What Can We Still Learn From Katrina?

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, inflicting unprecedented damage in coastal communities and unleashing a chain reaction of events that would permanently transform the region -- and continue to shape its future to this day.

The people of the Gulf were first devastated by Katrina's wind, rain and floodwaters, which filled 80 percent of New Orleans thanks to the failed federally-run levees in the city. But the Big Easy and coastal communities went on to suffer at the hands of a failed relief and response effort and a slow and often misguided recovery.

Since 2005, Katrina's destruction has been compounded by yet more disasters: Hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike, which together caused over $56 billion in damages; the Great Recession, which slowed the region's rebuilding efforts, especially in housing; and BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, whose full economic and environmental consequences remain to be seen.

What has our nation learned over the last five years? What's happened in the communities devastated by Katrina? And today, in the wake of new disasters and challenges, what is needed to ensure full renewal for the Gulf Coast?

This week the Institute for Southern Studies published a new report, Learning from Katrina: Lessons from Five Years of Recovery and Renewal in the Gulf Coast. Released in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Fund, this in-depth study looks at what Katrina can still teach us, from the local level to Washington, D.C. Among our key findings:

1. The Gulf Coast has reached a turning point in the long march to full recovery: Over the last two years, New Orleans and other affected Gulf communities have taken critical steps in addressing problems with housing, health care, schools and other barriers to renewal. These successes place the region in a strong position to maintain its forward momentum towards full recovery and stronger communities.

2. Key to Gulf recovery has been a revival of community leadership and civic engagement: In the wake of the storms -- and the failed governmental response -- a growing network of leaders and organizations has helped bring thousands of residents into the recovery process, increased the responsiveness and effectiveness of government, and catalyzed national support for Gulf Coast renewal.

3. The Katrina recovery remains fragile, uneven and marked by stark inequalities: Lingering problems, including a shortage of affordable housing, gaps in health care access and failures in oversight of recovery policy, continue to disproportionately impact those who suffered most in the wake of the storms: poor and low-income residents, African-Americans, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups.

4. Washington has yet to address key policy failures exposed by Katrina: Poor disaster planning and response put thousands of Gulf residents in harm's way with Katrina, but FEMA is just now releasing its new disaster framework -- and it still omits safeguards for protecting storm victims. Waste, fraud and abuse by private contractors plagued Katrina response efforts, but federal officials have yet to beef up contractor oversight to prevent future scandals. Washington must tackle these and other problems revealed by Katrina to continue the Gulf recovery and protect lives in future storms.

5. Bold national leadership is needed now for Gulf Coast renewal: Over the last five years, the Gulf Coast has endured a uniquely devastating series of disasters, bookended by Katrina and the BP spill. To address the daunting challenges facing Gulf Coast communities, Washington should look to models like the Appalachian Regional Commission created in the 1960s under President Kennedy to coordinate and target federal assistance for the Gulf, as well as ensure strong community participation in recovery plans. The Gulf also needs the help of individual volunteers, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups and philanthropic institutions -- so generous in the months after Katrina -- to ensure coastal communities survive and thrive.

On September 15, 2005, President George Bush made the following pledge in a speech from Jackson Square, New Orleans:

To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country. To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country. And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.

Today, five years after Katrina, it's more important than ever for our nation to remember and honor its commitment to the people and future of the Gulf Coast.