It has been a little more than a year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. And while progress has been made, there's so much more that still needs to be done.
I would be remiss if I said I was satisfied with the recovery because I am most definitely not. And I am not alone. There are countless other organizations releasing reports lamenting the state of the Gulf Coast one year after Katrina ravaged its shores and floods devastated New Orleans' neighborhoods.
Thousands remain dislocated. Employment is still far below pre-Katrina levels, and many essential services, including public transportation, schools and hospitals, haven't fully recovered.
In the first six months after the storm hit, New Orleans lost nearly 280,000 residents — 64 percent of its population, according to a recent report by the National Urban League's Legislative Policy Institute. The hardest-hit neighborhoods — St. Bernard and Orleans parishes — sustained population losses of 95 percent and 64 percent, respectively. The percentage of African Americans in the city fell from 36 percent to 21 percent.
Roughly 41 percent of Katrina evacuees are still displaced. An estimated 278,000 of them are in the workforce, and 23 percent are unemployed. Apartment rents are 39 percent higher than before the storm, and the number of households in trailers hit 114,000 — 28 percent more than six months ago.
A full year later, public services and infrastructure are still substandard: Less than half the bus and streetcar routes are operational, while only 41 percent of homes have gas service. Less than one-third of public schools and half of the city's major hospitals are open.
There's no doubt that this recovery has been mishandled. But why has it been mishandled?
It started when some people in New Orleans saw the hurricane as an opportunity for a 21st century urban removal strategy. They said, "These folks are gone. Let's remake the city. Let's make it smaller. Let's take the coffee out of this cream. Let's change the character of New Orleans."
The problem is, that's morally wrong. That's why the recovery lost track. Eventually, a backlash to the notion of shrinking the city's footprint prompted the mayor and the business community to change course.
Instead, in response to Katrina, the Sept. 11 model — which created an independent commission to evaluate what went wrong and established a victim's compensation fund — should have been followed.
There is a major lesson here: No natural disaster should be seen as a cause for opportunity. No natural disaster should be seen as a cause for municipal experimentation. No natural disaster should be seen as anything other than what it is — a painful human event in which we all share in the suffering.
That's why one year after Katrina hit, I am calling on our president to convene a national summit on rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He should invite everyone — supporters, dissenters and detractors. He should have the U.S. Congress there. Have the business leadership there. Have the region's governors there. Have the civil rights leadership there.
Let's treat this for what it is — one of the most important causes of our time.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.