As we approach the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it is tempting to assume New Orleans has recovered. The bars and restaurants of the French Quarter are bustling, riverboats filled with tourists float down the Mississippi River, and population levels are creeping closer to pre-storm levels.
That’s only half the story. If you drive into the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, signs of Katrina’s lasting impact slap you in the face. Once heralded for its exceptionally high homeownership rate and spirit of independence, this predominantly black historic community now has occupation rates of less than 25 percent. When more than 50 levees and flood walls broke, flooding more than 80 percent of the city, a wall of water swept through the Lower Ninth Ward, knocking houses off their foundations. Houses that weren’t torn apart were filled with water and left to crumble. Even today, concrete steps often lead to empty lots where houses once stood.
Yet in the wake of the hurricane springs hope. Despite losing everything in the storm, two nurses who had created a health clinic in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward decided to provide much-needed primary care to the city’s uninsured. The two doctors who serve the clinic often see more than 25 patients a day. Another example is the Common Ground Collective, which has deployed more than 23,000 volunteers for the city’s rebuilding efforts. Efforts like these are helping the community get back on its feet slowly but surely.
This can-do spirit pervades the city. New Orleans has been transforming its public education system — and this upcoming school year, more than 50 percent of New Orleans students are expected to be enrolled in public charter schools.
Green Coast Enterprises was started to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing. One of the company’s first projects was Project Home Again, funded by Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, and his wife, Louise. They pledged $20 million to rebuild 100 homes for hurricane victims. The initial step was to buy 10 lots and build “green” homes that could withstand future hurricanes. Those 10 homes were given to qualified low-income applicants in exchange for the deeds to their destroyed homes. Ten new homes were built on the transferred lots, ready to pass on to the next qualified homeowners.
In Central City, empty city blocks are beginning to buzz with entrepreneurial energy. Cafe Reconcile does a brisk lunch business with its famous catfish, okra, and macaroni and cheese. Serving up the dishes are young men and women who have been down on their luck and are hoping to get a fresh start through the nonprofit’s life- and job-skills training. In its first four years, the cafe has enrolled more than 250 young people in the program, and it has its sights set on new entrepreneurial projects - including a culinary institute and a social innovation incubator.
Across the street from the cafe is the Ashe Cultural Center, an open space with a giant stage and art pieces everywhere. Started by a pair of intrepid artists, the effort is dedicated to bringing emerging and established artists together to create a vibrant creative learning environment and contribute to the community’s renaissance.
Driven by the mantra “Trust your crazy ideas,” the Idea Village is a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the city’s for-profit entrepreneurial culture. Through a combination of talent attraction, technical support and connection to financing, the organization has supported more than 255 entrepreneurial ventures representing 946 jobs and more than $69 million in revenue.
The Idea Village is just one of four entrepreneurial hubs that have sprung up since the hurricane. The result? According to the Louisiana Workforce Commission, the unemployment rate in New Orleans in April was 5.3 percent - significantly lower than the national rate of 8.9 percent.
As we seek promising strategies for getting our communities back on track, we would be wise to look for the silver lining in the clouds of Hurricane Katrina and how it demonstrates not only the resilience of a proud community, but also the persistence and power of the entrepreneurial spirit.
• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are the founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development company. They can be reached at authors@life entrepreneurs.com.