana and Mississippi hit by Katrina, and you'll wonder when, if ever, those units will be rentable, income-producing apartments again.
Unfortunately, the numbers don't present any brighter a picture than the anecdotes right now. In December, the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., introduced a "Katrina Index" that measures the progress of Gulf Coast reconstruction through key statistics: unemployment, households receiving FEMA assistance, population, and more.
While the monthly report doesn't yet include all the numbers Brookings intends to incorporate (housing statistics such as the number of multifamily homes and renter-occupied homes are "forthcoming"), the Katrina Index contains enough information to make one look skeptically at city Mayor Ray Nagin's "Bring Back New Orleans" campaign and other enthusiastically promoted efforts encouraging residents to return to the Gulf Coast.
In November 2005, for example, the unemployment rate in the New Orleans metro area registered 17.5 percent–more than three times the overall U.S. figure of 5 percent. With no jobs, there's obviously no money to pay bills: 24.6 percent of mortgage loans in Louisiana and 17.4 percent in Mississippi were past due in the third quarter of 2005, compared to 4.6 percent overall for the United States. (Note to condo developers and converters: Louisiana and Mississippi probably aren't the best spots for your next project.) Even people with jobs and housing must be having trouble getting around. Only 47 percent of public transportation routes and 15 percent of public buses were operational as of the week of Dec. 24, 2005. So much for promoting a property as "close to transit."
This is not a call to abandon the places so devastated by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans and Mississippi's Gulf Coast have captured the hearts and personal histories of visitors as well as residents, many of whom want to return to the neighborhoods where they lived and worked. But neither should we ignore the reality of the very hard, expensive work ahead for all of us if these areas are to be rebuilt.
Watch the Numbers
The Brookings Institution plans to update its Katrina Index monthly through December 2006. For findings and statistics, go to www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/200512_katrinaindex.htm.