Shaping our image post-Katrina.
by Scott S. Cowen, President of Tulane University and co-founder of the Fleur de Lis Ambassadors program.
October 24, 2009, 7:00AM
Next summer, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region will commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This anniversary is likely to be the last one to garner considerable national visibility as Katrina fades from the American consciousness.
It is crucial that we take the time now to think about how we want others to perceive our city and our rebuilding efforts, and take the necessary steps to ensure that the anniversary message we send is the one we want people to hear.
After President Obama's recent visit, Amy Liu of the Brookings Institute aptly stated that the fifth anniversary of Katrina will be a major milestone in the city's projected long-term recovery. She asked: What will be the community's unified message about its progress and vision for the future? How we answer this question will shape the perceptions others have of New Orleans and establish expectations about the city's future.
Personally, I hope our message is that New Orleans is not only en route to a full recovery but is thinking beyond recovery, with the aspiration to become "The Model City for the 21st Century," a city defined by its resiliency and by a commitment to community transformation and civic activism.
New Orleans has the potential to become such a model. It has retained its distinctive characteristics while dramatically transforming itself in ways that can serve as an example for other cities. New Orleans has been resilient and is demonstrating the power of citizen activism as it converts tragedy into opportunity and positive change.
By the fifth Katrina anniversary, we must articulate a vision and describe it in an inspirational and credible set of powerful messages both for ourselves and the world. We also must hold ourselves accountable for achieving the vision.
If we do, we can proudly say that Katrina did not defeat us; it made us stronger and better as we went beyond recovery to community renewal.
During his visit, President Obama told us "change is hard, and big change is even harder." New Orleans knows this well.
The improvements in public education and ethics reform prove that we are capable of significant, positive change. Likewise, our desire to improve health care, the criminal justice system, neighborhoods, transportation, wetlands restoration and flood protection show that we recognize what is important as we look to our future.
Sadly, this opportunity for civic transformation would probably not have occurred absent Katrina. We owe it to those who suffered and sacrificed to take Katrina's tragedy and transform it into sustainable positive change.
If tragedy leads to a substantially better future for all of us, New Orleans will be "The Model City for the 21st Century" because our experiences -- positive and negative -- can inform others around the country committed to community revitalization. It will demonstrate our character as New Orleanians.
The key to defining, communicating and realizing our vision and community message lies in superb leadership throughout the community. With capable leadership, anything is possible. Each one of us has the responsibility to exhibit exemplary individual leadership in whatever we do and to support deserving political and organizational leadership in others. Let's embrace the people who can help develop a vision for our city, and who can passionately and persuasively communicate this vision to others while also demonstrating the courage and administrative experience to make the vision a reality. We should expect no less of ourselves and those who represent us.
Let's commemorate the fifth anniversary of Katrina as the rebirth of a city, a celebration of resilience, and a desire to succeed no matter the odds.