Skip to Content

Rebuilding a Fairer, Healthier New Orleans: Yes, It's Possible. No, It's Not Easy


By Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Reposted with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Circle Food Store, in the Treme district of New Orleans, is emblematic of all the strengths and weaknesses found in the city’s recovery in the decade since Hurricane Katrina struck. The first African-American-owned grocery store in the city, it was the hub of the neighborhood ever since it opened in 1939. But after Katrina and its floods ravaged the 22,000 square foot building, Circle was closed for more than eight years, unable to raise the funds to reopen. 

Like so much of New Orleans’ recovery, the reopening of Circle Food took way too long, but when it happened it was better than before. Circle is even selling more fresh produce and healthier products. The comeback, like most other rebirths in New Orleans these days, came about through the collaboration of coalition of government agencies, private enterprises, community groups, and non-profits, all focused on creating a more resilient city. Notably, they also focused on trying to correct the social and economic factors that have long made the city one of the poorest and sickest in the nation.

Other communities faced with disaster can learn from this. They can also learn what to avoid, particularly the racial divide that continues to plague New Orleans. Katrina exposed the problems New Orleans had, but it didn’t create them, and the recovery hasn't erased them. A recent Louisiana State University survey found that while nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, nearly three out of five blacks say it has not. Black residents, especially black women, report a harder time returning and rebuilding their lives after the storm. The racial divide was just as evident in an NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll: 70 percent of whites said it is a good time for kids in New Orleans, compared with just 37 percent of African-Americans. 

Those differences aren’t all that surprising, given that Katrina exposed fundamental flaws in our society in the harshest way possible. I am still haunted by memories of my visit shortly after Katrina to a makeshift shelter in what was left of Gulfport, Miss. Row after row of canvas cots, inches apart, were the only home for about 125 people— parents and their children, the elderly, and the mentally ill. Many were overwhelmed by their struggles. One old, old man lay curled on his cot, all alone at midday, sheets pulled over his head, seemingly lost and most likely forgotten. A few steps away a little girl sat pressed against the concrete corner wall clutching a pink comforter, a pile of stuffed animals and an old pillow pulled close around her. 

Nothing I saw on TV or heard on the news prepared me for the reality on the ground -- the rawness of the human and physical destruction literally took my breath away. And hardest hit by far were the disadvantaged and disowned, most of them racial minorities. Because of long-entrenched patterns of racial segregation, African-Americans were far more likely to live in the neighborhoods that were flooded, and those same neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, have taken much longer to recover. 

RWJF pledged $9.27 million in relief in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. But we also made a long-term commitment to aid in rebuilding a healthier and more equitable region. New Orleans leaders and citizens alike also recognized that the rebuilt city needed to be fairer, and healthier, than what came before. And for the effort to succeed it had to be inclusive, with decisions and actions shared by local organizations and enterprises of all types working together.  That collaboration is, ultimately, what got Circle Grocery, and so many other projects, off the ground.

The Fresh Food Retailers Initiative (FFRI) is a good example. It was launched by the City of New Orleans in 2011, in partnership with Hope Enterprise and The Food Trust, with a $14 million fund dedicated to creating supermarkets and other food retailers that would increase access to fresh foods in the underserved black neighborhoods of the city. These stores would not only give residents access to healthier food choices but create jobs and serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization.

The need couldn’t have been more dire. African-American sections of New Orleans had far fewer grocery stores than other neighborhoods even before Katrina, and hardly any survived the storm. In the five years after the hurricane, racial disparities to food access got even worse. But then FFRI started up. Since 2011, 17 supermarkets have been rebuilt or started, and a study released this month by the Tulane Prevention Research Center found that racial disparities in access to grocery stores have disappeared.

FFRI is one part of an ambitious initiative – to remake New Orleans from one of the unhealthiest to one of the 10 fittest cities in the nation by 2018, its 300th birthday. A centerpiece of this effort is Fit NOLA, a multifaceted partnership working to make sure all residents have access to healthy food and opportunities for physical activity. Also, under the city’s NOLA for Life campaign, the public health department has partnered with schools to train teachers and administrators in trauma-informed care and restorative justice for the city’s students.

Health care is another success. Prior to the storm, New Orleans had one of the highest rates of uninsured in the nation, and most of those people went to the city’s only public hospital, Charity, for care. With just three of nine hospitals operating after the storm, and the 100-year-old Charity forced to close for good, public health officials and health care providers determined work together to transform healthcare services. Today New Orleans has more than 100 community-based health centers for uninsured, underinsured, and low-income patients. It has installed electronic medical records across the health care system, and in the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans East community there is now a full-service hospital, a 24-hour urgent-care facility, new athletic fields, and an indoor pool.

All these projects are beginning to make a difference: Just three years ago, the city ranked 60th out of 64 Louisiana parishes in RWJF’s 2012 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. This year, New Orleans ranks 42nd in the state. In recognition of the significant progress it has made to improve health for all, in 2013 New Orleans was one of just six communities to receive the RWJF Culture of Health prize.

Much remains to be done, however. New Orleans is still plagued by inequality and poverty --39% of its children live in poverty, the same percentage as before Katrina. Crime and incarceration rates remain high, the school system is still troubled, housing is in short supply, and long-standing patterns of residential segregation continue. All of this explains why there is a 25 year gap in life expectancy between residents of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods and the most affluent neighborhoods. 

But I also believe New Orleans is on the upswing. The city and its people have proved their resilience, and their focus on building a Culture of Health that includes everyone in the city, black and white, poor and wealthy, should keep that recovery moving forward. Perhaps that’s because most of the residents agree with the great Fats Domino: “I’ve got no time for talkin’, I’ve got to keep on walkin’, New Orleans is my home.”

I’d love to hear from survivors of Katrina and other disasters about what you think works best in rebuilding more resilient communities. Please share in the comments; only through collaboration can we come out of a catastrophe stronger.