In his inaugural address, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "To all those who have gone away, it is time for you to come home." In that speech, the mayor clearly accepted his dual challenge: rebuild a city that welcomes its still-displaced residents, and make long-needed changes to attract newcomers as well.
The new administration will be pressed to make strategic decisions — ones that are based on a solid foundation of objective information and analysis — and communicate the rationale behind these decisions to the people of New Orleans and to a wider audience in the state and beyond. Expanding the affordable housing market is one place to begin, and a recent RAND Gulf States Policy Institute study provides some critical information upon which to base decisions.
The Displaced New Orleans Residents Pilot Study — a national survey of displaced people from New Orleans — found that the availability of low-cost housing, particularly for renters, is a decisive factor when residents are considering whether to return. Researchers conducted interviews in the fall of 2006 and then did a full-scale survey in 2009, examining the rates of displaced residents returning to the city, and the well-being of both returned and still-displaced citizens.
The survey helps us understand why some people were able to come back and some have not yet returned. It can help in addressing the needs of displaced New Orleans residents, and to illustrate the challenges of creating and sustaining a favorable quality of life for those who have returned.
The study confirms what many people suspected: the deeper the water, the slower the return. Nearly 50 percent of the displaced came back the first year. But better-educated people, employed or retired people, whites, or those with an undamaged home came back the fastest. African-Americans and renters returned at a slower rate than whites and homeowners. After five years, there may be as many as 25 percent of New Orleans residents who have not yet returned. Some will never return, although many who were born in New Orleans appear to wish to return.
Many people are still affected by the trauma caused by massive displacement. A key finding of the RAND study relates to the mental health impact of Katrina and the subsequent flooding and dislocation of families. Both African-Americans and whites reported a higher-than-expected prevalence of mental illness after the storm. The depth of flooding and the effect of severe damage to people's homes were the critical factors affecting people's mental health. Clearly, damage from the storms, displacement, neighborhood disintegration, and family stress will have an impact for years to come.
Overall, the RAND findings indicate that there will most likely only be modest growth from the return of still-displaced residents. The city will continue its post-Katrina trend of being older, whiter, and more highly educated and having fewer families, children, and people out of the labor force. Displaced residents will continue to suffer mental illness caused by the trauma of Katrina and the displacement experience.
"Results from our study and many others that were conducted in the first year or so after Katrina uncovered a lot of important facts," says my colleague Narayan Sastry, who led the study. "However, as we approach the five-year mark after Katrina, most data sources have dried up. There remains a critical need for studies such as our current survey to continue to inform policymaking and planning."
Even after five years, there is much to be learned about the difficulties faced by the people who have returned, as well as the opportunities to improve the quality of life in New Orleans for those still struggling to return home and the many new residents drawn who are part of the recovery, renewal, and renaissance.
In creating a new vision and direction for the city, the mayor and city council should provide the leadership and resources to protect the culture, promote economic development, improve the education system and create a safe city so that everyone will want to come home. We all know what it means to miss New Orleans.
Melissa Flournoy is the director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. RAND is a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on June 30, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.