New Orleans proved that it could recover from 27 major floods before Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed its levees in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city, causing some 1,300 deaths, forcing an extended evacuation, relocating (perhaps permanently) 100,000 residents, seriously damaging 70 percent of the city’s residences, and disrupting basic municipal services, economic activity, and social networks. The monetary loss to the city is estimated at $40–50 billion.
Three years after Katrina, levees have been partly rebuilt, the equivalent of two-thirds of the pre-storm population has returned, building permits for 30 percent of residences have been issued, and the hospitality economy has been restored. But large areas of the city are empty tracts, mainstays of the economy in medicine and education have not recovered, planned reconstruction is just beginning, and some communities may be lost forever.
The city’s ability to rebound from repeated encounters with high water in the past relied heavily on short-term flood protection remedies, rather than the more sustainable strategy of enhancing overall community resilience. Resilience enables communities to rebound from disaster and reduce long-term vulnerability, thus moving toward more sustainable footing. Considering New Orleans’s situation in light of four key elements of resilience—anticipation, response, recovery, and reduced vulnerability—provides lessons that are quite different from the bureaucratic messages produced by the White House. It is critical to build these into future, more sustainable preparations.