The Gulf Coast: Still Laboring toward Recovery: On Aug. 29, 2005, the Catastrophe That Was Hurricane Katrina Dealt a Crushing Blow to the Gulf Coast. Two Years Later, How Is Recovery Progressing, and How Close Is the Region to Normalcy?

Article excerpt

Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, killed more than 1,900 people and displaced 400,000 more. Estimates from the Insurance Information Institute show that Katrina caused $41.9 billion in insured property damage, nearly twice as much as the second-costliest storm, Hurricane Andrew, in 1992. The second anniversary of this disaster is a good time to evaluate how far along the affected areas are on the path to recovery.

Finding the funds to rebuild

Rebuilding the affected Gulf Coast is a massive undertaking. According to White House statistics, through the first quarter of 2007 the federal government has provided more than $110 billion in resources to the Gulf Coast. More than $85 billion of this total has been promised, and more than $53 billion has been spent. In addition, U.S. citizens have contributed more than $3.5 billion in cash and in-kind donations to relief and recovery efforts.

But even with this flow of financial aid, problems remain, most of which center around insurance issues. Obtaining insurance and skyrocketing insurance rates continue to place an enormous burden on residents and businesses, leading to the delay or termination of some rebuilding plans.

Repopulation happening, but slowly

One of Katrina's most heartbreaking effects was the displacement. of hundreds of thousands of people from the Mississippi coast, south Louisiana, and New Orleans. The Big Easy had to deal not only with category 3 winds and storm surge but also with unprecedented flooding through breached levees that kept parts of the city under water for weeks.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the total population of Orleans Parish, which contains New Orleans, fell from just over 437,000 in July 2005--the month before Katrina struck--to 158,000 in January 2006, a decline of more than 63 percent. Census estimates show a rebound to 215,400 by July 2006, but that figure is still less than half the pre-Katrina population. St. Bernard Parish saw its population plummet from 64,400 in July 2005 to just below 4,000 by January 2006, a drop of nearly 95 percent. By July 2006, according to Census estimates, the population had rebounded to 15,300, still less than a quarter of prestorm levels.

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Although the Census Bureau has produced no official population estimates since July 2006, data derived from the U.S. Postal Service and published by file Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center suggest that repopulation has continued. For example, active residential postal deliveries are nearly 66 percent of pre-Katrina levels in Orleans Parish and 36 percent in St. Bernard Parish.

Along the Mississippi coast, population displacement was not as extensive as in the New Orleans area, but it was still significant. The three Mississippi counties that border the Gulf of Mexico (Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson) saw their collective population drop from 367,000 in July 2005 to 317,000 in July 2006, according to the most recent Census estimates, a net decline of more than 13 percent. Population in those counties rebounded to 343,000 by July 2006.

Housing remains the key

Rebuilding damaged housing and infrastructure is essential to the repopulation process. In New Orleans, this task was made more difficult because flooding damaged thousands of homes but didn't destroy them. Through June 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had demolished a total of 3,741 buildings in Orleans Parish that were deemed unsafe. In June 2006 fills number stood at only 185, so the pace of demolitions has accelerated. Permits for residential construction on existing structures, which includes repairing and rebuilding damaged homes, reached a cumulative 58,270 in April 2007 from just under 30,000 in April 2006, indicating that damaged buildings continue to be mended.

Just as important, the issuance of permits for new residential construction has accelerated. …